In May of 1961, President John F. Kennedy made a promise to put a man on the Moon—and return him back safely—by the end of the decade. Somehow, it worked.
Over 50 years later, it’s easy to forget how ambitious Kennedy’s promise was. We’d gotten our butts kicked in the Cold War space race with Russia. America hadn’t launched the first satellite. America hadn’t been first off this planet (with a human or an animal). America hadn’t been first to the Moon, even, if you count Russia’s Luna 2 and 3 satellites. In fact, Kennedy’s speech came just 20 days after we’d put our first man, Alan Shepard, into space. Then six years later, our manned quest to the moon would start with the most extreme failure possible, when three astronauts died in a fire during Apollo 1 launchpad testing.
But between 1961 and 1975, NASA’s Apollo missions would change the world. Competition would drive America’s innovation to extremes, the likeness of which I’m not sure we can say we’ve seen since. We’d make it to the Moon in 1969, and by 1975, we’d begin cooperating with Russia in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. In winning the space race, America took strides to ending the Cold War. Two superpowers fired their rockets into the air rather than at each other, and we’re a far more accomplished species for the sentiment.
We’ve assembled a gallery of our favorite 50 photos from the Apollo missions. Many you will recognize, but just as many will surely be new. Some are silly, some are inspiring and some are just refreshingly candid of normal people doing extraordinary things. And if you find yourself as stunned as we are, maybe you’ll agree: It’s about damn time we set foot on Mars.
All images and captions credit NASA. Some captions have been edited or expanded upon.