Space Exploration: From the Moon Landing to Today & Beyond



On July 20, 1969 the United States landed the first manned space mission on the moon. Join Active Minds as we reflect on President Kennedy’s challenge, the space race, the Apollo Mission, and the role NASA has played since the lunar landing. We will bring the topic up to date by discussing the current political context for NASA and the rise of private space companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and others.

Key Lecture Points

  • Born in the Cold War, in the immediate aftermath of the successful Soviet launch of Sputnik, NASA enjoyed widespread American support (and funding) in the name of the military, intelligence, scientific and political advantages it provided.
  • In 1961, after the Soviet again bested the US in the space race by successfully launching a man into earth orbit, President Kennedy declared in a speech to Congress his intention that the US land a man on the moon “before this decade is out”.  Thereafter, Congress funded multiple programs and dozens of missions, manned and unmanned, to achieve that goal.  The effort was met with success but also tragic failure.  In 1967, three astronauts were killed in a test of what was to be the command module of the mission to the moon.
  • The effort culminated in July 1969 with the Apollo 11 mission which successfully landed Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin on the moon and returned them to earth with the help of command module pilot Michael Collins.
  • Five decades after Apollo 11, the US wrestles with the future of manned space exploration.  Its cost and benefit is weighed against the relative benefits of unmanned exploration into deep space.
  • Nonetheless, with the recent infusion of private enterprise into space exploration, the US is making strides in innovation.  These include, the recent success of the SpaceX corporation to recover all three stages of its Falcon Heavy booster after a launch, and the proliferation of private space companies pursuing different approaches to the exploration of space with NASA and independently.

Exploration Questions

  • What are the pros and cons of manned space exploration?
  • What are the pros and cons of private space companies?

Reflective Questions

  • What are your recollections of NASA from the Cold War?
  • What do you recall about Sputnik or the Apollo moon landings?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • Schmitt, Harrison. Return to the Moon: Exploration, Enterprise, and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space. Copernicus Books. 2006. 335 pages. Schmitt, a former astronaut, focuses on a return to the moon not just as a pursuit of technology and to establish the USA as the leader in space, but he also presents the Moon as a business proposition and the obstacles that will need to be overcome.
    Click here to order
  • Squyres, Steve. Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity and the Exploration of the Red Planet. Hyperion. 2005. 422 pages. A behind-the-scenes account of the journeys of “Spirit” and “Opportunity” to Mars and their search for life on the Red Planet.
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  • Gorn, Michael, H. and Buzz Aldrin. NASA: The Complete Illustrated History. Merrell Publishers. 2005. 304 pages. This book portrays the history of space exploration from the early twentieth century to the present.
    Click here to order