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  • Putting Man on the Moon - Perhaps a More Unusual Commentary

    Posted on April 12th, 2009 Dr. Mario M. Bisi 7 comments


    The U.S.A. started out the Space Race very much on the losing front. NASA suffered many losses to the Soviet Union (the Russians) in the early years. This began with the first successful satellite launch into space of Sputnik 1 by the Russians. Sputnik 1 was launched on the 4th of October 1957 and its successful launch ushered in the dawn of the Space Age. Later, the Russians were first to successfully launch a man (human) into Space. His name was Yuri Gagarin. The launch took place on 12th April 1961 aboard the spacecraft Vostok 3KA-2 (otherwise called Vostok 1).

    When it came to the moon, again, the Russians led the way (at least at first). The first unmanned moon (hard) landing was undertaken with the Luna-2 lander on 12th September 1959. This was the first successful lunar impact. Such a hard landing was not equalled by the USA until the success (but crash success) of the lunar impact Ranger 7 Mission on 28th July 1964. The first unmanned (soft) moon landing however, was actually by the USA Surveyor 1 Mission on 30th May 1966.

    Vostok 1.Ranger 7 lunar image.


    So, what about putting man on the moon?

    Putting man on the moon is no simple task by today’s standards, let alone those of the 1950s and 1960s when this was first envisaged. It started out, at least in the USA, with the Mercury Program. These pioneering flights, some seven in total, set the initial stepping stones for a possible manned trip to the moon and back.

    Mercury was closely followed by the Gemini Program. These nearly forgotten Gemini missions formed the essential step to the moon; test rendezvous maneuvers needed for getting back from a moon landing, long-duration flight needed for the lunar return trip, and of course spacewalking. December 1965, the first rendezvous mission took off for a ‘dress rehearsal’ of what would be accomplished in orbit about the moon. Wally Schirra and Tom Stafford played the part of the lunar lander, and Frank Borman and Jim Lovell played the part of the mother ship. Schirra and Stafford performed the rendezvous with Borman and Lovell. It was in Earth orbit at over 17,000 mph that this manoeuvre was successfully and very skilfully performed. Borman and Lovell remained in space afterwards for 14 days to test the effects of an extended time in space on the human body; they can joke about it now, but in 1965, they were essentially medical guinea pigs. To keep themselves occupied, they attempted to read the book: “Roughing It” - and also sang the Nat King Cole song “Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone” to each other; the song had gone through their minds and they ended up singing it to each other for the much of the two weeks in space.

    The next great step in getting to the moon was to put the first man on a ’spacewalk’. This is where the Soviets came out on top again with their Voskhod 2 spacecraft on 18th March 1965 through Alexey Leonov; this was essentially the first Extra-vehicular activity (EVA) test. This was yet another defeat to the Americans, both politically, and publically. Later came EVA tests by Astronaut Ed White on 3rd June 1965 during the Gemini 4 Mission. He made it look easy, but it was nothing of the sort. Before the Gemini Program was over, it would put the risk of three astronaut’s lives on the line. Gene Cernan was the third human to get out in space. He had to assemble a whole flying backpack in ‘zero G’ during a night-time cycle with little light leading to some major issues; even the turning of knobs on equipment where the resulting torque turned his body in this type of environment. Essentially, it all comes down to Newton’s Third Law of Motion: to every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The tasks were so strenuous and with the sudden heating and fogging up of his space suit, they sent his heart racing to 170 bpm; this led to some thinking he would not make it back to Earth alive, if at all. At the time NASA played down such concerns, but losing an astronaut on EVA was a very real fear. Tom Stafford headed the mission and was told before launch in private that if something were to happen, he would need to somehow being Cernan back with him; a near-impossible situation at the time should it have happened. By the time Cernan got back to Earth, he had lost some 10.5 lbs of mass in only two hours and five minutes being outside the spacecraft. The next two attempts at EVA were not much better by the Americans. However, after underwater training (which is the only way to simulate on Earth a zero G type environment) and a lot of patience, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin later underwent a very successful and easy-looking EVA. Thus the Gemini Program ended as a success. There is little doubt among the NASA folks that without Gemini, Apollo which followed, would never have been successful…

    The Gemini Mission.

