What was the Apollo Program?

NASA has been to the Moon before. In 1961 President John Kennedy boldly challenged the nation to put humans on the Moon by 1970. NASA succeeded when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon in July of 1969 as part of the Apollo 11 mission. 

(Left) The powerful Saturn V rocket lifting off. (Right) An Apollo 12 astronaut reunites with the uncrewed Surveyor 3 spacecraft that landed more than 2 years before. The lunar module can be seen in the distance. (Credit: NASA)

Twelve astronauts have walked on the Moon during six successful missions. During the final three missions, astronauts drove on the Moon in a lunar vehicle. Astronauts brought back 842 pounds (382 kilograms) of lunar rock. Studying these rocks allowed scientists to determine the age of the Moon and its origins. 

Each human-crewed Apollo mission to the Moon had three astronauts. They traveled to the Moon in a Command Module, a capsule only 3 meters wide. A Lunar Module took two of the astronauts to the surface of the Moon. The Command Module remained in lunar orbit until the Lunar Module returned. Then the Lunar Module was left in space, and the astronauts and Command Module traveled back to Earth and used parachutes to land in the ocean.

The astronauts, spacecraft, and tools were launched on top of a powerful Saturn V rocket. The Saturn V rocket consisted of three parts (called stages). Stages were ignited one at a time and broke away after burning all of their fuel. This reduced the rocket’s mass before the next stage ignited, allowing the rocket to go faster. 

NASA carefully tested the elements of the Apollo mission both on Earth and over a series of missions. The Saturn V rocket underwent a static (on the ground) test and two uncrewed flights (Apollo 4 and Apollo 6) before it was used for a human-crewed mission (Apollo 8). Apollo 8 orbited the Moon to test navigation, and Apollo 10 tested the Lunar Module. On the ground, astronauts practiced flying in simulators, got used to their spacesuits, and took geological field trips. 

NASA and its astronauts suffered difficulties and problems during the Apollo program. During Apollo 13, a faulty wire caused an oxygen tank to explode. The damage forced the crew to abandon their plans to land on the Moon and seek refuge in the Lunar Module, which was not designed to support three astronauts for the duration of a lunar mission. Apollo 13 astronauts worked cooperatively and creatively with scientists and engineers on the Earth to resolve complex problems. For example, carbon dioxide needed to be filtered from the air, but the cylindrical filters for the Command Module didn’t fit in the Lunar Module’s cubic holes. On Earth, this would be a simple problem to fix, but not so in space. Engineers on the ground worked quickly to devise a fix that involved plastic bags, cardboard, and duct tape. The engineers had to relay instructions on how to build their device using words alone, as no pictures or diagrams could be sent to the spacecraft.

Astronaut Deke Slayton shows a new filter prototype to other mission control members. (Credit: NASA)

The scientists and engineers used what they learned from each failure to improve the mission. Although Apollo 13 did not land on the Moon, Apollo astronaut Lovell deemed it a “successful failure” because of the brilliant work that kept the astronauts alive. NASA proved it could solve problems, even on a spacecraft almost 200,000 miles from Earth. Modifications were made to the oxygen tank and support systems to ensure another failure of this type would not happen again.

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