On 4 October 1957, Soviet scientists launched Sputnik 1 – a beach ball-sized, radio-transmitting aluminium alloy sphere – into orbit. The satellite caused a sensation. Amid Cold War tensions, the Soviet Union’s accomplishment signalled a dramatic technological advantage and American felt it had little choice but to join the Space Race.
Then on 12 April 1961, the Soviets sealed their advantage when cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth. John F Kennedy, the newly elected president, was faced with the issue of how to respond. Two days later, he called a meeting to find an American space programme that would promise equally dramatic results. Rocket manufacturer, and former Nazi, Wernher von Braun, convinced Kennedy that the Americans could beat the Russians to the Moon before the decade was out and the Saturn programme was born.