Library Index » Science Encyclopedia » Part 1 Space Organizations: NASA - A New Agency Is Born, Peaceful Versus Military Purposes, Nasa Shoots For The Moon, Space Science Suffers

Part 1 Space Organizations: NASA - Nasa Shoots For The Moon

apollo lunar spacecraft module

NASA did not stay small for long. The agency had grand plans. In February 1960 NASA presented to Congress a ten-year plan for the nation's space program. It included an array of scientific satellites; robotic probes to the Moon, Mars, and Venus; development of new and powerful rockets; and manned spaceflights to orbit the Earth and the Moon. NASA estimated the program would cost around $12 billion.

Congress was politically motivated to support the program. The Soviet Union had already landed a probe on the Moon as part of its Luna Project. At the time NASA was continuing the Pioneer Project begun by the NACA to obtain data from probes sent to the Moon. The first three Pioneer rockets had launched during 1958 but failed to escape Earth's gravity. In March 1959 Pioneer 4 was the first U.S. spacecraft to escape Earth's gravity. It passed within 37,300 miles of the Moon. However, the Soviet's Luna 1 probe had already passed much closer to the Moon. The United States was behind in the space race.

After John F. Kennedy was elected president in November 1960, he charged Vice President Lyndon Johnson with finding a way for the United States to beat the Soviets to a major space goal. NASA pushed for a manned lunar landing, and Johnson agreed. On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy asked Congress to provide financial support to NASA to put a man on the Moon before the end of the decade.

NASA Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden (1898–1965) named the Moon effort the Apollo program. It was named after the mythical Greek god Apollo who drove the chariot of the Sun across the sky.

Catching Up

NASA had a lot of work to do just to catch up with the Soviets in space. In April 1961 they had put the first human in Earth orbit. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (1934–68) circled the Earth one time in a flight that lasted 108 minutes. It would be nearly a year before NASA could even come close to this achievement, with the flight of John Glenn (1921–) in Friendship 7 on February 20, 1962.

When it was first created in 1958, NASA was concerned with finishing ongoing NACA projects. These included a weather satellite, a military spy satellite, and the Pioneer lunar space probes. These probes were intended to go into lunar orbit or impact the Moon's surface while sending back photographs and scientific data. Pioneer 4 provided NASA with valuable new radiation data needed for the ongoing Mercury project.

The Mercury Project

The Mercury project actually began in 1958, only a week after NASA was created. The official announcement was made on December 17, 1958—the fifty-fifth anniversary of the Wright Brothers' flight. The project was named after the mythical Roman god Mercury, the winged messenger.

The Mercury project had three specific objectives:

  • Put a manned spacecraft into Earth orbit
  • Investigate the effects of space travel on humans
  • Recover the spacecraft and humans safely

On May 5, 1961, NASA astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr. (1923–98) became the first American in space when he took a fifteen-minute suborbital flight. Shepard's flight was far shorter than Gagarin's had been and included only five minutes of weightlessness. NASA desperately needed more data on the effects of weightlessness on humans. TABLE 2.1 Project Mercury manned flights Created by Kim Weldon for Thomson Gale, 2004This was considered a key element to manned flights to the Moon.

Project Mercury manned flights
Date of launch Mercury flight no. Spacecraft name Flight type Highest altitude Time in space Astronaut
SOURCE: Created by Kim Weldon for Thomson Gale, 2004
5/6/1961 3 Freedom 7 Sub orbital 116 miles 15 min 28 sec Alan Shepard
7/21/1961 4 Liberty Bell 7 Sub orbital 118 miles 15 min 37 sec Gus Grissom
2/20/1962 6 Friendship 7 3 orbits 162 miles 4 hr 55 min John Glenn
5/24/1962 7 Aurora 7 3 orbits 167 miles 4 hr 56 min Scott Carpenter
10/3/1962 8 Sigma 7 6 orbits 176 miles 9 hr 13 min Walter Schirra
5/15/1963 9 Faith 7 22.5 orbits 166 miles 1 day 10 hr 19 min Gordon Cooper

Between 1961 and 1963 six Mercury astronauts made six successful spaceflights and spent a total of 53.9 hours in space. (See Table 2.1.) Over this time period NASA's budget increased from $964 million in 1961 to $3.7 billion in 1963. By 1964 it had risen to over $5 billion and would remain at this level for three more years.

