The Apollo missions and the Saturn V rocket are a collection of superlatives, unique creations and ingenuity; that were indispensable to be able to achieve one of the greatest feats of humanity, to put the first human beings on the Moon.
This is the month of the Apollo project, this month 50 years ago a group of people culminated an epic project that took less than a decade to complete, but that will surely continue to be remembered for centuries. Send a crew to the surface of our natural satellite, the Moon. And it was on a day like today, July 16, in 1969, when the Apollo 11 crew set sail for the Moon to crown this feat, by making the first moon landing.
I consider myself part of this generation; the space generation, which transformed the fantasies of children and adults, making the interest in science and engineering a predominant subject. It is in this decade that even television yet in its infancy, began to broadcast memorable shows such as Star Trek (1966); which is undoubtedly part of the legacy that has to do with the fervent activity that during this time was lived due the active space program.
Apollo project’s challenges.
This project really pushed to the limit the capabilities of science and technology of that time, and it is of great interest to know the stories of how this project evolved. And as the design had great leaps technological development, when facing the challenges that implied this mission. Here are some examples:
The Lunar Module was called as such, because it was not just a ship, it was itself a pair of ships in tandem; one that was used for the descent, and on top of it, another one that was used for the ascent, using the descent module as launch pad, this meant that the cabin had to be able to control in addition to the direction, the propulsion of each of these two ships. Therefore, the lunar module had two engines, one for each maneuver.
Both the Lunar Module and the Command Module, as part of its multiple systems, each had one of the first “mini-computers” in history. This computer, which was developed before the first commercial microprocessor was released (Intel-4004 in 1971). Even when it had limited capabilities, the “Apollo Guidance Computer” is still a technological marvel, as it had features that were unique for that time such as the capability to recover from fatal errors and continuing its operation after a failure. Problem that actually happened in the Apollo 11 mission; when it was “overloaded” by the radar information during the descent operation.
The rocket-engines on the first stage that powered the Saturn V rocket are still the most powerful rocket engines ever created, this stage required five of these propellers during the launch start.
The storage of fuel (Hydrogen), and oxidizer (Oxygen), used during the second rocket stage, presented serious engineering challenges; both were kept in liquid state at -487⁰F (253⁰C), and -361⁰F (-183⁰C) respectively. Besides the need to keep these fluids at such low temperatures, the difference in temperature between them 158⁰F (70⁰C), required a very efficient insulation, given that this difference in temperature represented a great risk, considering that oxygen could affect the temperature of the hydrogen, potentially causing Hydrogen’s gasification; Obviously an unwanted effect.
Initially the plan to reach the Moon was to use the method of “direct ascent” which, among other things, would require a much more powerful rocket (called “Nova” class), this was the method that even Wernher von Braun, US space science expert, considered. But a radical idea, was presented by John Houbolt, using Yuri Kondratyuk’s proposal, Aerospace Soviet Engineer. This method was called “Lunar orbit rendezvous” and involved the encounter and coupling of two spaceships while in lunar orbit; very risky maneuver but one that could save a very considerable amount of weight; method that was used in these missions, solving some weight problems, critical factor on Apollo missions.
Apollo missions legacy
The Apollo missions brought many advances in science and technology, which still have great impact on our daily lives, even after 50 years. Here are some examples:
Electronics; this technology had a great advance due to the Apollo missions, an example is the use of PCB’s (Printed Circuit Boards), the plates where the electronic components are assembled, method that’s still common and used in electronic devices nowadays, method that was developed as part of this program, aimed at improving the miniaturization and weight of electronic equipment.
Hot-sealed footwear; for the most part, tennis shoes we use today does not use seams, but a heat-sealing system, now commonly used in clothes and tennis shoes; This process was developed and used in the boots that were used in the spacesuits used during the lunar walks.
Synthetic fibers; one of the first uses of synthetic fibers was in the same space suits used in the Apollo missions; these fibers allowed to have a very light suit with many layers, which allowed to regulate astronauts body temperature, one of these layers used a water circulation system, something similar to a car radiator, but for the whole body. Another example is the use of “Mylar”, fiber with metallic material that is used as insulation and protection against cold or heat, such as the “emergency blankets” we can get nowadays, precisely for emergency situations.
Medical equipment; Apollo astronauts had continuous monitoring of their vital signs, and their suits also had a small module that could give a “corrective electric shock” in case of emergency. Basically, these were the first portable defibrillators.
Quartz watches; to maintain a watch system that was not affected by the absence of gravity, watches based on quartz oscillators were developed; method that is still in use today in multiple clocks and watches.
Other Apollo mission’s legacy developments includes methods to improve water’s treatment and purification, miniaturized vacuum systems that lead to today’s portable vacuum cleaners, or the fibers used on suits worn by firefighters, all of them are part of the technology inherited from the space program.
Yet, I still believe that the greatest legacy of the Apollo missions is the new appreciation and understanding of our own planet, providing the best Earth’s images ever seen. Here on earth we see our planet as a vast and almost endless place; but seeing it from space its fragility and a sort-of lightness becomes evident, noticing how small it looks compared to the vastness of the cosmos; These missions gave a new perspective on what our planet means, our only home in space; a magnificent and fragile place when viewed from this perspective.
I still remember that, during my childhood, I just to enjoy a program called The big blue marble. A children ‘s TV series that showed stories of other children around the world; the program took this name in reference to the photo called “Blue Marble“, photo taken by the crew of the Apollo 17 mission while traveling to the Moon on December 7, 1972.
The Apollo missions are, in my opinion, the best and most positive example of the realization of a common vision and the result of a joint work and commitment that, although initially might have had a different objective, in the end inspired a big group of specialists to give the best of their talent and to solve the multitude of challenges this mission presented. It is for me, without a doubt, the greatest and boldest vision in history.