Here we are on the cusp of one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments and many Americans have never been taught what a big deal successfully landing men on the moon was.  Most of the Glibertariat know about the Apollo program and some of us probably know about it in much more and fascinating detail than I.  Because I was a planetary geology major as an undergraduate it fell upon me to write this short piece on Project Apollo.  So here is: “Plntry 101 Apollo Missions MWF 3-4”.  If this doggerel inspires you to learn more about Apollo there are plenty of sources for further reading and watching.

The HBO series “From the Earth to the Moon” does a magnificent job with each episode concentrating on one portion of the effort. “In the Shadow of the Moon” is a great documentary which interviewed all the surviving astronauts (less Armstrong) and is purely archival NASA footage and interviews. Even Netflix’s “The Last Man on the Moon” is fantastic on Gene Cernan.  There are books, too many to mention, that cover the program from the first detail to the last; from an overview for teens to tomes with a Selenologist’s attention to detail on a handful of samples; and even a crime story about the largest ever heist of lunar material from NASA.  Okay, I’ll mention the last- “Sex on the Moon” by Ben Mezrich- covers how a world class BS’ing college student managed to steal samples directly from a NASA secure site.

The Apollo missions can be broadly separated into two categories, the “engineering” missions and the “science” missions. Of course every mission involved both aspects, but the program was designed to work out how to get men safely to the moon and back; then to move on to missions in the more geologically interesting areas. . President Kennedy said we’d go to the moon so now the scientists and engineers asked, “Okay. How do we do this?” NASA was full of engineers and the astronauts were test pilots (and one geologist) with a well-known design and test philosophy of incremental testing and validation.  With no surprise this was the approach adopted for the Apollo Program. A series of missions would test aspects of the lunar mission profile culminating in a series of proof of principle landings before the serious science missions began.

There are several ways to go to the moon but they break down to basic models- brute force and meet ups. The brute force option (direct ascent) would involve a missile that would dwarf the Saturn V and involved landing the entire manned portion on the moon.  This is what early SciFi films portrayed.  The engineering was way too formidable for the time and this plan was discarded.  The next version involved multiple launches with small existing launch vehicles and assembling the various parts and pieces in low Earth orbit.  The lunar portion would be assembled in orbit.  Another version had unmanned return craft sent to the moon with the manned portion landing nearby and returning in the first vehicle.  This was daunting, especially considering that our first lunar impact mission (Ranger 3) missed the moon.

Easy, Just Do This and Visit the Moon

The Apollo program adopted the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) mission program.  Launch a large system that shed parts as they were no longer needed.  This system made sense but involved the US having to develop expertise at multiple skills (orbital rendezvous, docking, multiple firings of engines, people working outside of spacecraft, space navigation etc.) before attempting a lunar mission.  These were the goals of the two man Gemini missions.  NASA achieved these goals in a rapid two year series of ten missions which learned the required skills for a lunar mission despite multiple mishaps, “adventure learning”, and several near disasters.

The workhorse of Apollo was the Saturn launch system. The smaller “little brother” Saturn IVB was used only for the Apollo 7 manned mission.  The Saturn V (ASV) was the monster brother used for the balance of the Apollo missions.  The ASV is still the most powerful vehicle ever used by mankind.  A full ASV “stack” was 363 feet tall, 33 feet wide (fins added additional width) at the base and could send a 103,600 pound payload into lunar orbit. In order get this machine off the Earth the five engines in the first stage generated 7,610,000 pounds-force.   To give an idea of scale, the escape engines atop the Apollo capsule generated more energy than the Redstone that the US used for the first two Mercury flights.  The small third stage alone of an ASV was taller than an entire Mercury-Redstone system.

The first stage of the stack was 46 yards tall, weighed 5,100,000 pounds loaded. The five F-1 (or F-2) engines were independently gimbaled and controlled to keep the massive system upright within very small tolerances as it left the pad and powered up to 36 miles of altitude at an engine cutoff of ~160 seconds of flight.  The great precision was required both to clear the pad- at the tightest spots there was only 2 feet of space between the ASV and the gantry- and to keep the system from tearing itself apart as it climbed. Even a few feet of shift at the bottom would translate into many yards of movement over a football field higher where the crew was located.  This movement combined with the acceleration would have torn the stack apart in a huge fireball. As anybody has climbed even a small sailboat mast can attest, small changes at deck level quickly become manifest off the deck.  Add in acceleration, winds aloft, shifting center of gravity as millions of pounds of fuel is consumed, and the rotation of the system and you can see why each engine was gimbaled and computer controlled.

This NASA closeup and ultra slomo of the Apollo 11 take off will explain the first stage is great detail and is awesome footage.

