Apollo's Lunar Module Bridged Technological Leap to the Moon


President John F. Kennedy, speaks in front of an early design for the Apollo lunar moduleNASA

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy challenged America to meet the goal of "landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth."

A first step in that technological leap for NASA was deciding how.

At the time, many NASA managers and engineers believed the most feasible method was "direct ascent," -- a spacecraft launched by an enormous rocket traveling directly to the Moon and landing as one unit. After exploration of the surface, a portion of the lander blasts off, returning to Earth.

Another approach, called "Earth Orbit Rendezvous," involved launch of several Saturn 1 rockets. A spacecraft, similar to the direct method, would be assembled in space for the lunar mission.

On July 24, 1962, Dr. John Houbolt explains his lunar orbit rendezvous concept for landing on the MoonNASA

But a small group of engineers, including Dr. John Houbolt, assistant chief of the Dynamic Loads Division at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia, had an idea called, "Lunar Orbit Rendezvous." In a 1961 letter to Dr. Robert Seamans, NASA's associate administrator, Houbolt proposed separate vehicles, one to land on the surface while another circled the Moon.

The risky part was the landing craft must rendezvous with the "mother ship" in lunar orbit so the astronauts can return home. At that time, bringing two spacecraft together in space had never been tried. But the landing could require a much smaller spacecraft.

"Rendezvous in lunar orbit is quite simple," Houbolt believed. "I would rather bring down 7,000 pounds to the lunar surface than 150,000 pounds."

In his 2005 NASA book, "Project Apollo-The Tough Decisions," Seamans wrote that he saw great merit in lunar orbit rendezvous.

"Houbolt explained the orbital maneuvers and noted the savings in weight," he said.

Wernher von Braun (1960-01-01)NASA

While initially a skeptic, Dr. Wernher von Braun, director of NASA's Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, agreed that the lunar orbit rendezvous approach would simplify reaching Kennedy's goal in a timely manner.

"A drastic separation of these functions into two separate elements is bound to greatly simplify the development of the spacecraft system and result in a very substantial saving of time," he said.

Von Braun led the team that developed the Saturn V rocket to launch the two spacecraft.

Studies and debates continued during the following months.

Crew Training - Apollo XI - KSC (1969-06-19)NASA

In a July 11, 1962, news conference, NASA Administrator James Webb announced the decision.

"We have studied the various possibilities for the earliest, safest mission," he said. "We find that by adding one vehicle to those already under development, namely, the lunar excursion vehicle, we have an excellent opportunity to accomplish this mission with a shorter time span, with a savings of money and with equal safety."

Initially dubbed the lunar excursion module, the name was later changed to simply lunar module, or LM. According to George Low, manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, NASA believed the word "excursion" might sound frivolous.

The contract for designing and building the LM was awarded to Grumman Aerospace in November 1962. A year earlier, North American Aviation began work on the "mother ship" called the command/service module.

Initial LM designs included large curved windows and seats and a redundant forward docking port. But, redesigns were required to save weight and enhance safety.

The cockpit windows were replaced with smaller triangular versions. A rectangular overhead window was included for use in rendezvous with the command module after leaving the lunar surface.

A forward hatch was designed to make it easier to climb out while wearing the bulky space suits with their backpacks.

Apollo 11 Lunar Module ascent stage photographed from Command Module (1969-07-21)NASA

While there were many key LM systems, nothing was more important than the engines that would allow the spacecraft to land on the Moon and another to return to the command module.

At the base of the LM was the descent propulsion system. The variable throttle rocket engine allowed astronauts to control the final decent from about 50,000 feet, including hovering as the commander picked out the best spot to land.

The upper half of the LM served as the ascent stage. It contained the crew cabin with flight controls. The ascent propulsion system engine fired to liftoff from the Moon's surface and into a trajectory for rendezvous with the command module in lunar orbit.

The ascent module also included 16 reaction control system thrusters mounted in groups of four, for maneuvering in both landing and ascent.

The LM's first unpiloted flight test was Apollo 5, launched Jan. 22, 1968. The mission successfully verified operation of the spacecraft's performance, including the descent and ascent propulsion systems. Piloted test flights preceded the first Moon landing attempt. On Apollo 9 in March 1969, the LM was flown in Earth orbit. During Apollo 10 in May 1969, a LM descended to 50,000 feet above the lunar surface.

Saturn Apollo Program (1969-07-21)NASA

The venerable lunar module showed its versatility serving as a "lifeboat" when the Apollo 13 command/service module was disabled by an oxygen tank explosion en route to the Moon in April 1970. But the LM will be remembered for its role between July 1969 and December 1972 as six of the spacecraft successfully landed 12 American astronauts on the Moon.

Credits: Story

By Bob Granath
NASA's Kennedy Space Center, Florida

Credits: All media
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