Astronauts used the command and service modules of the Apollo spacecraft to orbit the earth, travel to the moon, and return to the earth. The command module housed the astronauts during take-off and reentry into the earth's atmosphere. The service module carried consumable supplies such as fuel, food, and water, and was detached from the command module before the astronauts reentered the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, the United States continued work on its Apollo spacecraft. Apollo featured a cone-shaped command module designed to transport a three-man crew to the Moon and back. The command module was attached to a cylindrical service module that provided propulsion, electrical power, and other essentials. Attached to the other end of the service module was a spidery lunar module. The lunar module contained its own rocket engines to allow two astronauts to descend from lunar orbit to the Moon’s surface and then lift off back into lunar orbit. The lunar module consisted of two separate sections: a descent stage and an ascent stage. The descent stage housed a rocket engine for the trip down to the Moon. The descent stage fit underneath the ascent stage, which included the crew cabin and a rocket for returning to lunar orbit. The astronauts rode to the surface of the Moon in the ascent stage with the descent stage attached. The descent stage remained on the lunar surface when the astronauts fired the ascent rocket to return to orbit around the Moon.
The year 1967 brought tragedy to both U.S. and Soviet Moon programs. In January, the crew of the first piloted Apollo mission, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, were killed when a flash fire swept through the cabin of their sealed Apollo command module during a pre-flight practice countdown. Subsequent investigation determined that frayed wiring probably provided a spark, and the high-pressure, all-oxygen atmosphere and flammable materials in the spacecraft created the devastating inferno. In April, the Soviets launched their new generation spacecraft, Soyuz 1, with Vladimir Komarov aboard. Consisting of three modules, only one of which was designed to return to Earth, Soyuz could carry a maximum of three cosmonauts. After a day in space Komarov was forced to end the flight because of problems orienting the craft. After reentering the atmosphere the Soyuz’s parachute failed to deploy properly, and Komarov was killed when the spacecraft struck the ground.
By the end of 1967 NASA achieved a welcome success for Apollo with the first test launch of the giant Saturn V Moon rocket, designed by a team headed by von Braun. Measuring 111 m (363 ft) in length (including the Apollo spacecraft), the three-stage Saturn V was the most powerful rocket ever successfully flown. Its five first-stage engines produced a combined thrust of 33 million newtons (7.5 million lb). The first Saturn V test flight, designated Apollo 4, took place in November 1967, and propelled an unpiloted Apollo command and service module to an altitude of 18,000 km (11,000 mi) before the spacecraft returned to Earth.
In October 1968 a redesigned, fireproof command module made its piloted debut as Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele, and Walt Cunningham reached Earth orbit in Apollo 7. During the 11-day test flight, the command and service modules checked out perfectly. Apollo 7’s success paved the way for NASA to send the crew of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders, on the first voyage to the Moon. Borman’s crew became the first men to ride the Saturn V booster on December 21, 1968. About two hours after launch, the Saturn’s third stage engine reignited to send Apollo 8 speeding moonward at 40,000 km/h (25,000 mph). Some 66 hours later, on December 24, 1968, they reached the Moon and fired Apollo 8’s main rocket engine to go into lunar orbit. They spent the next 20 hours circling the Moon ten times, taking photographs, making navigation sightings on lunar landmarks, and beaming live television pictures back to Earth. Just after midnight on December 25, the astronauts fired the service module’s main rocket engine to blast out of lunar orbit and onto a course for Earth. After a fiery reentry, the heat-shielded command module splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on December 27.
The Soviets, meanwhile, flew a successful piloted Soyuz mission in October 1968. Soyuz 3 carried cosmonaut Georgi Bergovoi in orbit around Earth for four days. The USSR also sent two Zond craft, specially designed for missions around the Moon, on unpiloted flights around the Moon and back to Earth. Zond spacecraft were modified Soyuz craft. A pair of cosmonauts prepared for their own mission around the Moon in early December 1968, just ahead of Apollo 8. But concern over problems on the unpiloted Zond flights caused Soviet mission planners to postpone the attempt, and the flight never took place. Apollo 8 was not only a triumph for NASA—it also proved to be the decisive event in the Moon race.
