On this day in 1969, President Richard Nixon, along with millions of others, watches as two American astronauts walk on the moon. Later that evening, Nixon recorded succinctly in his diary “the President held an interplanetary conversation with Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin on the Moon.”
America and the Soviet Union had been in a race to see who could get to the moon first ever since the Soviets beat the U.S. into manned space flight with Yuri Gagarin’s orbital flight in 1961. Later that year, then-President John F. Kennedy vowed that America would be first to put a man on the moon, saying “To be sure, we are behind, and will be behind for some time in manned flight. But we do not intend to stay behind, and in this decade, we shall make up and move ahead.” To meet this goal, Kennedy and his successors, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, authorized generous funding for space exploration. Thanks to this support, less than a decade after what became known as Kennedy’s “moon speech,” the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) sent the first men to the moon.
Nixon joined approximately 500 million people around the world in watching Armstrong and Aldrin as the astronauts left their lunar landing module and walked on the moon. (The Soviet Union and China, America’s two biggest rivals in the space race, banned the broadcast in their respective countries.) After they planted an American flag on the moon’s surface, the astronauts spoke directly to President Nixon, who congratulated them on their historic mission. His phone was linked via satellite through the NASA control center in Houston, Texas.
Nixon continued to be an influential force in America’s space program. In 1972, he approved development of the space shuttle program. In an ironic twist, by the 21st century, space shuttle flights–especially those to the international space station–had become international cooperative endeavors with Russians and Americans joining forces to conduct missions and sharing space exploration technology.