The second stage was slightly smaller and less powerful than the first stage.  It was fueled by burning a mix of liquid Hydrogen and liquid Oxygen through five J-2 engines.  This pushed Apollo through the upper atmosphere and into space with 1,100,000 pounds-force in up to six minutes of burn time.

The famous footage of the separating booster and the ring shaped interstage (now on TV commercials) shows the ignition of the third stage of the ASV.  It had one J-2 engine and same fuel as the 2d stage.  The crucial difference was the third stage could be re-ignited in flight.  It would burn for 2.5 minutes to place the Apollo into a parking orbit where systems would be checked. Later it would burn for 6 minutes to accelerate Apollo into lunar insertion.  This meant the third stage accelerated the remaining stack from 25,000 feet/second (orbital velocity) to 35,545 f/s (lunar insertion) in under six minutes.

The third stage also had two other crucial functions.  At the top of the 3rd stage was an instrument unit containing all the computers and instruments required for stages 1-3 to successfully function.  Also at the top of the third stage (inside a shroud) the Lunar Module (LM) rode into orbit.  The third stage followed parallel and near the Apollo to enter solar orbit after passing the moon.  After Apollo 11 most of the third stages were deliberately crashed into the moon to provide signals for seismographs to help determine the interior lunar makeup.

The manned portions of Apollo consisted of the Command and Service Modules (CSM) and the Lunar Module (LM) which was the only true “spacecraft” that man has ever operated.  The three seat Command Module was much roomier than the earlier Mercury and Gemini capsules since it had to execute longer missions and have room to bring back “souvenirs” from the lunar surface. In addition to the standard hatches it had a nose hatch designed to mate with the LM to enable the crew to move between the two vehicles.  The coke can shaped Service Module had the long term fuel, oxygen, water, and other cells, onboard computers and an engine designed for multiple use.  The SM engine was key in retrieving the LM from the third stage, mid-flight corrections, slowing to lunar orbit and accelerating to lunar escape orbit so the mission can return to Earth. Shortly before reentry into the atmosphere the Command Module would separate from the Service Module leaving it in Earth orbit.



The LM was designed ride into orbit inside the ASV third stage then ferry two men to and from the surface of the moon.  The LM had two main parts.  The lower section had the legs, descent engine and carried instruments for the lunar surface.  It would then serve as the launch platform for the upper ascent stage.  The ascent stage was the “home” for the astronauts and could cycle between an atmosphere and no atmosphere.  It would carry the astronauts and lunar materials back to the CSM and then be abandoned in lunar orbit or crashed into the moon.  Everybody who operated the LM was impressed with the handling, but it could only operate in the vacuum of space.

LM from CSM in lunar orbit

I need to add a few words about Apollo’s computers. A current kid toy has more computing power than the entire computer system used onboard during an Apollo mission.  A current smart phone?  Forgitaboutit.  NASA would have given anything to have a cheap bottom line 2012 model.  If you every listen to the unedited complete mission transmissions you’ll hear hours of Houston reading numbers to the crew, the crew reading back the numbers, the crew confirming the numbers entered, a pause while the onboard computer ran one part of an equation, the crew reading the new number to Houston, Houston reading the number back, a pause while Houston checked the new number, Houston reading another number, the crew reading it back…….. That is correct.  The computers could not run an entire equation.

The astronauts for the Apollo missions had a clear hierarchy.  All the Apollo missions were commanded by either Mercury or Gemini “class” selections and the junior mission members were often from one of the “Apollo” classes.  Deke Slayton (Mercury) had been grounded in 1962 for a heart murmur but was made “Director of Flight Crew Operations” and made the crew selections for all Gemini and Apollo missions.  His word was law.  The mission commander was always an experienced astronaut who had done well previously.  The CSM pilot was always an experienced astronaut because he would operating solo in lunar orbit while the others left in the LM.  The LM Pilot was the junior astronaut and was more accurately the LM Co-pilot because the Mission Commander actually flew the LM. In total 33 seats were flown by Apollo, 24 different men went to the moon (3 were repeats) and 12 walked on the lunar surface.

Apollo 1

Crew: Grissom (Cdr), White (CSM) Chaffee (2d pilot)

This mission was designed to use the smaller Saturn IVB to achieve low earth orbit to conduct testing on the Command and Service Modules.  Slayton chose Grissom as the mission commander because he was considered the best engineering pilot.  Grissom was the second Mercury pilot in space, commanded the first Gemini mission, and was to take the first Apollo mission through the engineering paces.  During the workup the engineers grew increasingly unhappy with “Gloomy Gus” who was pointing out issue after issue with the capsule and the training apparatus.  Ed White flew on the 2d Gemini mission and was the first American to walk in space.  Roger Chaffee was the FNG and was a communications specialist.