Humans on the Moon
Having sent astronauts into lunar orbit and back to Earth, NASA faced even more daunting hurdles to achieve Kennedy’s challenge for a Moon landing before the end of the 1960s. Apollo 9 in March 1969 tested the entire Apollo spacecraft, including the lunar module, in Earth orbit. In May 1969, Apollo 10 carried out a dress rehearsal of the landing mission, with the command and service modules and lunar module in lunar orbit. With these crucial milestones accomplished, the way was clear to attempt the lunar landing itself. On July 16, 1969, the crew of Apollo 11—Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins, and Buzz Aldrin—headed for the Moon to attempt the lunar landing.
On July 20, while in lunar orbit, Armstrong and Aldrin passed through a connecting tunnel from the command module, Columbia, to the attached lunar module, named Eagle. They then undocked, leaving Collins in orbit, alone in Columbia, 111 km (69 mi) above the Moon. After shifting the low point of their orbit to 15,000 m (50,000 ft), Armstrong and Aldrin fired Eagle’s descent rocket to slow the craft into its final descent to the Moon’s Mare Tranquilatis (Sea of Tranquillity). An overloaded onboard computer threatened to abort the landing, but swift action by experts in mission control allowed the men to continue. Armstrong was forced to take over manual control when he realized that Eagle was heading for a football-field-size crater ringed with boulders. He brought Eagle to a safe touchdown with less than a minute’s worth of fuel remaining before a mandatory abort. “Houston,” Armstrong radioed, “Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.”
Hours later, Armstrong and Aldrin were sealed inside their space suits, ready to begin history’s first moonwalk. At 10:56 pm Eastern Daylight Time, Armstrong stood on Eagle’s footpad and placed his left boot on the powdery lunar surface—the first human footstep on another world. Armstrong’s famous first words on the Moon were, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” (He had intended to say “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” and that is how the quote is worded in many accounts of the event.) Aldrin followed Armstrong to the surface 40 minutes later. During the moonwalk, which lasted about two and a half hours, the men collected rocks, took photographs, planted the American flag, and deployed a pair of scientific experiments. Their landing site, a cratered plain strewn with rocks, proved to have “a stark beauty all its own,” in Armstrong’s words. Aldrin called the appearance of the lunar surface “magnificent desolation.”
Inside Eagle once more, Armstrong and Aldrin tried unsuccessfully to get a good night’s sleep. On July 21, after a total of 21½ hours on the Moon, they fired Eagle’s ascent engine and rejoined Collins in lunar orbit. On July 24, after a flawless mission, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins returned to Earth, carrying 22 kg (48 lb) of lunar rock and soil. Kennedy’s challenge had been met with months to spare, and NASA had shown that humans were capable of leaving their home world and traveling to another.
Six more lunar landing attempts followed Apollo 11. All but one of these missions were successful. In November 1969 Pete Conrad and Alan Bean made history’s first pinpoint landing on the Moon, touching down less than 200 m (less than 600 ft) from the robotic Surveyor 3 probe, which had been on the Moon since April 1967. In their 31½ hours on the Moon, Conrad and Bean made two moonwalks and collected 34 kg (76 lb) of samples.
In April 1970 Apollo 13 almost ended tragically when an oxygen tank inside the service module exploded. The spacecraft was 300,000 km (200,000 mi) from Earth. The accident left the command and service modules without propulsion or electrical power. Astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise struggled to return to Earth using their attached lunar module as a lifeboat, while experts in mission control worked out emergency procedures to bring the men home. Although the mission failed in its objective to land in the Moon’s Fra Mauro highlands, Apollo 13 was an extraordinary demonstration of the Apollo team’s ability to solve problems during a spaceflight. The mission’s goals were achieved in February 1971 by Apollo 14 astronauts Alan Shepard, Stu Roosa, and Ed Mitchell.
Lunar exploration entered a more ambitious phase with Apollo 15 in July 1971, when Dave Scott and Jim Irwin landed at the base of the Moon’s Apennine mountains. Their lunar module had been upgraded to allow a stay of nearly three days on the lunar surface. Improved space suits allowed the men to take three moonwalks, the longest of which lasted more than seven hours. They also brought along a battery-powered car called the Lunar Rover. With the rover, the astronauts ranged for miles across the landscape, even driving partway up the side of a lunar mountain. They picked up some of the oldest rocks ever found on the Moon, including one fragment that proved to be 4.5 billion years old, almost the calculated age of the Moon itself.
