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A few things we learned on the way to the Moon
December 19, 2011 1:09 PM   Subscribe

39 years ago today, Apollo 17 splashed down in the South Pacific, marking the end to manned exploration of the Moon. What we learned from those 10 years of discovery was amazing.

It wasn't cheap or easy to send men to the Moon. In 1960 dollars, the financial cost was $25 billion dollars (estimated to be $170 billion in 2005 dollars).

The human cost is harder to quantify. While it's easy to note the three astronauts who died in the Apollo 1 fire, others died during training. Meanwhile, the long hours required for training left families bereft of a spouse and parent, a hole that the wives and families had to fill on their own.

Despite the long hours and the turblence of 1960s America and the world, humanity accomplished a feat that reaped four benefits.


1: The rapid developement of fuel cells and computers

The Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) was used for control, guidance and navigation of the Command and Lunar module. Developed at MIT laboratories (then headed by Charles Draper), the computer required the large scale development of intergrated circuits, a low cost amd low power chip. This propelled the development of hardware and software, as chronicled in Moon Machines: Apollo Guidance Computer (1, 2 & 3).

Yet as powerful as the computer was, the amout of RAM it used is dwarfed by the size of a font in modern day systems.

To run the AGC and everything else on the ships, a power source was needed. Batteries couldn't do the job, not with the size and weight needed for a 8-12 day voyage in space. Enter the fuel cell, a device that uses hydrogen and oxygen to provide a constant supply of electricity, along with a useful by-product, water. Developed early in the '60s, fuel cells saw development and use in the Gemini program and further refinement in Apollo.

These days, the technology is viewed as a possible alternative to gas cars.


2: Insight into the orgin of the Earth and the universe

While Apollo was largely about beating the godless commies to the moon, scientific exploration was a major component of the program. Each mission carried numerous experiments, most of them bundled into the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package or ALSEP. The package contained instruments that measured the internal structure of the moon, revealing that moonquakes occurred, information that indicates the moon did not form at the same time as the Earth. Also measured was the "atmosphere" and the solar wind that mixes with it; the distance from the Earth to the Moon, within centimeters; and the magnetic field.

But what about the 800 plus pounds of rocks and dust brought back from the Moon? Surprisingly, they're similar to Earth rocks, giving weight to the Giant Impact Theory. But the most amazing fact is that with no true atmosphere, there's no erosion. The Moon rocks, laying on the surface for billions of years, contain information about the universe from early era of the universe, which also reveals the conditions of Earth shortly after it was formed.


3: A stunning collection of photographs and video was taken

If you just want to start clicking and viewing, check out the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, which has an amazingly huge library of images and video for missions 11-17. Be warned that many of the videos are in the RealVideo format, so one would have to download the RealVideo player to view them. All the links below are to non RealVideo Clips from other sources.

Note that Apollo 11 made it into Big Picture on the 40th anniversay of the landing. Oddly enough, there are very few photos of Armstrong on the moon. Every classic and iconic picture from the mission is of Buzz Alrdin, taken by Armstrong. Rumors persist that Aldrin was annoyed about not being designated the first man out and delibrately snubbed Armstrong in revenge.

All the missions carried still and TV cameras, even the unmanned Apollo 4 and 6, which produced the famous scenes of booster stages separating. This enabled Apollo 7 to be the first US mission to broadcast video from space. The next mission, Apollo 8, continued doing live transmissions, including the low resolution but moving Christmas message of 1968. Later, Apollo 9 produced remarbly better color videos of the astronauts and Earth, particularly the spacewalks.

With the tenth mission, the increased quality and color provided not only breathtaking video of moon but pretty decent video of the astronauts inside the ships. Yet for the history making moon landing, that quality was noticably absent for the historic first step, probably due to the more rigorous demands of having the the camera outside.

That was supposed to be remedied on Apollo 12, which had a color camera for the moonwalking astronauts. Unfortunately, the camera didn't come with a lot of instruction, so one of the astronauts ended up pointing the camera at the sun, which destroyed the video tube. Other than the landing, taken with a 16mm camera from the pilot's window, no video exists of the crew on the moon.

Apollo 13 transmitted a public broadcast, as all missions did. But later the crew ran into a problem that resulted in no images from the lunar surface.

For Apollo 14, good video footage of astronauts on the moon was finally seen, a trend that conintued for the rest of the program. Apollo 15, 16 and 17 increased the quality even further with a camera on the Lunar Rover, allowing the public to come along for the ride and see men leave the moon.



4: A different view of ourselves and our home

As Apollo 8 circled the moon late in 1968, astronaut William Anders snapped the famous color photo known as Earthrise. Widely credited with igniting the environmental movement, the picture offered a startling view to humanity, that Earth was fragile and alone in space. As Anders himself later noted "...we came all the way to the moon to discover the Earth."

