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President Kennedy's speech to Congress was made in the context of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. At that time, the U.S. feared that it was falling behind the U.S.S.R. both in technological advances and international prestige. The U.S.S.R. launched the first artificial satellite into Earth orbit in October 1957. On April 12, 1961, just six weeks before Kennedy's speech, the Soviets launched the first human into Earth orbit. Although the U.S. launched astronaut Alan Shepard on a brief, suborbital flight on May 5, 1961, they did not put an astronaut in orbit until February 1962. The failure of the U.S.-backed invasion of the Bay of Pigs, Cuba, in April 1961 added to the gloomy mood. In this context, Kennedy sought an inspirational goal to rally the country.
Current knowledge of the Moon is greater than for any other solar system object except Earth. This lends to a greater understanding of geologic processes and further appreciation of the complexity of terrestrial planets.
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to step onto the surface of the Moon. He was followed by Edwin Aldrin, both of the Apollo 11 mission. They and other moon walkers experienced the effects of no atmosphere. Radio communications were used because sound waves can only be heard by travelling through the medium of air. The lunar sky is always black because diffraction of light requires an atmosphere. The astronauts also experienced gravitational differences. The moon's gravity is one-sixth that of the Earth's; a man who weighs 180 lbf (pound-force) on Earth weighs only 30 lbf on the Moon. (The equivalent metric weight (or force) is the Newton, where 4.45 Newtons equal one pound-force).
The tragic Apollo 1 launch pad fire in January 1967 killed the three-man crew and delayed the Apollo program while the spacecraft was redesigned for greater safety. Between October 1968 and May 1969, Apollo 7 through Apollo 10 tested the various components of the Apollo system. Apollo 7 tested the Command and Service Modules in Earth orbit. Apollo 8 was mankind's first trip beyond Earth orbit, a dramatic Christmas trip to the Moon. Apollo 9 tested the Lunar Module in Earth orbit. Apollo 10 was a final dress rehearsal in lunar orbit, clearing the way for Apollo 11's historic flight. Throughout this time, the Soviet Union was not idle. Although they did not publicly announce their plans at the time, they too were planning a manned lunar voyage, which never actually occurred due to repeated failures of their giant booster rocket. However, they did attempt to steal Apollo 11's thunder by returning a small sample of lunar soil with the Luna 15 spacecraft just a few days prior to Apollo 11. This effort also failed when Luna 15 crashed on the Moon's surface on July 21, 1969. President Kennedy's goal was finally achieved when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969, and returned to Earth on July 24, 1969.
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