Two more lunar landings followed before budget cuts ended the Apollo program. The final team of lunar explorers were Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan, a former Navy fighter pilot, and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, a geologist-astronaut who became the first scientist to reach the Moon. They explored the Moon’s Taurus-Littrow valley while crewmate Ron Evans orbited overhead. During three days on the Moon, Cernan and Schmitt collected 110 kg (243 lb) of samples, including an orange soil that gave new clues to the Moon’s ancient volcanic activity.
While the Apollo program racked up successes, the Soviet lunar program was plagued by setbacks. The Soviets built a Moon rocket of their own, the giant N-1 booster, which was designed to produce 44 million newtons (10 million lb) of thrust at liftoff. In four separate test launches between 1969 and 1972, the N-1 exploded within seconds or minutes after liftoff. Combined with the U.S. Apollo successes, the N-1 failures ended hopes of a Soviet piloted lunar landing.
Salyut Space Stations
Even before the first human spaceflights, planners in the United States and the USSR envisioned space stations in orbit around Earth. The Soviets stepped up their efforts toward this goal when it became clear they would not win the Moon race. In April 1971 they succeeded in launching the first space station, Salyut 1 (see Salyut). The name Salyut, which means “salute,” was meant as a tribute to cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space. Gagarin had been killed in the crash of a jet fighter during a routine training flight in 1968. Salyut consisted of a single module weighing 19 metric tons that offered 100 cu m (3,500 cu ft) of living space. Cosmonauts traveled between Earth and the Salyut stations in Soyuz spacecraft. In June 1971 cosmonauts Georgi Dobrovolski, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev occupied Salyut for 23 days, setting a new record for the longest human spaceflight. Tragically, the three men died when their Soyuz ferry craft developed a leak before they reentered the atmosphere. The leak allowed the oxygen in the cabin to escape, suffocating the cosmonauts. The Soyuz returned to Earth under automatic control.
Six more Salyut stations reached orbit between 1974 and 1982. Two of these, Salyuts 3 and 5, were military stations equipped with high-resolution cameras to gather military information from orbit. Salyuts 6 and 7 served as orbital homes to cosmonauts during record-breaking space marathons. In 1980 Salyut 6 cosmonauts Leonid Popov and Valerie Ryumin logged a record 185 days in space. (Remarkably, Ryumin had spent 175 days aboard Salyut 6 during the previous year.) The longest mission to Salyut 7 was also a record-breaker, lasting 237 days—nearly eight months—in space. In 1985 Salyut 7’s electrical system failed, forcing a team of cosmonauts to stage a repair mission to bring the stricken station back to life. In mid-1986, after two more crews had visited the station, Salyut 7 was abandoned for good.
The Salyut cosmonauts pushed frontiers of long-duration spaceflight, often with considerable difficulty. In addition to the medical effects of long-term exposure to weightlessness—including muscle atrophy, loss of bone minerals, and cardiovascular weakness—long-duration spaceflight can cause the psychological stresses of boredom and isolation, occasionally relieved by visits by new teams of cosmonauts. Supplies and gifts brought up by unpiloted versions of Soyuz spacecraft called Progress freighters also provided novelty and relief. The Salyut marathons paved the way for even longer stays aboard the space station Mir.
Skylab Space Station
Skylab, the first U.S. space station, utilized hardware originally created for the Apollo program. The main component, called the orbital workshop, was constructed inside the third stage of a Saturn V booster. It contained living and working space for three astronauts. Attached to the orbital workshop were the Apollo telescope mount (ATM), a collection of instruments to study the Sun from space; an airlock module to enable two of the astronauts to make spacewalks while the third remained inside; and a multiple docking adaptor (MDA) for use by the Apollo spacecraft that would ferry the crew to and from orbit. Altogether, Skylab weighed 91 metric tons and offered 210 cu m (7,400 cu ft) of habitable space.