I’m fascinated by the Apollo program. It’s a triumph of human endeavour that we sent twenty-four men to the moon, and twelve to the surface between 1969 and 1972. It was a program built with reliable 1950s-designed equipment, and computers far less sophisticated than a cheap modern wristwatch. Achieving Kennedy’s audacious vision was made possible through teamwork, planning, hard work, and ingenuity.
Recently, I decided to learn more about the early Apollo missions to understand what work went into getting us to the moon. It’s an incredibly story, and perhaps more interesting than several later missions.
An incremental approach
Apollo 7 was the first manned Apollo mission to fly in space. It was a confidence-builder, and the first time three people had flown together in space around the Earth. After eleven days in 1968, the crew returned having tested the command module and successfully made a live TV appearance.
The Apollo 7 crew during the first live broadcast from space
The critical pieces of Apollo 7 had flown earlier. The earlier unmanned Apollo 4 and 6 had tested launching a similar unmanned command module and returning it to earth, while Apollo 5 had also tested the same Saturn IB rocket that was used to launch Apollo 7. Apollo 7 was focused on testing putting three astronauts in space in what was a now-trusted setup.
Apollo 8 was a shorter, six day mission. Three men flew to the moon, orbited it a few times, and returned to earth. They were the first to fly atop the Saturn V rocket — the smaller Saturn IB rocket used in Apollo 7 wasn’t sufficient to reach the moon. The Saturn V had been tested in Apollo 4 and 6. This was an audacious mission — testing both a manned Saturn V mission, and visiting the moon. Behinds the scenes, it was a tough sell to management — they didn’t like being that aggressive. But it made sense as a mission: the lunar module was behind in development and wasn’t ready to be tested, and there was fear the Russians might get Cosmonauts around the moon in 1968.
The far side of the moon as seen from Apollo 8. The Apollo 8 crew was the first to ever see the dark side of the moon
Apollo 9 was a return to an incremental approach. The mission orbited the earth, tested the lunar module in earth orbit (that would later be used to land on the moon), and included a space walk to test the spacesuits. It also included a rendezvous, which was necessary with the command and lunar modules being separated.
Testing the Apollo 9 lunar module Spider in earth orbit
Apollo 10 was the full dress rehearsal for landing on the moon. It was time to repeat the test of the lunar module, but this time in moon orbit. The lunar module detached from the command module, and the crew descended to within ten miles of the moon’s surface. They then returned to rendezvous with the command module, and journeyed back to earth. In total, the crew spent eight days in space, and the mission was a huge success — so successful that Apollo 11 was the mission that met Kennedy’s goal in July 1969.
The Apollo 10 lunar module Snoopy returns from almost landing on the moon
Interestingly, many people at NASA thought early in the Apollo program that Apollo 12 was likely to be the mission that landed first on the moon. Perhaps if Apollo 9 had happened before Apollo 8 (as was originally planned), there might have been two separate missions to test the manned Saturn V and then a manned Saturn V to the moon. Certainly, if something substantial had gone wrong between Apollo 7 and 10, Apollo 11 would have been repeating validation of the space craft, space suits, and processes.
The tortoise beats the hare
The Soviet Union went all-in with Soyuz 1. It was the first flight of the new Soyuz spacecraft and Soyuz rocket, and was planned to be a rendezvous with the three-manned Soyuz 2. The mission had problems from the start — a solar panel failed to deploy, and this delayed the launch of Soyuz 2. The weather turned bad, and Soyuz 2 didn’t launch. This was fortunate, as the parachute on Soyuz 1 didn’t deploy due to a design fault, and the single Cosmonaut died on reentry. If Soyuz 2 had launched, the crew wouldn’t have survived.
Vladimir Komarov, the cosmonaut who died in the ill-fated Soyuz 1
This was 1967, a year before Apollo 7. The Soviets went for broke, testing rockets, capsules, rendezvous, and more in one mission. On paper, it looked like they were ahead. The result was failure — and an 18-month delay in the program, and ultimately failure to get to the moon before the Americans. Indeed, Soyuz 4 and 5 in early 1969 eventually completed the mission aims of Soyuz 1 and 2.
The tortoise beat the hare. It was a pretty fast tortoise, but you see the point. The pragmatic approach of trying one complex new component in each mission ultimately made the Apollo program successful. Doing everything at once didn’t work. There’s something in that for all of us. See you next time.