Apollo Missions

On July the 20th, 1969, Apollo 11 successfully landed on the moon; this was the pinnacle of the Apollo missions. The Apollo missions had officially started in 1961 when John F. Kennedy announced the start of a program with the ultimate goal of putting a man on the moon.

The announcement of the program sparked off the infamous rivalry with the Soviet Union, the other major world superpower at the time. The rivalry at space was mainly because of the cold war. The cold war never resulted in conflict; it was expressed through military aid to unstable countries, arms races (mainly the nuclear arms race) and rivalry that went beyond the normal at sports events and technical competitions.

The biggest technical competition was of course to put a man on the moon; this lead to the ‘space race’. The program ran from 1961 – 1975 and was managed by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration). People had always dreamed of space and the adventures that lay there; this was shown in 1901 when ‘Journey to Mars’ was published by Leonid Bogoyavlensky and was given hope when the next year a rocket was designed that could travel 8-9km.

The two world wars were instrumental in the development of technology, especially the second. It is little known how far ahead the Germans were technically, at the end of the war the A-4 missile reached altitudes of 85km and when the Americans closed in, they captured a top German ballistic team which was led by Wernher Von Braun. The scientists were brought back to America, at Redstone Arsenal and formed the core body of the missile development team. Later that year of 1945 the Russians returned to search and evaluate the German’s missile programs; they decided to continue production of the A-4 missile and enlisted the help of some remaining scientists who had previously worked on the project during the war.

Russia’s space program was led by Mikhail Tikhonravov and at the beginning of the space race seemed to be winning. Russia managed to launch the world’s first artificial satellite; Sputnik 1. However it was not as impressive as it seemed. Due to political pressure, the first attempt had to be dropped as it was advancing too slowly due to weight problems and the ability to launch it. Therefore the first satellite was a very basic one weighing just less than 100kg compared to the first attempt which wanted to launch one full of scientific equipment with a total weight of up to 1,400kg! On the 4th of October Sputnik 1 was successfully launched and although basic, sent shock waves through America, leading to public anger that they were not winning the race and a major increase in spending for NASA.

NASA was the US’s response to the growing fear of a missile strike from the Soviet Union;it served to protect homeland security and to keep the US more technically advanced than its enemies. After Sputnik 1, NASA benefited from a major budget increase to $100 million per annum to improve results and to speed up programs. The main threemissions were; Project  Mercury – designed to understand more about space and if it was possible to send a human into space; Project Gemini – to practice space operations e.g. loading and docking at a permanent facility in space; and finally the Apollo missions – exploration of the moon and to allow humans to walk on it. Later missions would focus more on the robotic side: Moon Ranger, Surveyor, Lunar Orbiter etc.  

Apollo 11 was launched from Florida on the 16th of July and landed in the Sea of Tranquillity on the 20th of July 1969. The crew consisted of three men: Neil Armstrong (Commander), Michael Collins (Commander Module Pilot) and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin (Lunar Module Pilot). Armstrong and Aldrin were landed by the Eagle, a landing craft while Collins orbited the Moon in the Columbia. Armstrong and Aldrin spent 21 hours 31 minutes on the moon and Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon on the 21st uttering the famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”.

Aldrin later joined him and they collected around 21.5kg of lunar rock to bring back to earth for analysis. The success of the mission filled Kennedy’s words when he announced to Congress the lunar mission that they would beat the Soviet Union and do it within the decade.

The other very famous mission was the Apollo 13 mission. Its ill-fated journey and the incredible story led it to be retold as a Hollywood blockbuster- ‘Apollo 13’. The rocket successfully set off on the 11th of April 1970 on course for the moon but due to problems had to later turn back. The reason for its failure was that two days in, due to the oxygen tank rupturing, which in turn led to an electrical failure the crew had to turn back. The problems the crew faced were numerous; they included heat loss in the cabin, failure of the carbon-dioxide removal system and shortage of water; but commanded by James A. Lovell the problems were overcome and the crew safely returned to earth on the 17th of April. According to NASA, the mission was a ‘successful failure’.

Other failures of the Apollo program include Apollo 1 which in 1967 erupted into flames on the launch pad, all three of the crew died in the fire.

Major successes and milestones, of which there were many, such as Apollo 8 – first manned spacecraft able to orbit a celestial body, Apollo 11 – first to set men on the moon, Apollo 17 which marked the last moonwalk. Today there are other projects and programs, one of the most famous is the ISS (International Space Station) which is still an on-going project but is soon to be finally completed after spiralling costs. The Apollo successes can be seen in museums across America but major ones to celebrate the program are located in Washington DC, and NASA’s main sites – Florida, Texas and Alabama.