Apollo an extraordinary adventure


The Apollo programme was not just a Cold War stunt, though many correctly saw it as such. Neither was it just an example of superpower posturing, though it most certainly was that too.

As is the nature of so many decisions in the human realm, America's decision to go to the Moon in the middle of the twentieth century had repercussions that were barely imagined when the President's advisers steered him towards his historic decision. In a speech on 25 May 1961, to a Joint Session of Congress on "Urgent National Needs'', President John Fitzgerald Kennedy justified his goal by stating that "... no single space project in this period will be more impressive ...''. Was he right? Probably. It was certainly a magnificent example of how a state-run command system can successfully fund and manage a megaproject given a conducive political environment. Ironically, this characterised the very Soviet system that America was trying to upstage when it went to the Moon, perhaps a demonstration that people are more similar than they are different.

As the programme came to its successful climax with Apollo 11 the media were filled with commentators proclaiming that such a wondrous achievement was bound to bring humanity closer together. There was a sense that this was the obvious culmination of a rising drive towards peaceful endeavours by an increasingly enlightened western society. In an interview for British television on the day after Apollo 11 reached the Moon, NASA Administrator Thomas O. Paine asked: "Why aren't our political institutions more tuned in to bringing to people around the world this great common aspiration that we all have: world peace, freedom from hunger and ignorance and disease? Why can't we do better in many of these other areas as we reach out and touch the Moon?''

In the short term, the media lost a measure of its cynicism and adopted an almost reverential tone. During the coverage of the launch of Apollo 11, veteran BBC commentator Michael Charlton spoke to the British audience while Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin boarded the van that would take them out to their space vehicle. In solemn, awed tones, he commented, "They take with them, this morning, the good wishes and the admiration of a world of people, as Man, a species born and who has lived all his life on Earth, moves, with this journey, out into the Solar System. And so, presumably begins, with this journey, his dispersal in other places out in the Universe."

In a documentary made for the 25th anniversary of Apollo ll's achievement, one of those on the front line of the Apollo programme, Frank Borman, who orbited the Moon on Apollo 8, pointed out how the pragmatic President Kennedy, in his bid to end the Cold War, had used his ability as a wordsmith to sell a voyage to the Moon as a great endeavour for exploration. "Fiddlesticks," exclaimed Borman. "We did it to beat the Russians.'' In the same documentary, Armstrong's introduction suggested that as well as national posturing, other forces and impulses within the minds of the participants were driving the quest to the Moon with equal force. "The dream of venturing beyond our own planet was too powerful to resist. We wanted to explore the unknown. We wanted to push the limits of space flight.''

Apollo therefore could become whatever its detractors or protagonists wanted it to be. To those scientists whose unmanned missions were shelved or commandeered for the sake of Apollo, it was a wasteful enterprise; spending vast sums where similar knowledge could be gained for much less cost. Others from the scientific community who bought into the programme for the opportunities it offered claimed that the presence of humans would greatly increase the science yield. Historian Lewis Mumford dismissed Apollo as "an escapist expedition" from a world beset by problems of malice and irrationality. In the view of economist Barbara Ward, it was a sign that humanity's destiny could be outside this planet and that the view of the Earth from space could change the thrust of human imagination to one that would lead humans to coexist better.

Apollo was undoubtedly NASA's greatest achievement, but in its very success it became a burden. NASA's funding came directly from the US government, annually allocated according to the political whims of a fickle Congress. When the political imperative behind the programme faded, NASA naturally looked around for projects that would allow it to continue to exist in the manner to which it had become accustomed - as would any maturing government bureaucracy. But there was no project that could come anywhere near Apollo's scale and expense while still carrying the political momentum needed to fund it. In the post-Apollo era, therefore, NASA sold the Space Shuttle to the American taxpayer as a new, cheaper route to the new frontier, and in the process, found themselves with an expensive, versatile 'space truck'. But the Shuttle was also fragile, and it threatened the agency's very existence each time it killed a crew, which it did twice. Apollo was a very difficult act to follow.

One of the ways NASA tried to justify its continued funding was to point out the technological spin-offs that came from the research and development that supported the quest for the Moon. Certainly, American industry learned much from Apollo in a very wide range of fields: from metallurgy to computer simulation, from electronics to fluid valve design. But the problem for those who would use spin-offs to justify further space exploration was that most of these advancements were as much tied up with the larger defence and aerospace effort being undertaken by the United States at the time, as they were with Apollo. On close inspection, it was difficult to disentangle a new technique, material or system from parallel developments in ballistic missiles or aircraft design or reconnaissance satellites. From an economic and industrial standpoint, it would be more accurate to say that a primary benefit of the billions spent on Apollo was the cash injection it gave to the US aerospace industry and the jobs and know-how that resulted. At any rate, this was part of Kennedy's motivation in setting the lunar goal.