This wasn't the first photo of Earth from the vantage point of the moon. Lunar Orbiter 1 had done that two years earlier, in grainy black and white. But the Apollo 8 crew had better cameras and more importantly was a sign that humans had actually traveled so far from home.

24 men traveled to the moon, thanks to the work of 400,000 people. It wasn't easy or cheap, the cost was enormous, arguably spent better elsewhere and perhaps, in the end, the Apollo program was an anomaly.

But it was worth it.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (42 comments total) 125 users marked this as a favorite

 
We should have never left.

Great post.

A good book we got recently is the NASA Apollo 11 Owners workshop Manual which has some great behind the scenes info and pictures of the whole Apollo program. Even though its pretty in depth and wordy my 3.5 year loves it and can't get enough of the pictures and stories.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 1:28 PM on December 19, 2011


I have it! We need a new space race! Sure, arms races mean auxiliary technology boons, but it also means more weaponry, which is silly, because we don't really want to kill anyone, we just want to posture about our vast and varied capabilities to do so.

So we need a new Space Race enemy. Quick, someone start an internet rumor about China aiming to colonize Mars, or mine asteroid belts! We're out of Iraq, Lets go back into space!

In all seriousness: great post, and a nice follow-up to your Apollo 15 post from earlier this month.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:31 PM on December 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


To sum up:

#1 - Rapidly develop fuel cells and computers
#2 - Gain insight into the origin of the Earth and Universe
#3 - Take some pictures
#4 - APOLLO'D

Seriously though, great post. Can't wait to start digging through this.
posted by Kabanos at 1:32 PM on December 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


Wow. Fantastic post. There goes the rest of the afternoon...
posted by twsf at 1:38 PM on December 19, 2011


Yet for the history making moon landing, that quality was noticably absent for the historic first step yt , probably due to the more rigorous demands of having the the camera outside.

In fact, high-quality video of the first step was transmitted. However...
posted by Thorzdad at 1:47 PM on December 19, 2011


You could do an entire post on the LM guidance computer alone. There are many good stories.

Me, I just can't imagine being a 26-year old mission controller, debugging one of the first solid-state computers from 200,000 miles away (and in real-time) while the whole world watches and a couple of guys are sweating it out with their fingers on the ABORT button.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 1:56 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Flagged as fantastic!
posted by Kevin Street at 1:58 PM on December 19, 2011


I have it! We need a new space race!

The new space race has already begun and America isn't even in the running.
posted by fairmettle at 2:00 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm going to break my instapaper with all this stuff. Thanks, Brandon.
posted by Foaf at 2:50 PM on December 19, 2011


I don't know which mission, but my dad was on one of the Apollo recovery ships and has a postmarked card from the event. I hope it's this one as the art is totally awesome (I've never actually seen it).
posted by nev at 2:51 PM on December 19, 2011


Great googly moogly, what an excellent post.

I was a toddler when Apollo 11 landed, so I don't remember watching it, but I'm told that I did. I do remember the crisis on Apollo 13 and watching -- avidly -- the later moon missions. The notion of a moon base in 1999 didn't seem that far-fetched. We've had some strange priorities, it seems.
posted by Gelatin at 3:37 PM on December 19, 2011


Meh, but what has SCIENCE! done for us lately?
posted by blue_beetle at 3:43 PM on December 19, 2011


The Apollo project -- Apollo 17, specifically, 39 years ago -- also gave us the image known as The Blue Marble.
posted by Gelatin at 3:48 PM on December 19, 2011


I find it stunning to realize that I was only eleven the last time a man stood on the Moon.

Super great post... THANKS!
posted by Ron Thanagar at 4:21 PM on December 19, 2011


Nice post. But you missed one thing that I have previously commented on MeFi somewhere, what is considered the most important development of the Apollo program: systems analysis and process control. The Apollo spacecraft required hundreds of thousands of parts, all made by different subcontractors, and they had to work together perfectly, the first time, and every time. No project had ever attempted to do anything on this scale before. Now this sort of systems analysis is a fundamental process of all complex construction projects. If you want to build a Boeing 787 or a skyscraper, or even complex object-oriented software, you will be using processes developed for Apollo.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:25 PM on December 19, 2011 [6 favorites]


i can't tell if it's linked from #1, but the book Digital Apollo is a must for any fan of computing history. it's chock full of great history and chronicles the politics of "spam in a can" vs. 'piloted' machines.

http://web.mit.edu/digitalapollo/
posted by joeblough at 4:30 PM on December 19, 2011


whoops, sorry: digital apollo
posted by joeblough at 4:30 PM on December 19, 2011


*grumble* *grumble* FUCK YOU RICHARD M. NIXON, Burn in hell, you bastard... *grumble* *grumble*....

