History of the Apollo Lunar Missions

The Soviet Union started the race to the Moon with their Luna 1 flyby mission, launched on January 2, 1959. America finished it with the first manned landing there on July 20, 1969. That was Apollo 11, of course, and it wasn’t the end of the story about mankind’s fascination with the Moon.

All in all, there were 33 flights in the Apollo program, 22 of them unmanned flights to test the launch vehicle and spacecraft.  Four of the manned flights were designed to “man-rate the overall vehicle for lunar exploration,” as NASA describes it in the “Apollo Program Summary Report.” Two of those manned flights, Apollo 7 and 9, stayed in Earth orbit. The other two, Apollo 8 and 10, are included in the total of nine Apollo missions—along with Apollo 11 through 17—that flew to the Moon from December 1968 to December 1972.

♦ Apollo 1 through 6

On January 27, 1967, a fire broke out during a pre-launch test of what was intended to be the first manned Apollo mission, AS-204, set to go up in February of that year. All three crew members—Command Pilot Virgil Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward White, and Pilot Roger Chaffee—were killed. Retroactively NASA gave that mission the designation the crew had chosen for it:  Apollo 1.

There are no missions officially known as Apollo 2 or 3, but two of the 19 test missions that preceded the unmanned Apollo 4 mission are known informally by those names. The “Apollo 2” mission was AS-203, launched on July 5, 1966, to test various functions of the Saturn rocket. “Apollo 3” was actually the AS-202 mission, delayed until after AS-203 because the command module spacecraft it was designed for wasn’t ready until later in the year. AS-202 went up on August 25th, and its success was taken as proof that the combined Saturn rocket and command module spacecraft were ready for manned flight.

Then the tragic Apollo 1 fire happened. After deadly flaws in the command module design were discovered during the post-fire investigation, the manned phase of the Apollo program was delayed for 20 months, until these could be corrected and everything could be retested. The unmanned Apollo 4 and 5 flights, in November 1967 and January 1968, respectively, happened during this period. They were both successful tests of the new command module design, as well as of the lunar module (flown for the first time on Apollo 5) and of the Saturn V rocket that would be used on the Moon shots.

Apollo 6, the last unmanned mission, was launched into an Earth orbit in April 1968 in such a way that it simulated the most important actual flight conditions of a lunar mission, testing both the Saturn V rocket and the command module spacecraft/lunar module. There were problems noted during the flight, but NASA decided that none of these would affect the lunar missions and that the overall performance of rocket and spacecraft had been satisfactory. It was now time to send up a crew.

♦ The first manned flights:  Apollo 7 through 10

On October 11, 1968, Apollo 7 was launched into Earth orbit, with Commander Walter Schirra, Jr, Command Module Pilot Donn Eisele and Lunar Module Pilot R. Walter Cunningham on board. Essentially, the purpose of the 10-day mission was to see how everything worked together; overall, NASA was pleased with the results.

They went to the Moon for the first time with Apollo 8. The six-day mission was a success, with Apollo 8 getting as close as 60 miles to the surface. The next mission, Apollo 9, was launched on March 3, 1969, and orbited the Earth for 10 days while the lunar module was tested for its planned operations. The flight, including extravehicular activities by two of the crew, was a success.

Apollo 10 was a mission to return to the Moon and practice docking maneuvers in that neighborhood as well as to practice a lunar landing without actually setting down. It was launched on May 18, 1969, and during the eight-day flight, all the maneuvers required for a lunar landing mission were performed. The lunar module was put into a descent orbit and came down to about 47,400 feet above the lunar surface before its crew headed back to the command module. There were a few, relatively minor problems during the mission, but all systems worked well, and Apollo 10 returned with a wealth of data for the next mission, which would be the big one.

♦ Apollo 11

The Apollo 11 mission description was much shorter than those that came before it:  to land two men on the Moon and return them safely to Earth.  They did it.

Commander Neil Armstrong, Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin Aldrin, Jr., were aboard Apollo 11 when it left Cape Kennedy at 8:32 a.m. on July 16, 1969. Four days later, at 3:17 p.m., Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the selected site in the Sea of Tranquility and stepped out onto the Moon’s surface, leaving human footprints there for the very first time.

These images are engraved in our minds. Perhaps it is best now just to quote from NASA’s forward to the “Apollo Program Summary Report”:  “Personal recognition is not given in any case except for the crewmen who were assigned to the missions. Indeed, any step beyond this would literally lead to the naming of thousands of men and women who made significant contributions, and, unavoidably, the omission of names of many others who played an equally significant part; however, all these people must undoubtedly have a feeling of satisfaction in having been a part of one of man’s most complex and, at the same time, noble undertakings.”

The mission ended safely with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean at 12:50 p.m. on July 24, 1969.

♦ Follow-through:  Apollo 12 through 17

A rough surface on the Moon’s Ocean of Storms was chosen for Apollo 12.  The mission, lasting from November 14-24, 1969, was a success. The same can’t be said for Apollo 13, but it was a “successful failure” in that the crew returned safely on April 17, 1970, after six days in space.

Apollo 14 blasted off on January 31, 1971, headed for Apollo 13’s original landing site in the Fra Mauro highlands. After this nine-day mission ended successfully, and with no lunar microbes found on the astronauts, NASA stopped requiring post-flight quarantines on returning crew members.

Apollo 15, 16, and 17 were the “J” missions. These were intended for a longer stay on the Moon in order to range further over the lunar surface. They also carried more instruments. Apollo 15 (July-August 1971) landed near the lunar Apennine Mountains and the Hadley Rille, and returned a lot of detailed information about the Moon’s surface rocks and soils. Apollo 16 (April 1972) explored the Descartes region of the moon, but ended one day earlier than planned due to some technical problems; in spite of that, all of its primary objectives and most detailed objectives were met, and the mission also returned useful data about Earth’s atmosphere and geocorona. The last Apollo mission, and the only one with a night launch, was Apollo 17 (December 1972), which set down in the Taurus-Littrow area. Numerous geological, seismic profiling, mapping, and geophysical experiments were performed. This final mission of the Apollo program ended on December 19, 1972. Three more planned missions, Apollo 18 through 20, were canceled due to budgetary concerns.

♦ Going Back

It wasn’t just about beating the Soviets. The Moon calls us, but it’s so hard to respond.

Between 1973 and 1976, there were four unmanned Soviet missions to the Moon.  After that came a gap of over 13 years in the lunar exploration timeline until Japan’s Hiten flyby/orbital mission in 1990. International lunar missions, including some American ones, are now becoming more and more frequent, with a possible goal of establishing a base up there.  None of this would be happening if the Apollo lunar missions hadn’t first shown the way.

At the time those early missions seemed like the culmination of mankind’s dreams. Their status isn’t at all lessened, now that we can see them for what they really were:  our first big step out onto another world.


NASA (1975)  Apollo Program Summary Report (PDF files of the report are linked at this page)

Wikipedia (n.d.)  “Apollo 1.”  Retrieved February 9, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_1

Wikipedia (n.d.)  “AS-203.”  Retrieved February 9, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AS-203

National Space Science Data Center.  “The Apollo Program (1963-1972).”  Retrieved on February 9, 2011, from http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/lunar/apollo.html