The crew was concerned about whether or not the capsule would have the deficiencies corrected in time to fly and Grissom was skeptical that the systems would work for the entire scheduled 14 day duration.  On Jan 27, 1967, less than a month prior to the scheduled flight date, the crew was conducting a dress rehearsal in the sealed capsule and in a pressurized (29 psi) pure oxygen environment.  During the test an electrical short under Grissom’s couch ignited a fire.  Nine seconds later a voice (likely Chaffee) announced over the circuits that there was “a fire in the cockpit”.  Fifteen seconds later the pressure from the fire caused the capsule to breech and then the nitrogen from outside led to increasing smoke while the fire burned itself out over the next hours.  Engineers and technicians outside of the capsule heard the radio call and noticed movement inside, briefly, but the crew was dead even before the capsule breeched.

Apollo 1 Cabin Post Fire

This disaster caused NASA to refocus and redesign numerous aspects of the capsule and systems.  Designs went from the major: redesign the door to open under pressure, changing the atmosphere from 100% to 40% oxygen and more carefully checking for friction points; to more mundane- spacesuits changed from nylon to fire resistant materials etc. NASA and the multiple contractors worked feverishly for the next year and a half until the CSM was declared to be flight ready for humans.  Meanwhile multiple unmanned launches continued to test the various systems of Apollo and the Saturn V.

Apollo 7- October 1967

Crew: Shirra (Cdr), Eisele (CSM) and Cunningham (LM)

After 21 months of redesign of the CSM the mission of Apollo 7 was the same as Apollo 1.  Apollo 7 launched with the smaller ASIVB and conducted testing in low earth orbit for 11 days.  From a technical standpoint the mission was a complete success, the CSM flew extremely well and checked out.  From a personal management system the mission was a mess.

Wally Shirra flew the Mercury and this was his third flight.  Both Eisele and Cunningham were on their first flight.  The larger capsule size (about the size of a standard closet) contributed to members suffering from space sickness. This combined with rations that weren’t sitting with the crew’s stomachs and Shirra coming down with a head cold led to “the mutiny”.  Shirra and the others started to “talk back” to the ground control team and decided not to perform some requested actions that Shirra didn’t consider crucial to the core mission.  The culmination of the mutiny was shortly before re-entry when Shirra decided that crew safety demanded that they not wear their helmets- which had been SOP since the first flight.  The new fishbowl type helmets prevented the astronauts from being able to clear their eardrums. Since he and others were suffering from congestion he believed the risks were worse from helmets on versus possible impacts from having the helmets off.

After their return to Houston the crew had to defend their actions for when they didn’t follow directions from the ground.  Slayton rejected Eisele and Cunningham from all further flights and Shirra retired from NASA.  Their post flight medals were downgraded (the only crew to have that happen) and weren’t returned to the post flight standard awards until 2008.  Slayton’s actions had the desired impact on the rest of the astronaut roster, the mutiny was never repeated during the remaining Apollo missions.

Apollo 8- December 1968

Crew: Borman (Cdr), Lovell (CSM), Anders (LM)

This flight is when Apollo started really attaining world prominence.  This mission originally was to be another low orbit test, this time with an ASV, to test the LM with a crew aboard.  The LM construction and testing was behind schedule so George Low basically said, “Well, we have the launch vehicle, so let’s flip missions and test the CSM under lunar conditions by going around the moon.”  The mission change was announced after Apollo 7 returned, the original crew slipped back to Apollo 9 since they were training on the LM and Anders crew was told, “Be ready to go to the moon in two months.”  The decision to undertake this mission on such short notice was influenced by having a complete ASV and not wanting to “waste it in low earth orbit”, combined with a recent Soviet mission (Zond 5) which sent some animals around the moon and back to Earth, and a rumored Soviet manned mission to orbit the moon.

Borman and Lovell were both Gemini pilots with well-regarded missions under their belts.  Borman had commanded Gemini VII with Lovell as his crew.  GVII was designed to be a long term flight of two weeks to simulate the time for a lunar mission.  After Gemini VI’s aborted take-off the revised mission had GVII launch before GVI and then when GVI launched the two missions would rendezvous.  After the meeting GVI returned to Earth and Borman’s mission remained in orbit for the full 14 days.  (Imagine being in your front seat of your car for 14 days without a break.) Lovell later commanded Gemini XII (with Buzz Aldrin).  GXII is considered the most successful Gemini flight because they easily docked with a target vehicle, and most importantly Aldrin completed multiple successful EVA’s which finally demonstrated that an astronaut could complete precise tasks outside a spacecraft without undue hazard to themselves or their craft.  Michael Collins was originally scheduled to be the CSM pilot and had started training but developed back problems and got two vertebrae fused.  Since recovery took time, he was dropped and Lovell was added.

