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Reading 2: The Apollo Hardware

James Webb, Administrator of NASA from 1961 to 1968, described the formidable task facing the space agency in 1961:

The Apollo requirement was to take off from a point on the surface of the Earth that was traveling 1000 miles per hour as the Earth rotated, to go into orbit at 18,000 miles an hour, to speed up at the proper time to 25,000 miles an hour, to travel to a body in space 240,000 miles distant which was itself traveling 2000 miles per hour relative to the Earth, to go into orbit around this body, and to drop a specialized landing vehicle to its surface. There men were to make observations and measurements, collect specimens, leave instruments that would send back data on what we found, and then repeat much of the outward-bound process to get back home.¹

The lunar-orbit mode of flying to the Moon was selected only after fierce debate within NASA. It was the simplest of the three methods being considered, both in terms of development and costs, but it was risky. There was no room for error or the crew could not get home. Once the mode of flight was selected, NASA engineers could proceed with building a launch vehicle and creating the basic components of the spacecraft--a habitable crew compartment, a baggage car of some type, and a service module containing propulsion and other expendable systems that could be jettisoned on the trip back.

The Spacecraft
Almost with the announcement of the lunar landing commitment in 1961, NASA technicians began a crash program to develop a reasonable configuration for the trip to lunar orbit and back. What they came up with was a spacecraft that contained a three-person command module capable of sustaining human life for two weeks or more in either Earth or lunar orbit; a service module holding oxygen, maneuvering rockets, fuel cells, life support, and other equipment that could be jettisoned upon reentry to Earth; rockets for slowing the spacecraft to prepare for reentry; and finally a launch escape system that was discarded upon achieving orbit.

Work on the Apollo spacecraft began on November 28, 1961, when the prime contract for its development was let to North American Aviation. On January 27, 1967, tragedy struck. Three astronauts--"Gus" Grissom, Edward White, and Roger B. Chaffee--were in the command module training on the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center. At 6:31 p.m., a fire broke out in the spacecraft. In a flash, flames engulfed the capsule and the astronauts died of asphyxiation. Shock gripped NASA and the nation during the days that followed. An investigation found that the accident could have been prevented. Changes to the spacecraft were quickly made, and within a little more than a year, it was ready for flight. By October 1968, Apollo 7 was ready to carry three astronauts into Earth orbit. There, they successfully tested the command/service module and helped restore confidence in the program by proving the spaceworthiness of the basic Apollo vehicle.

The Launch Vehicle
Boosting the Apollo vehicles to the Moon and returning them home safely was the job of the giant Saturn V. The Saturn family of rockets was developed by Wernher von Braun at the Marshall Space Flight Center. At 363 feet tall, the Saturn V was the first launch vehicle large enough that it had to be assembled away from the launch pad and transported there.

The Saturn V had three stages. The first stage generated 7.5 million pounds of thrust from five massive engines. The extreme heat and shock of firing these engines required new alloys and construction techniques, among the most significant engineering accomplishments of the program. The thunderous sound of the first test of the first stage at Huntsville on April 16, 1965, brought home to many that the Kennedy goal was within grasp. As fuel burned off, making the vehicle weigh less, the second stage fired to deliver 1 million pounds of thrust. The third stage burned to send Apollo out of Earth orbit and on its way to the Moon.

On December 21, 1968, Apollo 8 took off with three astronauts aboard--Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, Jr., and William A. Anders--for a historic mission to orbit the Moon. So far Apollo had been all promise; now the delivery was about to begin. The Apollo 8 crew rode inside the command module, with no lunar lander attached. They were the first astronauts to be launched by the Saturn V, which had flown only twice before. The booster worked perfectly, as did the Service Propulsion System (SPS) engines that had been checked out on Apollo 7. As it traveled outward the crew focused a portable television camera on the Earth. For the first time humanity saw its home from afar--a tiny, lovely, and fragile "blue marble" hanging in the blackness of space. Apollo 8 entered lunar orbit on the morning of December 24, 1968. For the next 20 hours the astronauts circled the Moon. They took photographs and scouted future landing sites. They also photographed the first Earthrise as seen from the Moon. Apollo 8 proved the ability to navigate to and from the Moon, and gave a tremendous boost to the entire Apollo program.

The Lunar Module
The Apollo lunar module, or LM, was the first true spacecraft-designed to fly only in a vacuum, with no aerodynamic qualities whatsoever. Launched attached to the Apollo command/service module, it separated in lunar orbit and descended to the Moon with two astronauts inside. At the end of their stay on the surface, the lunar module's ascent stage fired its own rocket to rejoin the command/service module in lunar orbit.

The Saturn launch vehicle and the Apollo spacecraft were difficult technological challenges, but the lunar module, the third part of the hardware for the Moon landing, represented the most serious problem. Begun a year later than it should have been, the lunar module was consistently behind schedule and over budget. Much of the problem turned on the difficulty of devising two separate components--one for descending to the surface of the Moon and one for returning to the command module. Both engines had to work perfectly or the very real possibility existed that the astronauts would not return home.

The launch vehicle, the spacecraft, and the lunar module were manufactured many hundreds of miles from each other. Transported by specially fitted ocean-going ships and aircraft to the Kennedy Space Center, they came together for the first time in the huge Vehicle Assembly Building. In March 1969 the crew of Apollo 9 tested the third piece of Apollo hardware--the Lunar Module. For ten days, the astronauts put all three Apollo vehicles through their paces in Earth orbit, undocking and then redocking the lunar lander with the command module, just as they would in lunar orbit. Two of the astronauts performed a space walk, and one checked out the new Apollo spacesuit, the first to have its own life support system rather than being dependent on an umbilical connection to the spacecraft. This mission paved the way for a dress rehearsal for a Moon landing with Apollo 10 and the subsequent success of Apollo 11.

Questions for Reading 2

1. Read James Webb's description of what was involved in landing a man on the Moon. What kinds of things do you think could have gone wrong?

2. Why do you suppose there was so much dispute within NASA about the method of flying to the Moon?

3. Even though the spacecraft that Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee were supposed to fly never reached space, NASA formally designated it Apollo 1. Why do you think they did that?

4. What was the significance of Apollo 7?

5. What happened for the first time when Saturn V launched Apollo 8 to orbit the moon? What might that have been like for the people witnessing this historic moment?

6. Which of the three components do you think presented the greatest engineering challenges? Why?

7. Which was the most critical to the success of the Apollo mission?

Reading 2 was compiled from "Project Apollo: A Retrospective Analysis" web site, History Office, Office of Policy and Plans, National Aeronautics and Space Administration; "Human Space Flight: A Record of Achievement, 1961-1998" web site, History Office, Office of Policy and Plans, National Aeronautics and Space Administration; and from Edward M. Cortright, ed., Apollo Expeditions to the Moon (Washington, D.C.: Scientific and Technical Information Office, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1975).

¹James E. Webb, "A Perspective on Apollo," in Edward M. Cortright, ed., Apollo Expeditions to the Moon (Washington, D.C.: Scientific and Technical Information Office, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1975), 6.


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