Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft|
Apollo was America's program to land men on the moon and get them safely back to the earth. In May 1961 President Kennedy gave the signal for planning and developing the machines to take men to that body. This decision, although bold and startling at the time, was not made at random - nor did it lack a sound engineering base. Subcommittees of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), predecessor of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), had regularly surveyed aeronautical needs and pointed out problems for immediate resolution and specific areas for advanced research. After NASA's creation in October 1958, its leaders (many of them former NACA officials) continued to operate in this fashion and, less than a year later, set up a group to study what the agency should do in near-earth and deep-space exploration. Among the items listed by that group was a lunar landing, a proposal also discussed in circles outside NASA as a means for achieving and demonstrating technological supremacy in space. From the time Russia launched its first Sputnik in October 1957, many Americans had viewed the moon as a logical goal. A two-nation space race subsequently made that destination America's national objective for the 1960s.
America had a program - Project Mercury - to put man in low-earth orbit and recover him safely. In July 1960 NASA announced plans to follow Mercury with a program, later named Apollo, to fly men around the moon. Soon thereafter, several industrial firms were awarded contracts to study the feasibility of such an enterprise. The companies had scarcely finished this task when the Russians scored again, orbiting the first space traveler, Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, on 12 April 1961. Three weeks later the Americans succeeded in launching Astronaut Alan Shepard into a suborbital arc. These events - and other pressures to "get America moving" - provided the popular, political, and technological foundations upon which President Kennedy could base his appeal for support from the Congress and the American people for the Apollo program.
Because of its accelerated pace, high technology, and need for reliability, Apollo's costs were high (expected to be $20 billion to $40 billion as early as mid-1961), but the program lasted longer (albeit with aliases) than either Mercury or Gemini. (Gemini began in December 1961 to bridge some technological gaps and to keep America in space between the simpler Mercury flights and the more ambitious Apollo missions.) Requiring seven years of development and test before men could fly its machines, Apollo craft carried men into space from October 1968 through July 1975. The Apollo program itself recorded its final return from the moon on flight 17 in December 1972, after a dozen men had made six successful explorations on the lunar surface. Shortly thereafter Skylab, using the basic Saturn launch vehicle and Apollo spacecraft hardware, sailed into earth orbit, supporting crews on research missions up to 84 days in length during 1973 and 1974. Apollo passed from public view in July 1975, following the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project flight, flown by American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts to make the first international space rendezvous.
The Apollo story has many pieces: How and why did it start? What made it work? What did it accomplish? What did it mean? Some of its visible (and some not so visible) parts - the launch vehicles, special facilities, administration, Skylab program, Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, as examples - have been recorded by the NASA History Office and some have not. (see The NASA History Series) A single volume treating all aspects of Apollo, whatever they were, must await the passage of time to permit a fair perspective. At that later date, this manuscript may seem narrow in scope - and perhaps it is. But among present readers - particularly those who were Apollo program participants - there are some who argue that the text is too broad and that their specialties receive short shrift. Moreover, some top NASA leaders during Apollo's times contend, perhaps rightly, that the authors were not familiar with all the nuances of some of the accounts set down here.
Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft begins with the creation of NASA itself and with the definition of a manned space flight program to follow Mercury. It ends with Apollo 11, when America attained its goal of the 1960s, landing the first men on the moon and returning them to the earth. The focal points of this story are the spacecraft - the command and service modules and the lunar module.
The 14 chapters cover three phases of spacecraft evolution: defining and designing the vehicles needed to do the job, developing and qualifying (or certifying) them for the task, and operating them to achieve the objective. Like most large-scale research and development projects, Apollo began haltingly. NASA, with few resources and a program not yet approved, started slowly. Ad hoc committees and the field centers studied, tested, reported, and suggested, looking for the best way to make the voyage. Many aerospace industrial firms followed the same line, submitting the results of their findings to NASA and hoping to get their bids in early for a piece of the program.
When lunar landing became the Apollo objective in May 1961, the United States had only 15 minutes of manned flight experience in space and a tentative plan for a spacecraft that might be able to circumnavigate the moon. No rocket launch vehicle was available for a lunar voyage and no route (mode) agreed on for placing any kind of spacecraft safely on the lunar surface and getting it back to the earth. Nor was there agreement within NASA itself on how it should be done. But the luxury of time for committees to debate, thrash out, and reconcile differences vanished all too quickly - although NASA still had too few people and resources with which to do anything else. The agency awarded contracts for development of the systems - command module, guidance and navigation, and launch facilities - that were likely to change least when subsequent decisions were finally made. The first two chapters are devoted to these discussions.
