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Nasa's Apollo Missions

The V-2 rocket, which is the precursor of all modern rockets.

The V-2 rocket, which is the precursor of all modern rockets.

Weimar Spaceflight Movement

Space. It has sparked the imagination of man since the Stone Age. The word summons up images that baffle us even today. As man evolved, the lights in our nighttime sky have come into focus through science, film and literature. The Apollo missions to the moon can be defined as the golden era of space exploration. As we move toward a new era in space exploration, let's take a surprising look back at how it all began.

The quest to explore space originated during a rather insignificant meeting in July 1927, when a small group of rocket enthusiasts made up of mostly young scientists and engineers met at a small restaurant in Breslau to start the Society for Space Travel (Verein fur Ramschiffahrt, or VfR for short). Filmmaker Fritz Lang and his visions of space travel influenced these young space enthusiasts. Some of them would go on to participate in the Apollo Program of the 1960s and 70s, which put more humans into space and out of earth's orbit than any other project in human history.

Soon after their first meeting, the leader of this small group, Herman Oberth, regarded as one of the fathers of modern astronautics, would recruit a young genius named Wernher von Braun to join his club. Von Braun would soon stand out as the most charismatic of the young rocket enthusiasts and later became the leader of the VfR. He was destined to become one of the most influential rocket designers in history.

Even as a young boy, von Braun had always dreamed of space travel. Early in his quest, the influences of war would push him to create a missile that gave birth to the age of the ballistic missile. It is the first man-made flying weapon to reach space. It went into production in 1944 and caused widespread destruction across Europe until the end of the Second World War.

The V-2 weighed over 28,000lbs; once upright, it stood at 46 feet and could fly over 220 miles delivering 2,200lbs of Amatol high explosives to its intended target. Traveling at twice the speed of sound, it was undetectable to its victims. Over 5,000 V-2s would be produced, mostly via slave labor, by Nazi Germany before the war's end. The final production model of the V-2 was a brilliantly successful rocket.

In May 1945, as the war ended, American troops captured von Braun and his band of rocket scientists. They secretly transported them to the White Sands Missile Base in southern New Mexico. Under the codename "Operation Paperclip," von Braun and other German scientists using captured V-2s would begin working on developing rockets for the United States Army. Over the next decades, von Braun would take the United States rocket program to new heights. The V-2 was and is the grandfather of all modern rockets.

Race to the Moon

Nothing disturbed Americans more than Sputnik passing over their heads on October 4, 1957. It marked the emergence of the Soviet Union as a technologically accomplished society; it demonstrated for the first time that a communist state could deliver nuclear weapons worldwide. The launching of Sputnik would spark a space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The result would create a chain of events that put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s. The moon has played a vital role in art, music, fiction and romance as man evolved from primeval to modern times.

In September 1958, President Eisenhower signed into law the National Defense Education Act, which provided billions of dollars for the education of young Americans in science and related subjects. And in October 1958, he opened a space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, known as NASA, which took on the eight thousand workers and $100 million budget of its predecessor agency, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).

It resulted from the American political elite's decision to set up a civilian space agency that would be an arm of the government, with programs and projects directed towards making the United States a central force in space exploration. Political leaders of both the United States and the Soviet Union believed technological leadership was important to demonstrate ideological superiority. The United States would enlist more than twenty-thousand companies and more than four hundred thousand people to do the job.

Also, in 1958, President Eisenhower created the Advanced Research Agency, called ARPA, an innovation center for military researchers who pushed the boundaries of science and technology. The agency would attempt to network computers across the United States, a project later known as the Internet. In 1972, the agency added the word "Defense" to its title and renamed it DARPA.

These agencies led to the advancement of computer technology and the development of the Apollo spacecraft's guidance system that evolved from a time between computers designed in the early 1950s, dinosaurs that used vacuum-tube circuitry, such as the whirlwind electronic digital computer developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the desktop computer of the late 1970s. Instead of taking up whole rooms like the whirlwind at MIT, Apollo's computers were very small in comparison. Apollo's guidance computer was one of the first to apply integrated circuits, which led to desktop computers and all the modern electronics we use today. It would be the Apollo crew's sextant as they travelled to the moon in the vacuum of space.

