Apollo 13 returns to Earth

Year
1970
Month Day
April 17

With the world anxiously watching, Apollo 13, a U.S. lunar spacecraft that suffered a severe malfunction on its journey to the moon, safely returns to Earth.

LISTEN ON APPLE PODCASTS: ‘Houston, We’ve Had a Problem’

On April 11, the third manned lunar landing mission was launched from Florida, carrying astronauts James A. Lovell, John L. Swigert and Fred W. Haise. The mission was headed for a landing on the Fra Mauro highlands of the moon. However, two days into the mission, disaster struck 200,000 miles from Earth when oxygen tank No. 2 blew up in the spacecraft. Swigert reported to mission control on Earth, “Houston, we’ve had a problem here,” and it was discovered that the normal supply of oxygen, electricity, light and water had been disrupted. 

The landing mission was aborted, and the astronauts and controllers on Earth scrambled to come up with emergency procedures. The crippled spacecraft continued to the moon, circled it, and began a long, cold journey back to Earth.

The astronauts and mission control were faced with enormous logistical problems in stabilizing the spacecraft and its air supply, as well as providing enough energy to the damaged fuel cells to allow successful reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. Navigation was another problem, and Apollo 13‘s course was repeatedly corrected with dramatic and untested maneuvers. On April 17, tragedy turned to triumph as the Apollo 13 astronauts touched down safely in the Pacific Ocean.

READ MORE: How Apollo 13 Became NASA’s ‘Successful Failure’ 

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President Nixon watches first lunar landing

Year
1969
Month Day
July 20

On July 20, 1969, President Richard Nixon, along with millions of others, watches as two American astronauts walk on the moon. Later that evening, Nixon recorded succinctly in his diary “the President held an interplanetary conversation with Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin on the Moon.”

America and the Soviet Union had been in a race to see who could get to the moon first ever since the Soviets beat the U.S. into manned space flight with Yuri Gagarin’s orbital flight in 1961. Later that year, then-President John F. Kennedy vowed that America would be first to put a man on the moon, saying “To be sure, we are behind, and will be behind for some time in manned flight. But we do not intend to stay behind, and in this decade, we shall make up and move ahead.” To meet this goal, Kennedy and his successors, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, authorized generous funding for space exploration. Thanks to this support, less than a decade after what became known as Kennedy’s “moon speech,” the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) sent the first men to the moon.

WATCH: Moon Landing: The Lost Tapes on HISTORY Vault

Nixon joined approximately 500 million people around the world in watching Armstrong and Aldrin as the astronauts left their lunar landing module and walked on the moon. (The Soviet Union and China, America’s two biggest rivals in the space race, banned the broadcast in their respective countries.) After they planted an American flag on the moon’s surface, the astronauts spoke directly to President Nixon, who congratulated them on their historic mission. His phone was linked via satellite through the NASA control center in Houston, Texas.

Nixon continued to be an influential force in America’s space program. In 1972, he approved development of the space shuttle program. In an ironic twist, by the 21st century, space shuttle flights–especially those to the international space station–had become international cooperative endeavors with Russians and Americans joining forces to conduct missions and sharing space exploration technology.

READ MORE: 5 Terrifying Moments During the Apollo 11 Moon Landing 

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President Nixon launches space shuttle program


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Year
1972
Month Day
January 05

Richard Nixon signs a bill authorizing $5.5 million in funding to develop a space shuttle. The space shuttle represented a giant leap forward in the technology of space travel. Designed to function more like a cost-efficient “reusable” airplane than a one-use-only rocket-launched capsules, the shuttle afforded NASA pilots and scientists more time in space with which to conduct space-related research. NASA launched Columbia, the first space shuttle, in 1981.

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JFK asks Congress to support the space program

Year
1961
Month Day
May 25

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announces to Congress his goal of sending an American to the moon by the end of the decade and asks for financial support of an accelerated space program. He made the task a national priority and a mission in which all Americans would share, stating that it will not be one man going to the moon—it will be an entire nation.

On April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union had become the first country to send a man into space with the successful mission of Yuri Gagarin in the spacecraft Vostok 1. On May 5, American Alan Shepard flew into space, but did not orbit the earth as the Russian cosmonaut had. At that time, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were already locked in an arms race. Not to be outdone by America’s Cold War rivals, President Kennedy pledged in 1961 to support an American space program that would eventually dwarf the Soviet program in technological achievements and investment.

READ MORE: The Space Race Timeline

In a speech before Congress on May 25, JFK linked the need for a space program with the political and economic battle between democracy and communism. He urged Congress to mobilize financial resources to speed up the pace of the space program’s progress.

Kennedy’s vision did not become a reality until six years after his assassination. On July 20, 1969, then-President Richard Nixon watched with the world while Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong became the first human to walk on the moon. Just after Armstrong planted the American flag on the moon, President Nixon contacted Armstrong via phone to congratulate him on behalf of all Americans saying, “I just can’t tell you how proud we are.”

READ MORE: 8 Little-Known Facts About the Moon Landing 

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Kennedy proposes joint mission to the moon

Year
1963
Month Day
September 20

An optimistic and upbeat President John F. Kennedy suggests that the Soviet Union and the United States cooperate on a mission to mount an expedition to the moon. The proposal caught both the Soviets and many Americans off guard.

In 1961, shortly after his election as president, John F. Kennedy announced that he was determined to win the “space race” with the Soviets. Since 1957, when the Soviet Union sent a small satellite–Sputnik–into orbit around the earth, Russian and American scientists had been competing to see who could make the next breakthrough in space travel. Outer space became another frontier in the Cold War. Kennedy upped the ante in 1961 when he announced that the United States would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. 

