Washington, 16 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- This month the United States is celebrating the 30-year anniversary of one of it's greatest national accomplishments -- launching men into space and having them walk on the moon.
On July 16, 1969, three Americans -- Neil Armstrong, Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin and Michael Collins -- rocketed into space on a flight called Apollo 11. According to the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the prime mission objective of Apollo 11 was simply to "perform a manned lunar landing and return."
Four days into their mission the astronauts did just that. On July 20, 1969, the world held its breath while astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin carefully detached from the Apollo command module piloted by Collins and maneuvered a small lunar module called "Eagle" toward the moon's surface.
After an extremely difficult and dangerous landing, Armstrong's voice quivered as he reported to Earth: "The Eagle has landed."
As commander, Armstrong went out through the forward hatch first, immediately deploying an equipment module. A camera in this module provided live television coverage of him descending the ladder to the surface, permitting those on Earth to watch him take the first human steps on another celestial body.
As Armstrong took his first step onto the moon he declared: "One small step for man -- one giant leap for mankind."
Aldrin followed him minutes later. The two astronauts planted an American flag on the moon but did not claim it for the U.S., a tradition routinely done during the European exploration of the world.
The astronauts also carried two other large American flags, flags of each of the 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia (where Washington, the nation's capital, is located) and other U.S. territories, flags of other nations and the United Nations. All were later returned to Earth.
During their stay on the moon, the astronauts took soil and rock samples, conducted numerous scientific experiments and documented their activities and the landscape on film. The men spent 21 hours on the lunar surface. The next day they rendezvoused with Collins and then began their journey back to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24. The moon landing had been an American dream since May 25, 1961 when U.S. President John F. Kennedy addressed a special joint session of the U.S. Congress and challenged America to land a man on the moon. Kennedy said: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space." But some historians say Kennedy's challenge was a direct response to the Soviet Union's earlier and remarkable successes in space.
Space historians say the U.S. was caught by surprise when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into space on October 4, 1957. The satellite named "Sputnik" -- which means satellite in the Russian language -- was designed to send radio signals to Earth and determine the density of the upper atmosphere. Experts say the successful launch was a shock to Americans and sparked the beginning of what historians call the Cold War's "race for space."
The Soviets clearly had the early advantage. Just one month after launching Sputnik I, they launched "Sputnik II" with a live dog aboard named Laika. Laika survived the launch, but was put to sleep after a week in orbit. The satellite remained in orbit a startling 162 days.
On May 15, 1958, the Soviet Union launched "Sputnik III." Its mission was to be a geophysical laboratory, performing experiments on the magnetic field. Its orbit ended a record two years later.
The space race heated up considerably on April 12, 1961 when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, making one orbit around the Earth. The Americans answered back by launching astronaut Alan Shepard into space a month later on May 5, 1961, but he did not orbit the Earth. Finally, about a year later, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. In 1966, the Soviets sent an unmanned spacecraft "Luna 10" to orbit the moon, broadcasting the Communist hymn "Internationale" back to the Communist Party Congress in Moscow. Then, two years later, the USSR sent the first spaceship to orbit the moon with live turtles on board. They were returned safely back to Earth. But it was the Americans who eventually triumphed with their Apollo program, successfully capturing the attention and respect of the world, by taking the first steps on the moon. Roger Launius of NASA's History Office wrote in a document assessing the mission: "Project Apollo had originated as an effort to deal with an unsatisfactory situation -- world perception of Soviet leadership in space and technology -- and it addressed these problems very well. Even though Kennedy's political objectives were essentially achieved with the decision to go to the Moon, Project Apollo took on a life of its own over the years and left an important legacy to both the nation and the proponents of space exploration." Interestingly, Soviet television did not broadcast live images of Armstrong taking his first historic steps on the moon. In fact, the Soviet media largely ignored the event. When it had to be mentioned at all, the official response was that the USSR was not the first to walk on the moon because they had not been trying to get there at all. But according to an interview taken by Reuters last week, Boris Chertok, a leading rocket scientist from the earliest days of the Soviet space program, said many Russian rocket scientists were eager and able to watch the first moonwalk.
He said: "We were delighted as engineers as they had done wonderful work. But on the other hand we felt disappointment. Why them and not us? It was bitter."
In that same interview, Chertok revealed that not only did the Soviet Union have its sights set on landing first on the moon, but that they wanted to do something spectacular to show their technological prowess in space to the world.
Chertok said that in 1958, the Soviets actually developed a plan to send an atomic bomb to the moon, so that astronomers across the world could photograph its explosion on film.
Chertok said: "That way no one would have doubted that the Soviet Union was capable of landing on the surface of the moon. But the idea was rejected as physicists decided the flash would be so short lived because of the lack of an atmosphere on the moon that it might not register on film."
But in the end, it was the Americans who made it to the moon first. Next week, across the U.S. and in Washington, NASA has planned several events to mark the historic anniversary. All three astronauts, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins are still alive and are expected to make appearances at many of the celebrations. Still, the astronauts remain philosophical about their role in history. Aldrin is fond of quoting what he said the day before the Apollo craft splashed down in the ocean at the end of its journey: "We feel this stands as a symbol of the insatiable curiosity of all mankind to explore the unknown."
Likewise, historians say it is no coincidence that affixed to the leg of the lunar landing vehicle is a plaque signed by then-U.S. President Richard Nixon and Armstrong, Collins, and Aldrin. The plaque bears a map of the Earth and this inscription: "Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind."