Project Apollo ran from 1961 to 1972 and was originally designed to carry out a series of manned missions which would orbit the Earth. However, in May 1961 the American President, John F. Kennedy, made his famous speech to congress. In this speech he announced his desire to land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade and to return him safely to Earth.

This announcement led to a major change in direction for the Apollo program, which would now be responsible for realising Kennedy's dream. It was only at this point that the Gemini space program was announced, with its own goal of developing techniques for the moon landings. The Gemini program was not completed until 1966, with the first manned Apollo mission planned for early in 1967. Things did not get off to a good start.

On 27th January 1967 the crew of Apollo 1 were killed during a training exercise. This was caused by an electrical spark somewhere in the Apollo capsule's 31 miles of wiring. Thanks to the Oxygen rich atmosphere of the capsule, the fire spread very quickly and within just 17 seconds all three astronauts on board were dead, including Gus Grissom, one of the original Mercury 7. The accident led to a complete redesign of the Apollo capsule, including changing the atmosphere to an oxygen / nitrogen mixture, just like the atmosphere on Earth.

Apollo 11

Buzz Aldrin on the Lunar surface (NASA)

The delays the accident caused meant that the next manned mission, Apollo 7, was not launched until October 1968, giving NASA just over a year to reach the lunar surface before the end of the decade. Before the year was out Apollo 8 became the first manned capsule to orbit the moon, with the crew spending Christmas in space. This mission saw a number of important firsts for the space program. It was the first time astronauts had passed through Van Allen's radiation belts and the first time man had witnessed an earthrise. Perhaps most importantly, however, the astronaut Jim Lovell was able to confirm that there is a Santa Claus from his unique vantage point of the Earth on Christmas Day 1968.

By the summer of 1969 NASA were ready to attempt a moon landing when, on July 16th, Apollo 11 was launched carrying Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. Once again, the mission did not go as smoothly as planned. During their descent to the Moon the Lunar Module's (LM) guidance computer was leading the crew towards a large crater, surrounded by a field of rocks. Armstrong had to take manual control of the LM and was able to guide it to a safe landing site with just 15 seconds of fuel left. Despite such problems the mission was a success and on July 21st Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to set foot on the Moon.