Chariots for Apollo: The NASA History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft to 1969

Chariots for Apollo: The NASA History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft to 1969

by Courtney G. Brooks, James M. Grimwood, Loyd S. Swenson Jr., Paul Dickson

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Millions around the world watched as the Apollo 11 astronauts "came in peace for all mankind" to take humanity's first steps on the moon. Their mission's triumph was equally attributable to a less visible crew of nearly 400,000 people in hundreds of different organizations. This official NASA history reveals the human story behind an epic achievement.


Millions around the world watched as the Apollo 11 astronauts "came in peace for all mankind" to take humanity's first steps on the moon. Their mission's triumph was equally attributable to a less visible crew of nearly 400,000 people in hundreds of different organizations. This official NASA history reveals the human story behind an epic achievement. Written by a trio of experts, it chronicles the engineering and management contributions to the success of Project Apollo, starting with the creation of NASA itself and tracing the design and development of the project's spacecraft and lunar vehicles as well as their operation in space.
Refreshingly free of jargon and technical language, this accessible account focuses on the coordination of efforts behind the production of the Apollo service, command, and lunar modules. It covers three phases of spacecraft evolution: defining and designing the necessary vehicles; developing and qualifying them for the task; and operating them to achieve their objectives. The authors conducted numerous interviews with the project's participants and relied heavily on NASA's extensive archives. In addition to several appendixes, the text is supplemented with more than 100 photographs and illustrations that recapture the efforts of the dedicated team of thousands who reached for the moon.

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Chariots for Apollo

The NASA History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft to 1969

By Courtney G. Brooks, James M. Grimwood, Loyd S. Swenson Jr.

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2009 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14093-3


Concept to Challenge

1957 to Mid-1961

The orbiting of Sputnik I in October 1957 stirred the imagination and fears of the world as had no new demonstration of physics in action since the dropping of the atomic bomb. In the United States the effect was amplified by realization that the first artificial satellite was Russian, not American. Yet the few scientists and engineers working in Project Vanguard and other U.S. space projects were surprised only at the actual timing. Indeed, they had already considered means of sending man around the moon.

Modern rocket technology dates from the Second World War; the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles in succeeding years resulted in machines that could eventually launch vehicles on space missions. In this same time, man's flying higher, faster, and farther than ever before suggested that he could survive even in space. Sputnik I caused alarm throughout the United States and the ensuing public clamor demanded a response to the challenge. During the next year, many persons in government, industry, and academic institutions studied means and presented proposals for a national space program beyond military needs. After decades of science fiction, man himself, as well as his imagination, moved toward an active role in space exploration.

Concurrently with the formation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in late 1958—a year after the first Sputnik-a proposal (which became Project Mercury) was approved to fly man in near-earth orbit.


The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, passed by Congress in July of that year, said nothing about the moon or manned space flight. In its declaration of policy and purpose, however, the general objectives were to improve and use aeronautical and space capabilities "for the benefit of all mankind." If achieving international leadership in space meant that this nation would have to fly men to the moon, the Act encouraged that ambition. Clearly NASA, as the nonmilitary agency of the United States, would be responsible for furthering the national interest in space affairs. But the new agency required more than just a charter before the President and the Congress could turn it loose on a task requiring a vast acceleration of activity and a large commitment of national resources.

Much of the preliminary planning for Project Mercury had been done by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), NASA's predecessor. NASA's first Administrator, T. Keith Glennan, president of Case Institute of Technology (on leave), set about organizing and using the heritage of experience and resources that had carried Mercury from the planning stage into actuality. His deputy, Hugh L. Dryden (former Director of NACA), planned and executed policy decisions during NASA's first few years. Abe Silverstein, who came from NACA's Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratory in Cleveland, was assigned by Glennan to manage a coordinated program for a stable of rocket boosters to suit a variety of space missions.

