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The Apollo program was the spaceflight effort that landed the first humans on Earth'sMoon.

Conceived during the Presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower and carried out by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of the United States (NASA), Apollo began in earnest after President John F. Kennedy proposed the national goal of "landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth" by the end of the 1960s in a May 25, 1961 address to Congress.[1][2]

Kennedy's goal was accomplished with the Apollo 11 mission when astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed their Lunar Module (LM) on the Moon on July 20, 1969 and walked on its surface while Michael Collins remained in lunar orbit in the command spacecraft, and all three landed safely on Earth on July 24. Five subsequent Apollo missions also landed astronauts on the Moon, the last in December 1972. In these six spaceflights, 12 men walked on the Moon. These are the only times humans have landed on another celestial body.[3]

Apollo ran from 1961 to 1972, following the Mercury and Gemini programs. It used Saturn family rockets as launch vehicles. Apollo / Saturn vehicles were also used for an Apollo Applications program which consisted of three Skylab space station missions in 1973–74, and a joint U.S.–Soviet mission in 1975.

Apollo was successful despite two major setbacks: the 1967 Apollo 1 cabin fire that killed the entire crew during a pre-launch test; and an in-flight failure on the 1970 Apollo 13 flight which disabled the command spacecraft's propulsion and life support, forcing the crew to use the LM as a "lifeboat" for these functions until they could return to Earth safely.

Apollo set major milestones in human spaceflight. It stands alone in sending manned missions beyond low Earth orbit; Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to orbit another celestial body, while Apollo 17 marked the last moonwalk and the last manned mission beyond low Earth orbit. The program spurred advances in many areas of technology incidental to rocketry and manned spaceflight, including avionics, telecommunications, and computers. Apollo also sparked interest in many fields of engineering and left many physical facilities and machines developed for the program as landmarks. Its command modules and other objects and artifacts are displayed throughout the world, notably in the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museums in Washington, DC and at NASA's centers in Florida, Texas and Alabama. The Apollo 13 Command Module is housed at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, Kansas.


See also: Space Race

The Apollo program was conceived early in 1960, during the Eisenhower administration, as a follow-up to America's Mercury program. While the Mercury capsule could only support one astronaut on a limited earth orbital mission, the Apollo spacecraft was to be able to carry three astronauts on a circumlunar flight and eventually to a lunar landing. The program was named after the Greek god of light and music by NASA manager Abe Silverstein, who later said that "I was naming the spacecraft like I'd name my baby."[4] Dr. Silverstein recalls he chose the name after perusing a book of mythology at home one evening, early in 1960. He thought that the image of "Apollo riding his chariot across the Sun was appropriate to the grand scale of the proposed program."[5] While NASA went ahead with planning for Apollo, funding for the program was far from certain given Eisenhower's ambivalent attitude to manned spaceflight.[6]

[1][2] President Kennedy addresses Congress, 1961, proposing to put a man on the Moon before the end of the decade

In November 1960, John F. Kennedy was elected president after a campaign that promised American superiority over the Soviet Union in the fields of space exploration and missile defense. Using space exploration as a symbol of national prestige, he warned of a "missile gap" between the two nations, pledging to make the U.S. not "first but, first and, first if, but first period."[7]Despite Kennedy's rhetoric, he did not immediately come to a decision on the status of the Apollo program once he became president. He knew little about the technical details of the space program, and was put off by the massive financial commitment required by a manned Moon landing.[8] When Kennedy's newly-appointed NASA Administrator James Webb requested a 30 percent budget increase for his agency, Kennedy supported an acceleration of NASA's large booster program but deferred a decision on the broader issue.[9]

On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to fly in space, reinforcing American fears about being left behind in a technological competition with the Soviet Union. At a meeting of the U.S. House Committee on Science and Astronautics one day after Gagarin's flight, many congressmen pledged their support for a crash program aimed at ensuring that America would catch up.[10] Kennedy, however, was circumspect in his response to the news, refusing to make a commitment on America's response to the Soviets.[11]

