1967 was a bad year for both sides in the space race, as both reached a milestone neither they, or anyone else, wanted to see.

On January 27 1967, the Apollo program had the worst start imaginable. During a test launch for Apollo 1, technical malfunctions led to the deaths of Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom (a member of the first American crewed spaceflight on Gemini 3) Edward H. White II (one of the crew of the first five-day orbit on Gemini 4), and Roger B. Chaffee (1935-1967), who had been a capsule communicator for both Gemini 3 and 4. NASA immediately suspended manned flights in the aftermath of Apollo 1.

  • Is the space race worth the cost?

    This inevitably led to questions about the space program, and whether the approach need more consideration. The use of pure oxygen-based breathing systems in the spacecraft had been questioned for a while, especially given the risk of flash fires. The escape mechanisms also came under scrutiny, asking why the instant release hatch of the earlier Mercury spacecrafts had been replaced by hatches that could take up to 40 seconds to open. This had been highlighted by one of the disturbing elements of the tragedy revealed in the preliminary report: despite NASA initially claiming the deaths were instant, recordings revealed that the men had been alive for several seconds in the blaze.[12] 

    As more information became public, more deficiencies were revealed. Early reports did not establish the primary cause of the fire, though it did establish “the Apollo team…in its devotion to the many difficult problems of space travel…failed to give adequate attention to certain mundane but equally vital questions of crew safety”, as quoted in The Times. A list of faults had been identified: the use of pure oxygen, inadequate escape mechanisms, ‘vulnerable’ electric wiring and plumbing, the presence of too many flammable materials in the cabin, and inadequate rescue options.[13] 

    Although astronauts defended the space program whilst admitting there were issues , the consensus after the tragedy was that the desire to win the space race had led to shortcuts, and that “both Nasa [sic] and North American Aviation Incorporated, the prime contractor for the man-on-the-moon project, stand accused of tolerating faulty workmanship and inferior design. The review board did not venture to explain the reason for such sloppiness”.[14]  To NASA’s credit, they did not deny their responsibility, admitting that they had made mistakes and even publicly releasing images showing instances of negligence.

    As the Financial Times reported later in the year, the lesser-known Phillips Report by NASA had shown that, despite many failings within North American Aviation around quality control and general management in the years leading up to Apollo 1, “NASA officials, far from being negligent, had been on top of the troubles besetting Apollo for some time”, as in 1966 they had been satisfied that North American Aviation “had made substantial progress to correct many of the deficiencies noted”. NASA had been working toward improving many issues before Apollo 1, and calls for abandoning the moon landing were overcautious.[15] 

The successful launch of Soyuz 1 was overshadowed by its ending. The tragedy of Apollo 1 was followed a few moths later by the death of Vladimir Komarov (one of the first crewed spaceflight in Voskhod 1), who became the first in-flight fatality when Soyuz 1 crashed on re-entry. Despite reports that the space craft had functioned as planned, the lack of information coupled with reports from people in Moscow suggested the craft had several issues during the mission. There were also additional questions that had suggested problems, as the flight had been expected to last longer and engage in tests beyond orbiting the Earth. Following both accidents, NASA suggested that a collaborative approach, rather than a competitive one, could have avoided both tragedies.

Following Apollo 1, important changes were quickly implemented to ensure the program still achieved the goal of a man on the moon by 1970, despite the delay in manned flights. The Apollo 1 review was used as the basis for multiple improvements: better plumbing and wiring, better mechanical build quality, and working with new contractors.

At a point where NASA could have found itself in trouble both economically (with a dramatic reduction in funding with the increasing national financial pressures of the Vietnam war) and at risk of losing the teams that had launched so many successful missions up until now, they launched the Apollo Applications Program (AAP). The AAP focused on practical applications of the technology and manpower beyond landing a man on the moon, from long-term orbital life support to more terrestrial concerns such as meteorological and geological observation, making the economics and budget requests of the space program look considerably better.

The remainder of 1967 saw a renewed focus on the space race and reflecting on the advances in the decade since Sputnik 1. Alongside the argument that the financial support was not justified by the lack of ‘tangible’ benefits, the recognition that the ‘intangible’ benefits would be of greater importance gained momentum, as shown by a large scale survey run by the University of Denver Research Institute and reported by the Financial Times: the applications of technology and engineering techniques in other areas would be of immense benefit, even if developing them specifically for space conditions had limited immediate use.

