Feature: The Truth About The Moon Landings
Fifty years ago, three men travelled 238,855 miles—that’s the equivalent of ten times around the world—inside a capsule no bigger than a small hatchback, as part of a program that had been in development for less time than a new generation iPhone—all to set foot on the moon first. They say motorsport is dangerous; this was the most dangerous race the world had ever seen. Welcome to a special episode dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. It’s a little different; we hope you enjoy it.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade—not because [it] is easy, but because [it is] hard.” When President John F. Kennedy spoke those words at the Rice Stadium in Houston, Texas on September 12th, 1962, the United States had amassed a total manned space flight time of just ten hours. To get to the moon and back would take eight days, and thanks to President Kennedy, NASA had just eight years to figure out how. In hindsight we think of this achievement of one of skill and bravery, and it is—but it was also one of incredible recklessness.
When you look at astronauts today, you’ll see scientists, engineers, scholars. When you look at the crews of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, there’s a single job that keeps appearing over and over again: test pilot. That’s because everything about the attempt to beat the Russians to the moon was experimental. NASA didn’t need scientists, engineers and scholars on board—it needed guinea pigs.
Barely eleven years after the 700mph sound barrier had been broken, the United States’ first spaceflight program, project Mercury, began. But to leave Earth’s orbit, NASA would have to build a rocket that could exceed the sound barrier some thirty-five times over—and most importantly it would need to find a crew crazy enough to go along for the ride.
Of the seventy-seven men who partook in projects Mercury—getting humans into orbit—Gemini—perfecting mission-critical manoeuvres—and Apollo—actually going to the moon—seven died, four in training jets and three, the crew of Apollo 1, in a fire on the launch pad during a training exercise. One thing was clear: the only way NASA was going to get to the moon on time was by taking risks—enormous risks.
Astronaut Gus Grissom said: “If we die, we want people to accept it. We’re in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.” He was one of the three astronauts, along with Ed White and Roger Chaffee, who died on the launch pad as the Apollo 1 command module caught fire.
You may have heard of “the right stuff”. This was the hallowed quality of a NASA astronaut, and it goes beyond anything you could possibly imagine. Before the fateful day of Apollo 1, Grissom had accumulated over a hundred combat missions in Korea and had requested to fly twenty-five more. When he was failed by NASA on his physical for having hay fever, he argued—successfully—that there was no pollen in space. This is the right stuff, and every single astronaut had it.
How do you build a spacecraft when you’ve got no idea what space is like? This was the challenge faced by NASA, and it would prove to be both costly and difficult. At first, nobody even knew if humans would be able to survive the trip let alone function, and for astronaut Alan Shephard, the first American in space, it was a worrying thought. “It is a very sobering feeling,” he said, “to be up in space and realize that one's safety factor was determined by the lowest bidder.”
Shephard’s maiden sub-orbital flight may have lasted just fifteen minutes, but it was a huge milestone. Only three years before, there had been no rocket, no NASA and no space program. Everything had been built from scratch, including Shephard’s launch vehicle, the Mercury-Redstone, a twenty-five-metre tall rocket producing 75,000 pounds of thrust. To go to the moon, however, this was not enough. It was nowhere near enough. And so, the Saturn V rocket was developed. This monster was 111 metres tall, taller than the Statue of Liberty, and its five F-1 rocket engines produced over 7.5 million pounds of thrust.
But the Saturn V was not the work of decades; just six short years separated the very first sketches of the mammoth rocket—originally called the C5—to the inaugural test flight, and that meant cutting a lot of corners. German Wernher von Braun, who lead the development, wanted to test the rocket in stages, but there was just no time, and so it was launched in its entirety in 1967—thankfully without incident.
This unmanned flight may have been rushed, but you would still think that testing for crewed flights on Saturn V was extensive—but the truth is far more harrowing. The very next mission flown with Saturn V was Apollo 8, the same mission that took humans out of low Earth orbit for the first time and into lunar orbit. With less than a year to go before Apollo 11, NASA was taking every possible chance to get to the moon on time.
And the challenge of entering the orbit of the moon, what’s known as trans-lunar injection, is one of epic proportions. Firstly, the scale—we consider the moon to be close to Earth, but the reality is that the distance is the equivalent of no less than thirty times Earth’s diameter. It’s a long way away. Secondly is the speed of the moon, which travels at just over 2,200mph along its 1.5 million-mile orbit. This makes getting there incredibly hard.
And so, with less computing power than a modern toaster, NASA engineers were able to guide the Saturn V rocket of Apollo 11 all the way to the moon. And no, they didn’t just point the rocket at the moon and hit fire, because a) the moon would be in a different place by the time the rocket got far enough, and b) because the rocket would need a lot more fuel than it could carry to shoot straight up. Although space is only fifty miles above us, gravity is incredibly difficult to break free from, and so the most efficient way to get into deep space is by entering Earth’s orbit first.
