How we got to the moon half a century ago | Science

How we got to the moon half a century ago | Science


From left to right, the astronauts of 'Apollo 8' Frank Borman, William A. Anders and James A Lovell.

Acuciated by the Kennedy's commitment to reach the moon before the end of the decade, in mid-1968, NASA saw it as raw. The fire of January 1967, in which the astronauts who had to pilot in the first test of the Apollo, had forced to redesign a good part of the ship. Now, finally, a year and a half later the work was almost completed and, although there were many fringes to be polished, in a matter of a few months the new capsule could fly. Just to test it, without leaving Earth's orbit.

Another issue was the design of the lunar module, the ungainly vehicle that would take two astronauts to the lunar surface. It still weighed too much and the engineers were struggling to shed a few grams here, others there. NASA had offered a bonus extra for every kilogram they could save. And, consequently, the ship had become so fragile that it was enough to press with a finger to dent it or even go through some protective panels. She always had to hang on cranes because her fragile legs were not able to support her weight.

The lunar module would not be ready to fly on the second mission, as planned.

George Low, then director of the program office Apollo, he realized during a visit to Cape Kennedy where he was riding the first Saturn 5 that would take crew … when the lunar module be ready And then a bold idea took shape: if the main pod, with three crew members, behaved well during its first flight, in October, why not send the next one to the Moon, even without a landing module?

That would allow testing translunar navigation techniques, verify the operation of the rocket, which had never taken crew and check the new computer programs (not yet completed) to direct the trip to our satellite. And also, anticipate the intentions of the Soviet Union, which prepared a launch to the moon, perhaps in December.

In twenty-four hours, Low developed a frenetic activity. Just returned from Cape Kennedy he met with Gilruth, director of the Houston Center and with Chris Kraft, the director of flight operations and Deke Slayton, responsible for the astronaut office. All in less than an hour. He convened an urgent meeting at von Braun's office in Alabama, where he attended among others, General Phillips, director of the Apollo program, Kurt Debus, director of the Kennedy Center and Rocco Petrone, of launch operations. In three hours the group had made the decision: If the Apollo 7 I was successful, on the 8th I would go to the Moon.

In three hours the group had made the decision: If the 'Apollo 7' was successful, the 8 would go to the Moon

With the agreement under his arm, Low returned to the plane, bound for Houston. Already at night, a new meeting, this time with the representatives of North American. Would ship and software be ready? What problems would it pose to launch a Saturn 5 at half load? The previous flight had suffered serious vibration problems, which threatened to break the fuel lines. And, at dawn, new flight to New York, to expose the project to Grumman, responsible for the LM Would it be possible to use a counterweight that simulated the dynamics of the non-existent lunar module?

The top authorities of NASA, in Washington, were not informed until the whole plan was well-tailored. The administrator, James Webb, was somewhat reluctant, in principle. What would be the consequences of an eventual failure in an organized trip so hastily? But, in the end, he agreed.

In the meantime, there was another problem to be solved. The next crew had prepared to test the lunar module around the Earth, not to go to the Moon. That was for the third flight. Slayton interrogated James McDivitt, the commander of the next mission. Would you be willing to change the purpose of your trip? No way. They had prepared to try another ship under other conditions and there was no material time to rethink the training. So the order of flights was changed. It would be the next team, Frank Borman, William Anders and Michael Collins who will drive the Apollo 8.

There would still be more changes. Collins had to undergo cervical surgery, which would mean three months of convalescence. So he was replaced by James Lovell, its equivalent in the reserve crew. The tradition established that the substitutes would become owners on the third following flight. Collins became part of the team formed by Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, who -if everything was going well- would pilot the Apollo 11.

In October 1968, the Apollo 7 met objectives. So the next one was scheduled for the next opportunity in which Tierra y Luna occupied favorable positions. That would be at the end of December. It was possible that the Apollo 8 Orbit the Moon for the first time at Christmas.

