Fifty years ago today, at 13:32 UTC, Apollo 11 launched on its mission to drop off the first humans to set foot on the Moon. It’s something that hasn’t been achieved again since the Apollo program ended, although interest in going back to the Moon has been rekindled somewhat of late. While we remember it as one of the crowning moments of the 20th century, it’s worth noting that the Apollo program wasn’t without its critics. In an interview in 1961, Norbert Wiener, a professor and legendary mathematician at MIT, dismissed the Apollo program as a “moondoggle”!

The Apollo 11 launch

Apollo 11’s journey to the Moon will take a few days, so in the meantime let’s have a look at the earlier Apollo missions that paved the way for this momentous one.

Apollo 1 never made it off the launchpad. Originally designated AS-204, it was a test that went badly wrong. On 27 January 1967, a fire in the command module killed astronauts Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee and destroyed the module, after which the mission was renamed Apollo 1 at the request of the crew’s families.

Apollo mission numbering is therefore a little bit complicated. Apollo 2 and 3 didn’t happen, and Apollo 4, 5 and 6 were uncrewed missions. So we pick up from Apollo 7,  which launched on 11 October 1968, taking astronauts Wally Schirra, Donn F. Eisele and Walter Cunningham into space for a successful demonstration of the Command and Service Module (CSM). While they were up there, they made the first live TV broadcast from an American spacecraft.

Apollo 7 live broadcast from space

Launched on 21 December 1968, Apollo 8 was the first crewed spacecraft to successfully orbit the Moon and return to Earth. It was crewed by Frank Borman, James Lovell and William Anders, and they were the first people to witness and photograph an Earthrise. William Anders is credited as being the one to snap the incredible Earthrise image that has become iconic.

Although humanity knew that we lived on a planet that was moving through space, on Christmas Eve 1968 the Earthrise image made that real, and while it didn’t (as some might say) start the environmental movement, it certainly gave it an enormous boost. Major Anders would later say that having being sent to examine the Moon, humans instead discovered Earth. In October 2018, the International Astronomical Union renamed the two craters visible in the Earthrise image in honour of the Apollo 8 mission.

The iconic Earthrise photo from Apollo 8 (Image credit: NASA)

Apollo 9 was the first crewed spaceflight with the Lunar Module (LM). It launched on 3 March 1969 with James McDivitt, David Scott and Rusty Schweickart, who tested various manoeuvres with the LM in preparation for the Moon landing. 

And launched on 18 May 1969, Apollo 10 was the “dress rehearsal” for the lunar landing. Crewed by Thomas P. Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan, the Command Module was given the name ‘Charlie Brown’. The LM ‘Snoopy’ descended to 8.4 nautical miles (15.6 km) above the lunar surface.

After the appalling Apollo 1 accident Charles Shultz, the creator of the Peanuts cartoon, gave NASA permission to use Snoopy as their safety mascot, and created cartoons of Snoopy as an Astrobeagle, and a Silver Snoopy hitched a ride with every astronaut. Once back on Earth, the Snoopy pins were and are given to the people who work to keep astronauts safe.

Snoopy, Apollo 10’s Lunar Module, approaching Charlie Brown (the Command and Service module) for docking