By Emily Lefler
One of the most iconic moments in human history is when the Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, marking the first time humans ever stepped foot on another planetary body. Broadcast on live TV, the world watched with bated breath as Neil Armstrong stepped on to the lunar surface, saying the now-iconic words:
“One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Buzz Aldrin soon followed him, donning a spacesuit and joining Armstrong for an over two-hour moonwalk while their fellow crewmember, Michael Collins, orbited above in the command module Columbia – and the rest is history.
The military has a long and storied relationship with spaceflight and NASA. With July 20th marking the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing – and the day of the 2019 space launch where an Army doctor will head into space for the first time – here’s a quick refresher on just how intertwined the military is with the U.S. space program:
1. NASA’s First Group of Astronauts All Served in the Military
The Mercury Seven, also referred to as the “Original Seven,” were the first group of U.S. astronauts, selected as part of Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight program in the U.S. that ran from 1958 to 1963.
NASA’s astronaut selection process was – and still is – very rigorous. The astronauts chosen for Project Mercury had to demonstrate excellent skills in piloting, be in good physical health and be able to maintain psychological adaptability. It was only natural that President Eisenhower decided to pick candidates from the military, as they were highly trained, had logged countless hours of flying time and were fairly used to rigorous procedures and missions.
Announced in 1959, the Mercury Seven consisted of military pilots from the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force, and included Lt. Scott Carpenter, Navy, Capt. Gordon Cooper, Air Force, Col. John Glenn, Marine Corps, Capt. Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Air Force, Lt. Cmdr. Walter “Wally” Schirra, Navy, Lt. Cmdr. Alan Shepard, Navy, and Capt. Donald “Deke” Slayton, Air Force.
These men, launched into the public eye, became household names. Americans considered these brave astronauts to be national heroes, and Time magazine compared them to history’s famous explorers like Columbus, Magellan and the Wright brothers.
2. The First American in Space was Navy Pilot Alan Shepard
The U.S. space program suffered some frustrating setbacks when the Soviet Union successfully sent the first man, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, into space and orbit.
However, the U.S. was determined to not give up and pushed further into the Space Race. Less than a month later, Shepard piloted the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission on May 5, 1961, and soon became the first American to travel into space.
Shepard was a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and served on the destroyer Cogswell during World War II. He later became a test pilot for the Navy and helped develop various jets, aircraft carriers and other technologies – making him the perfect candidate for NASA’s high profile, risky missions.
3. Remember That Iconic Photo of Earth Rising Over the Moon?
Air Force pilot and astronaut William Anders captured that image.
The photo, called “Earthrise”, was taken by Anders during the 1968 Apollo 8 mission, the first crewed mission to orbit the moon. All three astronauts in the mission crew – Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman – were military pilots.
As the spacecraft traveled over the moon’s surface and Earth appeared on the horizon, Anders grabbed a camera and some color film to capture the breathtaking view. The resulting photograph, “Earthrise,” has been called “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken”. It elicited a range of emotions for people – the sheer existential depiction put life into perspective for everyone on Earth.
Fifty years later Anders reflected, “We set out to explore the moon, and instead discovered earth.”
4. Military Contractors (and USO Corporate Partners!) Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman were Instrumental in the Space Program
Boeing had a heavy hand in producing systems and equipment that would safely carry astronauts into space. Saturn V, the rocket that NASA used to launch its Apollo missions, was developed in part by Boeing, who was tasked with building the first stage of the rocket.
Boeing also built the Apollo command and service modules, the lunar orbiter and the lunar roving vehicle that allowed us to not only land on the moon, but also explore it. The company was also the prime contractor for the International Space Station, a permanent laboratory that orbits the Earth in space and is still operational to this day.
As part of NASA’s Apollo program, Lockheed Martin undertook the development of the launch escape motor and pitch control motor for the space capsule where the astronaut crew spent most its time. These systems were paramount for ensuring the safety of the crew in case of emergency or disaster.
Northrop Grummanwas tapped by NASA to build the famed Apollo Lunar Module (LM), the spacecraft that actually landed on the moon’s surface during the Apollo program.
A total of six lunar modules carried astronauts to and from the moon during these missions. During the unsuccessful Apollo 13 mission, the lunar module Aquarius served as an impromptu lifeboat as the crew re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. Without that lunar module, the Apollo 13 accident would have been fatal.
Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have been important contributors to not just space exploration, but to our military in general. They provide equipment and technologies that our military uses and are champions of the USO’s mission of supporting our service members – something we at the USO are very grateful for!
5. Astronauts Went Overseas on USO and Armed Forces Entertainment Tours to Visit and Inspire Deployed Service Members
Our astronauts have always been involved on some level with the military. In fact, just months after Neil Armstrong became the first man to set foot on the moon, he made a surprise appearance on a USO tour in front of U.S. troops stationed in Vietnam.
Joining Bob Hope’s Christmas show, Armstrong talked with service members during the holidays, providing some much-needed relief and encouragement for our men and women in uniform.
In 2010, the “Legends of Aerospace” – Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan, Robert Gilliland, Jim Lovell and Steve Ritchie – spent two weeks with U.S. troops overseas on an Armed Forces Entertainment/Morale Entertainment tour in 2010. The group stopped at 15 different installations, meeting and inspiring thousands of service members deployed downrange.