Going to the Moon

Steven Dutch, Professor Emeritus, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay

As of December 31, 1995, 339 individuals from 21 countries had flown in space. As of September 30, 1998 the figure was 400 from 25 countries.

The Soviets Press On

In the early 1960's the Soviet lead in space seemed to continue unabated. On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space with a one-orbit flight. On August 6-7 of that same year, Gherman Titov spent more than 24 hours in orbit. A year later Andrian Nikolayev and Pavel Popovich piloted the first two manned spacecraft to be simultaneously in orbit. In June, 1963, a second twin launch carried Valery Bykovsky and Valentina Tereshkova into orbit. Tereshkova became the first woman into space, and the last for two decades. This series of spacecraft was called Vostok (Russian for "east", connoting sunrise).

In 1964 the Soviets launched the first of the Voskhod (meaning "ascent") multi-person spacecraft. Three cosmonauts orbited on Voskhod 1 in 1964, two on Voshkod 2 in 1965. One of these, Alexei Leonov, made the first space walk.

In 1967, the first Soyuz spacecraft was launched. Soyuz, meaning "union", portended the use of this series of spacecraft to build and service a space station. The cosmonaut, Vladimir Komarov, was Russia's first two-time space traveler. He was also the first space traveler to be killed. His parachute failed on re-entry and the capsule slammed into the ground. The next Soyuz launch did not occur until 1969. More launches followed punctuated by another tragedy in 1971. Soyuz 11, carrying Georgi Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov and Viktor Patsayev, lost pressurization on reentry and the crew died from lack of oxygen. Apparently an exhaust valve opened accidentally.

Project Mercury

The U.S. response to the Soviet space effort was to try to adapt a space capsule to an existing missile. The first series of U.S. manned space missions was called Mercury.

Nobody had a clue what qualities would be necessary to travel in space. It was obvious that an astronaut had to be intelligent and able to cope with physical demands and stress, but beyond that, nobody could foresee what might arise. Serious thought was given to selecting circus acrobats on the grounds that they were used to extreme spinning, disorientation, and acceleration. In the end, military test pilots were used. The selection process and testing is hilariously portrayed in the film The Right Stuff. After much hype, seven astronauts were chosen, although other candidates went on to fly in later space programs.

The seven Mercury astronauts were Alan Shepard, Vergil "Gus" Grissom, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and Deke Slayton. NASA, in a move that has been debated and criticized ever since, sold the news rights to Life magazine. What emerged was a highly sanitized view of the astronauts and their private lives. In the film The Right Stuff, two attractive women are shown walking into a bar frequented by the astronauts and saying "four down, three to go", presumably not talking about autographs. Some of the issues involved in this controversy are discussed below.

The first two Mercury flights were unmanned test flights. Alan Shepard made the first short suborbital flight on May 5, 1961, a 15-minute flight that took him to about 180 kilometers altitude and about 500 kilometers downrange. Unlike the Soviet Union, the U.S. made ocean landings for all spaceflights before the Space Shuttle. A similar flight by Gus Grissom that July almost ended in disaster when the explosive door bolts on the capsule blew prematurely and the capsule sank, almost taking the recovery helicopter with it. Grissom himself almost drowned when his spacesuit flooded. Nobody has ever determined whether the door mechanism malfunctioned or whether Grissom erred. A privately-funded project to locate and recover Grissom's capsule (sunk to about the same depth as the Titanic, but a lot smaller target) began in 1985 and culminated with the recovery of the capsule in 1999. The hatch has not yet been found, so the controversy over what exactly happened has yet to be resolved.

The first two suborbital flights used the comparatively weak Redstone rocket and were primarily to test launch and recovery procedures. The orbital flights, beginning with John Glenn's on February 20, 1962, used the more powerful Atlas rocket. On the next orbital flight, Scott Carpenter overshot his landing point by 400 km; Carpenter never flew again. The last two longer flights by Wally Schirra and Gordon Cooper were completely successful. Deke Slayton was sidelined by a heart problem but eventually flew the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975.

One myth about the Mercury program that was unfortunately promoted by UW-Oshkosh was that 13 female pilots trained to become astronauts but were excluded from the space program out of sexism. The reality, as reported by space historian James Oberg in The Mercury 13: setting the story straight (Space Review, May 14, 2007) is quite different:

Project Gemini

Gordon Cooper was the last American to travel alone into space (until the flight of privately launched Spaceship One in 2004). In 1965 and 1966 ten two-man missions of the Gemini program were launched using the Titan missile as a booster. The flight of Gemini 6 and 7 was the first U.S. dual mission, with two spacecraft simultaneously in orbit. (To this day it is the only U.S. mission involving two separately launched ships.) Other missions practiced docking with an unmanned target, a necessary prelude for lunar flights. Gemini 8 was the first space mission to be aborted due to an in-flight emergency, and it made the first landing in the Pacific.

