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May 25, 1961. It was called a "Special Message to Congress on Urgent National Needs." President John F. Kennedy had just taken office and was outlining his priorities for the coming years. He spoke about job retraining, military spending, nuclear disarmament, and other issues. But what he said at the end of his speech surprised lawmakers and everyone else who was listening.
"Now is the time to take longer strides — time for a great new American enterprise — time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievements, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth," he said. "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 for the long-range exploration of space. And none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish."
What did he say?
Just 20 days earlier, the United States had successfully launched its first astronaut — Alan Shepard — into space. The flight lasted just 15 minutes and 28 seconds and didn't even go into orbit.
"I thought [Kennedy] was crazy," said NASA's Chris Kraft. "I thought he'd lost his mind." Kraft had been the flight director (the leader at Mission Control) during Shepard's flight. He understood the immense challenge that Kennedy had laid before them. And all in less than nine years.
To the Moon
The idea of going to the moon was nothing new. In the second century AD, an Assyrian writer named Lucian of Samosata wrote a novel, A True History, about a ship that was swept up in a tornado and dropped on the moon. Once there, the sailors found men riding three-headed vultures who were battling inhabitants from the sun. A True History is the first known work of science fiction.
Others would write about lunar voyages, but it wasn't until 1865, when Jules Verne published From the Earth to the Moon, that science fiction came anywhere near science fact. In the story, three men from the Baltimore Gun Club journey to the moon in a capsule fired from a 900-foot-long cannon. The French novel ended with the crew orbiting the moon, and readers demanded a sequel. Around the Moon (1870) saw the men and their capsule splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, where they were rescued by the US Navy.
Verne's understanding of science made his novels unique. He correctly calculated the speed a spacecraft would need to escape the Earth's gravity, described the weightlessness of space travel, and more.
The books were bestsellers and inspired many of the first space scientists and engineers. "My interest in space travel was first aroused by the famous writer of fantasies, Jules Verne," wrote Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. "He directed my thoughts along certain channels, then came a desire, and after that, the work of the mind."
Tsiolkovsky, a deaf Russian schoolteacher and physics researcher, published Exploration of the Cosmos in Rocket-Powered Vehicles in May 1903, seven months before the Wright brothers' first powered airplane flight. It was the first book to describe spaceflight mathematically. Tsiolkovsky also wrote about liquid fuels, "rocket trains" (multistage rockets), weightlessness, air locks, and even the possibility of life on other planets.
Verne also inspired American Robert Goddard. In 1899, when he was 17 years old, Goddard was told to trim the branches of a cherry tree behind his family's barn in Worcester, Massachusetts. Up in its branches, he daydreamed. "I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet," he later wrote.
On March 16, 1926, after years of failed attempts, he launched the world's first liquid-fuel rocket from his Aunt Effie Ward's farm in Auburn, Massachusetts. It flew 41 feet high and landed 184 feet away, in a cabbage patch. In time he would design rockets that soared as high as 9,000 feet — almost two miles. Today Goddard is known as the "Father of Modern Rocketry."
Others followed: Robert Esnault-Pelterie of France, Hermann Oberth of Germany, and Wernher von Braun, also of Germany. Von Braun developed the first reliable liquid-fuel rocket, the V-2, during World War II. Tragically, starting in September 1944, almost 3,200 V-2s were fired on London and on Antwerp and Liège in Belgium. Between 5,000 and 9,000 people died in the attacks, and even more were wounded. Even worse, the Germans' Mittelwerk rocket factory was built using slave labor from the nearby Dora concentration camp. An estimated 12,000 prisoners were worked or starved to death to build the V-2s.
At the end of the war, von Braun and most of his engineers were captured and brought to the United States to develop missiles for the US Army. None of the German rocket scientists were ever prosecuted for war crimes. The United States and the Soviet Union were locked in the Cold War, and military and government leaders chose to ignore their dreadful history.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union announced that it had launched the world's first satellite, Sputnik 1. It was small and round, just 23 inches in diameter, and weighed 184 pounds. It did little more than broadcast a beeping radio signal as it circled the Earth.
Sputnik passed twice over the United States before the Americans realized it was up there. Once America found out, there was an uproar. The Russians have beaten us to space! How could this happen? If Americans wanted proof, they could go outside and scan the night sky. Every 96 minutes a tiny bright dot passed over.
Sergei Korolev, leader of the Soviet space program, was thrilled. "Well, comrades, you can't imagine — the whole world is talking about our satellite," he said. "It seems like we have caused quite a stir."
President Dwight Eisenhower held a news conference five days later. Downplaying the Soviets' accomplishment, he announced that the United States planned to catch up to, and pass, their program.
But that wouldn't happen anytime soon. On November 2 the Russians launched Sputnik 2. It weighed 1,120 pounds and had dog named Laika aboard. Laika survived liftoff, but she overheated and died after a few hours in orbit.