However, unlike the shadowy exploits of the US defence community, Apollo was carried out in the open. It was a fantastic feat executed in full view of the world for its propaganda benefits, even though such a stance left NASA exposed at every failure of machine or management, or every time a crew was killed. One result of this openness was the inspiration it gave to vast numbers of children to take up careers in science and technology. On 4 October 2004, a small oddly-shaped spacecraft won the X-prize, a $10-million sum offered to the first privately financed three-man ship to rise above the internationally agreed threshold of space at an altitude of 100 kilometres, although on this occasion ballast replaced the weight of two passengers. Despite the substantial prize, no profit was made from this early effort in commercial space transport, as it relied on a $20-million investment by Paul Allen, an entrepreneur whose fortune began in the mid-1970s when he co-founded the software giant Microsoft. As a boy, he avidly watched the progress of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions. "I really got enthralled [by the early space efforts of the USA], and probably more than most kids.'' He is just one of a collection of multimillionaire entrepreneurs from the computer and internet industries who were brought up on the dreams of Apollo and who later expressed their interest in space by investing in new, start-up commercial space efforts that may make that dream a reality for many others.

During their voyages to the Moon, Apollo crews would sometimes look out of their spacecraft windows, see Earth in the distance and take a photograph. Some have claimed that the resulting extraordinary imagery was directly responsible for the modern environmental movement, when people who were concerned about the state of the planet's biosphere pounced on images of the jewel-like Earth rising above the barren limb of the Moon, or a full-Earth image captured en route between the two worlds. These images have been reproduced endlessly as symbols of the fragility of our planet. They served as the opening line of the fu11 Earth' as seen from apo11° 17

green movement's clarion call, and are heavily used by corporations to display their environmental credibility. In truth, and somewhat ironically, though much was learned from the Moon, the most profound thing we discovered through Apollo was Earth itself.

In some ways, the Apollo programme was the ultimate adventure for the American people because it fed into the frontier spirit that imbues much of their society, and gave the astronauts of that era an almost god-like status. In his book, The Right Stuff, author Tom Wolfe described the early American space programme and its crews in terms of single combat whereby, in some ancient civilisations, battles would be pre-empted by one-on-one combat between the best warrior from each side. In the Cold War, tribal heroics between the two superpowers on Earth were being enacted, not by knights on horseback, but by men from the fighter-pilot fraternity - afterburner jet-jockeys who were willing to risk their lives for their country's prestige. These were warriors who wanted to rise to the peak of their profession's ziggurat, a pyramid of ever faster, jet-propelled aircraft reaching ever greater heights - the dangerous world of the test pilot. In this arena, where it was accepted that men would die for a worthy goal, the dawning of the space age had introduced a new peak to entice the need-for-speed hot-shots and it seemed more dangerous than ever. Through television broadcasts of early unsuccessful space attempts, the American public had witnessed the unreliability of the early rockets. They became steadfast in their admiration for men who would strap themselves to the top of these jittery, controlled bombs and be blasted into space to demonstrate their country's prowess. In Ron Howard's movie, Apollo 13, there is an iconic sequence leading up to a superbly rendered dramatisation of a Saturn V launch. It is no coincidence that James Horner's score for this scene is strongly reminiscent of a regal coronation. These men were being anointed - prepared to be sent to the realm of the gods for the glory of a nation.

The Moon landings eventually came to be the ultimate expression of technical competence to the extent that a cliche entered the language: If we can land a man on the Moon, why can't we ...? Seeing the intention of Apollo as solely a demonstration of technical prowess, it became a yardstick against which the stuttering progress of the western world in other fields came to judge itself. In the light of such a dazzling display of what humans could do, why did real-world achievements appear tarnished, tardy and piecemeal? In truth, the world moved on to other preoccupations that equally tested human ingenuity; in particular, the rising power of the computer, increasingly fluid communications and information flow via the internet and mobile telephony. In a world that was increasingly looking in on itself, the outward-looking achievements of Apollo appeared outlandish, superficial and almost naive.

In many ways, Apollo was an aberration, a sample of twenty-first-century exploration tackled by the technology of the 1960s, brought forward by perhaps two generations by political circumstance and pushed through by the dreams and technical inventiveness of the thousands who took part.


In the years after World War II, in the bowels of America's aeronautical research facilities, a few remarkably gifted engineers were having ideas above their station. Thinking outside the box, as we now call it, they wondered how a manned spacecraft (women were never considered) that had been blasted outside Earth's atmosphere, could possibly return without killing its crew. Two in particular, Max Faget and Owen Maynard, were formulating a plan that might just allow the challenges to be overcome - one that would bring together diverse technologies that were then maturing, and might allow the dream of space travel to be realised. Many of these technologies were also concerned with the delivery of nuclear weaponry - the most prominent examples being the liquid-fuelled rocket, the ablative heatshield and the blunt-body re-entry vehicle.