The risks to Apollo 8 were real.  This was only the third launch of a Saturn V and the first manned mission with an ASV.  The two earlier unmanned launches had some serious issues including a compression problem (“pogo sticking”) that would have endangered the crew. Engineers had developed solutions and Apollo 8 was the test that the solutions worked.  The other risk was Apollo 8 had no “lifeboat” or spare engine from a LM.  This was the only time during Apollo no spare was flown and was done only because the LM was not ready to fly.  Apollo 13 validated having a spare was valuable.

The mission launched on Dec 21, 1968 with no issues.  Twelve and a half hours later the crew was approved to conduct lunar insertion and they became the first humans to head to another body in the Solar System.  A8 had one issue on the way to the moon when the third stage was shadowing them too closely for comfort.  After several discussions with ground control the solution was to radio the abandoned stage to vent all remaining fuel.  This changed the trajectory enough to clear the hazard.

Riding to the moon is in some ways like riding a roller coaster.  On the way there your initial velocity of 35,505 ft/sec gradually bleeds off as you climb out of the earth’s gravity well.  As you travel the craft also slowly rotates (1X hour) like a rotisserie chicken to balance heating and cooling and you can’t even see the moon.  Around 55 hours after lunar insertion the craft reaches ~39,000 miles from the moon and has slowed down to around 3,900 ft/sec.  At that point the craft enters the lunar gravity well and starts to speed up as it falls down the roller coaster towards the moon.   Now comes the odd part.  The decision to enter lunar orbit is made with communications to the ground, but the firing of the Service Module engine to slow down to lunar orbit occurs behind the moon and out of communications with the Earth.  The A8 CSM was only ~72 miles above the lunar surface and about to swing behind the moon when it got the okay. The CSM engine burn went without an issue and Apollo 8 settled in for 10 orbits (~20 hours) of quality time at the moon.

Now that Apollo 8 was orbiting the lunar surface they started their recon. Apollo 8 was launched so that when they arrived the lighting would be the same as it would be when Apollo 11 arrived.  This was important because one key task was to photograph Apollo 11’s approach path and planned landing location.  Having completed all their tasks the return to Earth went according to plan.

1968 would not be listed among the best years in America’s history. We were fighting a war in Vietnam and the “Tet Offensive” started off the year.  There were multiple assassinations and riots throughout the country.  The presidential election came down to Nixon, Humphries and Wallace.  It was a good year to have not to have lived through.  Apollo 8 was the one thing the country could look up to.  The mission was a worldwide phenomenon and totally at odds with the USSR space program.  The Soviets always kept their missions held close to the vest, Apollo was everywhere, for anybody anywhere, to watch.  The Apollo 8 crew were the first people to see the entire planet in one glance. They shared with us the view of our home planet as a blue marble in the total darkness of space.  They pointed the camera down and we all looked down on a totally alien world consisting of shades of grey.   This is what the world saw that Christmas Eve.

One of the Most Important Photos of all Time

One of the Most Important Photos of all Time

Seeing the earth from space is a cliché now as evidenced by VW’s current automobile commercial. But when this photo was released it immediately grabbed the attention of people worldwide.  The contrast of the blues and whites of the planet against the dead moon in the foreground and the black of space was instantly understandable. In a blink of an eye that photo was everywhere, from commercial products to stamps issued by a dozen governments and it gave a major boost to the environmental movement.

Apollo 9 March 1969

Crew: McDivitt (CDR), Scott (CSM),  Schweickart (LM)

Apollo 8 captured the World’s attention and was glamour personified.  It was the first time men journeyed to another body in the Solar System, reading Genesis at Christmas from lunar orbit, and the famous Anders “Earthrise” photo.  Apollo 9 returned to the relative humdrum of low Earth orbit, but accomplished critical engineering goals with élan.

James McDivitt commanded Gemini IV on his first space flight and is often overlooked because he remained in the capsule while Ed White made America’s first EVA.  Scott was on his second flight after flying Gemini VIII with Armstrong. Schweickart was on his first flight.  Scott returned to space commanding Apollo 15.  McDivitt transferred to managing the Apollo Program office after this flight.

Apollo 9 was the first time a complete Saturn “stack” was launched.  This was test one of a complete lunar mission profile and most importantly was the first time the LM performed in manned flight.  The LM was the reason and star of this mission.

The Lunar Module is the only true spacecraft that has ever been flown by man. The LM was designed to only operate outside of the atmosphere, so unlike the Command Module, once the LM piggybacked into orbit inside the Saturn stack it would never return to the planet.  The LM was constructed with every ounce in mind and was robust, it was designed to fall the last three feet onto the lunar surface and the lower half was engineered to take the forces of the upper half launching from it.   At the same time it was frail and there were areas so thin that a careless move could punch an arm or leg through the skin of the spacecraft.