Eisenhower ordered the army to get a satellite into space in 90 days or less. Von Braun was nearly ready with a new rocket, the Vanguard. On December 6 it was launched from Florida's Cape Canaveral on live TV. It rose four feet off the pad and exploded.
Finally, on January 31, 1958, von Braun successfully launched the Explorer 1 satellite atop a Juno rocket. A day later, it sent back proof of the Van Allen radiation belt surrounding Earth. It was a small victory.
On July 29, 1958, President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act into law. "The Congress hereby declares that it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind," the act declared. It turned America's existing National Advisory Council for Astronautics (NACA) into the National Aeronautics and Space Agency — NASA.
Like NACA, NASA would be a civilian agency, even though several military operations — the army's Redstone Arsenal and the Naval Research Laboratory — were placed under its control. So were some research facilities, such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology.
NASA began operations on October 1, 1958. A week later, Eisenhower approved Project Mercury. Its goal: to put the first human into space.
On April 9, 1959, NASA introduced its first seven astronauts to the American people. Dr. Robert Voas, who had helped select them from 110 military test pilots, explained what NASA wanted: "Intelligence without genius, knowledge without inflexibility ... fear but not cowardice, bravery without foolhardiness ... enjoying life without excess, humor without disproportion, and fast reflexes without panic in a crisis." That basically described the Mercury Seven.
Americans loved the new astronauts. Life magazine signed a contract to tell their families' stories, and readers couldn't get enough. However, it would be more than two years before any of them flew to space.
It took time to develop the rocket, capsule, and space suit for Mercury. The first capsule design had no windows, making the astronauts feel more like riders than pilots. The Seven demanded it be changed — they weren't "Spam in a can," they said. And rather than have the spaceship be flown by controllers on the ground, they wanted to fly their capsules, or at least be able to take action if something went wrong. As test pilots, they knew something always went wrong.
In early 1961 NASA was almost ready. The first Mercury "astronaut" was a chimpanzee named Ham. On January 31, 1961, Ham rocketed 156.5 miles into space. During the 18-minute flight he pushed levers whenever lights flashed to show that he could think and move during the flight. The rocket overshot its target by 124 miles and splashed down near Bermuda. Ham survived. Next it would be Alan Shepard's turn.
Then, on April 12, news arrived from Moscow that a 27-year-old cosmonaut named Yuri Gagarin had just orbited the Earth. Gagarin's Vostok 1 spacecraft had launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome — the Soviets' launch facility — and 108 minutes later landed in a Russian farmer's field.
The Vostok was designed for Gagarin to eject before landing, then parachute the last couple miles. Two stunned women watched Gagarin and the capsule land in their field. "Don't be afraid!" he called out, still in his orange space suit. "I am a Soviet like you, who has descended from space, and I must find a telephone to call Moscow!"
On the other side of the globe, the Americans were just as surprised. The Russians had beaten them to space. Again. "We are behind," President Kennedy admitted. "The news will be worse before it is better, and it will be some time before we catch up."
Three weeks later, on May 5, Alan Shepard lifted off from Florida in his Freedom 7 capsule. (The astronauts named their own spacecraft.) It was a quick flight, just over 15 minutes, but Shepard experienced 5 minutes of weightlessness. "Boy, what a ride!" Shepard said after making it safely back. "The only complaint I have was the flight was not long enough."
Gus Grissom flew the next Mercury mission on July 21. It was another quick flight like Shepard's, but it ran into trouble after splashing down. While he was waiting for a helicopter to lift him out of the ocean, the capsule's hatch blew off. Grissom jumped from the sinking spaceship and the Liberty Bell 7 sank to the floor of the Atlantic.
The capsule's hatch was designed to explode off in an emergency. Many believed Grissom had panicked and pulled the escape lever, but he insisted he had not. That doubt would haunt the rest of his NASA career. But in 1999, long after Grissom had died, the capsule was raised from the ocean and inspected. He had been telling the truth.
NASA achieved its first orbital flight on February 20, 1962, when John Glenn circled the globe three times in Friendship 7. During the second orbit, Mission Control received data from a sensor that the capsule's heat shield might have come loose. If it were to come off during reentry, he would burn up in the atmosphere. Glenn was told to leave the capsule's retrorocket packet attached. It was strapped around the heat shield and normally would be detached before reentry. Maybe it would hold the heat shield in place.
Glenn made it back safely and was greeted as a hero. The mission made Glenn so popular that NASA wouldn't consider sending him on a second flight. (They eventually changed their minds, sending him on the Space Shuttle Discovery in October 1998. He was then 77 years old, the oldest person to ever fly to space.)
Deke Slayton was scheduled to take the next Mercury flight, but doctors discovered that he sometimes had an irregular heartbeat. He was pulled from the mission and was grounded by the air force as well. "I was just devastated," Slayton said.
NASA gave him a new job: director of flight crew operations. He was now responsible for deciding who would fly on every mission. This was one of the most important jobs at NASA, but everyone knew Slayton would trade it all for one trip to space.
Three more Mercury flights followed. On May 24, 1962, Scott Carpenter orbited the Earth three times in Aurora 7. Because of problems during reentry, he overshot the splashdown target by 250 miles. It took two hours to find him floating in the Atlantic near Puerto Rico.
Later that year, on October 3, Wally Schirra flew six times around the Earth in Sigma 7. He landed in the Pacific less than five miles from the waiting USS Kearsarge.
Gordon Cooper piloted the final Mercury flight and spent more time in space than all the previous astronauts combined. Faith 7 took off on May 15, 1963, on a 34-hour mission. During its final orbits the capsule started having electrical failures. Only Cooper's remarkable piloting skills saved the mission from disaster. And he splashed down closer to the recovery ship than any of the previous flights had.
Project Mercury had been a remarkable success. But the Soviet Union continued to pile up accomplishments. On August 11, 1962, cosmonaut Andriyan Nikolayev took off in Vostok 3. The next day, Pavel Popovich did the same in another rocket. At one point their capsules orbited within three miles of each other. And on June 16, 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space during a three-day mission aboard Vostok 6.
A Plan Takes Shape
Project Mercury taught NASA how to build a spacecraft and launch it into Earth orbit. But President Kennedy wanted to go to the moon.
There were several theories on how to get there. The most popular idea was called "Earth orbit rendezvous." Small rockets would carry parts of the Apollo spacecraft — whatever that turned out to be — into orbit around the Earth. Once there, they would rendezvous (meet up), and crews would put the pieces together. After the spacecraft was assembled, it would fly to the moon and back. Wernher von Braun liked this plan.
But there was another idea called "lunar orbit rendezvous." It was suggested by NASA engineer John Houbolt. Two small spacecraft would be launched together into Earth orbit, then continue on to the moon. Once in lunar orbit, one ship would drop down to the surface and land. The other, holding enough fuel to return to Earth, would wait in lunar orbit. The lander would later blast off from the moon and rendezvous with the orbiting ship. The crew would then dump the lander and fly home.
"It occurred to me then that rendezvous around the moon was like being in a living room," Houbolt said. "Why take the whole darn living room down to the surface when it is easier to go down in a little tiny craft?" In early 1962, he presented the idea to several Apollo leaders.
"Your figures lie!" shouted Maxime Faget, who had designed the Mercury capsule.
Von Braun shook his head. "No, that's no good," he said, and rejected the plan.
But Houbolt didn't give up. He sent 100 copies of his report to anyone who would listen. Soon others were debating his idea, and agreeing. In the summer of 1962 NASA decided to go with Houbolt's plan.
North American Aviation, a company in Downey, California, was hired to build Apollo's command module (CM) — the main ship that would carry the astronauts to the moon and back. The lunar module (LM) — the lander — would be built by Grumman Aircraft on Long Island, New York. And the enormous rocket, known as the Saturn V, was constructed in pieces around the United States, then assembled at NASA's Launch Operations Center (LOC) in Florida.
The LOC began as a missile base for the US Air Force. Project Mercury flights took off from here, but Apollo needed something bigger. Much bigger. In 1962 NASA bought Merritt Island to the north, adding 87,763 acres just for Apollo. Each Saturn V would be put together inside a new 40-story building called the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). Once ready, the Saturn V would be slowly moved three and a half miles to the new launchpad (called Complex 39) atop a huge vehicle called the crawler-transporter, the largest self-powered land vehicle in the world.
All of this was just to launch the Apollo rockets. NASA also needed to build a new Mission Control facility to track the flights to the moon and back. Vice President Lyndon Johnson was from Texas, so it was no surprise when NASA chose Houston as the site for its Manned Spaceflight Center (MSC).
On September 12, 1962, President Kennedy spoke at Rice University for the MSC's dedication. (Rice had donated the land.) "The exploration of space will go ahead ... and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space," he said, drawing parallels to other historic challenges. "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. ... To be sure, we are behind, and we will be behind for some time in manned flight. But we do not intend to stay behind, and in this decade, we shall make up and move ahead."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Apollo Missions for Kids"
Copyright © 2019 Jerome Pohlen.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: One Long Step,
1 The Challenge,
It Is Rocket Science,
2 Project Gemini,
The Face of the Moon,
How Big Was the Saturn V?,
Orbital Mechanics Made Easy,
3 Tragedy and Triumph,
How Big Was the Command Module?,
Eat Like an Astronaut,
4 To the Moon and Back,
Design a Mission Patch,
How Far Away Is the Moon?,
Forearm at 7 Gs,
5 The Eagle Has Landed,
Google the Moon,
Assemble a Personal Preference Kit,
6 "Houston, We've Had a Problem",
What Would You Weigh?,
7 The Science Missions,
Epilogue: The End of Apollo,
Glossary of Acronyms,
Learn More About Apollo,