No single essay can do justice to the events that took place between 1968 and 1972, four years that, as time passes, seem all the more remarkable for human history. During those years 24 men went to the Moon, three of them (Lovell, Cernan and Young) twice. Twelve of them orbited silently above the bleak lunar landscape, and three others were whipped around the Moon in a "free-return trajectory" in a desperate attempt to return to Earth after an explosion aboard their spacecraft. Twelve of the 24 lunar voyagers actually landed, spending in total some 300 hours on the surface, of which 80 hours were outside the lunar module with "boots on the ground" or actually driving around the spacecraft environs. These events seem incredible to us even now, as NASA makes plans to return humans to the Moon almost a half century later.
When the Apollo 11 crew landed on the Sea of Tranquility on July 20, 1969, they stayed a little less than a day, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin traveled less than a half mile on foot. The last crew on Apollo 17 landed on the Taurus-Littrow highlands on December 11, 1972 and stayed for three days during which Harrison Schmitt and Eugene Cernan traveled some 19 miles in the lunar roving vehicle. Though human footprints are well preserved at the six landing sites, and rover tracks surround three of them, not a step has been taken on the lunar surface since that time.
It is well known that geopolitics, in the form of
international rivalry with the
|"We are now in a test to see whether humans can be motivated by a journey of exploration rather than a race, by international cooperation rather than competition. History will be watching."|
Eight years after President Kennedy's challenge the goal was met, but only after gargantuan efforts and funding resources unlikely ever to be seen again in the space program over such a short time span. Among those efforts was the construction of the Saturn V launch vehicle, led by the legendary Wernher von Braun at Marshall Space Flight Center, with Boeing, North American Aviation, and Douglas Aircraft Company as prime contractors for each of the Saturn stages. The Apollo spacecraft themselves – the 'chariots for Apollo' known more technically as the Command and Service Modules – were also the responsibility of North American Aviation. Hundreds of subcontractors, thousands of engineers, tens of thousands of workers and many unsung heroes played their roles in sending Americans to the Moon. The Saturn V was composed of 3 million parts, the CSM 2 million, the Lunar Module 1 million. As Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins put it, "All 6 million worked, nearly all the time."
Nor was it only a matter of building complex hardware and writing novel software for computers than now seem primitive but performed (mostly) magnificently. It was also a question of managing the largest technological system ever devised, as Administrator James Webb and his deputies Hugh Dryden and Bob Seamans sought to ensure high performance, reliability, and safety. In his book The Secret of Apollo Stephen Johnson has argued that a new approach known as systems management, originating from the Air Force's ICBM efforts, played a key role in the success of Apollo. Indeed, despite the tragic fire that killed three astronauts in their capsule during the Apollo 1 ground test in 1967, all the Apollo astronauts were returned safely to Earth, even with the harrowing experience of Apollo 13.
Was it all worth it? The
Apollo program has been criticized for being driven by politics, dominated by
engineers, and deaf to science; after all, the only scientist who traveled to
the Moon was Harrison Schmitt on Apollo 17, the last voyage. What, in the end, did Apollo achieve? Aside from its geopolitical goals, and
despite the clear backseat status of science, a considerable amount of science
was in fact returned from the Moon. As
Donald Beattie has described in his book Taking
Science to the Moon, almost 5,000 pounds of experimental equipment were landed
on the Moon, including the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) on
each of the last five Apollo missions. 840 pounds of lunar material were returned and analyzed. 65 miles were traversed on foot or in the lunar
rover in support of field geology and geophysical studies. And during the last three missions detailed
data were collected from the orbiting command and service modules. The overall result is a much better
understanding of the nature and origin of the Moon and its relation to Earth. The top ten science discoveries from the
Apollo missions, as ranked by the office of the curator for planetary materials
But, with the hindsight of history, how real was the driving force – the race with the Soviets? In his definite study Challenge to Apollo: The Soviet Union and the Space Race, 1945-1974, Asif Siddiqi finds that there was indeed a Soviet quest for the Moon, but that it was lukewarm and failed dismally. "The road to failure began almost as soon as Gagarin had floated down in his parachute" in 1961, Siddiqi wrote. Nikita Khrushchev hardly took note of Kennedy's 1961 proclamation, and only sanctioned a piloted lunar landing program in 1964, the year he was ousted. The military, he writes, was more interested in missiles than the Moon, and amidst rivalries, organizational chaos and a shoestring budget, the Soviet effort led to crushing failures. During 1969-72, while Americans were landing on the Moon, the Soviet N1 rocket that was supposed to have beaten those Americans saw four catastrophic failures. Two of them failed in the months immediately preceding the Apollo 11 landing. The Soviet unmanned lunar program had more success. After failing in an attempt in February, 1969 – five months before Apollo 11 – they did land two Lunokhod ("Moon walker") rovers in 1970 and 1973. The Lunokhods returned more than 100,000 images and undertook numerous soil analyses. Although a triumph in their own right, they were completely overshadowed by the American manned landings. The Soviets never came close to landing humans – and still have not. In the wake of losing their half-hearted Moon race, the Soviets turned to space stations, an endeavor in which they excelled.