Is It Worth It?

The United States paid a high price for NASA's Moon program. It was conducted during one of the most turbulent times in American history. The decade of the 1960s was characterized by social unrest, protest, and national tragedies.

On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Vice President Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency. Johnson had always supported the space program and had been instrumental in passing the bill that created NASA. He assured NASA that the Apollo program would continue as planned. On November 29, 1963, Johnson announced that portions of the Air Force missile testing range on Merritt Island, Florida, would be designated the John F. Kennedy Space Center.

Robert Gilruth (1913–2000) was then NASA manager in charge of the Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston, Texas. He promised the country that Apollo would be successful because it employed "the kind of people who will not permit it to fail."

In 1964 social scientist Amitai Etzioni published The Moon-Doggle, a book that was extremely critical of NASA. The title was a play on the word "boondoggle" which means a wasteful and impractical project. Etzioni criticized the agency for spending so much money on manned spaceflights when unmanned satellites could achieve more for less money. He also questioned the scientific value (and costs) of sending astronauts to the Moon. Etzioni was not alone in feeling this way. American society was increasingly concerned with pressing social and national issues including the escalating war in Vietnam and civil rights.

The Gemini Project

NASA scientists realized during the Mercury missions that they needed an intermediate step before the Apollo flights. They had to be sure that humans could survive and function in space for up to fourteen days. This was the amount of time estimated then for a round-trip to the Moon. The program designed to test human endurance in space was named the Gemini project after the constellation represented by the twin stars Castor and Pollux. The name was chosen because the Gemini space capsule was designed to hold two astronauts, rather than one.

A major goal of the Gemini project was to successfully rendezvous orbiting vehicles into one unit and maneuver that unit with a propulsion system. This was a feat that would be necessary to achieve the Moon landings. The last Gemini goal was to perfect atmospheric reentry of the spacecraft and perform a ground landing, rather than a landing at sea. All of the goals except a ground landing were achieved.

During 1965 and 1966 NASA completed ten Gemini missions with twenty astronauts that spent a total of more than forty days in space. (See Table 2.2.) The Gemini IV mission featured the first extravehicular activity (EVA) by an American. Astronaut Edward White (1930–67) spent twenty-two minutes outside of his spacecraft during a "space walk." The longest duration Gemini flight (Gemini VII) took place in December 1965, lasting fourteen days.

Moon Resources

By 1967 NASA scientists and engineers had been studying the details of a Moon landing for more than six years. NASA's budget at the time was $5 billion a year (approximately $30.3 billion in 2006 dollars), with about 90% of that money going to outside contractors and university research programs. In 1967 more than 400,000 people at installations around the country worked in TABLE 2.2 Gemini program manned flights Created by Kim Weldon for Thomson Gale, 2004support of the Apollo program. NASA's employees numbered about 36,000.

Gemini program manned flights
Dates Gemini flight no. Astronauts Achievements
SOURCE: Created by Kim Weldon for Thomson Gale, 2004
March 23, 1965 III Virgil Grissom
John Young
3 orbits. Only Gemini spacecraft to be named (Molly Brown)
June 3-7, 1965 IV James McDivitt
Edward White
First American EVA—a 22 minute spacewalk by White
August 21-29,1965 V Gordon Cooper
Charles Conrad
120 orbits. First use of fuel cells for electrical power.
December 4-18,1965 VII Frank Borman
James Lovell
Longest mission at 14 days
December 15-16,1965 VI-A Walter Schirra
Thomas Stafford
First space rendezvous (with Gemini VII)
March 16, 1966 VIII Neil Armstrong
David Scott
First space docking (with unmanned craft)
June 3-6, 1966 IX-A Thomas Stafford
Eugene Cernan
2 hours of EVA
July 18-21, 1966 X John Young
Michael Collins
Rendezvous with Gemini VIII
September 12-15,1966 XI Charles Conrad
Richard Gordon
Record altitude (739.2 miles)
November 11-15,1966 XII James Lovell
Edwin Aldrin
Record EVA by Aldrin (5 hours 30 minutes)

