Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Apollo Missions

The data from the unmanned probes and orbiters was overwhelming in its volume and detail. Some critics continued to argue: Why send human beings? The manned missions clearly captured public attention, beginning with the Soviet Vostok series (1961–1963, including Vostok 6, which carried the first woman into space, Valentina V. Tereshkova) and the U.S. Mercury series (1961–1963). The Mercury series included two suborbital flights and the first U.S. manned flight in orbit, Friendship 7, commanded by John H. Glenn Jr., and launched on February 20, 1962.

(On October 29, 1998, 77-year-old Senator John Glenn boarded the Space Shuttle Discovery and became the oldest man in space. He returned from the mission on November 7.) The U.S. Gemini program came next, twelve two-man spaceflights launched between 1964 and 1967. The Gemini flights were intended very specifically to prepare astronauts for the manned lunar missions by testing their ability to maneuver spacecraft, to develop techniques for orbital rendezvous and docking with another vehicle—essential procedures for the subsequent Apollo Moon-landing program—and to endure long spaceflights. The eight-day Gemini 5 mission, launched August 21, 1965, was the longest spaceflight to that time. The Soviets also developed larger launch vehicles and orbiters. Voskhod 1, launched on October 12, 1964, carried three “cosmonauts” (as the Russians called their astronauts) into Earth orbit.

The U.S. Apollo lunar missions not only made up the most complex space exploration program ever conceived, but were perhaps the most elaborate scientific and technological venture in the history of humankind. Today, even if we had the desire, we no longer have the launch vehicles required to bring astronauts to the moon. According to the mission plan, a Saturn V multistage booster (rocket) would lift the 3-man Apollo spacecraft on its 21⁄4-day voyage to the moon, leaving behind the launch stages in pieces as it left the earth. After its journey, the small remaining piece of the initially launched craft would become a satellite of the moon, and the Lunar Module, with two men aboard, would separate from the orbiting Command Module and land on the moon. After a period of exploration on the lunar surface, the astronauts would climb back into the Lunar Module, lift off, and dock with the orbiting Command Module, which would fire its rockets to leave its lunar orbit and carry the three astronauts back to Earth.

After several preliminary missions, including Earth- and Moon-orbital flights, Apollo 11 was launched on July 16, 1969. On board were Neil A. Armstrong, Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., and Michael Collins. While in lunar orbit, Armstrong and Aldrin entered the Lunar Module, separated from the Command Module, and landed on the Moon, July 20, 8:17 P.M. Greenwich Mean Time.

“That’s one small step for [a] man,” Armstrong declared, “one giant leap for mankind.” And perhaps that sentence expressed the rationale for the effort, which went beyond strictly scientific objectives and spoke of and to the human spirit. Not that science was neglected. During their stay of 21 hours and 36 minutes, the astronauts collected lunar soil and moon rocks and set up solar-wind

Apollo 12 landed on the Moon on November 19, but Apollo 13, launched April 11, 1970, had to be aborted because of an explosion, and the astronauts, as recounted in a recent film through their great skill, resourcefulness, and courage, barely escaped death.

Apollo 14 (launched January 31, 1971), Apollo 15 (July 26, 1971), Apollo 16 (April 16, 1972), and Apollo 17 (December 7, 1972) all made successful lunar landings. Budgetary constraints, declining public interest, and the improving capabilities of unmanned missions eventually brought an end to the Apollo missions.

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