Resolving the mode question was perhaps the most difficult decision of the entire program. The debate occupied NASA (and touched off arguments from other governmental agencies and from industry) for 18 months. General agreement on this pivotal part of the Apollo mission was essential for the selection and development of both the Saturn V launch vehicle and the lunar module that completed the Apollo hardware "stack." Passions among the participants in the mode battle appeared violent, even divisive; but when the lunar orbit rendezvous mode was eventually selected, in July 1962, the centers and Headquarters groups closed ranks behind the decision. Chapter 4 concludes the difficult definition phase of the program.
Apollo's middle years are covered in Chapters 5 through 9. When the development and qualification phase began, the lunar module was a year behind the command module, even though there were two versions of the CM: "Block I," limited to earth-orbital operations, and "Block II," equipped for lunar-orbital rendezvous. At the same time, NASA was staffing and organizing to manage the complex program and drafting detailed specifications, from the smallest component to the largest subsystem. Spacecraft development took two years, lasting much longer and meeting more difficulties than expected, and caused manufacturing delays. By 1965, Apollo managers were able to spell out the tests and reviews needed to qualify the spacecraft and get it to the launch site. All this time, the managers were fighting the extra kilograms that engineering improvements were adding to the two machines. Toward the end of the year and throughout 1966, Apollo moved ahead, with Gemini and NASA's unmanned lunar reconnaissance programs supplying some answers to Apollo planners, especially about astronauts living and working in space, the ability to rendezvous, and the composition of the lunar surface. Just when mission planning and launch schedules had assumed some firmness, a spacecraft fire on the launch pad during a routine test killed three astronauts and caused a wrenching reappraisal of Apollo program plans and much rework of the space vehicles.
Many deficiencies in the early model of the Apollo command module were eliminated as work on the advanced version progressed. When the command module was ready for its first trial flights, the lunar module was still a year behind because of propulsion, corrosion, wiring, and weight problems. NASA flight-tested both the lunar module, with all its problems, and the Saturn V, which had developed unwanted "pogo-stick" oscillations, and then decided that neither could yet be trusted to carry men into space. While solving these problems, NASA pushed ahead to qualify the command module, launching it into earth orbit (with the first Apollo crew aboard) on the smaller Saturn IB in October 1968. A daring circumlunar voyage in December not only qualified the command module for its ultimate mission but demonstrated that the Saturn V was at last trustworthy. Only the lunar module still lagged. But early 1969, the last year allowed by Kennedy's challenge, brought two flights in quick succession - one in earth orbit and the other in lunar orbit - employing all the lunar-oriented vehicles and certifying that Apollo was ready to land men on the moon. The world then watched - via television - as its first representatives walked on the surface of the moon in July 1969. These dramatic missions are discussed in Chapters 10 through 14.
This book is the work of three authors: Courtney Brooks, James Grimwood, and Loyd Swenson. (See Authors page for biographical sketches.) Brooks focused on the history of the lunar module, the mode issue, the search for an adequate launch vehicle, and the selection and training of astronauts (including spacesuits and training devices). Swenson examined the command module story, guidance and navigation, the command module fire, and scientific concerns. Grimwood wrote the five chapters on the Apollo missions and revised the drafts.
Sally D. Gates, Johnson Space Center History Office Editor-Archivist, served indispensably in many capacities in preparing this history: research assistant, editor, coordinator of the comment draft, compiler of the appendixes, typist, proofreader, and critic. Contributions en route were made by Billie D. Rowell, Corinne L. Morris, and Ivan D. Ertel, all former members of this office. Rowell and Morris worked on the archives, and Ertel selected the illustrations. Verne L. Jacks, an employee of the University of Houston, transcribed some of the taped oral history interviews and typed several trial draft chapters.
As may be seen in the source notes, the text rests on primary Apollo program documentation on the spacecraft. The archival base (about 25 cabinets of documents) was extensive, and the authors owe the program participants a great debt for heeding the admonition, "Don't throw away history!" Melba S. Henderson provided the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office reading files, which contained the day-to-day record of the worries and joys of managers and engineers as Apollo progressed. A host of others - most of whose names are in the notes - gave up treasured desk archives and illustrations. More than 300 of these participants agreed to taped oral history interviews.
Although this book was written under the auspices of the NASA history program, partially through a contract with the University of Houston, the contents are the judgments of its authors and in no way represent a consensus of NASA management - if such a thing were possible - about any of the topics, programs, actions, or conclusions. Like many who write contemporary history, the present chroniclers found far more advantages than hazards in having the counsel of the participants in weighing the mass of evidence and clearing the technical points. This assistance proved invaluable, though many who provided aid would not agree with the authors' selections and presentations - and some have said as much. Special mention should also be made of the help received from the NASA History Office - Monte D. Wright, Frank W. Anderson, Jr., Lee D. Saegesser, Carrie E. Karegeannes, and Alex F. Roland; from former NASA Historian Eugene M. Emme; and from the Chief of Management Analysis at the Johnson Space Center - Leslie J. Sullivan. But the authors alone must shoulder the responsibility for any defects the text may still contain.