Rangers and Surveyors

A series of nine Ranger probes had been launched between 1961 and 1965. They were designed to flight test lunar spacecraft, take photographs of the Moon, and collect data on radiation, magnetic fields, and solar plasma (charged gases emitted from the sun).

The first two probes in the series failed to escape Earth orbit. Ranger 3 was supposed to impact the Moon, but missed it by 23,000 miles. On April 26, 1962, Ranger 4 crashed into the far side of the Moon. It was the first American object to reach another celestial body. Unfortunately its central computer had failed during the flight, and no data was transmitted. After two more failed attempts NASA finally achieved success. On July 31, 1964, Ranger 7 crashed into the Moon after transmitting the first close-up photographs of the lunar surface.

During 1965 Ranger 8 and Ranger 9 captured hundreds more vital photographs before their impacts. Nearly 200 photographs taken by Ranger 9 were broadcast live on television as the probe hurtled toward the lunar surface.

On June 2, 1966, NASA achieved another milestone when the Surveyor 1 spacecraft made a controlled "soft landing" on the Moon in the Ocean of Storms. The ability to do a soft landing was considered crucial to putting a human safely on the Moon. Surveyor 1 returned a host of high-quality photographs. However, NASA was still running behind the Soviet space program. The Soviet spacecraft Luna 9 had soft-landed in the Ocean of Storms four months before Surveyor 1 got there. Luna 9 also provided the first television transmission from the lunar surface.

In all, NASA sent seven Surveyor spacecraft to the Moon between 1966 and 1968. Several lost control and crashed, while others achieved soft landings. The 1967 Surveyor 6 was particularly successful. During its mission NASA controllers were able to lift the spacecraft about ten feet off the ground and set it softly back down again. NASA was ready to put humans aboard a lunar lander.

Flight Techniques

One of the greatest debates of the Apollo program related to flight techniques from the Earth to the Moon. Some engineers advocated a direct flight. In this scenario the Apollo spacecraft would be launched off the Earth and would proceed directly to the Moon, where it would land. This approach had great appeal because it did not require any docking or rendezvous between spacecraft. However, it did require development of new super-sized boosters.

The second approach was called the Earth orbit flight. In this approach the spacecraft would circle the Earth before flying directly to the lunar surface. In this scenario risky docking maneuvers would have to be accomplished in Earth orbit, so the astronauts could return to Earth if something went wrong.

The last approach was called the lunar orbit technique. In this scenario the spacecraft would fly near the Moon and go into orbit around it. Then a small maneuverable landing module would leave the base unit for the trip to the lunar surface and back. This approach was considered the most risky, because it required rendezvous and docking in Moon orbit.

According to an announcement by D. Brainerd Holmes, NASA Director of the Office of Manned Space Flight (November 7, 1962), more than 700 scientists and engineers had spent one million work-hours analyzing the three Apollo flight choices. In the end the lunar orbit technique was chosen.

Apollo Spacecraft

The Apollo spacecraft had three parts:

  • Command Module (CM) containing the crew quarters and flight control section
  • Service Module (SM) for the propulsion and spacecraft support systems
  • Lunar Module (LM) to take two of the crew to and from the lunar surface

FIGURE 2.2 Apollo launch configuration for lunar landing mission "Apollo Launch Configuration for Lunar Landing Mission," in Project Apollo Drawings and Technical Diagrams, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, History Office, April 1975, (accessed December 28, 2005)

Figure 2.2 shows the three modules stacked atop a rocket for launch. The massive Saturn V rocket developed by Wernher von Braun was the launch vehicle selected for the Apollo spacecraft.

