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Where No Man Has Gone Before
A History of NASA's Apollo Lunar Expeditions
By William David Compton
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
AMERICA STARTS FOR THE MOON: 1957–1963
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 corners 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.
Organizing for Space Exploration
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 all 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 clear 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 in 1958, when President Eisenhower assigned all manned space flight projects to NASA. Before NASA was a month old, Administrator T. Keith Glennan chartered a Space Task Group (STG) at Langley and charged it with managing the United States' first project to put man in space: Project Mercury. In 1961 STG was redesignated the Manned Spacecraft Center, a connotation of its newly expanded responsibility for all manned projects, and located on 1,660 acres (6.5 square kilometers) of flat Texas pasture land 22 miles (35 kilometers) southeast of downtown Houston.
Crucial to any ambitious program in space was the ability to launch large payloads into earth orbit and to send instrument payloads to the planets. Rockets far exceeding the capacity of existing launch vehicles were required, but only one was being seriously pursued. At the Army's Redstone Arsenal just outside Huntsville, Alabama, the Free World's most experienced rocket engineers—Wernher von Braun and the team built around the hundred-odd Germans who developed the V-2 rocket during World War II—were about to undertake construction of a vehicle called Saturn I, five times as powerful as the biggest then available. By 1959, however, the Army had lost its last tenuous foothold on space flight and had no use for Saturn—nor could it provide any other pioneering work for the ambitious von Braun. On July 1, 1960, rocket development at Redstone Arsenal followed some earlier Army space programs into NASA when von Braun and 4,600 employees, along with many of the facilities at Redstone, became the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center.
Thus by the end of 1960 NASA had the elements of a comprehensive space program in place. Marshall Space Flight Center would design, test, and launch the rockets and oversee their production by industry. The Manned Spacecraft Center would manage spacecraft design and testing, conduct flight operations, and train the astronauts. Goddard and JPL would be responsible for tracking, communication, and data management. At Headquarters, a triumvirate comprising the Administrator, Deputy Administrator, and Associate Administrator managed the overall program, determining policy, preparing budget requests, and defending the program and the budgets before congressional committees. Agency programs—science, manned space flight, advanced research—were managed by directors of Headquarters program offices. The field centers reported to the Associate Administrator, who coordinated the program offices and allocated resources to the centers.
Project Apollo: The Decision
During NASA's first two years, manned space flight managers struggled with the problems of organizing extremely complex and technologically demanding projects. The established space science programs continued to produce new data on the earth and its space environment. President Eisenhower, among others, favored continuing the productive (and comparatively inexpensive) unmanned science programs and withholding judgment on manned programs. In his departing budget message to Congress, the retiring president noted that more work would be needed "to establish whether there are any valid scientific [emphasis added] reasons for extending manned spaceflight beyond the Mercury program." In early 1961, a committee of scientists appointed by newly elected President John F. Kennedy recommended that "we should stop advertising Mercury as our major objective in space activities [emphasis in the original]," and instead try to "find effective means to make people appreciate the cultural, public service, and military importance of space activities other than space travel." So problem-ridden did Mercury seem that Kennedy's advisers felt the new president should not endorse it and thereby risk being blamed for possible future failures; better, the scientists believed, to emphasize the successful science and applications programs and the tangible benefits they could be expected to produce.
In spite of Mercury's early problems, manned space flight enthusiasts were thinking far beyond manned earth-orbital flights. NASA's engineers were confident that they could send people to the moon and back. A moon flight was an obvious goal for the manned programs. It would be an end in itself, needing no justification in terms of its contribution to some larger goal, and it would demonstrate the nation's superiority in space technology to all the world. Preliminary work and discussion during 1959 turned up no insurmountable obstacles, and in mid-1960 NASA announced its intention to award contracts to study the feasibility of a manned lunar mission. The project even had a name: Apollo. On October 25, study contracts were let to three aerospace firms.
NASA might conduct studies to show that man could go to the moon, and scientists might argue that manned space flight was of doubtful value, but Congress and the president would have to make the commitment, and the decisive stimulus was still lacking. Then on April 12, 1961, the Soviets once more spurred a major advance in the American space program by sending Major Yuri A. Gagarin into space for one orbit of the earth. Congressional advocates of an all-out effort to "beat the Russians" renewed their cries; influential media organs saw a challenge to America's world leadership, as did many high government officials. President Kennedy called on Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, chairman of the National Space Council, to survey the national space program and determine what project promised dramatic results that would show the United States' supremacy in space. Johnson immediately began consultations with NASA and Defense Department officials and with key members of Congress.
Kennedy's desire for "dramatic results" did not coincide with what others had in mind for the space program—especially the scientists. Neither Eisenhower's nor Kennedy's science advisers believed that any results from manned space flight could compare with those expected from space science and applications programs. During the debate on the creation of a space agency, the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) issued an "Introduction to Outer Space," which asserted that "scientific questions come first" and that "it is in these [i.e., scientific] terms that we must measure the value of launching satellites and sending rockets into space." Eisenhower's chief scientific adviser, James R. Killian, former president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and chairman of PSAC, said after leaving his White House position in 1960 that the Soviets' space exploits were attempts "to present spectacular accomplishments in space as an index of national strength." He deplored the tendency to design American programs to match the Soviet Union's and urged that the United States define its own objectives and pursue them on its own schedule, not indulge in costly competition for prestige in space exploration—by which he apparently meant manned space flight. "Many thoughtful citizens," Killian said, "are convinced that the really exciting discoveries in space can be realized better by instruments than by man." His views were shared by many scientists, including Jerome Wiesner, a member of PSAC since its formation who became principal scientific adviser to John Kennedy. What the scientists could not, or would not, recognize was that their excitement was neither understood nor shared by any substantial majority of the people.
Some scientists, however, believed the space program should include elements with strong public appeal. The Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences, NASA's officially designated source of scientific advice, discussed the question of man in space early in 1961 and later that year adopted a position paper on "Man's Role in the National Space Program." The board asserted that the goal of the nation's space program should be the scientific exploration of the moon and the planets but recognized that nontechnical factors were vital to public acceptance of a space program. Human exploration of the moon and planets would be "potentially the greatest inspirational venture of this century and one in which the world can share; inherent here are great and fundamental philosophical and spiritual values which find a response in man's questing spirit...." Thus the space exploration program must be developed "on the premise that man will be included. Failure to adopt ... this premise will inevitably prevent man's inclusion," presumably because of the costs involved. "From a scientific standpoint," the paper went on, "there seems little room for dissent that man's participation in the exploration of the Moon and planets will be essential, if and when it becomes technologically feasible to include him." This endorsement of man's participation in space exploration was at variance with a substantial body of opinion in the American scientific community, as events of the next two years would show; and the board's adduction of nonscientific values to justify manned space flight would later draw pontifical rebuke from an influential scientific organization.
Excerpted from Where No Man Has Gone Before by William David Compton. Copyright © 2010 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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