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Apollo 11

This 1969 photo released by NASA shows a boot print made by astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 mission.
Buzz Aldrin/NASA / Via AP

Roger Launius is an aerospace historian and writer who’s worked for NASA and the Smithsonian. His new book is titled, “Apollo’s Legacy: Perspectives on the Moon Landings.” Launius discussed the work with KGOU’s Richard Bassett ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing on July 20. Their conversation touched on Apollo's technological and photographic legacies, as well as efforts to preserve historical sites on the lunar surface, and how JFK repeatedly reached out to the USSR during the Cold War in hopes of going to the moon together.

The Apollo program conjures images of Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon and the massive team effort involved in getting him there. But a fundamental decision that led to the successful lunar landings came largely as a result of one man's determination to buck the system at NASA.

That man was John C. Houbolt.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing with a life-size projection of the Saturn V rocket on the Washington Monument on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Fifty years ago, two astronauts became the first humans to set foot on the moon. Like many explorers, they documented their accomplishment in photographs. The images they took are some of the most enduring of the 20th century, traveling from Life magazine to MTV to Twitter.

For most of us, the photos brought back by Apollo 11 are iconic and a little difficult to comprehend. But for astronauts, they represent something more: hours of training, risks taken and the many people on the ground who worked to make the journey possible.

Look at a picture of the Apollo 11 launch and you'll probably notice the rocket's pointed tip and the fire coming from the five giant engines in the first stage of the 36-story-tall Saturn V rocket.

What you might miss is arguably the most important part of the entire thing: the command module.

In the past year or so, scientists have discovered more evidence for liquid water under the surface of Mars. They've found complex organic compounds — the building blocks of life. And they've found that methane levels in Mars' atmosphere vary with the seasons.

"Each of these things adds up to say that the probability of finding life on a world that's not our own is going up," says NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "And Mars, I think, is that best opportunity in our own solar system to find life on another world."

In the summer of 1962, Walter Schirra — who would soon become America's third man to orbit the Earth — walked into a Houston photo supply shop looking for a camera he could take into space.

He came out with a Hasselblad 500C, a high-end Swedish import that had been recommended to him by photographers from Life and National Geographic.

On Dec. 14, 1972, a capsule carrying Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt lifted off from the lunar surface.

It was the day that humans left the moon.

For a long while, they didn't come back, but that's changing. China, India and even smaller nations like Israel and South Korea are all pursuing robotic moon missions. Their lunar ambitions are being driven both by a desire to flex their technological muscles and by the rise of global nationalism.

Don't see the video above? Click here.

When astronaut Neil Armstrong first stepped on the moon 50 years ago, it was a giant leap for functional fashion.

The spacesuit he wore was an unprecedented blend of technology and tailoring.

"The suit itself is an engineering marvel," says Malcolm Collum, the chief conservator for the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. "Every single thing on here is a specific function. It is engineered to the last little detail."

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Darby Dyar says that as a kid, whenever Apollo astronauts returned from the moon, she and her classmates would get ushered into the school library to watch it on TV.

When a rocket carrying the first module of the International Space Station blasted off from Kazakhstan in November of 1998, NASA officials said the station would serve as an orbiting home for astronauts and cosmonauts for at least 15 years.

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