The White House had approved plans to develop big boosters, but Glennan knew that would not be enough. He wanted organizations that had participated in developing these vehicles, and toward this end he laid plans for the eventual transfer of the California Institute of Technology's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and of the Army's Wernher von Braun team (Army Ballistic Missile Agency; ABMA) into the NASA family. In January 1959, Wesley L. Hjornevik, Glennan's assistant, pressed the Administrator to "move in on ABMA in the strongest possible way ... because it is becoming increasingly clear that we will soon desperately need this or an equivalent competence." Although JPL came into the fold soon after the agency opened for business, a year and a half passed before Glennan persuaded the Eisenhower administration to consign a portion of ABMA and some of its facilities, later named the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, to NASA.

In addition to the oldest NACA laboratory—at Langley Field, Virginia, across Hampton Roads from Norfolk—and the other two NACA laboratories —Ames, at the lower end of San Francisco Bay, and Lewis, in Cleveland —NASA inherited the NACA authorization to build a center for development and operations. Dryden was well aware of the applied research character of Langley, Ames, and Lewis. He was anxious to insulate these former NACA centers from the drastic changes that would come while shifting to actual development in NASA's mission-oriented engineering. Space science, mission operations, and, particularly, manned space flight should, he thought, be centralized in the new facility to be built near Greenbelt, Maryland. To direct Project Mercury, Glennan established the Space Task Group, a semiautonomous field element under Robert R. Gilruth. When the new center was completed, the Mercury team would move to Maryland. In May 1959, Glennan announced that this new installation would be called the Goddard Space Flight Center in commemoration of Robert H. Goddard, the American rocket pioneer.

Besides the NACA personnel, programs, and facilities, NASA acquired, by transfer, ongoing projects from the Army (Explorer), Navy (Vanguard), and Air Force (F-1 engine). These were worthwhile additions to the new agency; to comply with the language and intent of the Space Act, however, NASA had to plan a long-range program that would ensure this country's preeminence in space exploration and applications.


As part of its legacy NASA inherited the insight of an ad hoc Space Technology Committee into what some of its research goals should be. At the behest of James H. Doolittle, Chairman of NACA's Main Committee, in February 1958 H. Guyford Stever of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had headed a group that examined a wide variety of possible space projects, giving NACA needed guidance for research into space technology. Exploration of the solar system was seen as an arena where man, as opposed to mere machines, would definitely be needed. When NASA opened for business in October 1958, this recommendation in the Stever Committee's final report gave the new agency a start on its basic plans.

Sending men beyond the earth's gravitational field, however, required launch vehicles with weight-lifting capabilities far beyond that of the Atlas, the only American missile that could lift the small Mercury spacecraft into earth orbit. Moreover, there was nothing being developed and very little on the drawing boards that could carry out the Stever Committee's suggestion. Glennan was therefore willing to listen to anyone who might provide a sensible booster development plan. On 15 December 1958, he and his staff sat in their headquarters in the Dolley Madison House in Washington to be briefed by missile development leaders from ABMA. Wernher von Braun and two associates, Ernst Stuhlinger and Heinz H. Koelle, surveyed the capabilities of current and planned boosters, their utility for various space missions, and ABMA's work on launch vehicle design and operation. In essence, they described how their agency might play a leading role in America's national space program.

The theme of these presentations was manned landings on the moon. Koelle emphasized the need for a few versatile space vehicles, rather than a plethora of different models. ABMA offered a program for building a family of these rockets. Koelle predicted that perhaps by the spring of 1967 "we will have developed a capability of putting ... man on the moon. And we still hope not to have Russian Customs there." He stressed how neatly ABMA's launch vehicle program complemented NASA's emerging manned space flight activity. "The man-in-space effort," he said "dovetails with the lunar and cislunar activities because you simply can't land a man on the moon before you have established a man-in-space capability; that is quite clear."

