Goaded by the November 3, 1957, Soviet launch of Sputnik 2, the U.S. Congress moved quickly to close the space gap. On July 29, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, and NASA became a reality. The administration was formally founded on October 1, 1958.
APOLLO 11 lunar landing on July 20, 1969
Image: NASA
APOLLO 11 lunar landing on July 20, 1969 ended the space race.
Now the two superpowers were fully engaged in a battle that would end on the Moon in 1969. Eisenhower was opposed to the idea of an all-out effort to reach the Moon. He said in February 1958 that he "would rather have a good Redstone than be able to hit the Moon, for we didn't have any enemies on the Moon."

But that policy took an abrupt turn when John F. Kennedy became president. The U.S. did not yet have enemies on the Moon, but it certainly looked like it one day might. Responding to the first orbital flight by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961, President Kennedy, on May 25, 1961, set the national goal of landing astronauts on the Moon and returning them safely to Earth within the decade.

FIRST
FOOTPRINT on lunar soil
Image: NASA

FIRST FOOTPRINT on lunar soil.
The Soviets persistently denied that they had any plans to put humans on the Moon, but historical documents have put that idea to rest. And their early Luna launches betrayed a definite interest in Earth's natural satellite. On September 13, 1959, the U.S.S.R.'s Luna 2 crashed onto the moon carrying a copy of the Soviet coat of arms. Then, on October 4, 1959, Luna 3 set out to orbit the Moon and photographed 70 percent of its far side.

Until the very end, it was difficult to tell which nation was out in front, as both contenders racked up a series of important space firsts. The winner was not declared until astronaut Neil A. Armstrong bounced out of the Apollo 11 lunar lander on July 20, 1969, and, with the whole world watching made his now famous statement: "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind."