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.
-President John F. Kennedy, May 25, 1961
In recent months, the NASA space program has made a splash in the news for a few reasons. As the space shuttles are being retired, they’re being flown around the nation on the backs of modified 747s for everyone to see. Just over a week ago, the Endeavor flew over California, which was easily seen throughout the Bay Area. On August 25th, Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, died. And on August 6th, the Curiosity rover landed on Mars as part of the Mars Science Laboratory.
This is a lot of news for an agency otherwise in the media only as part of a budget debate. Compared to before, however, this is a boring time for NASA. For example, from 1968 to 1972, NASA launched Apollo 5 through 17, with Apollo 11 through 17 intending to land men on the moon. That’s slightly more than 2 missions a year, which was barely quick enough to meet Kennedy’s goal of being on the moon in the 60s.
Leading up to the Apollo missions, however, NASA ran several other programs to prepare moon landing.
Pioneer (1958-1960) – The first step towards the moon is getting into space. Although these missions had the lofty goal to orbit the moon, they were primarily intended to reach escape velocity.
Mercury (1959 – 1963) – These were the first manned spaceflight NASA missions. Notable flights here include Mercury-Redstone 3, which made Alan Shepard the first American in space (just a bit behind Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space) and Mercury-Atlat 6, which made John Glenn the first American to orbit the Earth
Ranger (1961 – 1965) – Ranger 1-9 were unmanned missions to take pictures of the Moon. Until this point, we didn’t know what the surface of the Moon looked like. From telescopes on Earth, we couldn’t see the Moon with enough detail to know what the shape of the terrain was. Although the early missions had many problems, the final 3 were successful enough that they were all crash-landed on the Moon. For science, of course, to get the closest possible pictures and to see what happens when something hits the Moon
Surveyor (1966 -1968) – Improving upon destruction on success, the Surveyor missions intended to not crash and make soft landings on the Moon. Although Ranger had photographed the texture, we still didn’t know what the composition of the Moon was like. For all we knew, the Moon could’ve really been like soft cheese, with landers sinking deep into moondust. Fortunately, these missions went well with all 7 making it to the moon and 5 of 7 not crashing
Orbiter (1966-1967) – Simultaneously with Surveyor, Orbiter was a series of lunar orbiters taking pictures to find good landing spots for other missions. Orbiter took large pictures to find generally flat areas that would not cause landers to tumble down a slope
Apollo (1966-1972) – The famous Apollo missions worked up to putting men on the Moon and bringing them back safely. Various missions until Apollo 11 tested out aspects of the flight, including the Saturn V rocket, orbiting the Moon with the command module, and even a manned mission coming within 50,000 feet of the Moon surface.
The story after the Apollo missions was less exciting. Despite a lot of lessons and enthusiasm, plans to continue at this rate towards Mars stalled as funding became more difficult. With the Russians finally beaten to a milestone and public enthusiasm dying down, things waffled with other missions until the space shuttle, which one might consider a disappointment after an amazing effort during the 60s.
Speaking of the Apollo missions, let me know if any of you (or maybe your parents) may be interested in being interviewed about the world surrounding the Apollo missions. Unfortunately, my family is distinctly Canadian, which I don’t think captures quite the same energy you would get States-side. It’ll be easy and hopefully fun: I haven’t interviewed enough to ask the hard questions.