10. Project Apollo, Part 1
In the face of several important Soviet firsts, the decision to send a manned craft to the moon was especially audacious. In 1961, the same year that Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech designed to capture the imagination of the American public, while simultaneously issuing a challenge to those watching in Russia. Addressing Congress, Kennedy described the evolving needs of a country in flux, a balancing act subject to the sudden, shifting fulcrum of Soviet success. The speech was comprehensive, addressing issues such as national defense and Soviet propaganda, and ended with a request for additional funds to support decisive moves in to space:
“Finally, if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take.”
In the final section of the speech, Kennedy addresses the lunar mission directly:
“I believe that 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 the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space, and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
Sadly, Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 prevented him from seeing the rapid development of the program he had initiated. When Lyndon Johnson became president, he continued to push for political support for the space program, and for the successful completion of Project Apollo.
In the hands of rocket expert Wernher von Braun, the development of the Saturn rocket moved quickly. The first flight of the Saturn 1 launch vehicle (SA-1) took place in October 1961, proving the aerodynamic capability of the booster. Other unmanned launches furthered NASA’s knowledge, including the first launch of the two-stage Saturn 1B in February of 1966. This combined the launch with rigorous trials of the Apollo spacecraft, including a test of the Command Module and its critical heat shield.
On January 27, 1967, the Apollo program was devastated by the loss of three astronauts in a capsule fire during a preflight test. Edward White, Virgil “Gus” Grissom and Roger Chafee all perished, prompting an in-depth investigation and a series of program delays that ultimately resulted in a safer spacecraft. Officially referred to as Apollo 204, this mission is now recognized as Apollo 1, in honor of the astronauts who lost their lives.
The first launch of a fully functional Saturn V rocket occurred in November 1967. This crucial unmanned test, known as Apollo 4, was soon followed by two increasingly complex automated flights. Apollo 5 demonstrated the ability of the Lunar Module to function in space, and Apollo 6, suffering through some minor takeoff problems, served as the final test of the Saturn V rocket and the Apollo spacecraft it would carry.
Apollo 7, launched in October of 1968, carried three astronauts into orbit, where they performed mission operations and experiments for 11 days, despite frustrating head colds that afflicted the trio. The flight featured the first live television pictures from a piloted U.S. space vehicle, and paved the way for the first orbital flights to the moon.
On Christmas Eve 1968, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders entered into orbit around the moon, becoming the first humans to see the far side of Earth’s original satellite. During one of their television broadcasts, Lovell said, “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” The crew of Apollo 8 ended their broadcast with a now-famous reading from the book of Genesis.
Apollo 9 was launched into Earth-orbit for a final manned test of the Lunar Module and maneuvers that would be performed in lunar orbit. The successful test was quickly followed by Apollo 10, a full dress rehearsal of the tasks that would come with Apollo 11, with the singular exception of the moon landing itself.
On July 20, 1969, Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landed their Lunar Module at Mare Tranquillitatis, the Sea of Tranquility. Six hours later, the two emerged from the spacecraft, becoming the first humans to set foot on another world. Armstrong’s famous words, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” were heard around the world by hundreds of millions of people. A plaque left behind reads, “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July, 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
Although the original requirements for the mission had been met by the success of Apollo 11, NASA planners had other lunar missions ready for launch. Only three months after Apollo 11 brought humans to the moon, Apollo 12 was streaking through the rain-filled skies over the Kennedy Space Center, struck twice by lightning as it ascended. Although the power surge briefly knocked out the spacecraft’s electrical power and telemetry systems, the astronauts were able to complete their mission. Apollo 12 touched down at Oceanus Procellarum, the Ocean of Storms.
The great successes of the Apollo flights had engendered a certain sense of complacency among the American public. Flights to space, and even to the moon, now seemed commonplace, as if somehow, the extraordinary challenges and risks inherent in such attempts had magically been reduced. The flight of Apollo 13 would serve as an alarming reminder that no amount of preparation can completely eliminate the dangers of space travel.