By James Irwin
John Logsdon remembers the Apollo 11 mission vividly. He was in Florida for the launch and watched NASA’s mighty Saturn V rocket propel astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins toward their date with history.
“I watched those guys walk by me on the way to the moon,” Dr. Logsdon said. “It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.”
The professor emeritus of political science and international affairs and the author of “John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon” said the space race between the United States and Soviet Union, which culminated July 20, 1969, when Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, still holds a few surprises for contemporary scholars of the topic.
“While John Kennedy was still alive he would have preferred to cooperate, rather than compete with the Soviet Union,” Dr. Logsdon said. “Nobody remembers that.”
In a speech he gave on the floor of the U.N. General Assembly in September 1963, President Kennedy called for a joint effort between the United States and the Soviet Union in their exploration of space.
“I include among these possibilities a joint expedition to the moon,” he said. “Why … should man's first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition?”
President Kennedy had made similar remarks in the same space two years earlier. His death in November 1963 ended any chance of a joint effort between the superpowers.
“Once he was assassinated, Apollo became kind of a monument to a fallen young president,” Dr. Logsdon said. “There was no chance of cooperation with the Soviet Union.”
The race to the moon, Dr. Logsdon said, eventually became a race to build the best rocket, one capable of launching manned missions to the lunar surface. Production of the Saturn V became a turning point in the space race.
“The reason the Soviet Union did things first is they had a more powerful rocket than the United States that was able to launch Sputnik first, then the first human and the first two-man space mission,” Dr. Logsdon said. “[Later] the United States was very successful in building the Saturn V, while the Soviet Union tried to build an equivalent and failed.”
The United States completed six lunar excursion missions from 1969 to 1972. A seventh, Apollo 13, was aborted after an oxygen tank in the service module exploded, leading to a harrowing trip back to Earth in which astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert used their lunar module as a lifeboat to return home.
The Apollo 11 command module is displayed in the central hall of the National Air and Space Museum, alongside other pioneering flight vehicles, including Charles Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis” and John Glenn’s Friendship 7 capsule. Forty-five years after man first walked on the moon, Dr. Logsdon calls it one of the most memorable moments in American history.
“Everybody remembers where they were when it happened,” he said.