Russians to the Moon

The Soviets had an early lead in lunar exploration. In 1959 Luna II became the first spacecraft to strike the Moon. Luna III rounded the back side of the Moon and returned the first (very crude) pictures ever of its far side, which turned out to be remarkably featureless compared to the near side. It had lots of craters but very few of the dark plains or maria that are so obvious on the near side. In the late 1960's the Soviets had a series of innovative and successful lunar missions, including a lunar rover and a sample-return mission.

Did the Russians ever have a serious manned lunar program? As U.S. space capabilities improved and the war in Vietnam heightened political dissension, critics of the space program asserted that there never was any serious Russian lunar program and that claims to the contrary were merely efforts to sustain NASA through the use of cold war hysteria. Evidence for a long time was sketchy, but access to former Soviet records has allowed us to understand what happened in Russia during those years. Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, artifacts from the supposedly nonexistent Soviet lunar program, including lunar spacesuits, went on sale at Sotheby's in New York. The Soviet Union did indeed have a serious lunar program but technical difficulties, including several catastrophic explosions of its lunar rocket booster (their equivalent of a Saturn-V) made it clear that they would not beat the U.S. to the moon, at which point they ended the program. James Oberg, one of the leading experts on the Soviet space program, refers to the continued denial of a Soviet lunar landing program as a "cover-up". See Issues below for commentary.

Project Apollo

Robots First

While the technology of manned spaceflight was being developed, unmanned missions to the Moon were under way. The first U.S. series of lunar missions was the Ranger series. Ranger spacecraft were designed to impact the Moon, returning pictures of increasing resolution before final destruction. The series was plagued with disaster. Early missions failed to reach the Moon or malfunctioned en route. We learned about space the hard way. Space is indeed a vacuum, until you fire a thruster, at which point it locally becomes an electrically conducting gas - and shorted out the electronics on one mission. One heartbreaking mission, Ranger 6, worked flawlessly until the end, when its cameras failed to turn on. The final three missions, however, were successful. The last partial frames, from only a few hundred feet above the Moon, showed details down to a foot or so across.

In contrast to Ranger, the next series, Surveyor, worked well. Most of the seven Surveyors soft-landed on the Moon and returned photos. These missions put to rest ideas that the lunar surface was covered with soft dust that might pose a hazard to landings.

Next, the five Lunar Orbiter missions mapped almost all of the Moon. One spectacular photo, an oblique shot of the crater Copernicus, was published in newspapers as the "Photo of the Century". Lunar Orbiter also returned the first pictures ever of the Earth rising above the lunar horizon. Lunar Orbiter was unique in that it took actual film photos which were developed on board, then scanned and transmitted to Earth. (Gravitational effects of the Sun and other planets eventually changed the orbit of Lunar Orbiter so that it crashed into the Moon. Solar charged particles and cosmic rays have penetrated the film's shielding so that the film, if it is ever recovered, will be totally overexposed.)

Death on the Pad

On January 26, 1967, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee entered the Apollo I capsule for a full dress test. A fire broke out and all three were killed within a minute. An electrical malfunction sparked the fire which spread explosively in the oxygen atmosphere of the capsule. Of the 14 pounds per square inch pressure of the atmosphere, oxygen accounts for three. In space, astronauts breathe low-pressure oxygen (why spend fuel to transport unused nitrogen?) and fire cannot spread easily. Nobody fully realized how dangerous a spark would be in a higher-pressure oxygen atmosphere. The Apollo Program was delayed for 18 months while equipment and procedures were redesigned.

To See the Earth as it Truly Is ...

A number of unmanned test launches took place in 1967 and 1968. On October 11, 1968, Apollo 7 saw the first launch of a manned Apollo capsule into orbit. Partly because of the success of the Apollo 7 mission, but also because of delays in launch preparations,the decision was made, only two months later, to reverse the order of the next two missions and send Apollo 8 on a lunar flyby and return. The high point of the mission for most viewers was a live broadcast from lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, 1968.

Two poetic expressions are indelibly associated with the Apollo 8 mission. One was the conclusion of the astronauts' broadcast that bid farewell to the audience on "the good Earth." the other are the words of Archibald MacLeish:

To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold - brothers who know now they are truly brothers.

Apollo 9 never left Earth orbit, but it was a test of the lunar module and the ability of astronauts to deploy it, dock with it, and maneuver it. This mission was to have preceded Apollo 8, but because of technical problems it was delayed. Apollo 10, a return to the Moon, practiced maneuvering the lander in lunar orbit but did not touch down.

The Eagle Has Landed

At 4:17:41 P.M. (EDT) on July 20, 1969, an estimated 500 million people watched worldwide as Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon, confirmed by the message: "Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed." 6-1/2 hours later, Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon.

Apollo 12 landed near the site of the Surveror 3 lunar lander as a test of pinpoint lunar navigation. The astronauts retrieved several parts from the lander to assess the effects of long-term exposure of materials to space. These are the only pieces ever retrieved from an interplanetary spacecraft and returned to Earth.

Houston, We';ve Had A Problem

The story of Apollo 13 is well-known thanks to the superb Ron Howard film of the same name. The side of the lunar service module blew out halfway to the Moon and only heroic innovations on the ground and in space got the crew back. The film was the first major film to have scenes filmed in zero gravity (not in space but aboard a NASA aircraft). The launch scenes look so realistic I assumed they were enhanced archival footage, but they are entirely special effects.

