This op-ed originally appeared in the July 29, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
As we looked back this July to the events of 50 years ago and the 1960s, the achievements of the nation’s space program were the highlights of a troubled decade. And the landing on the moon in July 1969, was the program’s crowning achievement and one of the great accomplishments in the history of the world.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11’s eight-day mission to land on the lunar surface and return to Earth, it is important to revisit America’s race to the moon and understand what it took to place the U.S. flag on the Sea of Tranquility.
And while we reflect on and honor the dramatic events and ingenious ideas set into motion in the U.S. by the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik and subsequent launch of Yuri Gagarin, the first human in space, I must lament the current state of U.S. space policy.
In December, it will be 47 years, almost half a century, since a human last stepped on the lunar surface. It will be eight years this July since the space shuttle program was brought to a close and the United States last carried its astronauts to orbit. We have yet to again fly a spacecraft successfully carrying Americans to orbit, let alone back to the moon.
In October 1957, the Soviet Union startled the world by launching the first man-made satellite into orbit, Sputnik. This event created great concern in the United States and the Western world, as it demonstrated the Soviets had unexpectedly advanced their technological capabilities — technologies that could, in turn, lead to very capable intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Soviets subsequently achieved further firsts in space, launching another satellite with a passenger, a dog called Laika, as a first step toward launching humans into space. The United States suddenly found itself in a space race in which it was behind and trying to catch up.
Among the most notable of these events was President John F. Kennedy’s address to a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, when he challenged the nation to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Subsequently, the U.S. successfully completed the Mercury and Gemini programs and worked relentlessly and tirelessly to enable Neil Armstrong to step on the lunar surface at 10:56 p.m. Eastern on July 20, 1969, eight years after Kennedy’s speech.
I was fortunate to join NASA in 1964 as an Air Force captain assigned to the Apollo program, and my growing responsibilities in the following decades allowed me to play a role in shaping the Apollo moon missions and the space shuttle program.
The 10 manned Gemini flights in 1965 and 1966 provided the essential preparation and experience needed for Apollo. The first manned flight, Gemini 3, launched in March 1965 and the last flew in November 1966.
During Gemini, preparations were underway for the first Apollo mission. The first manned Apollo flight was to be launched in February 1967, approximately three months after the last Gemini flight, with a crew of commander Virgil “Gus” Grissom, command module pilot Ed White and lunar module pilot Roger Chaffee.
A dress rehearsal was held approximately one month before the planned launch of Apollo 1. On Jan. 27, 1967, a countdown demonstration test was held with the crew in the spacecraft and the hatch closed. Nylon-based Velcro used to secure items in zero gravity and other flammable materials were also inside. There was a spark, probably caused by frayed wiring, resulting in a fire in the spacecraft. The crew frantically tried to open the inward-opening hatch but it proved to be too difficult and all three crewmen subsequently lost their lives.
The tragic loss during the launch test was a major setback for the Apollo program and Kennedy’s goal of a successful landing on the moon; that objective now seemed even more unattainable.
In order to proceed, the cause of the fire had to be determined and corrective actions implemented. With an atmosphere of 100 percent oxygen inside the cabin, new fireproof material had to be developed, tested and fabricated. A new outward, quick-opening hatch had to be designed and tested. The accident also led to a further evaluation of the spacecraft’s basic design and systems, which led to additional design and reliability improvements.
These efforts took place over a period of one and a half years. Apollo 7, the first manned flight of the redesigned spacecraft, was scheduled to launch on a Saturn 1B with a crew consisting of Wally Shirra as commander, Donn Eisele as command module pilot, and Walt Cunningham as the lunar module pilot.
A DARING CHANGE OF PLANS
In late summer 1968, George Low, the Apollo spacecraft program manager, took a few days of a well-earned vacation, having worked almost seven days a week around the clock after becoming the program manager following the Apollo 1 fire. The lunar module was experiencing delays and he was quite concerned that if the current planned sequence of flights were followed, a successful lunar landing could not be achieved before the end of the decade — which, of course, was a primary goal.
He came back to work with a new daring and courageous approach. If the planned October orbital flight of Apollo 7 was a complete success, he proposed taking the next flight two months later to the moon with just the Apollo command and service module. The Apollo 8 crew would only have to learn to fly one spacecraft and it would allow NASA to prove many of the systems, procedures, and much of the technology and equipment for a lunar landing without having to be concerned about a second spacecraft. Valuable deep space operational experience could be acquired while waiting for the delayed lunar module.
