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The Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957. For United States leaders, it was one of the chilliest moments of the Cold War as the Soviets had shown technical capabilities far more advanced than their own and expanded the “battlefield” not just to the sky, but outer space.

A year after the Sputnik launch, President Dwight Eisenhower and the U.S. Congress created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in an effort to catch up – and hopefully pass – their Soviet rivals in the so-called “Space Race.” In the following years, NASA launched a sequence of programs – Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo – that would systematically check off all the steps needed to explore space. Mercury focused on getting a man into orbit. Gemini put two-men teams into space to perform spacewalks, separate sections of spacecraft, and safely link them together again. Apollo headed to the moon, and our world would change.

These were the glory days of manned space flight. And on July 20, 1969, the scientists and pilots at NASA completed one of the most amazing feats in human history when two human beings walked on the moon for the first time. The gallery below celebrates the people who made that milestone happen and who built on its success in the years afterward.

Before exploring space, NASA pilots gained experience in high-altitude aircraft. Here, a test pilot looks up as a B-52 soars over the Mojave Desert.
Joe Walker, known as “Cowboy Joe,” leaps into a X-1A aircraft in 1955.
Neil Armstrong stands in front of the X-15 in 1959, a decade before he would become the first human being to set foot on the moon.
NASA astronaut Walter Schirra poses in his flight suit in 1959. 
NASA scientists test a model of the Mercury capsule in a wind tunnel.
After traveling into space and spending three minutes in zero gravity in 1959, Sam the monkey gets a check up.
Ham the chimp relaxes after his Mercury program space flight. 
In 1960, Nancy Roman joins NASA as the Chief of the Astronomy and Relativity Programs in the Office of Space Science. She would go on to work on the Hubble telescope. 
In 1962, John Glenn would be the first American to complete a full orbit around the earth.
Glenn’s famous first words from space were “Zero G, and I feel fine.”
Astronauts build a fire as part of their tropical survival training near the Panama Canal.
Eugene Kranz directs a simulation in 1965 at Mission Control in Houston
Ed White and Jim McDivitt pilot the Gemini IV mission in 1965.
Ed White becomes the first American to “walk” in space in June 1965.
Patricia McDivitt and Patricia White call their husbands, Jim and Ed, during the Gemini IV mission.
After returning to earth, White and McDivitt get a congratulatory call from President Johnson
The crew of Apollo I – Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee – pose for a picture days before they would be killed in a fire during a simulation, one of NASA’s most tragic accidents. 
Walter Schirra commands the Apollo VII mission in 1968. 
Jim McDivitt orbits the earth aboard Apollo IX in 1969.
The Apollo XI crew -- Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin -- smile for the cameras in 1969, a few weeks before they launch for their historic trip the moon. 
President Lyndon Johnson and Vice President Spiro Agnew join the crowds to see the launch of Apollo XI. 
Buzz Aldrin gears up as Apollo XI approaches the moon. Neil Armstrong took this shot.
Mission Control celebrates with cigars after the moon landing.
The Apollo XI astronauts don sombreros and ponchos during a parade in Mexico City a couple of months after visiting the moon. 
Disaster almost struck NASA again during Apollo XIII’s failed mission in 1970. Here, the Mission Control team celebrates the flight crew’s safe return to earth.
Ellen Weaver, a NASA biologist, prepares for a 1970s joint project with French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.
The rover’s tracks lead away from the lunar module during the 1971 Apollo XIV mission.
The Apollo XVI crew poses in the lunar rover in 1972.
Astronaut Harrison Schimitt plants a flag on the moon in 1972; the earth floats in the background 

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