Blocked Out: How NASA Chose Apollo's Command Module
The Apollo 17 Block II Command Module as seen in lunar orbit from the ascent stage of the Lunar Module in 1972.
Credit: Dimension Films
Apollo 18: Myths of the Moon Missions
Sept. 2, 2011 --
In the movie "Apollo 18," lost footage taken from what was the canceled Apollo 18 mission to the moon reveals a coverup. NASA buried the mission after astronauts encountered hostile life forms on the moon. The Apollo missions captured the imagination of a generation, so it's no small wonder that fictional accounts -- such as that of "Apollo 18" -- of what happened during NASA's golden age still find new angles on a rich history. Although the Apollo program is a technological and historical legend, as with most stories of heroes and triumph, there have been some embellishments and distortions along the way. Explore the myths, misconceptions and urban legends that color the history of the Apollo missions. (And good news for space enthusiasts: We're not even mentioning the delusion that the moon landing was a hoax.)
We begin with a myth of the Apollo era that was soon squashed after astronauts returned home. Prior to the first successful landing of astronauts on the lunar surface, NASA scientists theorized that their astronauts may have been contaminated with pathogenic microorganisms to which humans would have no resistance. The space agency even enforced a 21-day quarantine for astronauts returning from space. In this photo, Aldrin greets his visiting family via telephone while still constrained in the Mobile Quarantine Facility in Houston, Texas. Biomedical studies conducted following the quarantine period determined that neither the astronauts nor any of the living species that brought along on the mission, including plants and animals, suffered any adverse health effects as a direct result of exposure to lunar material.
"Apollo 18" hinges on the premise that the cancelled Apollo 18 mission was in fact carried out, but covered up after the space agency discovered the presence of hostile alien life on the lunar surface. We all know that in reality Apollo astronauts who landed on the moon never stumbled onto any lunar life. But did Buzz Aldrin, as he appears to claim in this interview for a documentary, spot a UFO while en route to the moon? As Aldrin would later go on to explain following the airing of these comments, not even close. What he actually saw, which he and his fellow astronauts immediately confirmed, was "one of the panels from the separation of the spacecraft from the upper stage."
Image: This is not the original space pen. It
The Million Dollar... Pen?
To paraphrase an old joke: When presented with the challenge of writing in a zero-gravity environment, the United States and the Soviet Union approached the same problem in two different ways. NASA spent millions of dollars developing and testing the space pen. The Russians, on the other hand, used a pencil. In reality, the space pen wasn't developed by NASA, but rather a private company that later sold its invention to both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. A kernel of truth is hidden in this story, however. NASA originally used mechanical pencils and hired a private contractor to supply "34 units" at a price of $4,382.50 in 1965 (around $30,000 today). The public outcry against this purchase led NASA to the cheaper alternative designed by Fisher Space.
Why Was Armstrong First?
Everyone knows that Neil Armstrong was the first man to set foot on the moon, followed closely by Buzz Aldrin. But how many people know the reason why Armstrong was first? In one version of events, Armstrong was selected as the first man to set foot on the moon so that NASA could symbolically convey the message that civilians would be leading the charge with space exploration rather than the military. Aldrin had a long career with the Air Force prior to becoming an astronaut. This account, however, is a myth. For his part, Armstrong had spent time in the military before joining the public sector as a civilian. So why was he chosen first? The answer is much less complicated: It was his turn to be commander after rotating through as backup commander during Apollo 8.
Americans these days look back on the legacy of the space program with pride and admiration. This singular technological achievement is unrivaled to the day. Although Americans may look back fondly at that glorious era, their 1960s counterparts weren't quite as supportive. The Apollo program is widely believed to have been popular during its time, but polling data taken from the era suggest that simply wasn't the case. Throughout the entire era, surveys consisted showed that less than 50 percent of the American public favored the program. Even after Armstrong took his first steps on the moon in 1969, only 53 percent of American surveyed said the accomplishment was worth the cost, according to a report by Space.com.
Could the real reason astronauts haven't returned to the moon be because NASA has simply forgotten how? According to this rumor, propagated by writers including Terry Bisson and astronomer John Lewis in his book "Mining the Sky" in 1996, NASA simply lost its blueprints to the Saturn V rockets. NASA was quick to point out that microfilm of the blueprints is still in storage at Marshall Space Center. So why can't NASA rebuild the Saturn rockets? As explained in 2009 by NASA Lunar Science Institute director David Morrison, many of the companies that manufacture the parts that made up the Saturn V have since gone out of business and the parts are no longer available. Besides, rocket technology has advanced somewhat since the Apollo era.
