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A History of the Apollo Missions

Updated: Oct 9, 2021

Author: Htoo Myat Noe

Apollo, the Greek mythology god who rode his chariot across the Sun, though merely an image of glory and magnificence to many around the world, was an elementary inspiration for the establishment of the Apollo program in 1963 (Li, 2019). In 1960, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) director of space flight development, Abe Silverstein, proposed the now world-renowned name “Apollo” for the 1st crewed US mission to the Moon after he had his Eureka moment that the image of Apollo perfectly matches the ambition of the program. “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”, a simple quote by Neil Armstrong as he took a step onto the Moon, remains to this day a life-source of inspiration to a plethora of enthusiasts, young and old alike, from all around our Blue Marble, and hopefully, once terraformation of other celestial bodies has been established, it will remain as a reminder to future generations to come that this was the mission that started it all. So what were the significant moments in the program’s history from its hopeful initiation in the 1960s to its final, remarkable end in 1972? What were the setbacks that NASA was met with? What purpose did each Apollo mission serve and what insight can all of us here reap from this revolutionary program? This is the history of the Apollo space missions, uncovered.

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the satellite Sputnik and the space race was on. This glory achieved by the Soviets was a jolting “wake-up-call” for the US President John F. Kennedy to not only be on par with the US’s communist rivals, but to surpass them. On May 25 1961, he stood before Congress and unveiled the devotion to execute Project Apollo in his special message on "urgent national needs” to spur on the nation’s lagging space efforts. While there were a number of skeptics who strongly expressed their doubts for the program’s success, within a few years, the US received its fair share of the triumph gleaned from being the winner of the highly competitive space race. (Space Program, n.d.)

Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee, the loss of three exceptional minds, the end of their journey into space exploration, the tragedy of Apollo 1. On January 27 1967, a fire in the Apollo Command Module on the launch pad during a preflight test at Cape Canaveral resulted in the deaths of these astounding individuals. Apollo 1 was set out to be the first manned mission of the moon landing program, designed to test out the set-up by orbiting earth, and the launch date was slated to be February 21 1967, but unfortunately, the disaster got in the way of this to-be major accomplishment. (Sen, 2012) However, if there was one consolation to be had from this tragedy, it was that the fire changed spacecraft design forever. The event was a huge blow to NASA and subsequent evaluations to the spacecraft’s design led to radical alterations made to the design of the lunar module. The hatch door was improved to be easily opened in an emergency, flammables were removed and the pure oxygen atmosphere was replaced with an oxygen-nitrogen mixture. A small solace in the grand scheme of things, a relatively insignificant compensation for the loss of 3 astronauts, but still, one more step into the direction of future success.

In October 1968, Apollo 7 marked the start of the first crewed Apollo Space Mission. A mere 2 months later in December 1968, Apollo 8 was crowned the first spacecraft to fly around the Moon. Apollo 9 and 10 were an earth orbiter and lunar orbiter respectively, with Apollo 10 being the rehearsal for the first moon landing. The crew also surveyed and photographed the landing sites for Apollo 11.

The Eagle has landed. Those were the words from Neil Armstrong as he stepped on the moon for the first time, thus becoming the very first Man on the Moon, a position only he held. On July 20 1969, commander Neil Armstrong made a remarkable moon landing, which crowned the US the winner of the space race. Apollo 11 carried the first geologic samples from the Moon back to Earth. In all, the astronauts collected 21.6 kilograms of material, including 50 rocks, samples of the fine-grained lunar regolith, and two core tubes that included material from up to 13 centimeters below the Moon's surface. (Lunar - Missions - Apollo 11 Samples, n.d.) It was an achievement worth the global recognition it received.

Subsequently, in November 1969, the crew of Apollo 12, Charles Conrad, Alan Bean and Richard Gordon, played an integral role in the first precision landing on the Moon. All was going smoothly, and perhaps this was the calm before the approaching storm--Apollo 13’s oxygen tank explosion.

In April 1970, James Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise were on their journey to the moon when one of Odyssey’s service module oxygen tanks exploded, forcing an emergency return to Earth, with the LM Aquarius being used as their lifeboat. The nearly fatal flight was portrayed in a book by Lovell, Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, and in a famous movie based on it. The words of astronaut Jack Swigert, “Houston, we have a problem…” remain a punchline used by many even to this day and age. Setting jokes aside, if it were not for the NASA Mission Control in Houston that played a crucial role in getting the astronauts back safely, the aftermath of the explosion would be even more heartbreaking for many back here on Earth.

The disaster was followed by the first landing in lunar highlands by Apollo 14 in 1971 and Apollo 15’s crew being the first to use the lunar rover. In 1972, the crew of Apollo 16 conducted further exploration of the lunar highlands and finally, in December 1972, the crew of Apollo 17 were the last of the Apollo program to walk on the regolith on the Moon.

Throughout the Apollo program, there were a total of 12 astronauts who walked on the moon and they will remain to be inspirations for future generations of like-minded individuals to come (Timeline of the Apollo Space Missions - Student Center, 2020). The Apollo program remains to this day one of the most successful space missions programs in history. It allowed the United States of America to embark on their promising journey of space exploration, resulted in the collection of many lunar samples and perhaps most importantly, put astronauts on the lunar surface for the first time in history, thereby declaring the US as the victor in the space race against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In the end of the day, the Apollo space program, just like the Greek god that it was named after and most certainly lives up to, will forever be the start of many triumphs in the space community around the world.



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