The launch went well and so did the next 10 days as the crew put the LM through the test program.  The crew tested each phase of a lunar mission including safety backup procedures.  Schweickart wore the Lunar EVA suit designed for the moon outside the spacecraft and demonstrated that it didn’t “balloon out” which would have made walking on the surface impossible.  He also took it out the LM’s door and back along to the CSM proving that this could be a backup way to return astronauts in the event of a docking problem.  The testing highlight was flying the LM on a simulated lunar landing profile.  After reaching a distance of 115 miles from the CSM, McDivitt fired the ascent stage and returned to dock with the CSM.  After four further days of CSM based testing, Apollo 9 splashed down in the Atlantic, the last U.S. crew to do so (intentionally).

After the complete success of this mission Apollo managers realized that (barring any unexpected problems) Apollo 11 would actually have a chance to land on the moon.  The only downside to this mission was Schweickart’s recurring space sickness.  He was the first astronaut so badly afflicted and the knowledge and protocols that were later adopted for dealing with even worse episodes were not in place.  He never was placed on a prime crew position again. His colleagues believed this was unfair and that he “suffered so the rest of us could have a chance.”

Apollo 10 May 1969

Crew: Stafford (Cdr), Young (CSM), Cernan (LM)

Only two months after the success of Apollo 9 came the dress rehearsal for the lunar landing.  Apollo 10 was man’s second trip to the moon and it would rehearse the mission that followed it by two months. Stafford was on his third flight and Young and Cernan on their second.  This crew was assembled for their engineering and testing skills and might have been the most proficient Apollo crew ever to fly. (Apollo 10 and Apollo 11 were the only two missions to have all veteran crews.)

Apollo 10’s mission profile was simplicity in itself.  Run the exact Apollo 11 mission profile to just short (8.4 miles above lunar surface) of the actual landing.  The mission was timed so the practice landing run to the planned Apollo 11 location had the same lighting conditions.  (You are noticing a theme here, right?) The ascent stage was light loaded with fuel so it would be at the same weight as the same point as in the actual ascent from the lunar surface. Cernan later said they were so close to Sea of Tranquility it looked like they could just reach out and touch the surface.

The mission went well except for one serious issue.  The crew had accidently double loaded a command into the LM’s computer (weak computers are not your friend) and when they fired the ascent stage they started rolling.  After a few tense moments, and on camera oaths, they regained control of the LM and the mission continued successfully.  Years later it was revealed that the problem was more severe than NASA had publicly stated and that the crew was within several seconds of losing control and crashing into the surface.

Apollo 10 from an astronaut perspective was the true Hall of Fame crew.  Only three men went to the moon twice.  Young and Cernan were two of them, both of them commanding later missions and walking on the moon.  (Lovell was the third two lunar mission vet.)  Young was the astronaut’s astronaut with six flights.  He was on the first Gemini mission, commanded Gemini X, was the CSM pilot for Apollo 10, commanded Apollo 16 and commanded the first Space Shuttle mission. For his swan song he commanded the 9th Shuttle mission.  Gene Cernan commanded Apollo 17 and was the last man to have walked on the moon.  Thomas Stafford flew one more mission after Apollo 10 when he commanded the Apollo-Soyuz mission.


Apollo 11 July 1969

(Do I really need to list them?) Crew: Armstrong (Cdr), Collins (CSM), Aldrin (LM)

This was it.  The big one. The whole enchilada. El tutti mundi. Add the whipped cream and nuts to the sundae. Yadda yadda yadda.  The older Glibs need no reminding, the entire Nation was riding along with Apollo 11.  The younger Glibs probably could use an introduction to the scale of Apollo.  Approximately 400,000 US citizens were employed in various aspects of manufacturing or mission conduct during the Apollo program.  It was a huge part of the economy.  From 1961 to 1972, including Gemini and the unmanned lunar survey missions, the country spent $28B ($169B in 2018 dollars) on Apollo. The entire world followed Apollo 11.  A higher percentage of the world’s population watched or listened to Armstrong step onto the moon than any other event before or since.  Florida’s Atlantic coast was filled for miles and miles with 100,000s of people who came to watch the launch.  Hell, e Dbleagle’s father even sprung for a color TV to watch Apollo.  He was among the 400,000 working on Apollo.  His personal stake in Apollo was helping to design and inspect a set turbine blades in the LM’s descent module.

For all the scientists, engineers and programmers of Apollo this was what years of work were culminating in.  All the theories, all the testing, all the inspections were coming down to this.  As Buzz Aldrin put it, “Can we really pull this shit off?”  The mission profile had been rehearsed in Earth orbit (9) and various aspects in lunar orbit (8 and 10), now the mystery of the last 8.4 miles were to be filled in.

