The Apollo Missions - The Beginnings Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Apollo Missions - The Beginnings

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Project Apollo: The Beginnings | Mission Planning | Landing Site Selection | Earthbound Support Systems
Astronaut Selection and Training | The Saturn V | The Saturn 1B | The Apollo Spacecraft
Guidance and Navigation | Command and Service Modules | The Lunar Module
Assembling and Launching | Pathfinders | The Early Missions | Apollo 11, The First Landing
The Intermediate Missions | Apollo 15 Exploration | Apollo 16 Exploration | Apollo 17 Exploration
Skylab and Apollo-Soyuz | Conclusion

Apollo - Son of Zeus, Greek god of the Sun, prophecy, poetry and music. He travels the skies in a fiery chariot carrying the sun across the heavens, pulled by three golden horses.

On 25 May, 1961 some six weeks after the world's first manned space flight by the USSR's Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the President of the United States of America, John F Kennedy, in a speech to the US Congress said:

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 earth. No single 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 20 July, 1969 that objective was realised when astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped off the footpad of the Eagle lunar module spacecraft and onto the surface of the moon where he spoke the words...

That's one small step for giant leap for mankind.

The Space Race

The USSR dragged a largely unsuspecting world into the Space Age when on 4 October, 1957 they launched the world's first artificial satellite Sputnik 1 (Traveller) as part of their contribution to the International Geophysical Year.

The United States had always considered the USSR to be technically backward and American national pride took a battering as Sputnik, which traversed Soviet and American skies alike, was followed by further space 'firsts' that captured the world's imagination. Sputnik 1 was followed in November by Sputnik 2, carrying the first living but ultimately doomed creature, a dog named Laika, into space. On 13 September, 1959 they followed up with Luna 2, the first successful probe to reach the moon's surface, and on 4 October, 1959 with Luna 3, which returned the first pictures of the hidden far side the moon. Then on 12 April, 1961 the Soviets launched the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin in Vostok 1 (East).

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Earlier in 1958, reacting to American public concern over the USSR's launch of Sputnik and the perceived threat of Soviet dominance from space, the then-President, Dwight D Eisenhower called for the formation of a civilian organisation to draw together and concentrate the various American space efforts currently under way.

On 1 October, 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was formed out of the earlier National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) and T Keith Glennan was appointed as its first Chief Administrator with his Headquarters, the Office of Manned Space Flight (OMSF) in Washington D C. NACA's director Hugh Dryden was brought into the new organisation as his deputy director, and Abe Silverstein, the former Lewis director as chief of the Office of Space Flight Development.

This consolidation brought NACA's own main facilities, NACA headquarters at Langley Field, Norfolk, Virginia, the Ames Research Centre, Palo Alto, California, the Lewis National Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, Ohio, the High Speed Research Station at Edward's Air Force Base, California and the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division, (PARD) at Wallops Island, Virginia together with individual programs then being pursued by the US Army, Navy and Air Force. These included the US Navy's Vanguard and the Army's Explorer satellite programs and the Air Force's F1 rocket engine through the Rocketdyne company.

On 1 January 1959 the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) at Pasadena, California with its Pioneer unmanned probe program was also brought into the fold. NASA had also inherited a new management and science facility at Greenbelt Maryland, which was to be established subsequently on 1 May, 1959 and named the Goddard Space Flight Centre after the early American pioneer rocket builder Robert H Goddard.

NASA's goals were to:

  • Establish the technology to meet other national interests in space
  • Achieve pre-eminence in space for the United States
  • Carry out a program of scientific exploration of the moon
  • Develop man's capability to work in the lunar environment.

One of Glennan's first actions was to set up a Space Task Group (STG) at Langley Field, which was initially charged with the management of the embryonic Mercury project, America's first manned spaceflight program begun under NACA's direction as 'Man in Space Soonest'. The group was led by Dr Robert R Gilruth from the NACA's Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD) at Wallops Island and was to include Christopher Columbus Kraft as Director of Flight Operations and Maxine Faget, as Director of Flight Systems Operations, both from the Langley Centre.

