On the eve of the 50th Anniversary of the first manned Moon landing, last week’s FTV looked at some of the political wranglings that were taking place leading up to President Kennedy’s deadline to land men on the Moon and return them by the end of the 1960s. The United States had only fifteen minutes of manned space flight under its belt (thanks to Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight in May of 1961) when Kennedy announced that we were going to the Moon before the end of the decade. Never mind that United States hadn’t put a human in Earth orbit yet. The rocket power necessary to send men to the Moon hadn’t even left the drawing board. Chris Kraft, the man who essentially invented the job of Flight Director for NASA, said it best: “When Kennedy asked us to do that in 1961, it was impossible,” yet that is exactly what NASA proceeded to do. It shouldn’t surprise us. Humans have the tendency to make rash statements like ‘If God had wanted man to fly, he would have given him wings’, yet there was a multitude of people working around the world on the idea of human flight by the time Wilber and Orville cracked the code. Finding a way to do the impossible seems to be one of the best traits in the human bag of tricks.
In the fall of 1962, a little more than a year after Kennedy had made his historic pronouncement about putting men on the Moon, JFK paid a visit to the rocket development team in Huntsville, Alabama headed by Werner von Braun. They were working on the Saturn rocket boosters for the Apollo program. During the tour, von Braun told Kennedy, “This is the vehicle which is designed to fulfill your promise to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. By God, we’ll do it!” A test firing of the Saturn C-1 engines delighted Kennedy as the eight engines spewed red-orange flame and literally shook the ground. They felt every bit of the power in the observation bunker a half mile from the test stand and when it was over, Kennedy grinned and shook von Braun’s hand. He then invited the rocket scientist to join the presidential party on the next leg of the trip to visit the Cape. Astronaut Wally Schirra acted as their tour guide showing them the Atlas rocket he would soon be riding to space. By March of 1964, von Braun’s team was well on the way to building the impossibly large and powerful rocket that would be needed to reach Kennedy’s (and NASA’s) goal. The pace of rocket development at NASA was mind boggling.
As familiar as the Moon has been to humans since our earliest ancestors looked up into the sky to view its ever changing appearance, we really didn’t know that much about our satellite. While the manned space program was evolving, the United States sent a series of ever more sophisticated robotic probes to bring our lunar knowledge up to speed. The Ranger probes were designed to snap pictures until they smashed into the lunar surface. One of my defining moments in becoming a space geek happened when a NASA education program specialist visited Whiteman Elementary School. I was totally captivated when he held up a large black and white print close up of the Moon’s surface while describing it as, “The last image this Ranger took before it smashed into the Moon.” After the Ranger probes sent back detailed surface photos, the soft landing Surveyor crafts were dispatched. They not only took surface level photos of the Moon, they also had a robotic arm that reached out and scratched the lunar soil. Opinions varied, but some felt that the surface might be covered with many meters of loose material that might swallow up a landing craft. With that debate settled by Surveyor, NASA began pouring over the photos to determine where they would try to land men when the time came.
The Gemini, two-man Earth orbiting crafts, did a lot of the heavy lifting. The single seat Mercury spacecraft paved the way, proving that we could indeed reach orbit. Gemini flights tackled problems relating to navigation, rendezvous, and docking in space. One spacecraft chasing down another bears no resemblance at all to one car catching up to another on the highway. Plotting an intercept course between two spacecraft involves detailed mathematical computations to orchestrate the delicate navigational dance needed to rendezvous in orbit. The other unknown solved by Gemini was the problem of how extended stays in space would affect the human body. Again, opinions varied, but until Jim Lovell and Frank Borman returned from a two week stay in orbit, some were still not sure if the strain on their bodies might actually kill them.
Imagine spending two weeks in a space about the size of the front half of your automobile. Now picture doing all the things necessary to sustain human life in that space under weightless conditions. Lovell and Borman had the perfect sense of humour to ride out this critical test and as Lovell joked when they returned to Earth, “Borman asked me, ‘Are you going to pass out?’ and I said ‘No, are you?’ We had such a great time we wanted to tell the world we were engaged.” With the Gemini program wrapped up, those lessons were incorporated into the design and testing of the Apollo craft as the 1960s decade marched on toward Kennedy’s deadline.
The first Apollo spacecraft design was a disaster. When astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee died in the Apollo 1 capsule during a dry run at the Cape, the nation was stunned. The flashfire that swept through the cabin asphyxiated the crew. When the commission charged with investigating what went wrong (headed by Frank Borman) took a close look at the craft, they were horrified. The shoddy workmanship and lack of oversight during the design and building phase had contributed to the astronaut’s death. The final report Borman delivered to Congress pointed the finger at ‘go fever’ – the space agency had put on blinders to substandard work and procedures for the sake of Kennedy’s deadline. The program was put on hold and the Apollo Capsule was redesigned with crew safety and maximum performance at the top of the work list. Borman’s brutally honest report prevented Congress from totally scrapping the program.
