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Kennedy's Space Challenge, 50 Years Later

NASA/AFP/Getty Images(CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.) -- Fifty years ago Wednesday, a fresh-faced president named John F. Kennedy -- just four months into his presidency -- asked Congress for the funding required to send American astronauts to the moon.

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth," President Kennedy said at the time. "No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."

Eight years later, on July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 blasted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., with three men on board. Then, on July 20, the president's goal was realized when the spacecraft and its crew of astronauts -- Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and Neil Armstrong -- touched down on the moon.

"I'm at the foot of the ladder," Armstrong told Mission Control as he descended from the lunar lander to the moon’s surface.

With his right hand on the ladder, Armstrong continued, "I'm going to step off."
Then, in an image that would become forever ingrained in the minds of millions of Americans who watched the event live on television, Armstrong planted his left foot to the moon's surface.
"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," he said.

The Russians beat the U.S. into orbit, but Americans won the race to the moon.

Fifty years later, critics say NASA has no timetable for returning men to the moon or to any planet. And though the American shuttle program is scheduled to end this summer, astronaut Mark Kelly, commander of the STS-134 shuttle mission, remains hopeful.

"It's something we need to continue, focus on, invest in," Kelly said last week from Space Shuttle Endeavour, which is currently docked at the International Space Station.

The final American space shuttle mission is slated for July 8.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

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