Von Braun said ABMA preferred clustering engines in launch vehicles, emphasizing that the multiengine concept of aviation was directly applicable to rockets. Next he talked about plans for a multistage Juno V—suggesting different propellants for particular stages—the most ambitious rocket ABMA then contemplated.

To answer, "What will it take to get people to the surface of the moon and back?" von Braun described five techniques, direct ascent and four kinds of rendezvous en route. Assuming the feasibility of high-energy (liquid-hydrogen and liquid-oxygen) upper stages and a capsule conservatively estimated at 6170 kilograms, for direct ascent "you would need a seven-stage vehicle which weighed no less than 13.5 million pounds [6.1 million kilograms]." Developing and flying such a rocket was forbidding to von Braun.

Instead of this enormous vehicle, he suggested launching a number of smaller rockets to rendezvous in earth orbit. He proposed using 15 of these, which "it just so happens," he said, wryly, "had the size and weight of the Juno V." These boosters could place sufficient payload in orbit to assemble a vehicle of some 200 000 kilograms, which could then depart for the moon. The lunar-bound craft would be staged on the way, dropping off used tanks and engines as the flight progressed—"in other words, leave some junk behind."

Next, Stuhlinger rose and said:

The main objective in outer space, of course, should be man in space; and not only man as a survivor in space, but man as an active scientist, a man who can explore out in space all those things which we cannot explore from Earth.

He catalogued the unknowns of space vehicle components and research objectives in materials and in protection against space hazards. What happens, for instance, to metals, plastics, sealants, insulators, lubricants, moving parts, flexible parts, surfaces, coatings, and liquids in outer space? How could we guard men and materials from the dangers of radiation, meteorites, extreme temperatures, corrosion possibilities, and weightlessness? What kinds of test objectives, in what order and how soon, should be established? "We ... are of the opinion that if we fail to come up with answers and solutions to [these] problems, then our entire space program may come to a dead end, even though we may have the vehicles to carry our payloads aloft." Although Glennan was impressed, he knew that NASA's first tasks were Mercury and the giant F-1 rocket engine.

Congress had been seeking some consensus of what the nation should do in space. At the beginning of 1959, the House Select Committee on Astronautics and Space Exploration released a staff study, The Next Ten Years in Space, reporting a poll of the aerospace community on the direction of America's space program through the 1960s. Prominent among projected manned programs beyond Mercury was circumlunar flight. Those queried spoke confidently of this goal, saying it was only a question of time. Not a single spokesman doubted the technical feasibility of flying around the moon. Predictions spanned the latter half of the decade, with expectations that manned lunar landings would follow several years later.

Glennan and Dryden, responding to congressional inquiry, subscribed to this belief. They outlined NASA's plans in space sciences, the application of space capabilities to the national welfare, and research and development in advanced space technology. "There is no doubt that the Nation has the technological capability to undertake such a program successfully," they said. "There is a good chance that [within ten years] space scientists may have circumnavigated the Moon without landing and an active program should be underway to attempt a similar flight to Venus or Mars.... Manned surface exploration will be receiving serious research and development effort."

The NASA Administrator immediately asked for funds to begin designing and developing a large booster, the first requirement for space exploration. At the end of January 1959, NASA submitted to President Dwight D. Eisenhower a report on "A National Space Vehicle Program," in which the agency proposed four boosters, Vega, Centaur, Saturn, and Nova.

These rockets were expected to fulfill all foreseeable needs during the next decade. Although Vega and Nova barely progressed beyond the drawing board, all four were basic concerns for some time. Listed here in order of their envisioned power, only the high-energy Centaur and the multi-staged and clustered Saturn systems were to be developed. During January and February of 1959, the von Braun team's Juno V gained substantial backing and emerged with a new name, becoming the first in the Saturn family of rockets.

NASA's research centers also had done some preliminary thinking about what should follow Project Mercury. In the spring of 1959 Glennan, wanting to encourage that thinking, created a team to study advanced missions and to report its findings to him. The Goett Committee became one of the foremost contributors to Apollo.