Apart from all the stress of training and preparations for the trip, Frank Borman had an additional concern. Before the first trip to the Moon, everyone expected that, as commander, he had some words suitable to such a historic milestone. But Borman was a military pilot, not an expert in protocol, and he did not have the faintest idea how to save the compromise.

Years ago, Borman and Lovell had spent two interminable weeks aboard the Gemini 7. Upon their return to the ground, NASA had sent them on a public relations trip around the world. They were accompanied by a journalist, Simon Bourgin, with whom they established an excellent friendship. Borman appealed to him for help.

Bourgin promised to collaborate and also transmitted the assignment to a colleague, Joe Laitin. With an added: the flight was almost closed and would have just a couple of days to write something suitable, especially considering the closeness of Christmas.

Laitin went home and that same night he started typing on his typewriter. Without much success. Santa Claus, Jingle Bells … all the topics went through his head and were discarded. The occasion deserved something more transcendent. He opened a Bible and began searching the New Testament and its narrative of the birth of Christ. But he did not find anything of his liking either.

It had been done at dawn and the floor was covered with crumpled papers with so many ideas discarded. Intrigued, Christine, Laitkin's wife came down to see how the order was going. The journalist was on the verge of despair. "Well," she said, "you're looking in the wrong book," and he turned the pages back to the beginning of the Genesis: "In the beginning, God created heaven and earth …"

Suddenly, those simple sentences acquired all the sense that Laitkin was looking for. In a few minutes he copied them on a sheet that the next day would pass to Bourgin and this one to Borman. Written on fireproof paper – all aboard the ship should be – the astronauts took them stuck on the back cover of one of the flight manuals. And on December 21, the Saturn 5 with three crew on board, he set off for the Moon.

The beginning of the trip was not pleasant for Borman. The first night, unable to sleep, he decided to take a light sleeping pill. Maybe it was the effect of the pill or simply the syndrome of adaptation to space (suffered by almost half of astronauts) the fact is that at two hours, he woke up with nausea. He vomited twice and suffered a case of diarrhea, which left the atmosphere of the cabin in an unpleasant state until the astronauts were able to collect the floating debris with paper towels. But the problem did not repeat itself.

During the trip, Lovell made more than fifty star position measurements using the on-board sextant. It was a mere exercise not strictly necessary, since the monitoring stations and the Houston computer center monitored the progress of the ship. But those tests showed that, if necessary, the inertial unit and the small on-board computer could establish the trajectory with the same precision. A triumph for the MIT team that for years had fought to build the first flight computer in which integrated circuits were used, an authentic first at that time.


A NASA illustration from 1968 depicts the flight of 'Apollo 8' on the Moon.enlarge photo
A NASA illustration from 1968 depicts the flight of 'Apollo 8' on the Moon.

Three days after leaving Earth, the Apollo 8 He fired his braking engine to enter orbit around the Moon. He would remain there for ten revolutions and, as planned, during Christmas Eve Borman, Lovell and Anders took turns reading the text they had prepared, while his television camera sent to the Earth the images of craters and plains parading under his ship. It was probably one of the most emotional moments of the entire space program.

When the Apollo 8 It fell on the Pacific on December 27, it brought with it fantastic images of our satellite, the first ones obtained directly by human crew. And also, in one of the magazines of film, a photo that would be iconic: the blue Earth rising above the desolate lunar horizon as the Apollo 8 progressed in its orbit.

No one could be sure at that moment, but the race to the moon was over. The Soviet Union still did not have its landing craft or a reliable rocket. His hopes of being able to make, at least, the first circumlunar journey, had vanished. There was one last and desperate attempt to get rock samples using a robot probe but that attempt was for a few months in the future. Six more months, to be exact.

Rafael Clemente is industrial engineer and was the founder and first director of the Museu de la Ciència de Barcelona (now CosmoCaixa). He is the author of A small step for [un] man (Dome Books).

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