The Voyages of Apollo
Editor's Note: This is the 20th in a series of essays
on exploration by Steven J. Dick.
No single essay can do justice to the events that took place
between 1968 and 1972, four years that, as time passes, seem all the more
remarkable for human history. During
those years 24 men went to the Moon, three of them (Lovell, Cernan and Young)
twice. Twelve of them orbited silently
above the bleak lunar landscape, and three others were whipped around the Moon
in a "free-return trajectory" in a desperate attempt to return to Earth after an
explosion aboard their spacecraft. Twelve
of the 24 lunar voyagers actually landed, spending in total some 300 hours on
the surface, of which 80 hours were outside the lunar module with "boots on the
ground" or actually driving around the spacecraft environs. These events seem incredible to us even now,
as NASA makes plans to return humans to the Moon almost a half century
Astronaut Edwin E."Buzz" Aldrin Jr.,
Lunar Module pilot, is photographed during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity
on the Moon. He has just deployed the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments
Package (EASEP). In the foreground is the Passive Seismic Experiment Package
(PSEP); beyond it is the Laser Ranging Retro-Reflector (LR-3); in the center
background is the United States flag; in the left background is the black and
white lunar surface television camera; in the far right background is the Lunar
Module "Eagle". Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, commander, took this photograph
with a 70mm lunar surface camera. Apollo 11 was the first lunar landing.
When the Apollo 11 crew landed on the Sea of Tranquility on
July 20, 1969, they stayed a little less than a day, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz
Aldrin traveled less than a half mile on foot.
The last crew on Apollo 17 landed on the Taurus-Littrow highlands on
December 11, 1972 and stayed for three days during which Harrison Schmitt and
Eugene Cernan traveled some 19 miles in the lunar roving vehicle. Though human footprints are well preserved at
the six landing sites, and rover tracks surround three of them, not a step has
been taken on the lunar surface since that time.
It is well known that geopolitics, in the form of
international rivalry with the Soviet Union,
propelled these first human voyages to the Moon.
In the wake of Soviet successes in space, the Moon program began on May
25, 1961 with President Kennedy's declaration that the United States would land
a man on the Moon and return him safely to Earth "before this decade is out." The larger objective was for the nation "to
take a clearly leading role in space achievement which in many ways may hold the
key to our future on Earth . . . No
single space project in this period will be more exciting or more impressive to
mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none
will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish." While the importance of the Apollo missions is
still debated, the difficulty and the expense are widely recognized. At the peak of the Apollo era, during one of
the most tumultuous decades in American history, NASA expenditures constituted
almost 4% of the federal discretionary budget.
Since that time NASA's budget has remained relatively steady at less than
|"We are now in a test to see whether humans can be
motivated by a journey of exploration rather than a race, by international
cooperation rather than competition. History will be watching."
Eight years after President Kennedy's challenge the goal was
met, but only after gargantuan efforts and funding resources unlikely ever to be
seen again in the space program over such a short time span. Among those efforts was the construction of
the Saturn V launch vehicle, led by the legendary Wernher von Braun at Marshall
Space Flight Center, with Boeing, North American Aviation, and Douglas Aircraft
Company as prime contractors for each of the Saturn stages. The Apollo spacecraft themselves - the
'chariots for Apollo' known more technically as the Command and Service Modules
- were also the responsibility of North American Aviation. Hundreds of subcontractors, thousands of
engineers, tens of thousands of workers and many unsung heroes played their
roles in sending Americans to the Moon.
The Saturn V was composed of 3 million parts, the CSM 2 million, the
Lunar Module 1 million. As Apollo 11
astronaut Michael Collins put it, "All 6 million worked, nearly all the
Nor was it only a matter of building complex hardware and
writing novel software for computers than now seem primitive but performed
(mostly) magnificently. It was also a
question of managing the largest technological system ever devised, as
Administrator James Webb and his deputies Hugh Dryden and Bob Seamans sought to
ensure high performance, reliability, and safety. In his book The Secret of Apollo Stephen Johnson has
argued that a new approach known as systems management, originating from the Air
Force's ICBM efforts, played a key role in the success of Apollo. Indeed, despite the tragic fire that killed
three astronauts in their capsule during the Apollo 1 ground test in 1967, all
the Apollo astronauts were returned safely to Earth, even with the harrowing
experience of Apollo 13.
An extraordinary lunar panorama at Station 4
(Shorty Crater) showing Geologist-Astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt working at the
Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) during the second Apollo 17 extravehicular activity
(EVA-2) at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. This is the area where Schmitt first
spotted a mysterious orange soil. Shorty Crater is to the right. The peak in the
center background is Family Mountain. A portion of South Massif is on the
horizon at the left edge. Apollo 17 was the last voyage of Apollo.
Was it all worth it?
The Apollo program has been criticized for being driven by politics,
dominated by engineers, and deaf to science; after all, the only scientist who
traveled to the Moon was Harrison Schmitt on Apollo 17, the last voyage. What, in the end, did Apollo achieve? Aside from its geopolitical goals, and despite
the clear backseat status of science, a considerable amount of science was in
fact returned from the Moon. As Donald
Beattie has described in his book Taking
Science to the Moon, almost 5,000 pounds of experimental equipment were
landed on the Moon, including the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package
(ALSEP) on each of the last five Apollo missions. 840 pounds of lunar material
were returned and analyzed. 65 miles were
traversed on foot or in the lunar rover in support of field geology and
geophysical studies. And during the last
three missions detailed data were collected from the orbiting command and
service modules. The overall result is a
much better understanding of the nature and origin of the Moon and its relation
to Earth. The top ten science discoveries
from the Apollo missions, as ranked by the office of the curator for planetary
materials at NASA's Johnson Space
Center, are found at http://www.lpi.usra.edu/expmoon/science/lunar10.html
But, with the hindsight of history, how real was the driving
force - the race with the Soviets? In his
definite study Challenge to Apollo: The
Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945-1974, Asif Siddiqi finds that there
was indeed a Soviet quest for the Moon, but that it was lukewarm and failed
dismally. "The road to failure began almost as soon as Gagarin had floated down
in his parachute" in 1961, Siddiqi wrote.
