Eagle begins journey to moon's surface

The lunar module “Eagle” begins its journey to the surface of the moon on July 20, 1969. Photo: NASA

A week from Saturday will mark the 50th anniversary of the first human visit to the surface of our closest neighbor in the universe, the moon.

Somewhat surprisingly, for me anyway, two Sundays ago marked the 24th anniversary of the release of the film, “Apollo 13.”

It’s the only Hollywood film about the Apollo program that ever caught the imagination of the public in a big way.

The film made $355 million in theaters, which would be about $600 million today when adjusted for inflation. Its version of the story is probably more well-known by many than are the details of the Apollo 11 mission that first landed on the moon.

Director Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” got a lot of things right in its telling of the tale of a damaged spaceship and the extraordinary efforts that brought the crew safely back home – but he also exaggerated many events and gave NASA less credit than they might deserve in some areas.

One key moment in the film occurs when the lunar module (LM) carbon dioxide scrubbers can’t keep up with the CO2 output of all three astronauts.

The LM was designed to take two astronauts on a two-day trip to the surface of the moon – not to support three astronauts for three days.

On the Apollo 13 mission, the LM was forced to act as a lifeboat when the CM’s power supply was destroyed in an oxygen tank explosion. The CM had to be shut down to preserve the onboard batteries for reentry into the earth’s atmosphere several days later.

When the LM’s CO2 filters became saturated, the astronauts had to use the CM filters, which were a different size and shape and did not fit the LM system.

The CM and LM were built by different companies and each had to custom-build every piece of the vehicles – with no regard to interoperability because weight, space restrictions and speed of construction were more important considerations.

In a dramatic moment in the film, engineers at a NASA facility are given a box of materials the astronauts have onboard and are told to quickly devise a makeshift adapter for the CO2 filter.

In reality, NASA had devised the procedure for making a filter adapter during the mission planning stages prior to the first Apollo launch. The “what if” question had already been asked and answered.

The same was true of an event depicted later in the film when astronaut Ken Mattingly, who had missed the flight because he had been exposed to measles, worked to devise a procedure to turn the CM back on after it had been powered down for several days in the flight. That procedure had also been worked out long before the mission left Earth.

The idea that the LM might become a lifeboat instead of a landing craft was something NASA had considered extensively, so when it became a reality on the Apollo 13 mission, plans were already in place.

NASA made plenty of mistakes in the Apollo program – and many of them were due to the rush to meet the deadline of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy told a joint session of Congress, “First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

NASA was essentially given a blank check to meet the deadline, but only one American had flown in space when Kennedy made his speech to Congress - and that was not even a flight into orbit.

John Glenn would not orbit the Earth until the following year.

The two-man Gemini program was four years away and the moon was another quarter of a million miles farther.

The Apollo spacecraft to come would be the most complicated machine ever flown.

NASA had its hands full.

On January 27, 1967, the Apollo 1 astronauts, Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, died when a fire swept through their spacecraft on the launch pad. The Apollo spacecraft used pure oxygen as the breathing gas and the first design of the ship was full of flammable materials. The inward-opening main hatch was held firmly shut by the internal pressure created by the fire.

The Apollo 1 mission was scheduled to fly on February 21, 1967, but after the fire and the deaths of the astronauts, the first launch would not take place for another 20 months.

Following the investigation of the Apollo 1 disaster, NASA renewed its commitment to safety.

When the first manned mission, Apollo 7, finally launched in October 1968, it was with a completely redesigned spacecraft.

With just a year remaining before Kennedy’s deadline, the Apollo program couldn’t afford many other failures.

Apollo 7 was a test of the CM in Earth orbit.

In December 1968, Apollo 8 took three astronauts and just the CM into orbit around the moon.

The first test of the LM took place in Earth orbit just over two months later, on Apollo 9.

Apollo 10 was a full dress rehearsal of the landing in lunar orbit two months after that – in May, 1969.

Nobody at NASA thought all of the missions would go flawlessly, so Apollo 11 was not expected to be the first landing.

Problems with LM flight test would have required another test flight. Problems in lunar orbit would have required new procedures and another test.

Years of design and testing, billions of dollars spent and the soul searching and reevaluation after the Apollo 1 fire resulted in a spacecraft system that was ready to do the job.

Apollos 7 through 10 went off without any major problems and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin suddenly found themselves in line for the first landing.

The Apollo 11 mission launched from Earth 50 years ago next Tuesday.

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