Outside Influences

In 1952, Nobel prize winning geochemist Harold Urey produced a book, based on a series of lectures he had presented at Yale University The Planets: Their Origin and Development. He was the recipient of the 1934 Nobel prize for chemistry with his work in separating the isotope Deuterium from Hydrogen and had worked on the Manhattan project to build the first atomic weapons during the war years, although his main interests centred on planetary and lunar science. He believed that without an atmosphere or the geological upheavals of the earth, the moon could provide an undisturbed record of the history of the solar system and its origins. In October 1958, he addressed the Third Lunar and Planetary Exploration Colloquium to present his views on the importance of the moon for understanding the origins of earth.

Another influential figure in the American space effort was Gerard Peter Kuiper, a Dutch born American who immigrated into the United States in 1933 and published a research paper On the Origin of Lunar Surface Features, based on his observations from the McDonald Observatory in Texas using its 82-inch reflecting telescope. His achievements included the measurement of the diameter of the outermost solar system planet Pluto, the discovery of satellites of Uranus and Neptune and he proposed the existence of a belt of debris at the very edge of the solar system that was confirmed some 20 years after his death and now bears his name. In 1957, Kuiper undertook the preparation of a new Photographic Lunar Atlas largely funded by the US Air Force as a pre-cursor to their designs on establishing the military high ground with a base on the lunar surface.

Three weeks after NASA's creation, mathematician Homer E Newell joined NASA from the Naval Research Laboratory as deputy to Abe Silverstein. Late in 1958 theoretical physicist Robert Jastrow, also from the Naval Research Lab, was brought into Silverstein's office as chief of a new theoretical division with a brief to form a group of physicists and mathematicians to advise on scientific and planetary study. Jastrow had read Urey's book The Planets and was sufficiently impressed with his thinking to invite Urey to address NASA officials.

On 15 and 16 January, 1959 Urey gave a series of lectures which was underscored by a recent Soviet success in sending an unmanned probe, Luna 1, to the moon. Although intended to crash-land on the lunar surface it missed by some 3000 miles, but was claimed as a success by the Soviets as the first lunar fly-by and the first object to go into solar orbit. It highlighted the Soviets' interest in the moon and added weight to Urey's argument. NASA quickly responded and set up a working group on lunar exploration under Jastrow's chairmanship which recommended the adoption of a program of scientific exploration of the moon to include satellites, hard and soft landings by probes with the possibility of sample returns by soft landing, unmanned probes.

Between May and Dec 1959 a Research Steering Committee under Ames engineering manager Harry Goett met three times. It pulled together representatives from all the NASA establishments to consider what would be possible for NASA to achieve and what its objectives should be. Their conclusions were that NASA's priorities should be directed towards:

  • Man in Space Soonest, (Project Mercury)
  • Manned orbital laboratory
  • Unmanned Venus and Mars probes
  • Unmanned lunar probes with soft and hard landings
  • A manned landing in 1970

Concurrent with Goett's committee other consultant groups at the various NASA field centres were also recommending lunar flight as a priority while a New Projects Panel under Kurt Strass, set up within the STG at Langley, recommended that NASA's next major project should be a Manned Lunar Landing Program with the object of a landing in 1970 and that work should begin immediately on a new three-man spacecraft capable of lunar flight.

Centred on the Goett Committee recommendations, NASA produced a 10-year plan outlining its objectives and on 10 March, 1960, Glennan outlined the timetable to the US Senate Subcommittee on Aeronautical and Space Sciences. The cost estimates included expenditures of $12 to $15 billion dollars over the following five years. Looking for a suitable name for the Manned Lunar Landing Program, Abe Silverstein, who had previously named the Mercury project, suggested 'Apollo' after the Greek sun god, from a book on Greek mythology.