The astronauts rode in the command module during launch and reentry. Food, water, and fuel were carried in the service module. While together the command module and service module were called the CSM. When the three modules reached lunar orbit, the lunar module was detached for the journey to and from the Moon's surface.

After the lunar module ascended from the lunar surface it docked with the CSM. Once the two astronauts had moved safely into the CSM, the lunar module was jettisoned away from the spacecraft. Only the CSM made the journey back toward Earth. The service module was jettisoned away just prior to reentry into Earth's atmosphere. The command module with all three astronauts aboard was designed to splash down into the sea.

A Tragic Setback

NASA lost its first astronauts during the Apollo program. In 1966 three unmanned Apollo spacecraft were launched to test the structural integrity of the spacecraft and the flight systems. These were called the Apollo-Saturn missions and were numbered AS-201 through AS-203.

On January 27, 1967, NASA was preparing a spacecraft for mission AS-204, the first manned test flight. During a launch pad test of the spacecraft a flash fire broke out and killed all three astronauts in the command module. NASA renamed the mission Apollo 1 in their honor.

The tragedy temporarily devastated morale at NASA. The agency was not treated kindly by the media. Many newspapers questioned whether a manned lunar mission was worth the risk. Rumors even circulated that the astronauts had been murdered by NASA for criticizing the agency or for other sinister reasons.

The exact cause of the spark that started the fire was never discovered. An extensive investigation conducted by NASA found that a variety of factors contributed to the astronauts' deaths. Some were operational pro-blems—a hatch that was difficult to open, the presence of 100% oxygen in the module, and the use of flammable materials inside the module. The investigation also revealed a number of management and contractor problems. NASA set about redesigning the Apollo modules and reorganized top management staff. The Moon landing that was scheduled for late 1968 was delayed until 1969 due to the Apollo 1 tragedy.

One Giant Leap

By late 1968 the Apollo program was making tremendous strides. The first manned flight (Apollo 7) launched on October 11, 1968. Apollo 7 included the first live television broadcast from a manned spacecraft. Watching the astronauts on television helped rekindle a feeling of excitement about the space program. The American public grew more excited as one Apollo mission after another was successful. In May 1969 the Apollo 10 mission featured the first live color television pictures broadcast from outer space.

Two months later Apollo 11 was launched into space with three astronauts aboard. Their names were Neil Armstrong (1930–), Michael Collins (1930–), and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin (1930–). At 4:18 PM Eastern Daylight Savings Time (EDT) on July 20, 1969, the lunar module softly landed near the Sea of Tranquility. Astronaut Neil Armstrong reported, "Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed."

At 10:56 PM EDT Armstrong opened the door of the lunar module and climbed down a short ladder. As he put his left foot onto the surface of the Moon he said these words: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." It was the first time in history that a human being had set foot on another celestial body.

The event was televised live to a worldwide audience estimated at 528 million people. They watched as Armstrong and Aldrin explored the lunar surface for two hours and thirty-one minutes. The astronauts planted an American flag in the dusty soil and collected forty-eight pounds of Moon rocks. They unveiled a plaque attached to the descent stage (the lower part) of the lunar module. The plaque said, "Here men from planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon. July 1969 AD We came in peace for all mankind." The plaque bore the signatures of all three astronauts and President Richard Nixon.

The two astronauts climbed back into the lunar module. On July 21, 1969, the ascent portion of the module lifted off the lunar surface, leaving the descent stage behind. Armstrong and Aldrin had spent twenty-one hours and thirty-six minutes on the surface of the Moon. They then docked with the command/service module piloted by Collins. Once reunited, the three astronauts headed for Earth, leaving the lunar module ascent stage in orbit around the Moon. On July 24, 1969, their command module safely splash-landed in the Pacific Ocean.