    So, it was with the NASA Apollo Program where the lunar triumphs reigned; first with the Apollo 8 manned orbit of the moon, and later with the Apollo 11 first manned landing on the moon. The Apollo Program essentially began its progress in 1967, high hopes of the USA space program were on the first manned Mission of the Apollo Program (Apollo 1, which followed the unmanned Apollo 1A, 2, and 3 launches and all used Saturn 1B rockets for launch), but four weeks before its launch, the spacecraft was destroyed by fire killing all three astronauts (Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee). This loss stole forever the innocence of everyone who worked on the Apollo series virtually from the beginning. The disaster occurred on 27th January 1967 during a NASA leaks and pressure test with the three astronauts inside the module. The engineers performing the tests, considered near routine now, pumped the module to a pressure of 15 PSI using pure oxygen. With communications problems, frustrations were fired up amongst the crew and the control staff. The end of the tests was supposed to be with an emergency evacuation of the module, but it did not get that far; at 18:31h a spark jumped somewhere in the miles of wire due to some unknown fault/flaw in the cabling, and with the high-pressure oxygen a fire could quickly become an inferno. There was some panic, and when the crew tried to escape they could not get the hatch open since it opened inwards, and with the increased pressure inside, this was unfortunately near impossible. It took technicians nearly five minutes to eventually open the hatch, but by then, the three crew had already died. After many tests, NASA made a large number of improvements and upgrades following this disaster which included an outward-opening hatch, and no more tests with pure Oxygen at high pressures.

    The next step came from the use of the Saturn V Rocket for the unmanned launched of Apollo 6 and manned Launch of Apollo 8. The Mercury and Gemini Missions used reconfigured military missiles, but the Saturn V was designed purely for spaceflight. It stood 363 feet tall and weighed 6 million pounds (90% of its weight though was fuel, some one million gallons in all). It was the first 5-engine rocket, and the first stage burned 15 tonnes of fuel per second. It is still the largest and most-powerful rocket to fly to date; the only rocket which could send Apollo to the moon and at the time, no-one knew if it could even work. The Saturn V rocket was the design of Wernher von Braun and his team at the Marshall Space Flight Center. The Saturn V was of monster proportions by many standards. The first test had to be completed upright in one go as NASA decided they no longer had the time to test individual parts separately first. This was a risky business since the rocket has the power of a small nuclear bomb! By the 9th November 1967, the rocket and launch pad were ready to go and the first ignition took place. When all five engines reached the correct thrust, the rocket sends a command: “Let Me Go”! This first complete launch and test in one go was a success (and of course took place unmanned).

    In a little under a year, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders were the first to go on a manned mission to the moon riding a Saturn V rocket. Three days after leaving Earth, Apollo 8 approached the moon; it was in complete darkness from their point of view between them and the Sun blanking out all the stars behind it. They began lunar orbit and this was the first sight of the ‘backside’ of the moon. The crew realised the lunar terrain here was a lot rougher than the relatively-looking smooth ‘frontside’ which is always facing Earth. A quirk of the moon’s rotation is that it has the same period as its orbit about Earth and thus from the Earth, we only ever see one ’side’ of it. When the Earth came over the rugged moon’s horizon, all three men were overwhelmed by the beauty of our home planet; they became the first to see and photograph an ‘Earthrise’ from the point of view of the Moon. This sight should make us all realise that we should look after our little planet, since it may be very unique out there; at least to the realms of our present and past spaceflight capabilities, and probably at least to those of the near and not-so-near future.

    A live broadcast came from Apollo 8’s mission with a message from the crew sent out to the people back on Earth, a reading from a book of the Bible, The Book of Genesis. It started with Anders saying over the radio “We are now approaching lunar sunrise. And for all the people back on Earth the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.” And now the part from Genesis: “In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said ‘let there be light’ And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good and God divided the light from the darkness.” Some people at NASA were brought to near tears at these words. Borman continued from Genesis: “And God saw that it was good.” The transmission ended with these words: “And from the crew of Apollo 8 we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.” Apollo 8 later returned safely. With its Earthrise photograph and Genesis reading, the Apollo 8 Mission struck a Universal chord moving the spirit of humanity right across the Globe. It travelled nearly 1/2 million miles and paved the way of what was to follow.

    The Apollo 8 Earthrise.

    In early 1969, the Russian threat resurfaced. C.I.A. satellite photographs revealed two Soviet rockets much larger than anything that surfaced before this time from the Russians. It was said that the Soviet Union had a very clever and aggressive space program which made maximum use of everything they had. The C.I.A. satellite photography showed, and was later confirmed, that the Russians had a lander-type capable rocket. The rocket, known as the N-1, boasted 30 engines in the first stage alone and stood 35 stories high! It was about the size of the Saturn V but with many more engines. The Russians tested these rockets under the most-secret of conditions, which, with C.I.A. secret photographs, proved that race to the moon was still ‘game on’!

    The Saturn V versus the N-1.