Perhaps the most valuable spinoff of the Space Race was the knowledge of how to plan, coordinate, and monitor the numerous and varied activities of the organizations required to accomplish such a great undertaking. Neil Armstrong would pay tribute to that human effort as he flew home from his historic walk on the moon.

President John F. Kennedy appreciated that calculated risks could lead to greatness, and his administration decided to lead the world into the exploration of space. His unanimous support of the American Congress funded NASA's quest to the moon.

President John F. Kennedy appreciated that calculated risks could lead to greatness, and his administration decided to lead the world into the exploration of space. His unanimous support of the American Congress funded NASA's quest to the moon.

Giants Who Walked Among Us

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their first steps on the moon on July 21, 1969, their colleague Mike Collins, orbiting above them in the command module, grew increasingly anxious. He questioned if the ascent engine on their lunar module, the Eagle, would work properly to get them off the lunar surface. The motor on the lunar module was one motor, and if something went wrong with it, they were dead men; there was no other way for them to leave. By just seconds Armstrong and Aldrin conquered their fears and opened up an alien world to the human race. Their epic mission set the example for all future space exploration.

NASA's Apollo missions to the moon were the golden age of space travel; more humans left the orbit of Earth than at any time in history. In that period, twenty-four human beings travelled to the moon and safely returned to Earth. Their journey was one of the most daring voyages in humanity's history, and their view of Earth from the moon changed our lives and the way we see our home planet. These men were made of the right stuff; they lived their lives on a knife's edge where split-second decisions were required to avoid catastrophe. Like Magellan, the men of Apollo were willing to sail off into the dangers of the unknown for the greater good of the human race.

The total cost of the Apollo Program up through 1974 was $25.4 billion. Ultimately, NASA decided to cut the Apollo Program to concentrate on near-earth exploration and cut its deep space dreams short. Some believed that President Nixon's concern about safety was the initial reason for cancelling the remaining Apollo moon missions. Some astronauts who spent many years training for Apollo were reassigned to near-earth programs, while others retired without ever making it to the moon.

The Apollo 17 crew would be the last humans to land on the moon; they remained on the lunar surface for over 75 hours, the longest of any Apollo mission. The mission was distinguished by extended hardware capability, larger scientific payload capacity and the use of the battery-powered Lunar Roving Vehicle. The crew collected the oldest known unshocked lunar rock, 4.2 billion years old, which suggests that the moon had a dynamo-generated magnetic field in the past. It was also the first Apollo mission launched at night and included the first scientist to walk the moon.

Within a period of four years, twenty-four American astronauts, some sailed twice through the unfriendly dark vacuum of space from the Earth to the moon. Twelve of those twenty-four rode their landers down to the lunar surface; they either walked or drove through the dust and rocks of this alien world. They risked their lives to complete their overwhelmingly complex missions to bring an extraordinary moment to human history.

Apollo 17 Night Launch

The Last Man on the Moon

Apollo 17 Astronaut Harrison 'Jack' Schmitt

Schmitt poses by the American flag, with Earth in the background, during Apollo 17's first EVA. He was the first and only scientist to reach the moon during the Apollo Missions.

Schmitt poses by the American flag, with Earth in the background, during Apollo 17's first EVA. He was the first and only scientist to reach the moon during the Apollo Missions.

Schmitt collects lunar specimens during the Apollo 17 mission. He was the only professional scientist to walk on the moon during Apollo. California Institute of Technology (BS) University of Oslo Harvard University (PhD)

Schmitt collects lunar specimens during the Apollo 17 mission. He was the only professional scientist to walk on the moon during Apollo. California Institute of Technology (BS) University of Oslo Harvard University (PhD)

Sources

Ford, Brian J., Secret Weapons: Technology, Science & the Race to win World War II., Osprey Publishing, Midland House, West Way, Botley, Oxford, Suite 219, Long Island City, NY 11101, USA. 2011

Jacobson, Annie. Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientist to America. Little Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group 237 Park Avenue New York, NY 10017. 2014

Kurson, Robert. Rocket Men. Random House LLC, New York NY. 2018

Neufeld, Michael J. The Rocket and the Reich: Peenemunde and the Coming of the Coming of the Ballistic Missile Era. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. 2000

Shepard, Alan. Slayton, Deke. Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Race to the Moon. Turner Publishing 1050 Techwood Drive, N.W. Atlanta GA 30318. 1994

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Mark Caruthers