A STEP ON THE MOON
40 years later by Gordon Caruana-Dingli
Apollo 11 - Man on the Moon
20th July 2009 marks the 40th anniversary of the first time that man left our planet and walked on the moon. NASA achieved this milestone with the Apollo project, which has been billed as man’s greatest technological achievement, but it may also have been man’s greatest adventure. Apollo also achieved political and scientific goals but most of all it was the first step that proved that man is no longer restricted to earth and can reach for the stars.
It all started on 25th May 1961 when the young President Kennedy delivered a special message to a joint session of Congress: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth. No single project…will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish”.
Up to this point the Russians had dominated the space programme. They had launched the first satellite Sputnik in 1957, the first craft to orbit the moon in 1959 and the first man to orbit the earth was the Russian Yuri Gagarin on 12th April 1961. The Americans were struggling to catch up but now the gauntlet was down and the race to the moon was on. This was the Kennedy - Kruschev era, only one month after the disastrous bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. America was humiliated and its new President wanted to restore morale. However this was no spur-of-the-moment decision. In his election campaign Kennedy had called space "our great new frontier".
NASA then embarked on the Mercury and Gemini programmes, these were single and two man crafts respectively. These were important to demonstrate various techniques needed to go to the moon e.g. docking two spaceships together, spacewalks and experience in navigation. Unmanned probes were sent to the moon and other planets. In the meantime NASA began planning for the Apollo programme. The technology for sending a man to the moon was not available and NASA just had to invent it! One of the requirements was a strong booster rocket to send a spacecraft out of the earth’s orbit at sufficient speed to reach the moon. This rocket was called the Saturn V, it was masterminded by Wernher von Braun, a veteran of the German World War II V2 project at Peenemunde. Apollo would consist of a command module which could house three astronauts and a service module in which there was a rocket engine and fuel besides fuel cells to generate electricity. The lunar module similarly consisted of a descent stage which housed a large rocket engine to land on the moon. The ascent stage housed two astronauts and a small rocket engine which lifted the craft off the moon and allowed it to dock with the command module. This would then be discarded after the astronauts joined their colleague in the command module.
By 1967 plans were being made to launch the first manned Apollo. Unfortunately tragedy struck during training. An electrical fault sparked off a fire and three astronauts died. Several modifications were made and this delayed the programme until October 1968 when the manned Apollo 7 mission flew around the earth. Apollo 8 took three astronauts around the moon and Apollo 9 allowed further testing in earth orbit. In May 1969 Apollo 10 took Tom Stafford and Eugene Cernan to within 30,000ft of the moon. At the same time an enormous crawler was edging its massive load towards pad 39A at Cape Kennedy. The Apollo 11 moonship was on its way to the launch pad. The Apollo Saturn V was 363 feet high, of this only the 12 foot high command module would return to earth. The rocket would consume 700 tons of fuel a minute, the equivalent of 3 million cars running concurrently, enough to reach a speed of 6000 miles per hour within two and a half minutes. Apollo 11 was manned by three astronauts, all 39 years old. Neil Alden Armstrong was the commander. A civilian, he had flown in the Korean war and was an experienced test pilot and a graduate in aeronautical engineering. Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin was the lunar module pilot. He had degrees in science and astronautics and was an expert in space rendezvous. He had also flown in Korea and was a Colonel in the US Air Force. Michael Collins was the command module pilot and would orbit the moon alone while his colleagues landed on the moon. The son of a diplomat of Irish descent he was born in Rome. He had a science degree and was an Air Force Lieutenant-Colonel. All had flown in space before and had trained extensively for this mission
On the 16th July 1969 the astronauts were woken up early. They had a big breakfast, they wore their spacesuits and were taken to a massive rocket on the launch pad. Watched by over a million people who had gathered at Cape Kennedy the rocket took off on time riding on a tail of fire and the noise of a sonic boom. Apollo 11 then orbited the earth, a rendezvous was performed and it arrived at the moon on the 19th July 1969. As the spacecraft orbited behind the moon a rocket-burn was made to successfully enter moon orbit. Armstrong and Aldrin entered the lunar module, separated from the command module and started their descent to the moon. The lunar module was called "Eagle" and its onboard computer was designed to land it on the moon.
Early in the morning of 20th July 1969 Eagle was approaching the Sea of Tranquility on the moon. The computer gave an overload alarm but ground control gave the go-ahead for the descent. During the last few hundred feet of descent Armstrong noted that they were heading for a crater full of dangerous boulders. He calmly took manual control and landed in a safe area with only a few seconds of fuel to spare. Armstrong then said: “Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed”, to which mission control replied: "Roger tranquility, we copy you on the ground. You've got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again. Thanks a lot.”
Man had landed on the moon.
After a short rest, Armstrong opened the hatch of the Eagle and in front of the largest television audiences ever (600 million) he climbed down a ladder to place his foot on the moon at 10.56 pm on 20th July 1969 (Washington time) to say: “That is one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind”. Since then there has been a controversy over whether Armstrong said "a" before "man". It is only recently that Armstrong said that he only decided what to say shortly before stepping on the moon. He meant to say "a" but it cannot be heard on the tapes. He is not sure whether it was lost in transmission or whether he did not say it because of excitement and he is happy for it to be put in parenthesis.
Aldrin soon followed on to the moon's surface. The first moonwalk lasted over two hours, and the astronauts collected moonrocks and set up experiments. They also had time to set up an American flag, uncover a commemorative plaque and receive greetings from President Richard M Nixon (ironically Kennedy's political rival).
Man had now landed on the moon, and Kennedy's challenge was fulfilled when the Apollo 11 astronauts returned safely to earth on 24th July 1969. Over the next three years a further ten astronauts would walk on the moon, but the public was no longer interested and it was only the tragedy of Apollo 13 that would attract their attention. The original programme had envisaged a total of 12 landings but budget cuts stopped the programme at Apollo 17.
Was it all worth it? Apollo cost $24 billion and three lives.
It gave America back its pride at a time during the cold war and it galvanised the American people together. Giant leaps in technology were made and the spin-offs from space research were worth more than the money invested.
But Apollo was not driven by technology. It was about imagination, vision and romance and adventure. Man went to the moon with very limited technology compared to what we have today. What mattered then was the collective dream of the country to do it. But most of all it was the next step in human exploration, that had to be made.
What next? There is no doubt that Apollo was NASA's greatest project. In the 1970s and 1980s NASA languished after severe budget cuts. While the Space Shuttle was a success NASA never managed to keep the same pace after Apollo and the promised Mars landings have not yet materialized, although there were successful unmanned missions like Pioneer, Voyager and Viking and the Mars rovers.
Although a manned landing on Mars is inevitable nobody can predict when it can happen. In the immediate future NASA is busy assembling the International Space Station and it is planning a return to the moon. While today’s technology is far superior to that of the 1960’s I wonder whether there is the motivation and the money for this to happen. Maybe it will only happen if there is another space race.
Postscript: As Armstrong stepped on the moon, a note was placed on JFK's grave at Arlington, to honour his vision: "Mr President, the Eagle has landed".
©Gordon Caruana-Dingli, 2009
Dr Caruana Dingli has been interested in space travel for 40 years. A surgeon by profession, he currently chairs the International Year of Astronomy 2009 Malta Committee.