    The USA system for getting successfully to the moon and back was based on a small stack of spacecraft in orbit of the moon. The Lunar Excursion Module - The LEM, and The Command and Service Modules - The C.S.M. The LEM would land on the moon with two of the three astronauts on the Apollo Mission, and then later came back off the moon’s surface as the ascent stage of The LEM leaving behind its landing platform. The astronauts would then get back into the C.S.M. (manned by the third astronaut) and head home to Earth. The LEM had no seats to minimise weight. On training for a lunar landing, future astronauts (ex fighter pilots generally - with a few exceptions) would use a contraption known as a “Bedstead” which used twin jets to defy Earth’s gravity and emulate a lunar landing with small booster rockets for directional control. Underneath were two interconnecting spheres of fuel, and during one particular test by Neil Armstrong, it inadvertently ran out of fuel which sent the Bedstead and Armstrong into a near uncontrollable downfall. Luckily, he managed to eject just in time and safely parachuted to the ground. There was no room for such error on a moon landing; no form of parachute to escape with!

    On 3rd July 1969, as Apollo 11 inched towards Pad 39A, the space race ended abruptly (and perhaps prematurely) in a ball of flame! Though, it was not the NASA rocket that got destroyed, it was the Soviet one. The C.I.A. learned that one of the giant Russian N-1 Moon Rockets had exploded during a test launch at Baikanor. This meant months of recovery for them, if such a recovery was even possible. NASA debated a pause in their program for further tests of their own now with some ‘breathing space’, but decided since it was ‘all systems go’ they should push ahead and complete their goal of landing on the moon before the end of the decade. And with that, on 16th July 1969, at 32 minutes past the hour of 9 in the morning (local time at the Kennedy Space Center), astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins lifted off on their trip to the moon. These were three Gemini veterans that spent years preparing for this lunar mission. Collins a graduate from West Point and career test pilot, aged 37, would fly the command module around the moon. Aldrin, also a West Point Graduate and Doctorate from M.I.T., aged 38, joined Armstrong, aged 37, NASA’s only civilian astronaut and graduate from Purdue University, in the first attempt to land a man on the moon. Russian media news, ‘Pravda’, were even covering the Apollo 11 Mission calling Armstrong “the czar of the ship”.

    Four days later, Apollo 11 entered lunar orbit. 70 miles above the moon, Armstrong and Aldrin undocked The LEM and headed to the moon’s surface. Although the decent speed was within mission tolerances, it was still faster than anticipated and Armstrong quickly realised that they overshot their intended landing site. Armstrong sees a pile of boulders in the likely new unintended landing area and throttles The LEM horizontally, which led to some mild panic back at Mission Control since nothing of this kind of maneuvre was tested in simulations conducted back on Earth. With a minute to go, they think of an abort, or even a crash; neither of which were wanted to be viable options by anyone, not least the two aboard The LEM. Armstrong searched for a good landing spot, but at the same time was using up the quickly-diminishing fuel supply (which of course had to be at the bare minimum to ensure a reasonably weighted LEM and enable a take off from the moon afterwards). By now, four miles passed the prime landing target and still around 120 feet from the lunar surface; even Aldrin was getting a little nervous with only some 30 seconds of fuel remaining before set down or abort. Just when Mission Control were thinking of calling the abort, Armstrong’s voice came in strong over the radio “we’re kicking up some dust”. At that point, everyone knew they were close! Finally, “contact light” was heard across the radio from Armstrong. This was followed by something no-one thought to ever hear: “Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.”

    The Saturn V Apollo 11 liftoff.Neil Armstrong stepping down from The LEM during the first landing on the moon - The Apollo 11 Mission.

    Now, writing that, it brings me to the thought of the new International Space Station (ISS) Node 3, which was supposed to be named ‘Serenity’ (being NASA’s choice) with the name ‘Colbert’ winning out the vote which NASA put to the public. So, why not settle things and name it something totally different such as ‘Tranquillity’ in honour of the first men to ever land on the moon, and those of Apollo 8 who were the honoured first to ever see firsthand an Earthrise from the moon? NASA has announced that it will relay its choice of naming this new node (or module) on the 14th April 2009. Anyway, I digress and that’s another story which will likely never happen, but I can hope I guess…

    The reason Armstrong’s words came as a shock to those back at Mission Control in Houston was because this term (tranquillity) had never been used before now, not even in any of the simulations. Only Eagle was used, never Tranquillity. What a wonderful name though, amazing! Gene Kranz, Mission Control leader at the time, decided that a quick stay/no stay decision had to be made due to the completely new and unaccounted for landing site; after some frustration of not getting the words out and him breaking the pencil he had in his hand by thumping the console in front of him, the decision was made to stay. Armstrong was first out of The LEM and down onto the lunar surface where he said these most-famous words: “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”

    The Apollo Program cost some $20 billion dollars in all to get to this first moon landing and it included the death of ten astronauts/cosmonauts. However, on 20th July 1969, the greatest considered rocket achievement since the building of the atomic bomb, only eight years after President Kennedy committed the USA to achieving this goal, Armstrong and Aldrin both walked the surface of the moon and this, for the American people, made it all worth while. Incidentally, our moon is the biggest in proportion to its host planet than any other moon to orbit any of the other planets in our solar system which have moons (these planets are Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune).

