When (Part of) Apollo 13 Reached the Moon
NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has imaged the Apollo 13′s S-IVB impact site.
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.
Recounts of the Apollo 13 mission, which ended on this day (April 17) in 1970, are dominated by stories of the oxygen tank’s explosion and the subsequent fight engineers waged against the dying spacecraft to save the crew’s lives. And understandably so; it’s one of the most captivating stories of the era that’s given the mission the subtitle of “the successful failure.”
But it wasn’t all a failure. Some mission objectives were just successes, among them the deliberate impact of the Saturn V’s third stage on the lunar surface.
The massive Saturn V was a three-stage rocket. The first (S-IC) and second (S-II) stages were both designed to fall back to Earth after launch. But the third stage, the S-IVB, was designed to go further. This stage accompanied the Apollo spacecraft into Earth orbit then used its massive engine to send the docked Command and Service Module (CSM) and the Lunar Module (LM) towards the moon; the maneuver was properly called the translunar injection burn.
Only when the CSM/LM was on its way to the moon did the S-IVB undock from the spacecraft. But by then it had the same lunar-bound momentum as the spacecraft. On the Apollo 8, 10, and 11 missions NASA let the S-IVB stage follow a ballistic trajectory that had it pass by the moon and go into into orbit around the sun. But on Apollo 13, NASA kicked the S-IVB on to a trajectory that would have it impact the lunar surface.
The reason goes back to Apollo 12. When Pete Conrad and Al Bean landed on the moon, they brought along a series of science instruments. Among them was a seismometer, an instrument designed to register ground displacement on the moon to give scientists a look at our satellite’s internal structure. Apollo 11 also left a seismometer on the lunar surface, but it fell silent after just three weeks. So it was for the benefit of the scientists reading data from Apollo 12’s seismometer that NASA crashed Apollo 13‘s S-IVB into the moon.
NASA tracked Apollo 13’s S-IVB by radio signals after spacecraft separation, enabling engineers to accurately predict the time and place the impact would occur. When Apollo 12’s seismometer registered a series of vibrations originating from a point about 83 miles away, they knew it was the spent rocket stage. In that instant, it weighed 29,599 pounds and was traveling at 8,465 feet per second.
Apollos 14, 15, 16, and 17 also left seismic stations on the moon creating a network covering a small area of the surface. These four missions’ Saturn V S-IVB stages also impacted the Moon creating vibrations picked up by the seismic network. Between 1969 and 1977, this network registered some 13,000 seismic events that encompassed some of the most important science data of the Apollo program.
From the array of seismic readings, the S-IVB impacts stood out; the rocket stages produced a unique calibration signal. And for the modern day observer, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) has captured some stunning pictures of the stage impact sites.
Article originally published in May 2013.