Apollo Expeditions to the Moon


In looking back at the origins and development of the Apollo program, one word that comes to mind is action. From my vantage as Associate Administrator from 1960 to 1965, and then as Deputy Administrator from 1965 to 1968, I had an excellent picture of the intricate action processes that comprised the Apollo program. Disparate and numerous, the actions and their companion reactions came together in a remarkably coordinated and cooperative blending for the goal of placing men on the Moon and bringing them back safely.

The precipitating action was the successful Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1957. This remarkable and surprising achievement was the impetus for NASA's creation in 1958 by President Eisenhower and the Congress. Forced in large part from the widely respected National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, with its valued research facilities in Virginia, Ohio, and California, NASA also incorporated other research elements. From the Navy came the Vanguard Satellite Project team. From the Army came the ballistic missile team at Redstone Arsenal, to become the nucleus of the Marshall Space Flight Center. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, operated by the California Institute of Technology for the Defense Department, was also made part of the growing NASA organization.

During the NACA-NASA transition period the elements of Project Mercury for placing a manned capsule in orbit were born. Work also began, and progressed well, on scientific, meteorological, and communication satellites - themselves considerable examples of technological virtuosity - but interest remained high on manned space flight. Estimates of the technical problems and price tag for a manned lunar landing mission were forbidding. The understandable reluctance to make such a major commitment diminished dramatically, however, with Gagarin's successful manned orbital flight in March 1961. Again, as in the period following Sputnik, grave concern about Soviet successes was vocalized in the Congress and President Kennedy asked his administration for plans to make this Nation preeminent in space. Out of this introspection came plans and a favorable response to President Kennedy's special address to Congress in which he stated: "I believe 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." But as we were to learn in carrying out this objective, sustaining the resources meant renewing the commitment annually. The Congress tends to operate with fiscal-year and session perspective; while our horizon was set nine years ahead. We found that an agency's performance as a good steward of public funds is a keystone to its continued support.

As planning for Apollo began, we identified more than 10,000 separate tasks that had to be accomplished to put a man on the Moon. Each task had its particular objectives, its manpower needs, its time schedule, and its complex interrelationship with many other tasks. Which had to be done first? Which could be done concurrently? What were the critical sequences? Vital questions such as these had to be answered in building the network of tasks leading to a lunar landing. The network had to be subdivided into manageable portions, the key ones being: determination of the environment in cislunar space and on the lunar surface; the design and development of the spacecraft and launch vehicles, the conduct of tests and flight missions to prove these components and procedures; and the selection and training of flight crews and ground support to carry out the missions.

Early in the critical planning stages for Apollo, three different approaches to the Moon were considered: direct ascent, rendezvous in Earth orbit, and rendezvous in lunar orbit. The choice of mission mode was a key milestone in our development of Apollo. Like many other decisions, it set us in a direction from which retreat could come only at extreme penalty to the schedule and cost of the program.

Lunar-orbit rendezvous meant considerable payload savings and in turn a reduced propulsion requirement; in fact the reduction was on the order of 50 percent. But in requiring less brute force we needed more skill and finesse. A module designed especially for landing on and lifting from the lunar surface had to mate with a module orbiting the Moon. Rendezvous and docking, clearly, were of critical importance. The Gemini program was created to provide greater experience than Mercury would in manned operations in space, and especially in perfecting procedures on rendezvous and docking.

While lunar rendezvous was the choice for getting to the Moon, many other fundamental technical, policy, and management questions had to be answered: How and where were major parts to be developed and made? How were they to be shipped? Where were they to be assembled? Where would we site the important supporting facilities and the launch complex? The huge scale of the Apollo operation precluded conventional answers. Facilities that were in themselves major engineering challenges were created, and a separate network of giant deep-space antennas was constructed in Spain, Australia, and California to receive the tremendous volume of data that would flow back from the Moon.

Apollo was an incredible mixture of the large and the small, of huge structures and miniaturized equipment. These astronomical variations in scale had to be dealt with in a thoroughgoing way, with technical competence and managerial assurance. In planning the serial buildup of Apollo missions, we could not take steps so small that the exposure to the ever-present risk outweighed minor gains expected. Yet neither could we take steps so big that we stretched equipment and people dangerously far beyond the capabilities that had already been demonstrated. We followed the fundamental policy of capitalizing on success, always advancing on each mission as rapidly as good judgment dictated.

So step by step, confidence and experience were accumulated. The four manned orbital flights of the Mercury procyram proved man's ability to survive in space, fly spacecraft, and perform experiments. These abilities were expanded in the Gemini program; in particular, the ability to rendezvous, dock, and conduct extravehicular activity was demonstrated. The Ranger, Surveyor, and Orbiter series contributed necessary cartographic, geologic, and geophysical data about the Moon. All these missions were in preparation for the flights with the powerful Saturn V launch vehicle first flown unmanned in late 1967.

Throughout the program we tried to maintain a flexible posture, keeping as many options open as possible. When difficulties were experienced and delays occurred, alternate plans had to be quickly but carefully evaluated. This meant there was a continual need for steady judgement and cool decision. Apollo managers and astronauts met that need. The Apollo 8 flight was an example of the virtue of schedule flexibility. Lunar-module progress had slowed and the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft had revealed unexpected circumlunar navigational questions. Our action was to send the command and service modules alone into lunar orbit. And so in December 1968 man first flew to the neighborhood of the Moon. Apollo 8 was indeed a significant Christmas gift for the program.

To acquire critical rendezvous and docking experience, Apollo 9 flight-tested the whole system, booster, command and service module, and lunar module in Earth orbit. Could we next put it all together and land on the Moon? Was the step too big? Would it stretch us too far? Yes, it would, we concluded. To resolve the remaining unknowns, astronauts again went to the Moon, not yet to land, but to do as many of the required nonlanding tasks as possible. Apollo 10 was a successful dress rehearsal.

Throughout the testing, both ground and flight, we played deadly serious "what-if" games - designed to anticipate contingencies and cope successfully with them. Computers were invaluable aids to these simulation exercises. Out of these efforts came the experience and team coherence that were the backbone of Apollo's success. Out of these efforts came the ability to adjust to the spurious computer alarms during Apollo 11's descent, to the lightning bolt during the launch of Apollo 12, and to the ruptured oxygen tank on Apollo 13. From the first step of a man onto the Moon in Apollo 11 to the last departing step in Apollo 17, we showed that enormously difficult large endeavors can succeed, given the willingness, discipline, and competence of a dedicated crew of gifted people.

My vantage point in NASA gave me one perspective of the Apollo program's development. As you read this volume you will get other perspectives and insights from key participants in the program. I'm sure you will sense in their writing the exhilaration and pride they justifiably feel in their roles in the Apollo expeditions of the Moon. From my present vantage point as Administrator of the Energy Research and Development Administration I see more clearly that Apollo was as much a triumph of organization as of anything else. It was essential that we had the support of the President and the Congress, the participation of many accomplished scientists and engineers, and the continuing interest of the public at large. No single Government agency nor institution nor corporation can perform alone the tasks associated with reaching major national objectives. Apollo was an outstanding example of how governmental agencies, industrial firms, and universities can work together to reach seemingly impossible goals.

Energy Research and
Development Administration

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