It was still up for debate who was leading the space race at the end of 1967, and it certainly was not over. The Soviet Union continued to reach milestones in space exploration, showing they were not falling behind. Like America, they had temporarily stopped manned space flights after the Soyuz 1 tragedy, but they were also learning from the mistakes. They successfully landed a spacecraft on Venus, and the Cosmos satellite launches had reignited speculation that they were in the verge of another major success, though no-one knew what it could be as they still kept information away from the public until the missions had launched.

During this time, the Apollo program did not stop. Although the next manned Apollo flight would not happen for year after Apollo 1, other missions were successful. Apollo 4 was the first successful flight using the Saturn V rocket (completed in November 1967), Apollo 5 successfully tested the lunar module that would be used in a potential moon landing (completed in January 1968), and Apollo 6 successfully tested the Saturn V rocket again in April 1968. As attention began to move back toward manned flights, so did questions over its necessity. The potential human cost (even acknowledged by those within NASA as an “expectation”) for a project that was for “the maintenance of American prestige abroad” more so than scientific discovery had already led many notable supporters of manned space exploration to change their stance in the preceding years.[16] 

As manned space flights moved closer, by mid-1968 the idea of man landing on the moon regained its place as the centre of attention. Senior NASA officials openly believed it would happen within a year, with NASA confirming they would be resuming manned space flights in October.

  • Could NASA put a man on the moon?

    It would not be easy though, as NASA were facing many issues: expected budget cuts, personnel issues with industry jobs dropping by half in a four year period, and the controversial slowing-down of non-Apollo projects (including the Apollo Application Program).

    In September, things looked even more bleak. “The Americans will not get a man on and off the moon by the end of next year. That is the unavoidable conclusion to be drawn from the resignation of Mr James Webb, the fiery North Carolinian who had presided over [NASA] throughout the $20 billion preparations for Project Apollo […]. That the Americans cannot make the deadline…has been common talk among space scientists outside of Nasa [sic] for some time now […]. [Webb] was not so much discontented with the severe cuts handed to the space agency’s budget this year as with the curtailments of America’s plans for future space programmes”.[17] 

    Despite the reduction in support for space exploration after the moon landing (even President Nixon had yet to commit to any significant projects), the renewed optimism that President Kennedy’s goal may be achieved did not stop the speculation, ranging from space laboratories to previously unimaginable physics experiments.


Manned flights resumed in October 1968, when Apollo 7 successfully tested the command and service modules (piloted by Walter M. Schirra Jr., Donn F. Eisele, 1930-1987, and Ronnie Walter Cunningham, 1932-). The Apollo mission was reorganised after Apollo 7, with the decision to accelerate the program and make Apollo 8 take the command and service modules into orbit around the moon.[18] 

The decision was influenced by rumours of the Soviets launching a potential attempt to orbit the moon, even though in October, Soyuz 2 failed to dock with Soyuz 3, thought there were doubts that this would have been attempted given there was no second man present in case of emergencies. In a press conference following Soyuz 3, its cosmonaut Georgy Beregovoi (1921-1995)[19]  claimed that they were not focused on landing a man on the moon, with notable scientists adding that Soviet crafts were not designed for flights to the moon.

1968 ended with Apollo 8 becoming the first manned flight to orbit the moon and return to Earth, and the risk of accelerating the program had paid off. Frank F. Borman II (1928-), James A. Lovell Jr., and William Alison Anders (1933-) piloted the mission, and the success led NASA to determine that – if the next two flights were successful – a moon landing would be realistic. After the successful transmissions from the moon’s orbit on December 24, the praise for the mission and its crew and the Biblical analogies used to describe the success of Apollo showed that people were starting to believe it could happen. With the successful return of Apollo 8, the question turned from whether the moon landing would happen to what they would find when they got there.

  • What was the view from NASA’s perspective?

    Dr. George Edwin Meuller (1918-2015), who took over from James Edwin Webb (1906-1992) at the top of the Apollo program, had to make sure the optimism and enthusiasm did not get out of hand, especially among politicians. In an interview with The Times, Dr. Meuller admitted “he must try to restrain people from becoming too enthusiastic and rushing the programme as a result of the successful Apollo 8 flight”. Many improvements had been made since Apollo 1, but there is a problem “duplicating anywhere the conditions of a landing on the moon”.

    In response to the question of the Soviet Union pulling ahead of America, Dr. Meuller’s response was “It’s not a fear: it’s a fact”. With the decreasing budgets and resources, in the future NASA would “inevitably be out of the manned spacecraft business” while the Soviet Union continued to progress. He was also realistic about the space program beyond landing a man on the moon: “it would be a mistake to expect we would learn a great deal from the lunar landing”, and that “funding restrictions have not permitted the full development of the equipment” to achieve a meaningful post-moon landing program.

