"Many years ago the great British Explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, "Because it is there."Well, space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there." John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962, at Rice University
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first man made satellite, Sputnik 1, into Earth's orbit, signaling the beginning of a decade long race to Earth's closest celestial body. The space race would continue on for another twelve years before the stated goal of reaching the moon was achieved on July 20th, 1969. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the lunar landings that changed the world, and makes for a good time to reflect on just how difficult the lunar landings were and just what it meant. Sputnik came at a time that was shattering to the American public - there had been much confidence in the progress that the nation was making, but that percieved lead was taken with the successes of the Soviet Union. The race to space had to be sped up, and the US was lagging far behind.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy laid down what seemed like an impossible goal for the nation: to reach the moon and land successfully before the end of the 1960s. At that point, the United State's cumulative experience with human spaceflight was a mere fifteen minutes with Astronaut Alan Shepherd's flight. In his speech to Congress in 1961, Kennedy linked the efforts in space to the the ongoing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, placing the efforts in space as a way to deter tyranny and dark nature of the Soviet Union. This was a feeling that was very much in fashion in the years following the launch of Sputnik. NASA administrators were asked before Congress if the Soviet Union would gain the ability to reach the moon before the United States, and if they would be able to color the surface red, as a constant reminder of the power of the Soviet Union. The race to the moon had become far more than mere scientific endeavor and exploration; it became a powerful tool and symbol of the might of both countries as they locked horns during the Cold War.
NASA had been formed only a couple of years prior, in 1958, and instituted Project Mercury a year later, designed to bring a human into space and back again safely. This project was the first of three projects, with the overall intent on bringing people to space, and later, to the moon. Mercury was possibly one of the most popular projects that NASA ever undertook after Apollo. The general public was riveted to news of the astronauts. The Mercury 7 astronauts were instant celebrities upon their announcement, and even more so after the publication of Tom Wolfe's book, The Right Stuff.
Mercury was the proving ground that saw the first American into space, Alan Shepherd, as well as the first American to orbit the Earth (John Glenn Jr, who would become the oldest man in space many years later) and the first US flight that would exceed 24 hours with Gordo Cooper. NASA proved with Mercury that humans could go to space, operate for an extended period of time, and then return safely. That was the first, and most crucial step that all American spaceflights have predicated on.
Mercury was only the first step. NASA proved that they could get into space, but with President Kennedy's mandate to fly to the moon and land on it, a far more complicated project was in order. Gemini was born, and was put into place to test the more advanced methods that would be required in space for a mission as complicated as a lunar landing. A new group of astronauts were brought into the fold, with notable names such as Neil Armstrong, Frank Borman, Pete Conrad, Jim Lovell, Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and others - astronauts that would gain valuble spaceflight experience prior to being assigned to the upcoming Project Apollo.
Gemini tested a number of procedures and maneuvers that would be required for longer missions. Two crew members would fly each manned mission, rendezvous and docking maneuvers would be tested to link together the command module and landing module, Extra Vehicular Activity was accomplished for the first time by an American and numerous other scientific and practical procedures were tested out during these missions. Ten missions were undertaken between 1965 and 1966, with each mission adding on valuble experience to NASA's plans for a lunar landing, and it brought the United States further along the race to catch up with the Soviet Union, as most of these accomplishments had already been completed successfully by Russia.
Project Apollo was the project that would bring mankind to the moon. Instituted in 1961, before Gemini, this project was the followup to Mercury, and would build upon the experience that NASA gained during Gemini to reach our nearest heavenly body. There are arguments for and against the effectiveness of the three projects. With the successful landing of Apollo 11, the mission was over, and the general public began to lose interest in the launches. However, within the confines of the space race that brewed between the United States and Russia, there was an artificial sense of urgency, with a huge push from their respective governments to reach the moon for no other purpose but to plant a flag on the moon, and leave the other to look up and see this as a powerful symbol of the other's might. Apollo was to be one of the most complex projects ever undertaken at the time, but it was also the most specialized of the missions, with one end goal - to reach the moon, which would be accomplished on July 20th, 1969.
Many thanks to the fantastic site io9 for their link in!