This was a specially selected crew of all veterans.  Armstrong had a military background but was a civilian member of the Gemini class.  He commanded Gemini VIII on his first flight, made the first successful docking of two spacecraft and then saved the mission (and their lives) by skillfully stopping unexpected rolling after a thruster stuck open.  Later while training for Apollo 11 he survived a literal last 2 second ejection from the LM landing trainer.  He caused a significant stir among the other astronauts by immediately going back to work after lunch.  Aldrin was “Doctor Rendezvous” and not the best guy to have around at parties.  He was well known for buttonholing anybody at a party to talk about rendezvous procedures.  Admittedly a difficult procedure but would you want your wife trapped in a corner while a coworker discussed Sugar Free stories in infinite detail?   But Aldrin had cracked the code on how to do a successful EVA and if somebody had to piece together getting the LM and CSM back together in the event of an “ahh shit” moment he would be the guy.  Collins had worked on the CSM since the beginning and was thought highly enough to had been the original primary for Apollo 8.  Collins later said when he had been tapped as the CSM pilot for A8 he knew he would probably never walk on the moon because of his skills with the CSM.

Why the Sea of Tranquility?  Well it was the easiest and most boring spot to land a mission.  Remember incremental steps.  If Apollo 11 was to answer Aldrin’s question it meant going “How easy can we make this landing thing?”  Put it near the equator, with no mountains on the approach or nearby, no big craters, valleys or other stuff and close to lunar dawn so the features would stand out.  Plus if something went wrong the short and long areas were flat and open as well.  This meant the potential launch window opened up since the window for the primary site was less than twenty-four hours. Tranquility Base fit those requirements perfectly.

Most Apollo missions had issues during launch until landing (or not landing- cough Apollo 13 cough) but for Apollo 11 the trip to the moon was surprisingly textbook, until it came time to land.  Now the shitbucket started filling up- and fast.  Computers overloaded with data and started blaring warnings, the Eagle was coming in long and steering directly for a crater.  Armstrong took over and manually flew the LM and landed with seconds of fuel before the abort point was reached.

Watch it here.  At home we only heard snippets and no video.  We never saw the contact light come on, the descent engine shut down or the LM as it falls the last three feet to the surface. We heard clipped language and suddenly there was a pause, “Tranquility Base here.  The Eagle has landed.”-and the world erupted.  Throughout the world people rejoiced.**  It was an impossible moment, but it just happened and we listened to it.  My great grandfather called to congratulate my dad. My great grandfather was born in a dirt poor Calabrian village before the Wright brothers and now his grandson had designed part of the “wonderful machine” on the moon.  During a break in the hours before the EVA I took my young Quarter Eagle personage outside with my telescope to look at a moon with men on it. It looked the same, but I knew just over from the terminator (line between day and night) there were two people and that made it different from any time in the history of the human species.

Much of the EVA was difficult to see on TV.  But the world watched the blurry black and white images.  Unlike the later missions which traversed increasing segments of the lunar surface this was “Can we pull this shit off?” and nothing was known.  The best minds available had ideas, tested and formed hypotheses, but here was the first chance to live test.  The suits worked, bunny hopping became the preferred method to move, the surface dust layer was thinner than thought.  Houston extended the EVA because consumption of oxygen was lower than thought and the cooling system worked more efficiently than believed. Everything took longer than thought as well so the astronauts were working harder and faster until Houston saw their respiration rates climbing too much and let them know to slow down.   Finally, after around 2 hours Aldrin followed by Armstrong re-entered the LM an sealed the door.  It is estimated that 600,000,000 people watched the EVA.  See it here:  The total area explored was about the size of a baseball diamond.

Apollo 11 Landing Site


Here are a few photos of the EVA.  Armstrong took almost all the pictures so the best photo of him is when he was reflected on Aldrin’s facemask.

First Photo from Lunar Surface

First Panorama After Landing

Home from the Surface

Armstrong Reflected in Aldrin’s Facemask (LM Pad and Contact Rod in Foreground)

Much like on Shepard’s Mercury mission, when ya gotta go-ya gotta go.  So Aldrin did.  As he later said, “Neil took the first step on the moon, but I had my own first as well.”  After the EVA the crew had a sleep period which did not go well and forced NASA to think up a better plan for later missions.  The crew had just achieved the crowning moment of their professional lives and the sleep plan was “sleep on the floor.” All through the rest period A&A were keyed up, aware that they were 250,000 miles from home and the LM vented, turned on and off various pumps, motors and whatnot which they noticed.   Plus even at 1/6 gravity a metal floor was not comfortable.  Sleep was poor and badly fragmented.

The “aw shit” moments weren’t over for LM crew. During EVA prep or recovery a backpack unit snapped off a critical switch.  If the crew couldn’t figure out a way to flip the switch there would be no take off.  Aldrin partially disassembled a pen and used a piece jammed into the console to flip the switch at the required time.  They docked with Columbia and transferred 47.5 pounds of lunar material and returned home without incident- or did they?