    In regards to possible collaboration with the Soviets in a space program, Dr. Meuller echoed the message that had existed for the past several years: America knows very little about the plans, equipment and capabilities the Soviet Union had. The lack of information meant that cooperation was unlikely: “If you want to have cooperation…you have got to have people who will cooperate”.[20] 


The Soviet Union achieved their first successful docking in January 1969, between Soyuz 4 (piloted by Boris Volynov, 1934-, Aleksei Yeliseyev, 1934-, and Yevgeny Khrunov, 1933-2000) and Soyuz 5 (piloted by Vladimir Shatalov). Following the docking, Russian newspaper Pravda listed seven potential uses for the space station that the docking now suggested may be possible. Interestingly, none if the seven uses mentioned landing a man on the moon (echoing the post-Soyuz 3 press conference), with the list focusing on practical tasks including a research laboratory, industrial workshop, and communications centre for interplanetary crafts.

In May 1969, America made two significant steps. First, Apollo 9 (piloted by James A. McDivitt, David R. Scott, 1932-, and Russell L. Schweickart, 1935-) successfully tested the lunar module in Earth orbit and performed the first successful docking and extraction of the module. If this flight was successful, it would open a range of options for Apollo 10, including removing it completely and skipping straight to the moon landing attempt. The success of Apollo 9 was a positive sign, but still left some important issues and factors unresolved. Despite this, the success of the sped-up program led to NASA’s first upturn in political circles for several years, with the House Space Committee voting to add over $200 million to its budget, $168 million for ten further landings after Apollo 11.

Apollo 10 (which was effectively a test run for a moon landing) successfully completed all the elements of a moon landing except the final descent itself, piloted by Thomas P. Stafford, John W. Young, and Eugene A. Cernan (1934-2017). The success of the mission meant that there were “few who doubt that Apollo 11 will be sent off as planned, and…land the first man on the moon”,[21]  and Dr. Thomas Paine stating “We know we can go to the moon. We will go to the moon”.

With the success of Apollo 9 and Apollo 10, plans could be made for Apollo 11: the first attempt an putting a man on the moon. In early June, NASA confirmed that the moon landing would be attempted, the craft landing on the Sea of Tranquillity, and the astronauts planting an American flag on the surface (even it would hang like a “limp dishrag” due to the lack of atmosphere!). It would still have risks: “the scale of earlier was so great as to suggest Apollo 11, as well as confronting the unalterable elements, will fly in the menacing shadow of possible man-made disaster”, as the Sunday Times recapped the ‘brutal examples of inefficiency’ throughout the history of the Apollo program.[22] 

As the three astronauts approached the moon, people were already looking toward man’s greater role in the universe. In the greatest evolutionary leap since fish leaving water, man would become coloniser of the universe, likening the potential voyages to planets beyond Mars to the historical expeditions of previous centuries. At this stage, a man on the moon was already a minor achievement, and the moon nothing more than a stepping stone to more distant space.[23] 

On July 20 1969, President Kennedy’s challenge was completed, and man set foot on the surface of the moon:

  • Man Lands on the Moon

    John M. Logsdon: Discoveries in Modern Science: Exploration, Invention, Technology. Ed. James Trefil. Vol. 1. Farmington Hills, MI:Macmillan Reference USA, 2015. p21-26.

    The Apollo 11 mission was launched precisely on time at 9:32A.M. EDT (1:32P.M. GMT) on July 16, 1969. Almost a million people crowded the Kennedy Space Center and its vicinity to witness the historic beginning of humanity's first voyage to the surface of another celestial body. After an uneventful three days, Apollo 11 entered lunar orbit on July 19. The next day, the lunar module the crew had named Eagle, with Armstrong and Aldrin aboard, separated from the command and service module Columbia and began the descent to the lunar surface, leaving Collins behind to circle the Moon. In the mission control center at Houston's Manned Spacecraft Center, flight director Gene Kranz (1933–) integrated inputs from his staff, who were monitoring all elements of the spacecraft's performance. As the landing site came into view, Armstrong recognized that the on-board computer was guiding the lunar module to a landing in a crater surrounded by large boulders, and in a remarkable demonstration of piloting skill took over manual control of the lunar module. With Aldrin calling out velocity and altitude, Armstrong flew slowly over the lunar surface until he found a level spot to land. He nearly exhausted the module's fuel, coming close to the point where by flight rules he would have had to abort the landing. When he finally brought the lunar module to rest on the Moon's Sea of Tranquility, 6 kilometers (4 mi) beyond the planned landing point, there were only twenty seconds of fuel left.