The Can-Do Culture

NASA had achieved something that many people thought could not be done. The agency found itself heaped with praise and congratulations. Putting a man on the Moon was considered an enormous milestone in technological progress. In addition, it had been done before the end of the decade, just as President Kennedy had requested. The achievement fostered a tremendous sense of pride and confidence among NASA personnel. The agency was left with an optimistic conviction that it could do anything, an attitude that came to be known as NASA's "can-do culture."

NASA's critics believe that the agency's can-do culture caused it to make many overly optimistic promises during the following decades. NASA continued to set bold goals for the nation's space program and promised Congress that it could achieve them, just like it had accomplished the Moon landing. The problem was that these goals did not receive nearly as much financial support as the Apollo program received. The Moon landing was possible because NASA was given the necessary resources. Putting a man on the Moon within a decade had taken the talents of hundreds of thousands of people and nearly $24 billion of taxpayers' money. Neither Congress nor the American people were ever inclined again to devote so many resources to a space venture.

Apollo Fizzles Out

NASA launched six more Apollo missions following Apollo 11. In November 1969 the Apollo 12 crew landed near the Ocean of Storms and found the Surveyor 3 lunar probe sent several years before.

Five months later Apollo 13 was launched. Two days into the flight an oxygen tank suddenly ruptured aboard the service module. The pressure in the cabin dropped quickly. Fearing the crew would otherwise be lost, NASA devised a way for the astronauts to rely on the limited resources in the lunar module to limp back to Earth. The spacecraft splashed down safely on April 17, 1970.

Once again NASA had achieved a near-miracle. Although on the surface Apollo 13 appeared like a failure, NASA classified it as a success, because the Agency learned so much about handling emergencies during spaceflight. The experience was later captured in the 1995 movie Apollo 13. The movie made famous a phrase uttered by Apollo 13 commander James Lovell (1928–) following the oxygen tank rupture. Lovell said calmly, "Houston, we have a problem."

The next Apollo launch was postponed, while NASA worked on problems brought to light by the incident with Apollo 13. In January 1971 Apollo 14 successfully reached the Moon for a lunar exploration mission at Fra Mauro. The astronauts took along a new cart, specially designed to hold Moon rocks. Later that year the Apollo 15 crew took a lunar rover—one of three that NASA had built at a cost of $40 million—that resembled a dune buggy. The astronauts zoomed around the Hadley-Apennine region at a top speed of eight miles per hour. They collected nearly 170 pounds of Moon rocks. The lunar rover was so effective it was used on all the remaining Apollo missions.

In April 1972 Apollo 16 set down in the Descartes Highlands of the Moon. It was the first mission to explore the highlands and was at the southern-most landing site of any Apollo spacecraft. In December 1972 the Apollo 17 crew explored highlands and a valley in the Taurus-Littrow area of the Moon. For the first time the mission crew included a scientist, the geologist Harrison "Jack" Schmitt (1935–). The astronauts collected 243 pounds TABLE 2.3 Apollo program manned missions Created by Kim Weldon for Thomson Gale, 2004of Moon rocks, the most of any Apollo mission. On December 19, 1972, Apollo 17 splashed down safely in the Pacific Ocean. With the successful completion of the Apollo 17 mission, the Apollo program was over.