While all of these other ‘impossible tasks’ were being worked out, NASA had one last vehicle question they would have to answer: What would the craft that makes the actual Moon landing look like? The Lunar Excursion Module (LM or LEM) did not have to look anything like a conventional aircraft or spacecraft. It would operate in an airless environment so there would be no need for wings to provide lift or a heat shield to protect it during lunar descent. The fact that one of the earlier nicknames of the LEM was ‘The Bug’ gives one a pretty good idea what it looked like. The Grumman Corporation would eventually produce 20 of the lunar landers in the same Long Island factory that it had produced some 12,275 Hellcat fighters during World War II.
Assembling Hellcats using a well engineered plan and known technology was easy compared to manufacturing a spacecraft that had to be durable, reliable, and as light as possible. To keep the weight down, the original five leg design was reduced to four and the walls of the craft were not much thicker than a couple of sheets of aluminum foil. There were two engines and both had to weigh less than an average automobile engine. The descent engine had to be ‘throttleable’, meaning, to land, the astronauts could vary the amount of thrust was being produced which would allow them to hover while selecting a final touchdown spot. This was something that had never been attempted with a rocket engine before. The ascent engine that would take the astronauts from the lunar surface back to the Command Module (CM) orbiting the Moon had to work. To keep the design as simple as possible, the engine utilized hypergolic fuel, meaning, when the fuel and oxidizer came into contact with each other in the combustion chamber, they ignited. The fewer the moving parts involved meant there were fewer things that could go wrong and less chance the astronauts would be stranded on the Moon.
The LEM was unlike any flying craft ever invented. The landing engine was housed in the lower segment of the odd, bug-like vehicle. The crew rode in the upper sectrion with no seats (another nod to making things as light as possible) which meant they would control their flight while standing up and peering out two small windows (which had also been reduced in size from the original design to further reduce the craft’s weight). To exit through the small hatch located on Armstrong’s side of the module, they had to get on their hands and knees and back out the door to reach the ladder. Armstrong was picked to be the first to set foot on the Moon because a) he was the commander, b) he was also the pilot and the controls were on that side of the cabin, and c) it would have been extremely difficult to change positions with both of them suited up for their
Moon walk. With the surface mission complete, they would return to the cabin in reverse order. When it was time to blast off to rendezvous with the Command Module (CM), only the top segment would carry them back to orbit.
The astronauts needed to learn how the fly the LEM beyond what they could learn using a simulator. This presented a problem because there is no Earthly environment that could duplicate the airless conditions with one sixth the pull of gravity that they would experience landing on the Moon. The solution was nicknamed ‘the flying bedstead’ which was a gangly looking proposition with a jet engine mounted vertically in the center. The jet engine reduced Earth’s gravitational tug on the test vehicle while the astronaut rode in a control booth on top. The astronauts used reaction control jets to maneuver the unsightly craft, giving them at least some hands on experience before tackling the real thing. One of the most famous pieces of NASA footage show Neil Armstrong ejecting from the simulator just seconds before it hit the ground during one of his test flights. If this test vehicle crash bothered him during the preparations for the real Apollo 11 landing, noone can say as he never publicly commented on the incident. In fact, after he dusted himself off, the unflappable Armstrong returned to his office and resumed his daily routine.
The one piece of technology that the public overlooked (but thankfully NASA and Playtex (yes, the same folks who brought America the ‘Cross Your Heart Bra’ in the 1950s) did not) was the astronaut’s spacesuits. While Armstrong and (especially) Aldrin were cavorting on the lunar surface, Sonny Reihm was as nervous as a cat in a room full of roaming Roomba robot vacuum cleaners. Reihm was the supervisor of the spacesuits, helmets and Moonwalk boots. When he saw Aldrin bounding across the surface toward the video camera they had set up, Reihm got butterflies in his stomach. Aldren reported to his fellow Earthlings, “You do have to be rather dareful to keep track of where your center of mass is. Sometimes, it takes about two or three paces to make sure you’ve got your feet underneath you,” The suits were marvelously engineered, hand stitched, assembled, and thoroughly tested, back on Earth. These completely self-contained spacecraft built for one absolutely could not fail on the Moon and that is exactly what Reihm was fretting about: If the suit fails, it would deflate instantly and the astronaut would die on TV with the whole world watching. Suit designer Joe Kosmo was watching with his family at home and he had the same thought about Aldrin’s explorations: “This is great. I hope he doesn’t fall over.”
When the Extravehicular Activity (EVA) was over and the astronauts were safely back inside, Reihim said, “That was the happiest moment of my life, It wasn’t until quite a while later that I reveled over the accomplishment.” The suits performed just as they had been designed.
Charles Fishman summed up Apollo’s exclamation point on the space race in his book ONE GIANT LEAP: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon (Simon & Schuster 2019) as follows: “If ever there was a moment that captured the crushing reversal in the performance of the world’s two space programs, [it was] Mission Control matter-of-factly reporting the crash-landing of the Soviet Union’s somewhat flailing attempt to collect Moon rocks to the three American astronauts flying home with 47.5 pounds of Moon rocks: [Capcom Bruce McCandless reported] ‘Luna 15 is believed to have crashed into the Sea of Crisis yesterday after orbiting the Moon 52 times’.” It is almost unbelievable that we have reached the 50th Anniversary of this historic event without continuing the human exploration of the Moon.
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