Monday, July 20, 2009

Moon Landing, 40 Years Later


Perched atop a Saturn 5 rocket, the astronauts were on their way to meet the challenge President Kennedy had made eight years earlier: to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth before the end of the decade.

It took 400,000 workers and $24 billion, intended in large part to prove American superiority over the Soviets.

Kennedy's vision guided NASA's human space flight program from the beginning. Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions were designed with his objective in mind.

Despite skeptics who thought it could not be accomplished, Kennedy's dream became a reality on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong took a small step for himself and a giant leap for humanity, leaving a dusty trail of footprints on the moon.

A total of 12 Apollo astronauts would reach the lunar surface over the next three years, collecting rocks, driving buggies and even practicing a little golf.

The success of America's big bet in space depended on the ability of young, unheralded engineers to build rocket engines that were both powerful enough and reliable enough to wrench the spacecraft from Earth's jealous grasp and send it winging to the lunar surface.

The result of their work was the mammoth Saturn V, the largest and most powerful launch vehicle of its time. It was as tall as a 40-story building, with engines that gulped swimming pools worth of fuel every second. Producing 7.5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, Saturn V was so powerful that during a test at Cape Canaveral, it rained ceiling tiles on the head of CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, watching from four miles away.

In November, Neil Armstrong agreed for the first time to a television profile, speaking to 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley about his extraordinary life.

This story originally aired on Nov. 6, 2005.

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