    Apollo 12 later landed on a similarly flat site, and the failed Apollo 13 was meant to land at a hillier site. Unfortunately, Apollo 13 suffered a non-fatal disaster which meant they barely made it back to Earth and had to forego a moon landing. That’s another story though… Needless to say, this marked the beginning of the end for the Apollo Missions as funding was shortly cut by Congress for Apollo Missions 18, 19, and 20; reflecting a shift in National priorities after the assassination of President Kennedy. However, there were other moon landings: the Apollo 14 crew conducted the first materials science experiments in space; then Apollo 15 for example, which used and tested the first lunar rover and a re-design of the spacecraft with an increase in fuel efficiency to carry the extra mass of the lunar rover and an addition of many cameras and science equipment. Apollo 15 landed without a hitch, even though its landing site was the most challenging yet; they spent three days on the lunar surface, the longest yet. The Apollo 16 crew also spent three days on the moon (although originally planned for four days, a backup yaw gimbal servo loop malfunction caused the reduction of their intended lunar-based time to three days for reasons of safety). Then, three and a half years after Armstrong’s and Aldrin’s first landing, the last Apollo Mission, Apollo 17, launched (the only one to be launched at night) for the moon; another success, but the last of its kind, at least for now anyway. Cernan was the last man (to date) to be present on the lunar surface.

    The Saturn V Apollo launches - day or night, in both good and fair weather.

    As a final aside, and bringing us up to a more complete brief history of the current space era, the first Woman in Space, again a Russian, was Valentina Tereshkova aboard the Soviet Vostok 5 mission launched on 16th June 1963. The first American woman in space was Dr. Sally Ride on 18th June 1983 just two days over the 20-years mark following that of the Russian. She later went on to be a Professor of Physics at the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences (CASS), University of California, San Diego (UCSD) (who incidentally is supposed to reside in the office next to me and in my near three years now at UCSD - at the time of writing this article at least - I am yet to see her anywhere around). With the many shuttle missions from the 1980s to present, and the various space stations (first the Russian Salyut stations from 1971 to 1986, then the USA SkyLab space station with three crews during 1973-1974, followed by the Russian Mir space station 1986-2000, and now the ISS which is an international collaboration between USA, Russia, Japan, European Space Agency, Canada, and Italy from 2000 to the present day with 18 long-duration crews thus far and continuously manned since 30th October 2000 with projections of longevity until some time in 2017), humanity plans a new space race to the moon and beyond, especially with both India’s and China’s efforts becoming more prevalent, and rumours from the United Kingdom and even ESA of future manned space travel. We’re now perhaps stepping into the era of the race to Mars (if it’s it even possible?); I’d like to hope so, at least in my lifetime; only time will tell us this story for sure though…

    The Salyut 1 space station and Soyuz rocket sketch drawings.The SkyLab space station in orbit above Earth.

    The Mir space station in Earth orbit - 12 June 1998.The International Space Spation (ISS) in Earth orbit - 13 June 2008.


    The image of the Vostok spacecraft is Copyright free under the GNU Free Documentation License. All other images in this article are courtesy of NASA and come with no Copyright for non-profit use; full descriptions of such can be found at NASA, NASA JSC, and at the Wikipedia Commons WebPages.


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    • [...] seems my suggestion of Tranquility wasn’t the only thought of the same… So, here I am supposedly packing for three [...]

    • [...] March 23, 1965: Gemini 3. Gus Grissom and John Young crewed this first manned flight of the Gemini program. Tests included a shakedown of the maneuvering system in which the crew shifted their orbital plane, changed the shape of their orbit and dropped to a lower altitude. Highlights of the flight included a contraband corned beef sandwich and Gus Grissom’s name of “Molly Brown,” a name that proved unpopular with NASA’s Public Relations staff. This would be the last named American spacecraft until the Apollo Program began testing the Lunar Module. A photograph taken during the Gemini 7/6 missions. Image credit USCD [...]

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