The ten minutes hanging upside after splashdown until the inflation bags righted the Columbia was almost to be expected.  Part of the safety protocol to save the world from an “Andromeda Strain” incident was to seal the astronauts, all lunar material and all material exposed to lunar material in a quarantine.  So there were intricate procedures to put everything into isolation bags.  The crew was kept in a closed environment with a med team for three weeks.  So far so good, until somebody noticed one of the bags was forgotten and had remained outside of quarantine for several days. The answer? Crack open the door and chunk the bag in.

After getting clearance that they would not bring Armageddon upon the Earth the crew of Apollo 11 was released and then started what has been described as a version of hell by all three men.  NASA sent them on a Nation- and world-wide goodwill tour.  All three men were private people by nature (less so for Aldrin) and this tour quickly wore them down.  The crew was described by Aldrin as “amiable strangers”.  They remained friendly but were not regulars at each other’s casas. Armstrong and Aldrin knew they would never fly in space again but Collins was told he could command a later mission.  He decided that the training demands were too much and said if Apollo 11 was successful he was done.

So Apollo 11 answered Aldrin’s question.  The US could pull off this shit.  Besides bringing back the samples and photos from the surface Apollo 11 left an instrument package on the moon.  The laser reflector is still used to this day to make precise distance measurements.

** The North Vietnamese did not rejoice and knew that the Apollo missions would raise the morale of the POW’s.  So they ensured no word of Apollo reached the POW’s ears.  They only found out after later pilots were shot down and captured.  The Viet’s were correct.  The success of Apollo did raise the prisoners’ morale.

Lunar Recon Orbiter Photo (2011) of Tranquility Base with tracks and instruments visible

Apollo 12 November 1969

Crew: Conrad (Cdr), Gordon (CSM), Bean (LM)

While being on any Apollo crew would have been a highlight of any Glibs life, this would have been the most awesome crew to be on.  The three were known for their good humor with everybody they worked with and were routinely involved in hijinks (and matching Corvettes).  The three remained close friends for the rest of their lives.  Success during this engineering mission was critical to the remaining science missions visiting much more interesting areas than flat mare landing sites. This mission was also the victim of too much success too quickly for the Apollo program.

Pete Conrad was in the Mercury selection program until he rebelled against the invasive biological testing by leaving his stool sample in a gift-wrapped box for the medical staff.  Even though he was not selected he was encouraged to apply again by Alan Shepard and was selected in the Gemini Class. He flew on Gemini V and commanded Gemini XI.  GXI used the docked Agena as a booster to change their orbit to 850 miles, which is still the highest low Earth orbit flown by man. Richard Gordon was a long time friend of Pete Conrad from their time in the Navy.  He also flew with Conrad on Gemini XI doing two EVA’s during the mission.  Al Bean was the FNG on his first flight but had quickly bonded with the two old friends.

So Apollo 11 showed we could land in a huge open flat area. But to explore geologically interesting areas precision landing was required.  Apollo 12 was that test.  The chosen landing area had been intentionally crashed into by a Ranger mission, landed on by Surveyor 3, and accidently crashed landed by a Soviet mission.  It was nicknamed “Pete’s Parking Lot” since Apollo 12’s mission was to land near Surveyor 3 to prove precision landing navigation was possible.  The mission also was to test more extended durations on the surface since they would conduct multiple EVA’s. The crew would also test the sleeping hammocks to see if good sleep was possible on the lunar surface.

Remember when I said Apollo 11 had been lucky on their way to the moon?  Apollo 12 wasn’t.  The skies were overcast and 36.5 seconds after launch the Saturn V was hit by lightning and started losing systems.  The stack was hit again at 52 seconds and more systems started dropping out.  The instrument unit atop of stage 3 (remember it from earlier?) continued to function keeping the stack upright and accelerating. One young engineer remembered an obscure command that wasn’t part of the procedures book and the FNG executed the command which cycled the system and brought all the systems back online.  All this excitement was while the first stage fired away.  After a careful check of the systems Apollo 12 fired for trans lunar insertion.  Houston decided not to inform the crew that the lightning may have screwed up the Command Module parachutes since there was no backup. You can’t see the strikes because of the clouds but can hear the crew and ground here:  or here:

Apollo 12 successfully conducted their first mission when they landed just over 360 yards from Surveyor 3.    This is the only time that mankind has landed, manned or unmanned, alongside an earlier mission.  Like Apollo 11 the Apollo 12 crew took control and moved the landing site.  Here is the landing:

The EVA’s went well with one major OOPS.  NASA had upgraded to color TV for Apollo 12 but Bean accidently pointed the TV at the Sun while setting it up.  This exposure fried the tube and that was the end of TV transmissions.  When the team arrived at S3 they removed some parts to bring home but failed in one unstated mission.  The crew lived up to its joker reputation by sneaking a camera timer to the moon.  The plan was to use it to take an unannounced photo with both astronauts in the frame and let the scientists at home try to figure out how the crew did it.  Unfortunately the timer couldn’t be found in the equipment bag until too late for use.  Bean would not be your first choice for President of the AV Club since he fried the TV and accidently left a couple of exposed rolls of film on the surface.


