Where No Man Has Gone Before: A History of Apollo Lunar Exploration Missions



Apollo's scientific objectives were always acknowledged, but scientists as well as engineers understood that the primary goal was, in John Kennedy's words, "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth." As long as that remained to be done, what the man (or men) would do on the lunar surface was of secondary importance. The choice of a landing site, the time allowed for the astronauts to explore the landing area, the instruments to be taken to the moon, and the amount of lunar material to be brought back to earth, all were governed by operational factors: what the engineers considered prudent in light of the overriding necessity to return the lunar explorers safely to earth.

Some scientists might object to the goal itself, but no one disputed the need to achieve it safely. So while the engineers worked out their operations plans, scientists concentrated on what they wanted done on the missions, on the understanding that their plans would have to yield to operational constraints until NASA had accumulated some flight experience. By the time flight planners felt able to relax some of those constraints, scientists would have prepared a long shopping list of landing sites and scientific activities to answer some of their questions.

Input from the scientists in the early days was minimal. In 1961 Harold Urey, responding to a request from Homer Newell, listed the general areas he would like to see explored on the moon: high latitudes, where low temperatures might allow water to exist; inside a large crater; in two maria of different types; near one of the great wrinkles in the maria; and in a mountainous region. 1 Probably many lunar scientists would have agreed with Urey's choices; but as Eugene Shoemaker recognized in a paper not long afterward, operational necessities would certainly militate against many of those choices, especially for the early missions.2

1. Harold C. Urey to Homer E. Newell, June 19, 1961.

2. Eugene M. Shoemaker, "Exploration of the Moon's Surface," American Scientist 50 (1962):99-130.