On April 20, Kennedy sent a memo to Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, asking Johnson to look into the status of America's space program, and into programs that could offer NASA the opportunity to catch up.[12] Johnson responded approximately one week later, concluding that "we are neither making maximum effort nor achieving results necessary if this country is to reach a position of leadership."[13] His memo concluded that a manned Moon landing was far enough in the future that it was likely the United States would achieve it first.[13]

On May 25, 1961, Kennedy announced his support for the Apollo program during a special address to a joint session of Congress:

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.—

[1][3][4] President Kennedy speaks at Rice University (17 min, 47 sec)

At the time of Kennedy's proposal, only one American had flown in space—less than a month earlier—and NASA had not yet sent an astronaut into orbit. Even some NASA employees doubted whether Kennedy's ambitious goal could be met.[2] Kennedy even came close to agreeing to a joint US-USSR moon mission, to eliminate duplication of effort.[14]

Landing men on the Moon by the end of 1969 required the most sudden burst of technological creativity, and the largest commitment of resources ($24 billion), ever made by any nation in peacetime. At its peak, the Apollo program employed 400,000 people and required the support of over 20,000 industrial firms and universities.[15]

[5][6] President Kennedy delivers a speech at Rice University on the American space program, September 12, 1962.

It also required the conversion of the Space Task Group, which had been directing the nation's manned space program from NASA's Langley Research Center, into a new NASA center, the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), to be housed in a new facility built in Houston, Texas on land donated by Rice University. In September 1962, by which time two Project Mercury astronauts had orbited the Earth, and construction of the MSC facility was under way, Kennedy visited Rice to reiterate his challenge in a famous speech:

But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? ...

We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills; because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win ...

Many years ago the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, "Because it is there." Well, space is there, and we're going to climb it, and the Moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail we ask God's blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked.

Choosing a mission mode[]

See also: Moon landing

Once Kennedy had defined a goal, the Apollo mission planners were faced with the challenge of designing a set of flights that could meet it while minimizing risk to human life, cost, and demands on technology and astronaut skill. Four possible mission modes were considered:

[7][8] Early Apollo configuration for Direct Ascent and Earth Orbit Rendezvous, 1961*Direct Ascent: A spacecraft would travel directly to the Moon as a unit, land, and return leaving its landing stage on the Moon. This plan would have required a more powerful launch vehicle, the planned Nova rocket.

  • Earth Orbit Rendezvous (EOR): Multiple rockets (up to 15 in some plans) would be launched, each carrying various parts of a Direct Ascent spacecraft and propulsion units that would have enabled the spacecraft to escape earth orbit. After a docking in earth orbit, the spacecraft would have landed on the Moon as a unit.
  • Lunar Surface Rendezvous: Two spacecraft would be launched in succession. The first, an automated vehicle carrying propellants, would land on the Moon and would be followed some time later by the manned vehicle. Propellant would be transferred from the automated vehicle to the manned vehicle before the manned vehicle could return to Earth.
  • Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR): One Saturn V would launch a spacecraft that was composed of modular parts. A command module would remain in orbit around the Moon, while a lunar excursion module would descend to the Moon and then return to dock with the command ship while still in lunar orbit. In contrast with the other plans, LOR required only a small part of the spacecraft to land on the Moon, thereby minimizing the mass to be launched from the Moon's surface for the return trip.

[9][10] An early model of the pre-LOR concept, c. 1962.

In early 1961, direct ascent was generally the mission mode in favor at NASA. Many engineers feared that a rendezvous —let alone a docking— neither of which had been attempted even in Earth orbit, would be extremely difficult in lunar orbit. However, dissenters including John Houbolt at Langley Research Center emphasized the important weight reductions that were offered by the LOR approach. Throughout 1960 and 1961, Houbolt campaigned for the recognition of LOR as a viable and practical option. Bypassing the NASA hierarchy, he sent a series of memos and reports on the issue to Associate Administrator Robert Seamans; while acknowledging that he spoke "somewhat as a voice in the wilderness," Houbolt pleaded that LOR should not be discounted in studies of the question.[17]

