Apollo 11 Remembered, Part Three: Apollo’s journey to the moon and back

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the Moon.

Welcome to Part Three of this year’s series on NASA, focusing on the 50th Anniversary of man’s first lunar landing, the Apollo 11 mission, which lasted from July 16-24, 1969. The three-man crew consisted of these astronauts: Neil A. Armstrong, the mission commander; Michael Collins, the orbiter ‘Columbia’ module pilot; and Edwin E. ‘Buzz’ Aldrin, the lunar landing module ‘Eagle’ pilot. This week we will look at how their mission progressed from launch through lunar landing and the return trip to the Earth in this magnificent achievement a half-century ago, and take an overall look at the other Apollo missions.

The Apollo 11 mission had been preceded by several other Apollo missions, each one getting closer and closer to actually going to the moon and landing two men on the surface and returning them safely to Earth. Before any Apollo mission flew, NASA dealt with a major tragedy on Jan. 27, 1967. As the first Apollo crew – Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee – were conducting a simulation on the launch pad in Florida, a flash fire broke out in their capsule. In the 100 percent oxygen atmosphere NASA was then using, the fire spread quickly and killed all three. The disaster caused NASA to re-examine all aspects of the program and rework many of the spacecraft’s systems. That spring, the mission for which the crew had been training was officially named Apollo 1.

The first Apollo mission to get to space was Apollo 7. During the 11-day flight, the crew conducted a number of tests on the spacecraft systems and conducted the first live TV program from an American spacecraft. All three crewmembers – Wally Schirra, Walt Cunningham and Donn Eisele – developed bad head colds during the mission. Despite the discomfort, the astronauts completed their mission objectives, demonstrating the resilience and adaptability needed by humans in space. Crew: Walter Schirra Jr., commander; R. Walter Cunningham, lunar module pilot; Donn F. Eisele, command module pilot. Launch: Oct. 11, 1968; splashdown: Oct. 22.

The success of earlier flights, problems in the development of the lunar module and concerns that the Soviet Union might be ready to launch astronauts around the Moon led NASA to change the flight plan for the next Saturn V mission, Apollo 8. NASA ultimately changed from an unpiloted, Earth-orbiting mission to a crewed flight around the Moon. Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders were the first crew to fly atop the powerful Saturn V booster, ultimately spending 20 hours orbiting the Moon. On Christmas Eve, 1968, the crew gave a memorable reading from the Book of Genesis, and while in orbit Anders took the iconic “Earthrise” photo. Crew: Frank Borman, commander; William A. Anders, lunar module pilot; James A. Lovell Jr., command module pilot. Launch: Dec. 21, 1968; splashdown: Dec. 27.

With a trip around the Moon completed, it was time for NASA to start seriously planning to land astronauts there. The next step was the Apollo 9 mission, the first to carry a lunar module into orbit. Though the mission stayed in Earth orbit, Commander James McDivitt and Lunar Module Pilot Rusty Schweickart separated the lunar module from the command module and flew independently for six hours, testing the lunar module’s systems. Schweickart conducted a spacewalk on the lunar module’s “porch” to test the spacesuit astronauts would wear on the Moon. Crew: James A. McDivitt, commander; Russell L. Schweickart, lunar module pilot; David R. Scott, command module pilot. Launch: March 3, 1969: splashdown: March 13.

The next test of the lunar module was conducted above the Moon. Apollo 10 was a full dress rehearsal for the first lunar landing. The crew tested all aspects of the mission, even showing the initial docking with the lunar module on the first color television transmission from space. Commander Thomas Stafford and Lunar Module Pilot Eugene Cernan flew the lunar module for eight hours, coming within 10 miles of the lunar surface and passing over the Sea of Tranquility, where Apollo 11 would land. Crew: Thomas Stafford, commander; Eugene Cernan, lunar module pilot; John Young, command module pilot. Launch: May 18, 1969; splashdown: May 26.

On July 16, 1969 Apollo 11 launched from Cape Kennedy at 13:32:00 UTC (8:32:00 CDT). An estimated one million spectators watched the launch of Apollo 11 from the highways and beaches in the vicinity of the launch site. The crew consisted of Neil Armstrong, commander; Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot; and Michael Collins, command module pilot. Apollo 11 entered Earth orbit at an altitude of 100 miles twelve minutes into its flight. After one and a half orbits, the spacecraft entered its trajectory toward the Moon with the trans-lunar injection (TLI) burn at 16:22:13 UTC (11:22:13 CDT) and began the three day journey to the moon. On July 19 at 17:21:50 UTC, Apollo 11 passed behind the Moon and fired its service propulsion engine to enter lunar orbit.

The lunar lander, The Eagle, containing Armstrong and Aldrin, separated from its command module known as Columbia, leaving Collins to orbit the moon alone for a day, and descended to the lunar surface, touching down on July 20, 1969, at 20:17 UTC. Armstrong then said, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Armstrong’s unrehearsed change of call sign from ‘Eagle’ to ‘Tranquility Base’ emphasized to listeners that landing was complete and successful.

On July 20, 1969, humans walked on another world for the first time in history, achieving the goal that President John F. Kennedy had set in 1961, before Americans had even orbited the Earth. After a landing that included dodging a lunar crater and boulder field just before touchdown, Neil Armstrong was first to set foot on the lunar surface. An estimated 650 million people on Earth who listened to him on TV or radio heard this: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But after returning from space, Armstrong said that wasn’t what he had planned to say. He said there was a lost word in his famous one-liner from the moon: “That’s one small step for ‘a’ man.” It’s just that people just didn’t hear it.” While it seems no one heard the ‘a,’ some research backs Armstrong. In 2006, a computer analysis of sound waves found evidence that Armstrong said what he said he said.

