(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is Part 2 of a 3-part series that looks at the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Part 1 published Thursday and Part 3 will publish Saturday.)
John F. Kennedy vowed in 1962 that America would go the moon by the end of the decade. The dashing 46-year-old president was assassinated little more than a year later in the streets of Dallas.
But his dream and vision survived.
But before there could be an Apollo moon program, Americans needed to learn how to work and survive in space. The Gemini program became NASA's bridge to the lunar surface.
GEMINI PAVES THE WAY: Project Gemini, which actually began in 1961 even as Mercury continued, had four main goals.
Gemini was designed to test an astronaut's ability to fly long-duration missions (up to two weeks in space); to understand how spacecraft could rendezvous and dock in orbit around the Earth and the moon; to perfect re-entry and landing methods; and to further understand the effects of longer space flights on astronauts.
The Gemini spacecraft, powered by its Titan II rocket, carried a two-astronaut crew with its low-earth orbit flights in 1965 and 1966, pushing the United States ahead of its Cold War rival Soviet Union.
Sixteen astronauts flew on the 12 Gemini flights (including the initial two unmanned launches). Those individuals included Mercury holdovers like Virgil "Gus" Grissom and Gordon Cooper, and new space adventurers like Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin.
The Gemini flights also included the first American walk in space on June 3, 1965, when astronaut Ed White exited the spacecraft for 23 minutes. As he prepared to re-enter his ship, White offered one of the memorable space quotes: “I’m coming back in … and it’s the saddest moment of my life.”
By the time astronauts Aldrin and Jim Lovell completed the Gemini 12 mission on Nov. 15, 1966, the stage was set for Apollo -- and an initial tragedy unlike the American space effort had ever seen.
Millions remember the heroism of many who helped Apollo 13 safely return its astronauts to Earth after an aborted lunar mission, largely thanks to the movie detailing the flight. Not nearly as many recall the tragedy that was Apollo 1.
"We've got a fire in the cockpit." -- Apollo 1 was to be the first crewed mission of the program. It was intended to be the initial low Earth orbital test of the Apollo command and service module with a crew, scheduled to launch on Feb. 21, 1967.
It never flew.
Less than a month before the launch, on Jan. 27, a cabin fire during a launch test at Cape Kennedy killed all three crew members -- Command Pilot Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Senior Pilot Ed White, and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee.
Radio transmissions from inside the cockpit during the fire were garbled. But most agree Chaffee exclaimed, "We've got a fire in the cockpit."
Later, some witnesses in the NASA launch blockhouse said they saw White on the television monitors, reaching for the inner hatch release handle as flames in the cabin spread, burning the men to death.
An investigation found the cause of the blaze was electrical. The fire spread quickly due to combustible nylon material, and the high pressure, pure oxygen cabin atmosphere.
Rescue was prevented by the plug door hatch, which could not be opened against the internal pressure of the cabin. Because the rocket was not fueled, the test had not been considered hazardous, and emergency preparedness for it was poor.
Ironically, the veteran Grissom had addressed the dangers of space flight in a 1966 interview.
"You sort of have to put that out of your mind. There's always a possibility that you can have a catastrophic failure, of course; this can happen on any flight; it can happen on the last one as well as the first one. So, you just plan as best you can to take care of all these eventualities, and you get a well-trained crew and you go fly," Grissom said.
Manned Apollo flights were suspended for 20 months while the tragedy was investigated and problems addressed. But the development and unmanned tests of the lunar module and Saturn V rocket continued unabated.
The first successful manned Apollo mission (Apollo 7) was flown in October 1968. The race against the Soviet Union was not over, however.
The Russians sent two tortoises, mealworms, wine flies, and other lifeforms around the moon on Sept. 15, 1968, and some believed they may soon repeat the feat with human cosmonauts.
Once Apollo 7 had returned safely, NASA made a bold move when it launched Apollo 8 on Dec. 21, 1968. Originally planned to be flown in an elliptical medium Earth orbit in early 1969, the decision was made to head to the moon.
AROUND THE MOON AND BACK: The crew of Lovell, Frank F. Borman II and William Anders took almost three days to travel to the moon, then orbited the lunar surface 10 times during a 20-hour period.
As it circled the moon, the crew broadcast photos of the moon's surface and produced a Christmas Eve television broadcast in which they read the first 10 verses from the Book of Genesis. It was at that time the most watched TV program in history.
Borman, the flight commander, ended the broadcast with, "And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth."
By the time the astronauts returned to Earth on Dec. 27, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, Apollo 8 had successfully paved the way to fulfill Kennedy's goal of actually landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
(Tomorrow: "Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.")