After a period of collaboration with the STG, the US Army's Redstone Arsenal facility at Huntsville, Alabama, headed by World War 2 rocket engineer Wernher von Braun, was formally transferred into the NASA fold on 1 July, 1960, and renamed the George C Marshall Spaceflight Centre. Von Braun's team had already produced the Redstone rocket, a direct descendant of the German V2 and the Jupiter C ICBM, which had been instrumental in placing the US's first successful satellite, Explorer in orbit using a modified Jupiter C renamed Juno 1 as a launch vehicle.

Von Braun's ambitions clearly lay in space exploration and his group was moving further towards developing heavy payload rockets. One such project at that time under development for the Army, but now considered to be surplus to requirement, was a large booster rocket using eight engines, designed to lift heavy payloads and named Juno V. It was later to be renamed Saturn V.

At the end of the same month at a planning conference with aerospace industry representatives, NASA outlined its objectives and announced its intent to create a new, advanced manned spaceflight program which was to be named Apollo. Its purpose was to put a three-man crew into earth orbit and to send a manned spacecraft to orbit the moon before 1970. They also proposed to make a manned lunar landing and later to establish a permanent earth orbiting space station. By the middle of November three companies, the General Electric Co, Convair Astronautics and the Martin Co, from a list of sixteen who had placed tenders, were awarded $250,000 contracts to conduct feasibility studies for the main components for the Apollo program.

Kennedy's Challenge

On 20 January, 1961 a change of administration saw President Kennedy take office. Both Kennedy and his chief science advisor Jerome Weisner had been critical of US progress in space matters under the Eisenhower administration, citing the perceived 'missile gap' between the two superpowers as evidence of America's failings. Fearing that NASA was falling behind and that the pace of American technological achievement was slowing, one of Kennedy's first acts was to appoint his own man, James E Webb, a lawyer and former Secretary of State with the Truman administration and director of McDonnell Aircraft, to succeed Glennan as Administrator of NASA.

Within months Kennedy's administration was in trouble. On 12 April, 1961 the USSR placed Gagarin in space and on 17 April, 1961 the abortive CIA-financed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba foundered and was wiped out by Castro's forces. Realising that he needed a 'success' to restore American technological prestige and international standing, as well as bolstering the flagging reputation of his own administration, he looked at the tentative proposals by NASA for lunar exploration advocated by NASA's enthusiastic James Webb. On the 20 April, 1961 he directed his pro-space Vice President Lyndon B Johnson to report on the USA's current standing in space technology with a view to finding a coup that the USA could achieve that would place them at the top of the technological ladder.

Backed by Webb and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Johnson's report unequivocally recommended that the manned lunar landing program should be officially adopted as a national goal. Considering the costs and the risks involved Kennedy was initially reluctant and asked his advisors if there was some other field in which the USA could achieve equally impressive results. Both Johnson and Weisener, were in agreement.

Johnson's reply summed up the situation: be first in space is to be first period, to be second in space is to be second in everything.

On the 25 May, 1961, in a speech to the US Congress under the heading 'Urgent National Needs' Kennedy requested the commitment of the United States to landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth before the decade was out. In doing so Kennedy drew a finishing line to the so-called 'space race', one which he was reasonably certain America could reach first.

At the time of Kennedy's announcement the USA had only managed to lob one astronaut, Alan Shepard into space on a sub-orbital, straight up and down flight in Freedom 7, a single-seat Mercury capsule on top of a Redstone booster rocket on the 5 May, 1961. It would be February 1962 before astronaut John Glenn could be launched into an orbital flight in Friendship 7 another Mercury capsule, this time atop a more powerful Atlas Inter Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), a booster with a disastrous record of exploding in mid-flight.

With Apollo still only a theoretical concept, the challenge was a daunting prospect. Space Task Group director Robert Gilruth said later he doubted it could be done and was '...aghast' at the prospect. Meanwhile, the USSR on 6 August, 1961, consolidated its lead in the space race with another manned flight, this time extending to 17 earth orbits by cosmonaut Herman Titov in Vostok 2.

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