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Ten things you might not know about the Apollo Missions


It has been 50 years since the space race and NASA’s sprint for the moon with the Apollo Missions. Here author Norman Ferguson reveals ten facts you may not know about this giant leap for mankind...

1. The first astronauts to fly in a Saturn V went to the Moon

Apollo 8 was intended to be a flight that didn’t leave Earth orbit. However, NASA were worried the USSR might launch their own attempt to reach the Moon and so changed the mission. It launched in December 1968 and its audacious goal was to fly to the Moon. It was the first time astronauts had flown in the mighty Saturn V. The 363-feet-high rocket took humans out of Earth’s environs for the first time and three days after lift-off the crew of Frank Borman, Bill Anders and Jim Lovell gazed down on the lunar surface. They orbited the Moon ten times and were the first humans to see the Moon’s far side and, in the most remembered moment of the flight, saw Earth rise above the lunar horizon.

2. It might not have been Neil Armstrong #1

It is often thought that Neil Armstrong was specifically chosen to be the First Man to step onto the lunar surface. However, it was more as a result of the rotational system that determined which astronauts would fly on each mission and a crew who acted as back-up to a mission could expect to fly three missions later. In November 1967 Pete Conrad and his crew were assigned to be back-up to Jim McDivitt’s planned Lunar Module test flight. This was to be Apollo 8. When the missions were re-arranged and Apollo 8 was to fly to the Moon without the Lunar Module, McDivitt turned it down. As a result his crew moved one position back in the flight schedule. Conrad’s crew moved back with them and so lost the chance of being the first to walk on the Moon, as Apollo 8’s back-up crew was commanded by Neil Armstrong.

3. It might not have been Neil Armstrong #2

There was much attention on who would be first to walk on the Moon. Initial plans indicated the Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) would be first out, as in Gemini where the spacecraft commander remained inside. Astronaut Bill Anders later revealed he and Alan Bean, who as LMPs were given the job of preparing Lunar Module checklists, cheekily wrote ‘LMP Egress’ before ‘Commander Egress’.

For Apollo 11 this would mean Buzz Aldrin would be first. However, management felt Armstrong would be a better candidate for being the figure to make history. The reason given was the Lunar Module’s hatch door opened towards where Aldrin stood and there was no room for him to get around the door and egress first while wearing a bulky spacesuit. However, Alan Bean later said that this could be gotten around easily by the astronauts swapping places before suiting up.

Aldrin, who was more conversant with the experiments to be carried out on the lunar surface, and had thought he would be first, was disappointed and lobbied to change the procedure. He was unsuccessful and so Armstrong would be first.

4. Sinus Medii Base here?

Neil Armstrong alerted the world to Apollo 11’s success by saying “Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed,” - the Lunar Module Eagle had touched down in the Sea of Tranquility. However the famous announcement may have been different, due to factors occurring days before.

Lift-off from Earth had to take place at certain times during ‘launch windows’. This was so the spacecraft would arrive at the Moon at the right time in the lunar morning with the Sun low above the horizon. The long shadows helped astronauts differentiate surface features for the landing. If a lift-off time was missed, alternative landing sites could be aimed for later. Had Apollo 11’s launch been delayed, Eagle would have landed in Sinus Medii (Bay of the Centre) or Oceanus Procellarum (Ocean of Storms).

5. The Haystack has landed?

As well as the landing site possibly being different, so too were the spacecraft involved. On Apollo 11 the Lunar Module carrying Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin was named Eagle and the Command Module, orbiting the Moon with Mike Collins on board, was Columbia. However, as close as a month before launch the spacecraft had different names: Snowcone for the Command Module and Haystack for the Lunar Module. Other names considered by the crew included:

  • Antony and Cleopatra
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Chloe and Daphnis
  • Amos and Andy
  • Castor and Pollux
  • David and Goliath
  • Owl and Pussycat
  • Majestic and Moon Dancer

6. Apollo 12 was hit by lightning

The second flight intending to land on the Moon was almost over soon after it had begun. Just over half a minute after launch a bright flash was seen by the crew of Apollo 12, and the Command Module’s control panel lit up with warning lights. As the Saturn continued to fly those on the ground in Mission Control tried to work out what had happened. A controller called John Aaron suggested a switch on the spacecraft’s control panel was moved from ‘SCE to Aux’. Few knew what this referred to. Astronaut Alan Bean was the only crew member who knew where the switch for SCE - the Signal Conditioning Equipment - was and when he moved it to ‘Auxiliary’ telemetry returned, sending information down to the controllers on the ground. The flight controllers were then able to diagnose the problem and issue instructions to continue the mission.

It was later determined the Saturn had been struck by lightning, the electrically charged clouds around it being triggered by the rocket’s metallic composition and exhaust plume.

7. Astronauts chose their own first words

There was much speculation over what Neil Armstrong would say when he first stepped on the lunar surface. It was thought by many that NASA controlled what was to be said but astronauts were trusted to say something appropriate of their own choosing. Armstrong’s own first words were, famously:

“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Apollo 12’s Pete Conrad, known for his sense of humour, said on descending the Lunar Module ladder, “Whoopie! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that's a long one for me.” He won a bet with a journalist that his first words were his own.

8. Trees went to the Moon

Astronauts took many items to the Moon, including personal items such as medallions and jewellery. An unusual item on the inventory was a consignment of 500 tree seeds, taken by Stuart Roosa on Apollo 14. It was part of an experiment to see if they would survive being subjected to the radiation and zero gravity experienced throughout the nine-day flight. The experiment was conducted in conjunction with the US Forestry Service in which Roosa had served as a smoke jumper. When the seeds were brought back they were planted and many ‘Moon trees’ still exist on Earth; a ‘Moon’ sycamore was planted beside Roosa’s grave in Arlington Cemetery in Washington.

9. Astronauts did space walks on the way back from the Moon

The SIM (Scientific Instrument Module) bay was installed in a section of the Command and Service Module. The SIM bay contained mapping and panoramic cameras and to retrieve the film canisters, the Command Module Pilot would don a spacesuit, open the hatch and clamber along the outside of the spacecraft.

Apollo 15’s Al Worden entered the Guinness Book of Records for the first deep-space extra-vehicular activity when he recovered film cassettes from the SIM bay while almost 200,000 miles (321,869 km) from Earth. He spent 38 minutes outside and was afforded a unique view of Earth and the Moon. Apollo 16’s Ken Mattingly and Apollo 17’s Ron Evans also performed space walks. Evans was the first to greet his family while in space, saying, “Hello, mom. Hello, Jan. Hi, Jon. How are you doing? Hi, Jaime!”.

10. They went

Despite the overwhelming evidence of photographs, film, testimonies, returned physical objects and scientific experimental data, some believe the landings were did not take place and that Apollo was a giant hoax for mankind instead of a leap. It is thought by some that a huge cover-up was organised to include the 400,000 people who worked on the project. Astronaut John Young, who travelled to the Moon with Apollo 10 and then landed as commander of Apollo 16, said “I have the grey hairs and so does Charlie Duke that prove we went!”

By Norman Ferguson

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