Apollo program manned missions
Name Dates Spacecraft call signs Crew Mission time Note
SOURCE: Created by Kim Weldon for Thomson Gale, 2004
Apollo 1 January 27, 1967 not used Virgil I. Grissom (Commander), Edward H. White, Roger B. Chaffee Spacecraft caught on fire on landing pad during practice drill. All astronauts killed.
Apollo 7 October 11-22, 1968 not used Walter M. Schirra Jr. (commander), Donn F. Eisele (CM pilot), R. Walter Cunningham (LM pilot) 10 days, 20 hours CSM piloted flight demonstration in Earth orbit. First live TV from manned spacecraft.
Apollo 8 December 21-27, 1968 not used Frank Borman (commander), James A. Lovell Jr. (CM pilot), William A. Anders (LM pilot) 6 days, 3 hours First manned lunar orbital mission. Live TV broadcasts.
Apollo 9 March 03-13, 1969 CM: Gumdrop
LM: Spider
James A. McDivitt (commander), David R. Scott (CM pilot), Russell L. Schweickart (LM pilot) 10 days, 1 hour First manned flight of all lunar hardware in Earth orbit. Schweickart performed 37 minutes EVA. First manned flight of lunar module.
Apollo 10 May 18-26, 1969 CM: Charlie Brown
LM: Snoopy
Thomas P. Stafford (commander), John W. Young CM pilot), Eugene A. Cernan (LM pilot) 8 days, 3 minutes Practice for Moon landing. First manned CSM/LM operations in cislunar and lunar environment; First live color TV from space.
Apollo 11 July 16-24, 1969 CM: Columbia
LM: Eagle
Neil A. Armstrong (commander), Michael Collins (CM pilot), Edwin E. (Buzz) Aldrin Jr. (LM pilot) 8 days, 3 hours, 18 minutes First manned lunar landing mission and lunar surface EVA.
Apollo 12 November 14-24, 1969 CM: Yankee Clipper
LM: Intrepid
Charles Conrad Jr. (commander), Richard F. Gordon Jr. (CM pilot), Alan L. Bean (LM pilot) 10 days, 4 hours, 36 minutes Lunar landing and lunar exploration.
Apollo 13 April 11-17, 1970 CM: Odyssey
LM: Aquarius
James A. Lovell Jr. (commander), John L. Swigert Jr. (CM pilot), Fred W. Haise Jr. (LM pilot) 5 days, 22.9 hours Mission aborted before spacecraft reached Moon.
Apollo 14 January 31-February 09, 1971 CM: Kitty Hawk
LM: Antares
Alan B. Shepard Jr. (commander), Stuart A. Roosa (CM pilot), Edgar D. Mitchell (LM pilot) 9 days Lunar landing and lunar exploration.
Apollo 15 July 26-August 07, 1971 CM: Endeavor
LM: Falcon
David R. Scott (commander), Alfred M. Worden (CM pilot), James B. Irwin (LM pilot) 12 days, 17 hours, 12 minutes Lunar landing and lunar exploration.
Apollo 16 April 16-27, 1972 CM: Casper
LM: Orion
John W. Young (commander), Thomas K. Mattingly II (CM pilot), Charles M. Duke Jr. (LM pilot) 11 days, 1 hour, 51 minutes Lunar landing and lunar exploration.
Apollo 17 December 07-19, 1972 CM: America
LM: Challenger
Eugene A. Cernan (commander), Ronald E. Evans (CM pilot), Harrison H. Schmitt (LM pilot) 12 days, 13 hours, 52 minutes Last lunar landing mission.

Table 2.3 summarizes information about all of the Apollo missions. In all, NASA put twelve astronauts on the Moon: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr. (1930–99), Alan Bean (1932–), Alan B. Shepard Jr., Edgar D. Mitchell (1930–), David R. Scott (1932–), James B. Irwin (1930–91), John W. Young (1930–), Charles M. Duke Jr. (1935–), Eugene A. Cernan (1934–), and Harrison H. Schmitt (1935–). They collected 840 pounds of rocks, soil, and other geological samples from the Moon.

The missions that followed Apollo 11 never captured the public's imagination the same way that the first Moon landing did. The feeling was that America had already achieved its goal of beating the Soviets to the Moon, and continued lunar exploration held little appeal for many people. Furthermore, the country was engaged in a very costly and demoralizing war in Vietnam. In 1970 NASA's budget was cut to $3.7 billion per year, down from the $5 billion per year regularly provided in the mid-1960s. NASA had to cancel its planned remaining Apollo missions. Apollo 18, Apollo 19, and Apollo 20 never took place.

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