No one would have guessed in 1972 that almost a half century would pass before there was even the possibility that humans would return to the Moon. Though the Russians would manage several more lunar robotic missions, including a lunar sample return in 1976, it would be more than twenty years before Americans would return to the Moon even with a robotic emissary, the Clementine spacecraft, in 1995. Lunar Prospector followed in 1998, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is on schedule to launch in 2008, intended as a vanguard to human missions now being planned by 2018.
How will history judge the voyages of Apollo? Pulitzer Prize historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a special assistant to President Kennedy, ventured one opinion when he wrote in 2004 "It has been almost a third of a century since human beings took a step on the Moon — rather as if no intrepid mariner had bothered after 1492 to follow up on Christopher Columbus. Yet 500 years from now (if humans have not blown up the planet), the 20th century will be remembered, if at all, as the century in which man began the exploration of space." Although an historian of politics and world affairs, Schlesinger did not rank war in the century's top ten events. Wars come and go and affect many people, but the first venture into space happens only once, and holds infinite promise.
On the other hand there are some, historians among them, who
think the Apollo program was time and money misspent, and that analogies to
Critics are entitled to their opinions, but in my view the Apollo voyages were an accomplishment of mythic proportions, justifying mythic retellings. Although historians generally are not in the business of foretelling the future, in this case I have no qualms in predicting that, the longer our perspective grows, history will side with Mr. Schlesinger. Similarly, in the long view of history, the success or failure of NASA's current attempt to return humans to the Moon, go on to Mars and spread throughout the solar system will be judged accordingly. We are now in a test to see whether humans can be motivated by a journey of exploration rather than a race, by international cooperation rather than competition. History will be watching.
Further ReadingApollo Lunar Surface Journal, at http://history.nasa.gov/alsj/
A tremendous amount of information on astronaut lunar surface activities.Beattie, Donald A. Taking Science to the Moon: Lunar Experiments and the Apollo Program (
Bilstein, Roger. Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles (NASA SP-4206, 1980 and 1996). Online at http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4206/sp4206.htm
Brooks, Courtney, James Grimwood and Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft (NASA SP 4205, 1979). Available online athttp://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/SP-4205/cover.html Chaikin, Andrew, A Man On The Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts (New York, 1994). The basis for the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon.
Collins, Michael, Liftoff: The Story of
Gray, Michael. Angle of Attack:
Hansen, James R. First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong (Simon and Schuster, 1975).
Johnson, Stephen B. The Secret of Apollo: Systems Management in American and European
Space Programs (Johns
Lambright, W. Henry, Powering Apollo: James E. Webb of NASA (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).
Lunar and Planetary Science Institute. An extensive source of information on past and future missions to the Moon is found at http://www.lpi.usra.edu/expmoon/
Orloff, Richard W. Apollo By the Numbers: A Statistical Reference (NASA SP 2000-4029, 2000). Online at http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4029/SP-4029.htm
Seamans, Robert C. Jr. Project Apollo: The Tough Decisions (NASA SP-2005-4537), available online at http://history.nasa.gov/monograph37.pdfSiddiqi, Asif, Challenge to Apollo: The
Watkins, Billy. Apollo Moon Missions: The Unsung Heroes (Praeger, 2006)
Further books related to Apollo are online at http://history.nasa.gov/on-line.htmlSteven J. Dick