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The History Of The Apollo Missions

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When the crew of Apollo 11 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969, Americans hailed the successful completion of the most audacious and complex technological undertaking of the 20th century: landing humans on the moon and returning them safely to earth. Just over eight years before, when President John F. Kennedy proposed the manned lunar landing as the focus of the United States' space program, only one American - Lt. Comdr. Alan B. Shepard, Jr. - had been into space, on a suborbital lob shot lasting 15 minutes. At the end of the first lunar landing mission, American astronauts had logged more than 5,000 man-hours in space. To the extent that any single event could, the first successful lunar landing mission marked the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's development of the capability to explore space by whatever means were appropriate for whatever purposes seemed to serve the national interest.

To many, Apollo 11 demonstrated that the United States had clearly won the "space race" with the Soviet Union, which had been one of the space program's major purposes. By the time that was done, other issues dominated the scene. National interests were not the same in mid-1969 as they had been in 1961. Of the public reaction after Apollo 11, a congressional historian has written,

The high drama of the first landing on the Moon was over. The players and stagehands stood around waiting for more curtain calls, but the audience drifted away. . . . The bloody carnage in Vietnam, the plight of the cities, the revolt on the campuses, the monetary woes of budget deficits and inflation, plus a widespread determination to reorder priorities pushed the manned space effort lower in national support.

Project Apollo encompassed more than simply sending men to the moon and back. It reflected a determination to show that humans had an important role to play in exploring space, as they had in exploring the unknown comers of the earth in earlier centuries. That proposition was not universally accepted. From the time the space agency determined to put humans into space, many Americans argued vigorously against manned space flight on the grounds that it was unnecessary and inordinately expensive. Space scientists had already shown how much could be done with instruments, and planners were designing spacecraft that would revolutionize communications, weather forecasting, and observation of the earth, all without requiring the presence of people in space. These arguments were difficult to refute. Only when it came to exploring other planets did humans seem superior. For all of their limitations, humans were far more flexible than the most sophisticated robot, capable - as preprogrammed instruments were not - of responding creatively to the unexpected. If people had a place in space exploration, surely it would be on the surface of the moon.

Man's place in space exploration was decided, however, on other grounds. President Kennedy chose to send humans to the moon as a way of demonstrating the nation's technological prowess; and Congress and the nation endorsed his choice. That demonstration made and the tools for lunar exploration developed, Americans would go back to the moon five times, to explore it for the benefit of science.

The Soviet Union's launch of the world's first man-made satellite (Sputnik) on October 4, 1957, concentrated America's attention on its own fledgling space efforts. Congress, alarmed by the perceived threat to American security and technological leadership, urged immediate and strong action; the President and his advisers counseled more deliberate measures. Several months of debate produced agreement that a new federal agency was needed to conduct al nonmilitary activity in space. On July 29, 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 establishing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

When it opened for business on October 1, 1958, NASA consisted mainly of the four laboratories and some 8,000 employees of the government's 43-year-old research agency in aeronautics, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Within a few months NASA acquired the Vanguard satellite project, along with its 150 researchers from the Naval Research Laboratory; plans and funding for several space and planetary probes from the Army and the Air Force; and the services of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) outside Pasadena, California, where scientists were planning an unmanned spacecraft (Ranger) that would take close-up television pictures of the lunar surface before crashing into the moon.

Vanguard and JPL brought a strong scientific component into NASA's activities. Many of the Vanguard scientists became administrative and technical leaders at NASA Headquarters and at its new space science center (Goddard Space Flight Center at Greenbelt, Maryland. JPL's contributions to the space program would be strongest in instrumented spacecraft for the planetary programs. It also shared with Goddard major responsibility for development and operation of the tracking and telemetry network used in deep space operations, including Apollo.

These new acquisitions were grafted onto NACA, an organization that had played a leading role in the development of aircraft technology since 1914. After World War II, new aerodynamic and control problems had to be solved as the demand for military aircraft to perform at greater speeds and higher altitudes increased. By 1957 the X-15, one of a series of rocket-propelled piloted aircraft, was on the drawing boards. It was intended to be capable of exceeding Mach 6 (six times the speed of sound) and of climbing beyond 107,000 meters (67 miles) - above nearly all the sensible atmosphere. NACA was, in fact, approaching the conditions of space flight by extension of the operational limits of manned aircraft.

Other NACA engineers were working on other space-related problems. At Langley's Pilotless Aircraft Research Division, aerodynamicists were acquiring important data on aerodynamic heating at speeds of Mach 10, unattainable in the wind tunnels of the time, by flying models of aircraft and missiles mounted on rockets. When Sputnik went up, many of these engineers were already talking about the problems of putting humans in an earth-orbiting spacecraft.

The necessity for thinking about humans in space was made apparent when, less than a month after Sputnik, the Soviets orbited Sputnik II, a 500-kilogram (1,100-pound) satellite carrying a living passenger - a dog named Laika. With this dear evidence that the Russians intended to send men into space, both the Army and the Air Force resurrected dormant schemes to follow suit. Neither could produce a credible mission for humans in space, and both lost out to the new space agency

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