    The lunar landing took place 4:18P.M. EDT on Sunday, July 20. Armstrong announced the crew's arrival, saying “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” The flight plan called for the astronauts to have a sleep period before exiting the lunar module to begin their excursion to the lunar surface, but with Eagle safe on the Moon's surface, that plan was quickly abandoned. Preparing for leaving the lunar module to explore the lunar surface took longer than anticipated, but at 10:56P.M. EDT Armstrong with his left foot took the first human step on another celestial body, marking the moment with the memorable words “That's one small step for man, one great leap for mankind.” (Armstrong had planned to say “a man” but in the excitement of the moment either forgot to include the “a” or did not say it clearly.) Armstrong's first task was to collect a small sample of lunar material in case he had to return to the lunar module quickly. Aldrin joined his colleague on the lunar surface nineteen minutes later, reporting an impression of “magnificent desolation.” The two explorers planted an American flag and unveiled a plaque attached to the portion of the lunar module that would remain on the Moon. The plaque read “Here men from Planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon” and “We came in peace for all mankind.” Armstrong talked briefly with US President Richard Nixon, calling from the White House. Armstrong and Aldrin collected 22 kilograms (49 lb) of lunar samples and deployed a solar wind experiment, a seismometer, and a laser ranging reflector. An estimated 530 million people watched the blurry televised images of the astronauts on the Moon. Made possible by the completion of a worldwide communications satellite network, the Apollo 11 moonwalk was the first example of globally shared exploration.

    At 1:11A.M. EDT on July 21, Armstrong shut the hatch behind himself as he re-entered the lunar module; Aldrin had returned forty-one minutes earlier. Armstrong had spent two hours and thirty-one minutes outside the spacecraft. After a period of restless sleep, Armstrong and Aldrin lifted off at 1:54P.M. EDT on July 21, docking with the command module Columbia just under four hours later. At 12:55A.M. EDT on July 22, the astronauts fired the service module main engine to send the spacecraft heading back to Earth. The Apollo 11 mission came to a successful close on July 24 as Columbia landed in the Pacific Ocean west of Hawaii at 5:51A.M. local time (12:51P.M. EDT) and were carried by helicopter to their recovery ship, the aircraft carrier Hornet. President Nixon was aboard the ship to welcome the crew back from their historic voyage.

The trend seemed to be that when a mission was successful, public optimism and enthusiasm for the project grew. Commentators became more positive, speculation got more fanciful, and concerns became less pressing. Throughout the space race, the opposite was also true. When things were not going well, or there were slower periods of activity, the optimism would decline and enthusiasm became muted. More questions were asked, and more commentary and criticism of the economics, the potential (and actual) human cost in both lives and employment, and the original motivations and long-term benefits of the programs came under scrutiny.

There was never a clear consensus on who was winning the race. Much like the public reception, it followed the waves of success between the two nations. When America was in patches of high activity, America was taking the lead. When the Soviet Union hit another milestone, America was still behind and needed to catch up. From publicly available coverage, it seemed even senior figures within NASA were never convinced that America were ever ahead.  

[12] "Apollo Programme May Be Delayed Two Years." Financial Times, 2 Feb. 1967   |   RETURN

[13] "'Many Deficiencies' In Spacecraft." Times, 10 Apr. 1967   |   RETURN

[14] "Lessons of Apollo." Economist, 15 Apr. 1967   |   RETURN

[15]  "U. S. Space Programme Still Aimed at the Moon." Aerospace: A Financial Times Survey. Financial Times, 30 May 1967   |   RETURN

[16] "Is It All worth It?" The Sunday Times Magazine. Sunday Times, 14 July 1968   |   RETURN

[17] "Tattered Apollo." Economist, 21 Sept. 1968   |   RETURN

[18]   Cable Dispatches. "Cosmonaut to Orbit Moon before Another Lands." New York Herald Tribune [European Edition], 18 Apr. 1966  |   RETURN

[19] Sometimes spelled Bregevoy   |   RETURN

[20] "What lies behind the moon for America?" Times, 10 Jan. 1969   |   RETURN

[21] "Apollo 11 Launching Plans Going Ahead." Financial Times, 27 May 1969   |   RETURN

[22] "Apollo: The Deadly Flaws." Sunday Times, 13 July 1969   |   RETURN

[23] "Frontier Moon." Economist, 19 July 1969   |   RETURN


Man On The Moon (1969), from British Pathé

'1969': NASA engineers recall the historic Apollo 11 moon landing, from ABC News

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