Nikita Khrushchev hardly took note of Kennedy's 1961 proclamation, and
only sanctioned a piloted lunar landing program in 1964, the year he was
ousted. The military, he writes, was more
interested in missiles than the Moon, and amidst rivalries, organizational chaos
and a shoestring budget, the Soviet effort led to crushing failures. During 1969-72, while Americans were landing
on the Moon, the Soviet N1 rocket that was supposed to have beaten those
Americans saw four catastrophic failures.
Two of them failed in the months immediately preceding the Apollo 11
landing. The Soviet unmanned lunar
program had more success. After failing
in an attempt in February, 1969 - five months before Apollo 11 - they did land
two Lunokhod ("Moon walker") rovers in 1970 and 1973. The Lunokhods returned more than 100,000
images and undertook numerous soil analyses.
Although a triumph in their own right, they were completely overshadowed
by the American manned landings. The
Soviets never came close to landing humans - and still have not. In the wake of losing their half-hearted Moon
race, the Soviets turned to space stations, an endeavor in which they
No one would have guessed in 1972 that almost a half century
would pass before there was even the possibility that humans would return to the
Moon. Though the Russians would manage
several more lunar robotic missions, including a lunar sample return in 1976, it
would be more than twenty years before Americans would return to the Moon even
with a robotic emissary, the Clementine spacecraft, in 1995. Lunar Prospector followed in 1998, and the
Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is on schedule to launch in 2008, intended as a
vanguard to human missions now being planned by 2018.
How will history judge the voyages of Apollo? Pulitzer Prize historian Arthur M. Schlesinger
Jr., a special assistant to President Kennedy, ventured one opinion when he
wrote in 2004 "It has been almost a third
of a century since human beings took a step on the Moon - rather as if no
intrepid mariner had bothered after 1492 to follow up on Christopher Columbus.
Yet 500 years from now (if humans have not blown up the planet), the 20th
century will be remembered, if at all, as the century in which man began the
exploration of space." Although an
historian of politics and world affairs, Schlesinger did not rank war in the
century's top ten events. Wars come and
go and affect many people, but the first venture into space happens only once,
and holds infinite promise.
On the other hand there are some, historians among them, who
think the Apollo program was time and money misspent, and that analogies to
misplaced. In reviewing Andrew Chaikin's
book A Man on the Moon in the New York Times Review of Books,
historian of technology Alex Roland called Chaikin's retelling of the Apollo
story "the great American legend of the late 20th century," replete
with heroic astronauts and epic tales.
Eschewing Apollo's role in exploration, and pointing to the lack of
science on the missions, he downplayed the significance of the voyages of
Critics are entitled to their opinions, but in my view the
Apollo voyages were an accomplishment of mythic proportions, justifying mythic
retellings. Although historians generally
are not in the business of foretelling the future, in this case I have no qualms
in predicting that, the longer our perspective grows, history will side with Mr.
Schlesinger. Similarly, in the long view
of history, the success or failure of NASA's current attempt to return humans to
the Moon, go on to Mars and spread throughout the solar system will be judged
accordingly. We are now in a test to see
whether humans can be motivated by a journey of exploration rather than a race,
by international cooperation rather than competition. History will be watching.
Further ReadingApollo Lunar
Surface Journal, at http://history.nasa.gov/alsj/
A tremendous amount of information on astronaut lunar surface
activities.Beattie, Donald A. Taking Science to the Moon: Lunar Experiments and the Apollo Program
(Johns Hopkins University
Bilstein, Roger. Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of
the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles (NASA SP-4206, 1980 and 1996). Online at http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4206/sp4206.htm
Brooks, Courtney, James Grimwood and Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned
Lunar Spacecraft (NASA SP 4205, 1979).
Available online athttp://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/SP-4205/cover.html
Chaikin, Andrew, A Man On The
Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts (New York, 1994). The basis for the HBO miniseries From the
Earth to the Moon.
Collins, Michael, Liftoff:
The Story of America's Adventure in Space (New
Compton, W. David. Where No Man Has Gone
Before: A History of ApolloLunar Exploration Missions. NASA SP-4214
1989). Available online at http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4214/cover.html
Gray, Michael. Angle of Attack: Harrison Storms and the Race to the Moon (Penguin,
Hansen, James R. First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong
(Simon and Schuster, 1975).
Johnson, Stephen B. The Secret of Apollo: Systems Management in American and European
Space Programs (Johns Hopkins U Press, 2002).
Lambright, W. Henry, Powering Apollo: James E. Webb of NASA (Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1995).
Lunar and Planetary Science Institute. An extensive source of information on past and
future missions to the Moon is found at http://www.lpi.usra.edu/expmoon/
Orloff, Richard W. Apollo By the Numbers: A Statistical
Reference (NASA SP 2000-4029, 2000).
Online at http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4029/SP-4029.htm
Seamans, Robert C. Jr. Project Apollo: The Tough
Decisions (NASA SP-2005-4537), available online at http://history.nasa.gov/monograph37.pdfSiddiqi,
Asif, Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945-1974 (NASA
Watkins, Billy. Apollo Moon Missions: The Unsung Heroes (Praeger, 2006)
Further books related to Apollo are online at http://history.nasa.gov/on-line.html