Apollo As Science

The later Apollo missions were increasingly ambitious and increasingly devoted to lunar science

Apollo astronauts John Young (10, 16), Eugene Cernan (10, 17), and Jim Lovell (8, 13) each made two lunar flights. No one has actually set foot on the Moon twice.

Some Issues

Did NASA deceive the public?

The Mercury Seven were presented as unblemished heroes in NASA's closely-managed publicity efforts. Most authors agree that John Glenn came closest in conduct to the portrayal, and Alan Shepard was perhaps the greatest partier. But whether NASA and Life "deceived" the public depends a bit on how you define telling the truth.

A simple data dump is telling the truth in the most literal sense. To tell the truth in that sense I would have to tell every known fact about every space flight and everything else connected with them. In fact, one of the easiest ways to obscure an issue is to do a data dump in which the public becomes so confused by the welter of details and conflicting interpretations that they simply tune out. When we begin to omit extraneous details, we introduce subjectivity into the equation. There's a fuzzy, but nevertheless real, line between legitimate simplification and highlighting of important points on one hand, and serious distortion on the other.

One thing that leaps out at me watching films of early space missions is how incredibly primitive the technology was. The rockets had a good chance of failing, the instrumentation was crude, and there was a slight but by no means zero chance that a capsule might come down in a remote place and never be found. Against that background, are historians 500 years from now really going to care about adolescent tittle-tattle about whether any of the Mercury astronauts slept around? Or are they going to marvel at the resourcefulness, courage, and attention to detail that pulled this program off without a single loss of life?

Who, then, was really deceiving the public? Was it NASA, that kept the news focused on the technical details that, in the end, are the really significant historical issues? Or was it rather the frustrated media that would have preferred to focus on locker-room gossip?

The same question applies to the supposedly non-existent Soviet lunar program. Who really lied - the U.S. government, or the people who dismissed government statements as cover-ups or propaganda?

It's not hard to think of other examples. In democratic societies, when the dust settles, the "official" version is almost always closer to the historical truth than the version put forth by interest groups that cry "cover-up" and "propaganda".

Manned Flight, Pro and Con

Critics of manned space flight argue that robotic missions can achieve the same results for a fraction of the cost of manned missions. This may be true at the simplest levels, but not for more complex missions.

The 1997 Mars Sojourner mission was spectacularly successful and generated public interest in a space mission not seen in a long time, but the Mars rover could only crawl painfully slowly. None of the pictures it returned of Martian rocks were clear enough to see the sorts of details a geologist can see instantly in a hand specimen, and the rover lasted only a month. Until robotic and manned missions achieve real mobility and flexibility their results will be limited. Apollo 17 was the most ambitious lunar mission, but the astronauts did not do a fraction of what terrestrial geologists would do in similar terrain on Earth. A terrestrial geologist would have gone up the mountains to get as much of a vertical cross-section of the lunar crust as possible.

Present robotic missions are the equivalent of trying to understand the Earth from a 1:250,000 topographic map. To achieve finer detail without sending manned missions, we will have to design robots with human flexibility, visual acuity, dexterity, and maneuverability. They will probably be as expensive to transport as humans and a lot more expensive to make.

Why Can't We Use the Money Here on Earth?

Once John F. Kennedy's challenge to put a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960's had been met, public support for the Apollo Program eroded quickly. On September 2, 1970, scarcely more than a year after Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, NASA announced that the Apollo 18, 19 and 20 missions would be canceled. From a scientific standpoint, these would have been the most ambitious and significant missions.

A major reason for the loss of interest was the general social malaise of the late 1960's. Activists bitter over the Vietnam War and social issues at home weren't simply uninterested in going to the Moon, they positively hated the Apollo Program because it symbolized all the patriotic and frontier attitudes that they despised in American society. The final straw was the announcement by the Pentagon that there would be no "peace dividend" after the Vietnam War; it would cost so much to replace lost materiel and upgrade obsolete weapons that military budgets would not decline significantly after Vietnam. There had always been grumbling that space exploration was diverting funds from domestic social needs, but after the first moon landings the pressures to use space exploration funds elsewhere became politically irresistible.

The reality is that space exploration has never consumed more than a small fraction of the money the U.S. spends on social programs, especially if programs at the State and local levels are included. Unlike Sweden, the U.S. has several autonomous levels of government, and a grossly misleading picture of American priorities emerges if only Federal budget figures are used.

When I view the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, my predominant feeling is anger. We could be doing now most of what the film depicts. The money diverted from space exploration was not used effectively to support human needs on Earth; even much of the money that was spent on social programs was wasted on ideologically driven programs that were insulated from any measure of accountability. And the opposition to the space program never really had anything to serving human needs; it was a marriage of convenience by anti-intellectuals from the political left and political right.

Essential Points

Illustrations of Important Rockets and Spacecraft

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Created 31 January 1998, Last Update 3 April 2000