Apollo 12 site from the LRO (2011)

Conrad at Surveyor 3 with LM in Background (Too bad the prank at this spot didn’t happen)

Bean Stepping off LM

The backup crew caught the spirit of the prime crew and smuggled Playboy centerfolds into the checklists worn during EVA 1 (and for Gordon on the CSM for his solo orbits).  The checklists (and all sorts of other mission information for all the lunar landings) are available here:

Checklist Page with Additional Visual Aid

Apollo 12 set up a series of instruments designed for long term use.  As part of the testing, after they re-boarded the CSM the LM was crashed into the lunar surface where the seismograph recorded the impact. On the way home the crew experienced an unique eclipse when the Earth eclipsed the Sun.  One last OOPs happened when a camera broke free at splashdown hitting Bean in the head (helmets were no longer worn thanks to Apollo 7) knocking him briefly unconscious and required six stiches to close.

Conrad was selected to command the first manned Skylab mission and led the effort repair Skylab for habitation.  On an EVA he used the “Warty method” aka brute force to open one solar panel and followed that up by adding a sun umbrella/micrometeoroid to Skylab so it could be inhabited.  Al Bean then commanded the second manned Skylab. Gordon was selected to command Apollo 18, but more about that in a bit.

In the 1990s I had a chance to enjoy a pleasant 30 minutes with Pete Conrad.  My son was on a major Star Wars kick and wanted to visit a SciFi event.  My then wife wanted a quiet Saturday so I was elected to take both kids to Santa Barbara for the day to attend.  As is normal (I guess. I only went to one of these events.) there was a chance for autographs from the SciFi shows and the lines were huge for the TV actors.  Off to one side was a grey haired man sitting almost alone at a table.  As I wandered up I saw the sign saying it was Conrad.  We started talking Gemini, Apollo and Skylab (mainly A12) for almost 30 minutes until people came up to hustle him off to an event.  At the last second I grabbed a couple of signatures for my kids.  To this day I am confused by that event.  Here was the 3rd man on the moon, a veteran of 4 space flights, and an engaging and humorous person.  I had a chance for a half hour conversation with only a couple of brief interruptions because people were choosing to stand in lines for an autograph from an actor.  People are weird.

Next Steps for Apollo

In the decade leading up to the lunar landings all things space were the rage throughout American society.  The space effort was everywhere in culture.  It was in radio, TV shows (“I Dream of Jeannie”  Is it just me or does Larry Hagman resemble Tom Brady?),  Snoopy gave up on the Red Baron and became an astronaut, worldwide advertising for just about anything, GI Joe and Barbie both had astronaut versions, plastic models, model rocketry, drinks, food (“Space Food Sticks” and “Tang”), motels, you name it- the space themes were there. But Apollo 11 popped the popularity balloon.  Space was old, the new thing was environmentalism, spurred on in part by Anders image from Apollo 8.

NASA had four successful lunar flights in 11 months.  They made the entire enterprise seem routine when anybody involved in the program knew the risks and close calls that were avoided. While the entire planet thrilled to Apollo 11 the overall view of Apollo 12 was: “Why are we still doing this since we already beat the Russians?” Bringing home more rocks (~75 lbs) and used metal from an unmanned lander seemed not worth the cost to an increasing number of Americans. Apollo 13 was to be the first science focused mission because this stuff was now routine.

Apollo had been conceived to run through Apollo 20 and the required ASV systems had already been purchased.  By when Apollo 12 returned, the Apollo 20 mission was cancelled and in 1971 Apollos 18 and 19 were scrapped.  (Sorry Gordon) After Apollo 15 returned Nixon tried to scrap the remaining two missions but was convinced to conduct them by Caspar Weinberger.

The early missions proved man could work on the lunar surface.  The biggest scientific findings from Apollo 11 and 12 killed the lunar capture theory.  The moon is almost unique in the Solar System.  It is larger in proportion to the host planet than anywhere else (except for Pluto/Charon).  If the moon was captured then the chemistry of the rocks should show a different base chemistry.  The rocks from Apollo showed the rocks chemistry to be very similar to Earth in most respects.  This brought increased examination of the impact theory.  Summarized: Early in the Solar System a Mars sized object hit a glancing blow on Earth, badly shattering both.  The debris that was flung into a low orbit and rapidly impacted together forming the Moon.  More easy detail here:

Now let the serious Selenology commence!  To be continued……