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July 21, 1969: U.S. Astronauts Win the Race to the Moon

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On April 12, 1961, Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to fly in space, reinforcing American fears about being left behind in a technological competition with the Soviet Union. In response, U.S. President John F. Kennedy proposes a national goal: "before this decade is out, to land a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth…"

However, much of the technology needed to get to the lunar surface and return didn’t exist at the time of Kennedy’s famous 1962 speech. The resulting Apollo Project ran from 1961 to 1972, with the first crewed flight in 1968.

Kennedy's goal was ultimately accomplished on the Apollo 11 mission. Apollo 11 was launched by a Saturn V rocket from Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida, on July 16 at 13:32 UTC, and it was the fifth crewed mission of NASA's Apollo program.

Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent 21 hours and 36 minutes on the lunar surface at a site they named Tranquility Base. While they landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969, they first stepped foot on the Moon on July 21. Armstrong's first step onto the lunar surface was broadcast on live TV to a worldwide audience.

The astronauts returned to Earth and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24 after more than eight days in space.

Apollo 11 effectively ended the Space Race and fulfilled Kennedy's national goal. Five subsequent Apollo missions also landed astronauts on the Moon, the last, Apollo 17, in December 1972. In these six spaceflights, twelve people walked on the Moon.

Apollo set several major human spaceflight milestones. It stands alone in sending crewed missions beyond low Earth orbit.

Overall the Apollo program returned 842 pounds (382 kg) of lunar rocks and soil to Earth, greatly contributing to the understanding of the Moon's composition and geological history.

The U.S. government pumped more than 4% of the federal budget into NASA in the early years of the Apollo program. Today, by comparison, the space agency accounts for about 0.5% of the federal budget.

The project cost $25 billion and employed 400,000 people – many of whom rarely saw their families because they worked so many hours.

Apollo astronauts snapped photos of the Earth from afar that are credited with helping propel the environmental movement in the 1970s.

And, on July 21, 2021, 52 years after the first U.S. astronauts reached the moon, Jeff Bezos, Mark Bezos, Wally Funk, and Oliver Daemen are going to space in Blue Origin's New Shepard. 

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