Both the USA and the Soviet Union had been familiarising themselves with rocket technology gleaned from the defeated German forces of World War II. By learning from the cadre of rocket engineers that had worked for the Nazis, both superpowers had launched vehicles either looted or built locally on the basis of German experience. It soon became apparent that these rockets would be useful carriers for the newly developed nuclear warhead, able to dispatch these weapons across large distances in a short time. Both sides in the Cold War had nuclear armaments, and both realised that in the event of an exchange, early delivery of their warheads would be crucial to national survival.

Fast delivery of nuclear weapons required development of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) whose long, coasting flight could cross continents in half an hour. Though this class of missile was not required to go fast enough for orbital flight, much of its flight path was spent beyond the atmosphere and one of the chief problems encountered in this arrangement was dealing with the punishing heat the payload had to endure as it re-entered the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. After dispensing with solutions that tried to absorb the energy in a heat sink, engineers turned to the ablative heatshield. This was a layer of material on the outside of the warhead fabricated from materials that would ablate - that is, they would slowly char and burn away, protecting the bomb as it came hurtling back into the atmosphere. At the same time, the work of H. Julian Allen had shown that by forming the shape of a re-entering body into a blunt shield, the searing hot shockwave that always accompanied high-speed aerodynamics could be made to stand away from the fabric of the hull, and thus keep the hottest and most erosive gases clear of the vehicle.

Faget and Maynard investigated whether this technology could be arranged so that a person could sit inside the rocket's payload instead of a warhead, enter space and return to Earth without being roasted, chilled, asphyxiated, crushed or drowned. An early implementation of their work was the one-man Mercury spacecraft, a relatively unsophisticated capsule that let America log its first minutes and hours of manned space flight. However, even before the first such flight was attempted, engineers had begun to consider the design of a successor that could sustain a three-man crew for an extended flight in space and make a controlled descent through the

Sketches from October I960 for the "Apollo-Control Capsule".

atmosphere to land on the ocean. Perhaps, they thought, such a spacecraft could even fly to the Moon.

The name for this spacecraft, Apollo, was coined in mid-1960 by the Director of NASA's Office of Space Flight Programs, Abe Silverstein, who delved into Greek mythology for inspiration. Apollo was the son of Zeus and had associations with Helios the Sun god. The idea of Apollo riding across the face of the Sun seemed an appropriate metaphor to Silverstein for the grand sweep of the proposed programme. Though there would be precursors to the resulting ship - namely the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft - the basic shape of the Apollo re-entry module was arrived at early on, even though it still had no mission.

In May 1961, with America having hardly dipped its toe in space with the 15-minute flight of Alan Shepard, President Kennedy proclaimed a mission for this nascent spacecraft when he challenged his country to send a man to the Moon and return him safely to his home planet, and to do so within the eight and a half years still remaining of the 1960s. Kennedy's early months as President had been troubled by the success of the Soviet Union in achieving space firsts, particularly on 12 April 1961 when Yuri Gagarin became the first person to fly in space. Further trouble with an abortive invasion of Soviet-backed Cuba made Kennedy search for something

President John F. Kennedy announces his lunar challenge to Congress on 25 May 1961.

that would raise America's profile around the world. Landing men on the Moon, a goal that people within NASA were already thinking about, and carrying it out within a deadline, seemed like an enterprise at which his country could excel. The Apollo system would be pressed into this role.


Apollo was conceived as a two-part spacecraft. The three-man crew occupied the conical re-entry section, from which they controlled the mission. This command module (CM) carried much of the equipment the crew needed for their flight, and everything they needed for re-entry. Most of their consumables (air, water, power) and their chief means of propulsion and cooling were carried in a cylindrical section attached behind the command module's aft heatshield. This service module (SM) remained attached to the CM for most of the flight, the two sections acting as one spacecraft under the acronym CSM, for command and service module. On the return journey the SM was discarded just prior to re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. This distinctive cone-and-cylinder arrangement, with a nozzle sticking out of its aft end, became the archetypal spacecraft in the minds of many children who grew up at this time, fascinated by space flight.

Early plans envisaged taking some arrangement of the CSM all the way to the Moon's surface as part of a larger vehicle that would sport a set of landing legs to allow the combination to touch down. Although this would have been a rather

Apollo 14 CSM Kitty Hawk in orbit around the Moon.

unwieldy craft to land, the requirement to lift the CSM off the Moon dictated the thrust of the spacecraft's large main engine.

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