Seamans' establishment of the Golovin committee in July 1961 represented a turning point in NASA's mission mode decision.[18] While the ad-hoc committee was intended to provide a recommendation on the boosters to be used in the Apollo program, it recognized that the mode decision was an important part of this question. The committee recommended in favor of a hybrid EOR-LOR mode, but its consideration of LOR —as well as Houbolt's ceaseless work— played an important role in publicizing the workability of the approach. In late 1961 and early 1962, members of NASA's Space Task Group at the Langley Center (which was in process of transitioning to the newly formed Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston), began to come around to support for LOR.[19] The engineers at Marshall Space Flight Center took longer to become convinced of its merits, but their conversion was announced by Wernher von Braun at a briefing in June 1962. NASA's formal decision in favor of LOR was announced on July 11, 1962. Space historian James Hansen concludes that:

Without NASA's adoption of this stubbornly held minority opinion in 1962, the United States may still have reached the Moon, but almost certainly it would not have been accomplished by the end of the 1960s, President Kennedy's target date.[20]

The LOR method had the advantage of allowing the lander spacecraft to be used as a "life boat" in the event of a failure of the command ship. This happened on Apollo 13 when an oxygen tank failure left the command ship without electrical power. The Lunar Module provided propulsion, electrical power and life support to get the crew home safely.


[11] Apollo CSM-LM, compared to scale with the smaller Gemini and Mercury spacecraft. Their Saturn, Titan and Atlas launch vehicles are also compared, in a smaller scale.Main article: Apollo spacecraft

Preliminary design studies of Apollo spacecraft began in 1960 as a three-man command module supported by one of several service modules providing propulsion and electrical power, sized for use in various possible missions, such as: shuttle service to a space station, a circumlunar flight, or return to Earth from a lunar landing. Once the Moon landing goal became official, detailed design began of the Command/Service Module (CSM), in which the crew would spend the entire direct-ascent mission and lift off from the lunar surface for the return trip. (An even larger, separate propulsion module would have been required for the lunar descent.)

The final choice of lunar orbit rendezvous changed the CSM's role to a translunar ferry used to take the crew and a new spacecraft, the Lunar Module (LM), which would take two men to the lunar surface and return them to the CSM.

As the program concept evolved, use of the term "module" changed from its true meaning of an interchangeable component of systems with multiple variants, to simply a component of the complete lunar landing system.

Command/Service Module[]

Main article: Apollo Command/Service Module[12][13] Apollo 15 CSM in lunar orbit

The Command Module (CM) was the crew cabin, surrounded by a conical re-entry heat shield, designed to carry three astronauts from launch to lunar orbit and back to an Earth ocean splashdown. As such, it was the only component of the Apollo spacecraft to survive without major configuration changes as the program evolved from the early Apollo study designs. Equipment carried by the Command Module included reaction control engines, a docking tunnel, guidance and navigation systems and the Apollo Guidance Computer.

Attached to the Command Module was the cylindrical Service Module (SM), which housed the service propulsion engine and its propellants, the fuel cell power system, four maneuvering thruster quads, a high-gain S-band antenna for communications between the Moon and Earth, and storage tanks for water and oxygen. On the last three lunar missions, it also carried a scientific instrument package. Because its configuration was chosen early before the selection of lunar orbit rendezvous, the service propulsion engine was sized to lift the CSM off of the Moon, and thus oversized to about twice the thrust required for translunar flight.

As used in the actual lunar program, the two modules remained attached throughout most of the flight to make a single ferry craft known as the Command/Service Module (CSM), which carried a separate lunar lander (only half as heavy as the CSM) to the Moon, and the astronauts home to Earth. Just before re-entry, the Service Module was discarded and only the Command Module re-entered the atmosphere, using its heat shield to survive the intense heat caused by air friction. After re-entry it deployed parachutes that slowed its descent, allowing a smooth splashdown in the ocean.

Under the leadership of Harrison Storms, North American Aviation won the contract to build the CSM, and also the second stage of the Saturn V launch vehicle for NASA. Relations between North American and NASA were strained during the winter of 1965-66 by delivery delays, quality shortfalls, and cost overruns in both components.[21] They were strained even more a year later when a cabin fire killed the crew of Apollo 1 during a ground test. The cause was determined to be an electrical short in the wiring of the Command Module; while the determination of responsibility for the accident was complex, the review board concluded that "deficiencies existed in Command Module design, workmanship and quality control."[22] This eventually led to the removal of Storms as Command Module program manager.[23]