Apollo 11 command module

The Apollo 11 command module, the spacecraft that brought astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins back to Earth, is at the Museum of Flight in Seattle until Sept. 2.

This month I’m not going to talk about what’s in the sky, but rather about a bit of history.

Fifty years ago, on July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, the first time humans have traveled to another celestial body. It was a thrilling event; one that I’ll never forget. Some of my college roommates drove to Florida, from Michigan, to watch the launch. I did not go, and I am still kicking myself for missing it!

Apollo 11’s landing was the climax of a decade-long pursuit to reach the Moon by the end of the 1960s, a challenge from President John F. Kennedy. It was a huge undertaking. Remember, prior to 1957 there was not even a satellite in space. Great advances in technology, plus the challenge of the Soviet Union, spurred the U.S. on. I think few in the 1950s or even early 1960s envisioned us getting there as fast as we did.

For those of you who were not around back then, it all started with the Mercury Program, which put the first American in space. Mercury consisted of a small capsule holding one astronaut. The first two missions were “sub-orbital,” with astronauts rocketing to the edge of space, about 115 miles high, and coming back down in a matter of 15 minutes.

Astronaut Alan Shepard, on the first Mercury sub-orbital flight, was the first American in space. The later Mercury flights were orbital, with the last covering 22 orbits over about 34 hours. Mercury enabled us to see how humans could tolerate weightlessness and conditions in orbit.

The Gemini program followed, with larger capsules holding two astronauts. The Gemini program brought the first “Space Walk,” by astronaut Edward White, and the first docking of two spacecraft (a Gemini capsule and a rocket body launched for that purpose.) The Mercury program consisted of six total missions, and Gemini had a total of 10.

Following Mercury and Gemini was Apollo, the program that took us to the Moon. The Apollo design consisted of two spacecraft. First was a “Command Module,” which carried three astronauts. Tucked in a compartment behind the command module was the “lunar module” or “LEM,” the spacecraft that actually landed on the Moon.

An enormous Saturn V rocket carried the spacecraft into Earth orbit, with the astronauts in the command module. Once in orbit, the LEM was brought out and docked to the front of the command module. Astronauts could now move between the two capsules. A rocket engine fired, to thrust the two connected spacecraft to the Moon.

Once in Lunar orbit, two astronauts moved from the command module to the LEM. The two craft separated, and the LEM descended to the lunar surface. After exploring the lunar surface, the upper part of the LEM rocketed off, leaving the legs of the lander on the Moon. The LEM re-docked with the command module, the two separated, and the LEM was usually crashed into the Moon. The Command Module returned to Earth, using its protective heat shield to survive the fiery re-entry in Earth’s atmosphere.

There were 11 manned Apollo missions. Two of the first three (Apollo 7 and 9) were in Earth orbit, testing the command and lunar modules. Apollo 8, initially planned as an Earth orbital test flight, was changed when there was indication that the Soviet Union might soon try and send cosmonauts to the Moon. In order to get there first, NASA had Apollo 8 head to the Moon, where they orbited 10 times. Apollo 10 was a “dress rehearsal” of the Moon landing. Astronauts orbited the Moon, detached the LEM, and two astronauts descended to about eight miles above the lunar surface.

Apollo 11 was the first Moon landing, on July 20, 1969. Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans on another celestial body. Armstrong stepped onto the Moon and said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Apollo 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17 all were successful in landing on the Moon. Astronauts were able to study lunar geology, and even had a small car to use on the surface in the last three missions. Astronaut Eugene Cernan was the last on the Moon, in Apollo 17.

The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs were risky and daring, and not without failures and close calls. Most are familiar with the story of Apollo 13, when an explosion handicapped the command module. The astronauts were able to use the LEM as a “life boat” to preserve oxygen in the command module until they neared Earth and successfully returned. The second Mercury mission was another close call, as the capsule sank upon landing in the ocean, almost drowning astronaut Gus Grissom. Gemini 8, after the first docking with a rocket body, lost attitude control and began tumbling and spinning. Astronaut Neil Armstrong was able to steady the capsule. The greatest tragedy in the programs was Apollo 1, which suffered a fire in the command module when undergoing tests on the launching pad. All three astronauts, including Gus Grissom and Edward White, were lost.

If you’d like to relive a bit of history this summer, the Apollo 11 command module, the spacecraft that brought astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins back to Earth, is at the Museum of Flight in Seattle until Sept. 2. My wife Kathy and I visited the display in early June, and it is quite impressive. The display includes the capsule, a replica of the lunar module, and a monstrous Saturn V engine, one of five that the Saturn rocket used to send Apollo into orbit. There are even two tiny fragments of Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first airplane, the one that first few in 1903. NASA arranged with the Wright family to have those small fragments taken to the Moon by Neil Armstrong. An interesting link of two historic flights!

So much for reminiscing! Next month I’ll get back to the night skies. Join me in early August at the Trout Lake Fair for stargazing on the school grounds, and enjoy July’s night skies.

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