A curved trajectory is what got the Saturn V into orbit, an increasingly horizontal path that aims to propel the rocket faster than Earth’s gravity can pull it back down, such that it is perpetually falling and missing the Earth. Imagine the feeling of being in constant freefall, because that’s what the astronauts felt. But here’s where things get complicated, and weird. In orbit, an increase in velocity means that your vehicle will get further away from Earth before gravity can pull it back down, and so will effectively raise the altitude of the orbit. But this means that the distance travelled around the Earth has grown, and so in a rendezvous situation, it means you will actually get further away from the thing you are trying to catch up with.
This is all part of the incredible mathematical challenge required to get Apollo 11 to the moon, and that’s only the start of it. To break free of low Earth orbit and enter lunar orbit required a boost at just the right moment so the increase in altitude transferred the rocket from the hold of the Earth to that of the moon. Think again about the speeds and distances involved: travelling 24,000mph towards an object 240,000 miles away that itself is moving at 2,200mph—threading the needle doesn’t even begin to describe it.
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left Michael Collins behind in the command module to descend to the moon’s surface in the lunar module, the time had finally come. They’d been in lunar orbit for a day, some seventy miles above the rocky body, and now it was time to descend to its surface. It had been just two years since that first fateful test of Apollo 1, eleven years since the very start of the American space program—and things were about to get even more challenging.
Truth be told, nobody knew what to expect when the lunar module was to touch down. Would it sink, slip, bounce? They were completely in the dark in a craft that was so fragile its walls were only a fraction of a millimetre thick. And it was hand built, too, just like much of the equipment used in the mission: the heat shield, for example, was glued on by hand, the parachutes sewn and folded by hand. Even the wiring in the rudimentary—but high-tech for the time—computers was threaded together by hand. Some of these skills were so specialist and achievable by so few that NASA would not even allow these people to travel in the same car together.
But the most fragile thing on board was the crew. None of them could afford life insurance given the danger of their jobs, and so they had, before the mission, collectively signed hundreds of photos to sell in the event of their failed return, as a makeshift policy for their families. All they had to do now was land.
The lunar module actually had an automated guidance computer that could land by itself, and the plan was to use it, but there was a problem. A big problem. A discrepancy in the pressurisation of the lunar module before it had detached from the command module caused a minor gas explosion that had sent the lunar module off course by four miles, and neither Armstrong nor Aldrin knew where they were. Collins in the command module couldn’t locate them, and neither could NASA back on Earth.
And that’s when the guidance computer failed. An oversight left it receiving too much data at once and it overloaded. Armstrong took manual control of the vehicle, only to find that—as well as not knowing where they were—they were headed straight for a boulder field. A rough landing could mean never leaving the moon again. And so he piloted the craft over the field, taking it further out and away from the planned trajectory as Aldrin relayed their progress down to NASA.
As they passed the boulders, Armstrong began to bring the lunar module down, but time was running out. They were supposed to land with two minutes burn time left, but that barrier was broken and continued to go down with fifty metres of descent still to go. With capsule communicator Charlie Duke on the ground at Houston counting down the remaining seconds, Armstrong was finally able to clear the last of the boulders and place the lunar module on the ground. There was just twenty-five seconds of fuel left. “You got a bunch of guys about to turn blue,” Duke said from Houston. “We’re breathing again.”
But here’s the most impressive thing: not once did Armstrong or Aldrin lose their cool, their test pilot training keeping them clear and focussed. With everything going wrong that could go wrong, they’d piloted the lunar module down to the moon’s surface perfectly. Armstrong’s landing was so gentle, in fact, that it hadn’t even triggered the shock absorbers in the lunar module’s legs. This is why they had to jump so far off of the bottom step.
With the lunar module on the ground, you’d think the problems were over. But they weren’t. After twenty-one-and-a-half hours on the surface of the moon, it was time to go. And so, the switch was flipped to launch them back to the command module and back home—but nothing happened. The switch, the switch that ignited the launch engine, was broken. Armstrong and Aldrin tried to fix it and couldn’t. NASA, having requested the two stranded astronauts try and get some sleep—yeah, right—couldn’t fix it either. The solution? Aldrin, having had enough, jammed a pen into the circuitry and, would you believe it—it worked. The most incredible feat of the twentieth century ended with a bodge.
The magnitude of this achievement and the risks taken to achieve it are nothing short of mind-blowing. That a nation was able to mobilise in such a short period of time and accomplish what was considered impossible is inspiration to the future of not only space exploration, but also human progression. But there’s one last story yet to tell: when the crew of Apollo 11 splashed down, they were taken to Hawaii, where they were required to complete a customs declaration form. What did they write in the box marked ‘departure from’? The moon, of course.
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