In the early 1960s, NASA began work on the most famous space exploration project in history, which would culminate in 1969 with the first successful manned landing on the moon. This is a brief history of a project that ended in glory for the USA, but began with a tragedy.
Although the Mercury and Gemini manned spaceflight programs had yet to actually put a man into space, the Apollo program was proposed in 1960. The following year, Alan Shepard became the first American in space, and president Kennedy promised the people of the USA that their country would defeat the USSR in the race to put a man on the moon. With this commitment, the Apollo program went into overdrive, and a series of 15 missions culminated in six successful moon landings in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The Apollo project began in the worst possible way. During pre-launch tests of Apollo 1, on January 27th, 1967, a cockpit fire killed all three pilots. The accident was blamed on a design fault, but progress was barely delayed. With support from Lyndon Johnson, work on Apollo continued. The unmanned Apollo 4 was successfully launched in late 1967. Because of a crossover with the Saturn test launches, there were no missions designated Apollo 2 and 3.
Two more successful unmanned missions were launched over the next few months. There were problems with the flights, but none were determined to pose a risk to the launch of Apollo 7. This would be the first manned Apollo flight, and the beginning of mankind’s journey to the lunar surface.
On October 11, 1968, Apollo 7 launched successfully, with a full compliment of three astronauts. This test mission lasted for 11 days and proved that there were no technical issues which would prevent future projects from reaching the moon. Two months later, the pilots of Apollo 8 became the first men to see the dark side of the moon. Other firsts for Borman, Lovell and Anders included the first orbit of a celestial body other than the earth and the first men to witness an ‘earthrise’ over the lunar horizon.
Apollo 9 and 10 gave NASA further opportunities to check every technical aspect of the lunar missions and to do a practice run of the landing itself. The Apollo 10 lunar module descended to within 16km of the lunar surface.
July 21st, 1969, has become one of the most famous dates in the history of space flight. Five days after their launch from the Kennedy Space Center, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left the dubious comfort of their lunar lander, the Eagle, and became the first men to step onto the surface of the moon. The third astronaut, Michael Collins, remained in the orbiting command unit, Columbia.
Armstrong took five minutes to descend the nine-step ladder from the lander entrance to the surface. The whole event was televised and Armstrong’s, “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”, is probably the most famous quotation in the history of exploration. During their time on the surface, the two astronauts were able to plant a flag, have a telephone conversation with president Nixon, deploy various scientific equipment and collect samples to take back to Earth.
They returned to Columbia with little incident, and were fished out of the Pacific Ocean on July 24th, heroes of the American victory in the race to the moon. It would be three weeks before the astronauts got to enjoy their victory parades. A quarantine was enforced, just in case the explorers had returned with any unexpected moon diseases.
Four months after Apollo 11 was launched, Apollo 12 reached the moon and Charles Conrad and Alan Bean became the third and fourth men on the moon. Their names are undoubtedly less well known than their pioneering predecessors, but also less well known than the men who followed them into space. Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise piloted the ill-fated Apollo 13, a mission that was brought further into the public consciousness by the 1995 movie that shared its name.
The astronauts never reached the moon as the explosion of an oxygen tank damaged vital electrical systems on the outward journey. The mission was immediately aborted and plans were made to achieve a successful return. The loss of one of the primary oxygen supplies for the command unit meant that much equipment had to be jury-rigged just to keep the crew alive. They made it back to earth alive, if a little dehydrated and were rescued from a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
There were four more successful Apollo missions in 1971 and 1972. Although not as high profile as the early landings, there were many highlights in these visits to the moon.
Apollo 14 is probably best remembered for the sporting antics of Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell. Shepard played some one-handed golf, and Mitchell proclaimed himself the first lunar Olympian when he used a piece of mission equipment as a makeshift javelin. Apollo 15 was the first mission to use the lunar rover vehicle, and many successful scientific experiments were carried out during three days on the surface. The astronauts of Apollo 16 nearly had their landing aborted, but did make it to the surface. One of the highlights of the visit was a subsequent entry in the Guinness Book of Records for the moon speed record, as the astronauts got the lunar rover up to a blistering 11mph on the flat lunar landscape.
Apollo 17 was the final mission in the program. Missions 18, 19 and 20 were cancelled, with the equipment moving over to various Skylab missions. Eugene Cernan became the last man to touch the surface of the moon. Disappointingly for space travel devotees, no person has been back to the moon since that day in 1972. A plaque was left on the surface, reading:
“Here man completed his first explorations of the Moon December 1972 A.D. May the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind.”
The Apollo program will live in history as man’s first great exploration of the universe beyond the grip of our home planet. Let’s hope that these missions can one day inspire mankind to visit other worlds, and continue the legacy that Apollo has left behind.