Armstrong and Aldrin explored the area around their lunar landing site for more than two hours. They collected soil and rock samples, set up experiments, planted an American flag, and left behind medallions honoring the Apollo 1 crew and a plaque saying, “We came in peace for all mankind.” Armstrong and Aldrin spent 21 hours, 36 minutes on the moon’s surface.

Eagle launched from the moon and rendezvoused with Columbia in lunar orbit at 21:24 UTC on July 21, and the two docked at 21:35. Eagle’s ascent stage was jettisoned into lunar orbit at 23:41. Catching up with and docking with Columbia, Trans-Earth injection of the CSM began July 21 when Columbia was behind the moon in its 59th hour of lunar orbit. Following this, the astronauts slept for about 10 hours, where they splashed down at on July 24, and were taken aboard the USS Hornet.

After three weeks in confinement and quarantine, just in case of alien bacteria or contamination, the astronauts were feted with parades and engaged with huge crowds around the free world reminiscent to the “Beatlemania” around another big deal group of the Sixties.

For a much more detailed description of the Apollo 11 mission, view the NASA page on it at: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo/missions/apollo11.html
, or on wikipedia at; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_11 .

Following the success of Apollo 11, Apollo 12 was also successful. Among the many mission objectives for Apollo 12 was to recover pieces of Surveyor III, a robotic lander that had been on the Moon for more than two years. Scientists wanted to study the effects of the lunar environment on the spacecraft. After a pinpoint landing that gave the crew easy access to Surveyor, they also deployed an experiments package that included a seismometer. Before leaving lunar orbit, they jettisoned the lunar module’s ascent stage so it crashed onto the surface, providing a controlled experiment to assess the seismometers. With a crew of Charles Conrad Jr., commander; Alan L. Bean, lunar module pilot; Richard F. Gordon Jr., command module pilot, launched Nov. 14, 1969; made its lunar landing on Nov. 19; and splashed down on Earth on Nov. 24.

Apollo 13 will always be remembered for the expression, “Houston, we have a problem.” Apollo 13 has been called a ‘successful failure,’ because the crew never landed on the Moon, but they made it home safely after an explosion crippled their ship. A switch and insulation, which should have been modified during an upgrade to one oxygen tank, were damaged during a test of that tank during construction. When the associated heater was turned on during flight, the tank exploded, depleting almost all of the power from the command module and forcing the crew to use the lunar module as a lifeboat. Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert came home safely thanks to the mission control team’s improvised procedures and their own ability to implement them. Launch: April 11, 1970; splashdown: April 17.

Notable for the return of America’s first astronaut, Alan Shepard, to space, Apollo 14 also was probably the smoothest lunar landing to that point. The crew spent more than nine hours outside the lunar module and set up a number of experiments. Shepard set a new distance record by walking more than 9,000 feet on the lunar surface, pulling a hand cart to carry their tools and samples. Crew: Alan B. Shepard Jr., commander; Edgar D. Mitchell, lunar module pilot; Stuart A. Roosa, command module pilot. Launch: Jan. 31, 1971; lunar landing: Feb. 5; splashdown, Feb. 9.

Apollo 15, for the first time, humans drove a car on the Moon. The first of the Apollo “J” missions – designed for longer stays on the Moon – the mission carried a lunar rover, which Commander David Scott and Lunar Module Pilot James Irwin used while they were on the surface for more than 18 hours. The traveled more than 17 miles in the rover, setting up experiments and collecting 170 pounds of samples. Before leaving the lunar surface, Scott conducted an experiment to test Galileo’s theory that objects in vacuum, without air resistance, would fall at the same rate. He dropped a geological hammer and a feather, which hit the ground at the same time, proving Galileo right. Crew: David R. Scott, commander; James B. Irwin, lunar module pilot; Alfred M. Worden, command module pilot. Launch: July 26, 1971; lunar landing: July 30; splashdown: Aug. 7.

Apollo 16 also took advantage of having a lunar rover, as Commander John Young and Lunar Module Pilot Charles Duke drove more than 16 miles over three moonwalks, collecting 209 pounds of samples. Problems forced mission controllers to cut the flight short by a day, but the return trip included a spacewalk by Command Module Pilot Ken Mattingly to retrieve film from a camera in the service module. Crew: John W. Young, commander; Charles M. Duke Jr., lunar module pilot; Thomas K. Mattingly II, command module pilot. Launch: April 16, 1972; lunar landing: April 20; splashdown: April 27.

The last mission, Apollo 17, featured the most extensive lunar exploration of the program, with three moonwalks that each lasted more than seven hours while the crew stayed on the Moon for more than three days. Commander Gene Cernan and Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt – the first scientist-astronaut to reach the Moon – collected 243 pounds of material. These samples, and those from the previous missions, continue to reveal more about the Moon as new tools and techniques are developed and applied. Crew: Eugene A. Cernan, commander; Harrison H. Schmitt, lunar module pilot; Ronald E. Evans, command module pilot. Launch: Dec. 7, 1972; lunar landing: Dec. 11; splashdown: Dec. 19. No human being has walked on the moon since Gene Cernan, last to climb aboard the ascent module, did then at 5:40:56 a.m. Dec. 14, 1972.