READ MORE: The Space Race

Much had changed by 1963, however. Relations with the Soviet Union had improved measurably. The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 had been settled peacefully. A “hot line” had been established between Washington and Moscow to help avert conflict and misunderstandings. A treaty banning the open air testing of nuclear weapons had been signed in 1963. On the other hand, U.S. fascination with the space program was waning. Opponents of the program cited the high cost of the proposed trip to the moon, estimated at more than $20 billion. In the midst of all of this, Kennedy, in a speech at the United Nations, proposed that the Soviet Union and United States cooperate in mounting a mission to the moon. “Why,” he asked the audience, “therefore, should man’s first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition?” Kennedy noted, “the clouds have lifted a little” in terms of U.S.-Soviet relations, and declared “The Soviet Union and the United States, together with their allies, can achieve further agreements—agreements which spring from our mutual interest in avoiding mutual destruction.”

Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko applauded Kennedy’s speech and called it a “good sign,” but refused to comment on the proposal for a joint trip to the moon. In Washington, there was a good bit of surprise–and some skepticism–about Kennedy’s proposal. The “space race” had been one of the focal points of the Kennedy administration when it came to office, and the idea that America would cooperate with the Soviets in sending a man to the moon seemed unbelievable. Other commentators saw economics, not politics, behind the proposal. With the soaring price tag for the lunar mission, perhaps a joint effort with the Soviets was the only way to save the costly program. What might have come of Kennedy’s idea is unknown–just two months later, he was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, abandoned the idea of cooperating with the Soviets but pushed ahead with the lunar program. In 1969, the United States landed a man on the moon, thus winning a significant victory the “space race.”

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German scientists brought to United States to work on rocket technology

Year
1945
Month Day
November 16

In a move that stirs up some controversy, as part of “Operation Paperclip,” the United States ships 88 German scientists to America to assist the nation in its production of rocket technology. Most of these men had served under the Nazi regime and critics in the United States questioned the morality of placing them in the service of America. Nevertheless, the U.S. government, desperate to acquire the scientific know-how that had produced the terrifying and destructive V-1 and V-2 rockets for Germany during WWII, and fearful that the Russians were also utilizing captured German scientists for the same end, welcomed the men with open arms.

READ MORE: What Was Operation Paperclip?

Realizing that the importation of scientists who had so recently worked for the Nazi regime so hated by Americans was a delicate public relations situation, the U.S. military cloaked the operation in secrecy. In announcing the plan, a military spokesman merely indicated that some German scientists who had worked on rocket development had “volunteered” to come to the United States and work for a “very moderate salary.” The voluntary nature of the scheme was somewhat undercut by the admission that the scientists were in “protective custody.” 

Upon their arrival in the United States on November 16, newsmen and photographers were not allowed to interview or photograph the newcomers. A few days later, a source in Sweden claimed that the scientists were members of the Nazi team at Peenemeunde where the V-weapons had been produced. The U.S. government continued to remain somewhat vague about the situation, stating only that “certain outstanding German scientists and technicians” were being imported in order to “take full advantage of these significant developments, which are deemed vital to our national security.” The situation pointed out one of the many ironies connected with the Cold War. The United States and the Soviet Union, once allies against Germany and the Nazi regime during World War II, were now in a fierce contest to acquire the best and brightest scientists who had helped arm the German forces in order to construct weapons systems to threaten each other.

READ MORE: The Secret World War II Mission to Kidnap Hitler’s A-Bomb Scientists

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John Glenn returns to space

Year
1998
Month Day
October 29

Nearly four decades after he became the first American to orbit the Earth, Senator John Hershel Glenn, Jr., is launched into space again as a payload specialist aboard the space shuttle Discovery. At 77 years of age, Glenn was the oldest human ever to travel in space. During the nine-day mission, he served as part of a NASA study on health problems associated with aging.

Glenn, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, was among the seven men chosen by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1959 to become America’s first astronauts. A decorated pilot, he had flown nearly 150 combat missions during World War II and the Korean War. In 1957, he made the first nonstop supersonic flight across the United States, flying from Los Angeles to New York in three hours and 23 minutes.

In April 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space, and his spacecraft, Vostok 1, made a full orbit before returning to Earth. Less than one month later, American Alan B. Shepard, Jr., became the first American in space when his Freedom 7 spacecraft was launched on a suborbital flight. American “Gus” Grissom made another suborbital flight in July, and in August Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov spent more than 25 hours in space aboard Vostok 2, making 17 orbits. As a technological power, the United States was looking very much second-rate compared with its Cold War adversary. If the Americans wanted to dispel this notion, they needed a multi-orbital flight before another Soviet space advance arrived.

On February 20, 1962, NASA and Colonel John Glenn accomplished this feat with the flight of Friendship 7, a spacecraft that made three orbits of the Earth in five hours. Glenn was hailed as a national hero, and on February 23 President John F. Kennedy visited him at Cape Canaveral. Glenn later addressed Congress and was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City.

Out of a reluctance to risk the life of an astronaut as popular as Glenn, NASA essentially grounded the “Clean Marine” in the years after his historic flight. Frustrated with this uncharacteristic lack of activity, Glenn turned to politics and in 1964 announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate from his home state of Ohio and formally left NASA. Later that year, however, he withdrew his Senate bid after seriously injuring his inner ear in a fall from a horse. In 1970, following a stint as a Royal Crown Cola executive, he ran for the Senate again but lost the Democratic nomination to Howard Metzenbaum. Four years later, he defeated Metzenbaum, won the general election, and went on to win reelection three times. In 1984, he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for president.

In 1998, Glenn attracted considerable media attention when he returned to space aboard the space shuttle Discovery. In 1999, he retired from his U.S. Senate seat after four consecutive terms in office, a record for the state of Ohio. Glenn died on December 8, 2016, at age 95. 

READ MORE: Space Exploration: Timeline and Technologies 

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