Apollo 7’s October 1968 flight of nearly 11 days was the first flight of the new Apollo command and service module. As noted earlier, its success was critical to ensuring a landing on the moon before the end of the decade. The fully successful pathfinding mission subsequently enabled Thomas Paine, the new NASA administrator, to announce Nov. 12, 1968 that Apollo 8 would be launched to the moon in December, one month later.
At 7:51 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 21, 1968, Apollo 8 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center for its mission to the moon. After a successful launch, the crew of Apollo 8 and the third stage of the Saturn V completed almost two orbits of the Earth before restarting the third-stage engine to perform the trans-lunar insertion (TLI) burn, sending humans for the first time beyond low Earth orbit; three days later they were orbiting the moon.
A black-and-white television camera was carried on board the Apollo 8 spacecraft and as the astronauts orbited the moon on Christmas Eve 1968, the world saw a close-up view of the moon as the three astronauts read from the Bible — a very emotional event to all who viewed it on Earth. As they orbited the moon, they saw their first Earthrise. Bill Anders took the photograph that has become famous and heightened the world’s awareness of the significance of the Earth’s environment. The beauty of the Earth with its rich colors can be seen against the black void of space, with the stark lunar landscape in the foreground. On Dec. 27, Apollo 8 returned to Earth and landed successfully in the Pacific Ocean, and the crew and the spacecraft were recovered by the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown.
The Apollo command and service module (CSM) had now proven itself on two successive flights. However, landing on the moon required a proven lunar module (LM) as well. The next Apollo mission, Apollo 9, two months later would be on a Saturn V. The crew consisted of Commander James McDivitt, Command Module Pilot David Scott, and Lunar Module Pilot Rusty Schweickart. McDivitt and Schweickart had to learn to fly two spacecraft — the LM and the CSM. Apollo 9 was launched March 3, 1969, for a 10-day mission in Earth orbit with a primary objective of an Earth-orbital engineering test of the first crewed lunar module.
Flying in the LM, McDivitt and Schweickart separated from Scott in the CSM and practiced separation and docking maneuvers. They flew the LM up to 111 miles from the CSM, using the engine on the descent stage; they then jettisoned the descent stage, and used the ascent stage to return and dock once again with the CSM. The flight was the first of a manned spacecraft that was not designed to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Schweickart and Scott also performed an abbreviated EVA (extravehicular activity performed outside the spacecraft). Schweickart checked out the new Apollo spacesuit, the first to have its own life support system rather than being dependent on an umbilical connection to the spacecraft, while Scott filmed him from the command module hatch. The mission was a great success.
The next mission, Apollo 10, would take both the CSM and the LM to the moon, and while not landing, would be a dress rehearsal for the first lunar landing mission, Apollo 11. The flight was scheduled for May 1969, two months after the successful Apollo 9 flight.
The Apollo 10 crew were all veterans of spaceflight. Thomas P. Stafford, the commander, had flown on Gemini 6 and Gemini 9; John W. Young, the command module pilot, had flown on Gemini 3 and Gemini 10; and Eugene A. Cernan, the lunar module pilot, had flown with Stafford on Gemini 9. The mission included an eight-hour lunar orbit of the separated LM, flown by Stafford and Cernan, with a descent to about 9 miles off the moon’s surface before a rendezvous and docking with Young and the CSM in about a 70- mile circular lunar orbit. Data would be obtained in the landing rehearsal on the moon’s gravitational effect to improve network-tracking techniques and to check out LM-programmed trajectories, radar and lunar flight control systems. The mission launched May 18, 1969, and landed in the Pacific Ocean May 26, successfully achieving all the planned mission objectives.
Two months later, July 16, Apollo 11 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center with a crew consisting of Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. Four days later, July 20, 1969, Armstrong and Aldrin successfully landed on the moon — and the rest is history. The United States had achieved Kennedy’s goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth before the end of the decade.
NASA’s plans to return to the moon will require the commitment of the necessary funds and resources and a major redirection of NASA’s ongoing activities. And it should be a cooperative effort, building on the foundation of the International Space Station partnerships, in order to achieve success.
The road is difficult and challenging and the environment both hostile an unforgiving, but the prize is worth winning and the potential return well worthy of the effort.
George Abbey is a senior fellow in space policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and the former director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Abbey’s rise from Air Force pilot to NASA power broker is the focus of a new biography, “The Astronaut Maker: How One Mysterious Engineer Ran Human Spaceflight for a Generation.”