“That’s one small step for a man. One giant leap for mankind.”
– Neil Armstrong
50 years ago on November 9th, 1967, Apollo 4 was launched by NASA. Recently on November 16th, 2017, astronauts and employees who worked on the Apollo project gathered at the Cradle of Aviation Museum to celebrate the anniversary. But how did the Apollo program earn its memorable, historic status?
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy stood before a special joint session of Congress and announced that the United States “should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” In the years that followed, his challenge became the central mission of NASA’s Apollo Program, which succeeded in landing astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface in July 1969. Ten other astronauts later followed in their footsteps, and by the time Apollo ended in 1972, 24 men had journeyed to the moon.
Apollo was a moon-landing project conducted by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the 1960s and ’70s. The Apollo program was announced in May 1961, but the choice among competing techniques for achieving a Moon landing and return was not resolved until considerable further study. In the method ultimately employed, a powerful launch vehicle (Saturn V rocket) placed a 50-ton spacecraft in lunar trajectory. Several Saturn launch vehicles and accompanying spacecraft were built. The crew members aboard the Apollo spacecraft were supplied with rocket power of their own, which allowed them to brake on approach to the Moon and go into a lunar orbit. They also were able to release a component of the spacecraft, the Lunar Module (LM), carrying its own rocket power, to land two astronauts on the Moon and bring them back to the lunar-orbiting Apollo craft.
Project Apollo’s goals went beyond landing Americans on the moon and returning them safely to Earth. They included:
Establishing the technology to meet other national interests in space.
Achieving preeminence in space for the United States.
Carrying out a program of scientific exploration of the Moon.
Developing man’s capability to work in the lunar environment.
The first manned Apollo flight was delayed by a tragic accident, a fire that broke out in the Apollo 1 spacecraft during a ground rehearsal on January 27, 1967, killing all three astronauts. On October 11, 1968, following several unmanned Earth-orbit flights, Apollo 7 made a 163-orbit flight carrying a full crew of three astronauts. Apollo 8 carried out the first step of manned lunar exploration; from Earth orbit it was injected into a lunar trajectory, completed lunar orbit, and returned safely to Earth. Apollo 9 carried out a prolonged mission in Earth orbit to check out the LM. Apollo 10 journeyed to lunar orbit and tested the LM to within 15.2 km (50,000 feet) of the Moon’s surface. Apollo 11, in July 1969, climaxed the step-by-step procedure with a lunar landing; on July 20 astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the Moon’s surface.
Apollo 13, launched in April 1970, suffered an accident caused by an explosion in an oxygen tank, but returned safely to Earth. Remaining Apollo missions carried out extensive exploration of the lunar surface, collecting 382 kg (842 pounds) of Moon rocks and installing many instruments for scientific research, such as the solar wind experiment, and the seismographic measurements of the lunar surface. Apollo 17, the final flight of the program, took place in December 1972. In total, 12 American astronauts walked on the Moon during the six successful lunar landing missions of the Apollo program.
These developments pioneered many important aspects of today’s space programs. As scientists develop more advanced technologies and discover even more about the universe beyond Earth, we can only imagine what kind of breakthrough will be the Apollo of this generation.