Credit: U.S. Department of State
As much as we'd all like to believe it's true, NASA did not invent Tang during the Apollo missions. In fact, the instant drink mix had been invented during the 1950s by General Foods Corporation. When NASA adopted it during John Glenn's initial venture into space and for subsequent journeys, the missions popularized the product. Given the kinds of innovations NASA dreamed up during the Apollo years, these misconceptions have become common. Other developments around the same era, such as Teflon and Velcro, are also falsely attributed to the space agency.
Space Pen Savior?
Would you believe the space pen was responsible for preventing Aldrin and Armstrong from being stranded on the moon? The Fisher Space Pen folks would like you to think that's the case, but that's not exactly how it happened. When Armstrong and Aldrin returned to the lunar lander after their historic space walks, the astronauts discovered the "the ascent engine's arming circuit breaker was broken off on the panel," according to Aldrin. In other words, a circuit needed to power the engines to get the Apollo 11 astronauts off the moon simply wasn't working. To complete the circuit, the astronauts didn't use a space pen but rather an ordinary felt-tip marker.
Between the pictures taken during missions or on the launch pad, we’re all pretty familiar with the Apollo command module. The gumdrop-shaped, blunt bodied capsule was the mothership that stayed in orbit while the lunar module descended to the surface and was also the only part of the Apollo spacecraft able to keep astronauts alive during their fiery reentry into the Earth atmosphere.
What we don’t hear about too often is that there were actually two versions of the command module, one designed for Earth orbital missions and one for flights to the moon.
In its early life, the Apollo command module’s development was fraught with difficulties stemming from NASA’s inability to choose a mission mode, or more simply the way Apollo would go to the moon. When President Kennedy set the United States on a course for the moon on May 25, 1961, there were two mission modes NASA was seriously considering for Apollo. Direct ascent, the leading method, involved sending a spacecraft directly to the moon. It would land vertically and launch again from the surface for the return to Earth.
The other method, Earth orbit rendezvous, involved launching the pieces of a lunar spacecraft and assembling them in Earth orbit before setting course for the moon.
There was a third option that, towards the end of 1961, wasn’t a favorite among NASA engineers or managers. Called lunar orbit rendezvous, it involved leaving part of the spacecraft in lunar orbit while a smaller dedicated lander descended to the moon’s surface.
With the mode decision pending, NASA accepted bids from 12 aerospace companies hoping to build at least the main Apollo spacecraft if not the portion that would land on the moon as well, be it a landing stage or a separate landing laboratory. But this posed a challenge for the contractors since the mode decision would eventually shape the spacecraft. The spacecraft wouldn’t decide the mode.
Still without a mission mode selected, NASA awarded the contract for the Apollo command module to North American Aviation on Nov. 28, 1961. NAA began building the vehicle NASA wanted: a blunt-bottomed truncated cone that could support three men for two weeks.
More than six months later, on July 11, 1962, NASA announced its mode decision: Apollo would use lunar orbit rendezvous. The kicker for North American Aviation came another six months later when NASA announced that Grumman Aerospace would be building the lunar module. Not only had NAA suddenly lost the honor of landing on the moon, it would have to go back and alter its spacecraft to make it compatible with a new vehicle built by a different contractor.
Most notably, NAA would have to add a docking tunnel to the Apollo command module so astronauts could transfer between the two spacecraft. This wasn’t something the company had built into its original design.
Working within the new Apollo mission framework led to two very different command modules. One was further along in its development and one was equipped for missions to the moon. And of course, they weren’t the same spacecraft. What emerged from this near duplication of hardware was a block concept. The Block I would be the original command module, the one unable to dock with a lunar module. Since it would be ready first and have almost all the same systems as the lunar version of the spacecraft, it would be a perfect vehicle for astronauts to train with in Earth orbit. The lunar mission-capable command module with the docking tunnel would be the Block II version. North American Aviation presented the block concept to NASA at the beginning of 1964; the agency signed off on the idea on Jan. 24.
Though they were built for Earth orbital tests, no crew ever flew in a Block I. The first Block I built for a manned mission was spacecraft 012. It was the spacecraft that claimed the lives of the Apollo 1 crew in the fatal prelaunch fire on Jan. 27, 1967.
After the fire, there were so many changes made to the Apollo command module that NASA finally cancelled all manned Block I flights. There were enough differences between this model and lunar version that it hardly seemed worth updating and testing the spacecraft that wouldn’t be going to the moon. Some Block I spacecraft were retrofitted with Block II parts and launched on unmanned missions, but all manned flights launched in updated Block II spacecraft.
The first complete Block II spacecraft made its debut with Apollo 7, but 50 years ago this month the SA-5 mission launched on the first Block II capable Saturn I rocket on January 29, 1964. SA-5 (SA for Saturn-Apollo) was a launch vehicle development test. It was the first orbital flight of a live S-IV upper stage, the first use of stage separation hardware, and the first time launch complex 37 was used. The mission was entirely successful.