On 1 April 1959, NASA Headquarters called for representatives from its field centers to serve on a Research Steering Committee for Manned Space Flight, headed by Harry Goett, an engineering manager at Ames who became Director of the new Goddard center in September. Goett and nine others began their deliberations in Washington on 25 May. Milton W. Rosen, NASA Chief of Propulsion Development, led off with a report on the national booster program. Next, representatives of each center described the status of work and planning toward man-in-space at their respective organizations.

Laurence K. Loftin, Jr., said that 60 percent of Langley's effort pertained to space and reentry flight research; Maxime A. Faget, of the Space Task Group, discussed Mercury's development. Alfred J. Eggers, Jr., told the group what Ames was doing and then advocated that NASA's next step be a spacecraft capable of flying two men for one week, with enough speed to escape the earth's gravitational pull, fly to the moon, orbit that body, and return to the earth.

Bruce Lundin described propulsion and trajectory studies under way at Lewis and warned against "setting our sights too low." As Glennan and Dryden had done, Lundin took a broad view of space exploration, reminding the committee that a manned lunar landing was merely one goal, leading ultimately to manned interplanetary travel.

It was apparent that NASA leaders intended to aim high. Faget, one of the inventors of the Mercury capsule, and George Low urged manned lunar landings as NASA's next objective. Low stressed study of ways to perform the mission, using several of the smaller Saturns in some scheme besides direct ascent to avoid total dependence upon the behemoth that Nova might become. The Goett Committee then recorded its consensus on the priority of NASA objectives:

1. Man in space soonest—Project Mercury

2. Ballistic probes

3. Environmental satellite

4. Maneuverable manned satellite

5. Manned space flight laboratory

6. Lunar reconnaissance satellite

7. Lunar landing

8. Mars-Venus reconnaissance

9. Mars-Venus landing

The next meeting of the Goett Committee was at Ames 25-26 June. Going into details about technical problems and their proposed solutions as seen from different pockets of experience around the country, the members heartily endorsed moon landing and return as NASA's major long-range manned space flight goal. As Goett later remarked:

A primary reason for this choice was the fact that it represented a truly end objective which was self-justifying and did not have to be supported on the basis that it led to a subsequent more useful end.

At this meeting, the Goett Committee members compared direct ascent with rendezvous in earth orbit. At Low's request, John H. Disher first reviewed the sizable activity at Huntsville. In February 1959, the Department of Defense had announced that development of the 5800-kilonewton (1.3-million-pound-thrust) rocket had been designated Project Saturn. Less than six months later, Disher reported, the von Braun group already had its sights set on a Saturn II (a three-stage version with an 8900-kilonewton [2-million-pound-thrust] first stage) and rendezvous in earth orbit, even working on some modes that called for refueling in space. Von Braun's team was also studying a Nova-class vehicle for direct ascent.

Lundin then made some disquieting comments. For direct flight to the moon, propulsion needs were staggering. Even with cryogenic propellants in the upper stages of the launch vehicle, the combined weight of rocket and spacecraft would be about 4530 to 4983 metric tons—a formidable size. He also noted that prospects for earth-orbital rendezvous seemed little brighter; such a procedure (launching more than a dozen Saturn-boosted Centaurs to form the lunar vehicle) required complex rendezvous and assembly operations. Lundin ticked off several areas that would need further study, regardless of which mission mode was chosen: cryogenic storage in space, a throttleable lunar-landing engine, a storable-propellant lunar-takeoff engine, and auxiliary power systems.


Excerpted from Chariots for Apollo by Courtney G. Brooks, James M. Grimwood, Loyd S. Swenson Jr.. Copyright © 2009 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Courtney Brooks is affiliated with International Business Machines and a research associate in the History Department of the University of Houston. James Grimwood has been NASA Johnson Space Center Historian since 1962. Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., is Professor of History at the University of Houston.

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