We would have been #OccupyTitan by now if it wasn't for that cocksucker...
posted by mikelieman at 5:01 PM on December 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


charlie don't surf is absolutely right. I read an excellent memoir this year, Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module by Thomas J. Kelly. He was in charge of Grumman's Lunar Module program and summed it up:
The management of the Apollo program was a staggering task, more complex in its scope, number of participants, and interrelations between program elements than anything yet attempted by the aerospace industry. The activities and outputs of more than 175,000 people in thousands of organizations across the United States had to be coordinated, scheduled, and provided with technical interface data wherever their products interacted with someone else's. The whole array of schedules had to be capable of rapid revisions whenever new developments, such as unforseen test failures or delivery slippages, causes a change in technical approach or plans.

As a model of how to manage such complexity, NASA used the ballistic missile programs then under development by the air force and navy. They adopted major techniques from each of them: from the air force, the configuration management system, and from the navy, the program evaluation and review technique (PERT).
Given the number of near-misses (not just Apollo 13), Kelly was convinced that astronauts would die if the program kept going, and was glad to see it end (although he expected the Space Shuttle to be a worthy replacement).
posted by djb at 5:23 PM on December 19, 2011


Now that Kim Il Jong is gone, can we divert our military spending into NASA?
posted by pashdown at 5:58 PM on December 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Great post - but personally, I think that at this point we should leave space exploration to the robots. Spirt, Opportunity, and soon Curiosity are doing a great job. And they work cheap.
posted by Flood at 6:06 PM on December 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


Hey thanks for that Digital Apollo link, joeblough. There are some amazing materials in there. My favorite deep link so far, an archive of an old dead website at Caltech, Computing in the Soviet Space Program. If you thought the Apollo program's achievements like the Guidance Computer were awesome, just imagine trying to develop it with Soviet technology. I remember reading back in the mid 90s when a Soviet satellite crashed just after launch, the US picked it up and analyzed it. They said it used a Soviet pirated edition of an 8080A microprocessor. The latest, most high tech processors in the USSR were copies of 20 year old Intel chips.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:20 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Flood, I agree, but I also believe that our destiny is to explore the stars, so we've got to fling people out there too. Honestly, if we just stop trying to fix the world's problems with massive, wasteful, and unnecessary military force, we can do this with ease.
posted by zomg at 6:20 PM on December 19, 2011


Counter arguments
1 NASA's mission requirements and long time lines generally force them to use outdated technologies. The Apollo computers were not the smallest or state of the art by 1969. Most of the technology specifically developed for the moon program lacked much commercial utility after the program ended. Most of what you've heard of as NASA driven is just marketing.

2. Most if the science and photos could have been gotten for much cheaper.

3. Compare what we got from the following programs which all combined cost less than Apollo:
-Hubble
-Mars Rovers
-Voyager Missions
-Galaleo
-Cassini
-Every other unmanned probe we've sent including 20+ moon missions, 12 Mars missions, and and many others.
posted by humanfont at 7:43 PM on December 19, 2011


2. Most if the science and photos could have been gotten for much cheaper.

That is utterly illogical. You're saying, if we knew then what we knew now, we could have done it all cheaper and better. But what we know now was what we learned then.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:59 PM on December 19, 2011


What we got from Apollo (among many things) is a handy historical marker for the peak of Western Civilization. And it's not a plateau.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 8:01 PM on December 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


Your assuming a dependency. What knowledge gained under Apolo was critical path to Hubble or the Mars Rovers? Nothing I can tell.
posted by humanfont at 8:06 PM on December 19, 2011


This post flagged for "AWESOME".
posted by Vindaloo at 8:35 PM on December 19, 2011


It always blows my mind how many people still believe in this massive lie. :)

http://davesweb.cnchost.com/Apollo1.html
posted by GrooveJedi at 8:36 PM on December 19, 2011


Your assuming a dependency. What knowledge gained under Apolo was critical path to Hubble or the Mars Rovers? Nothing I can tell.

If you can't see the direct connection between this and this, I don't know how I could possibly explain it to you.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:36 PM on December 19, 2011


The Apollo computers were not the smallest or state of the art by 1969.

The post didn't say that they were, it simply stated the program helped spur their development.

2. Most if the science and photos could have been gotten for much cheaper.

Many things could be done for cheaper, that doesn't mean they're better.

3. Compare what we got from the following programs which all combined cost less than Apollo:

You are obsessed with cost, and making things cheaper. Thinking like that got the got us a good idea that was underfunded and wound up costing more in terms of dollars and lives (the Shuttle program).
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:07 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


*grumble* *grumble* FUCK YOU RICHARD M. NIXON, Burn in hell, you bastard... *grumble* *grumble*...

Nixon could have cancelled Apollo at any time since nearly all of it was during his presidency.
posted by smackfu at 5:13 AM on December 20, 2011


I'm not obsessed with cost. I'm obsessed with expanding human knowledge and exploration. Since we don't have an unlimited budget, cost to value delivered is important.

Your assuming a dependency. What knowledge gained under Apolo was critical path to Hubble or the Mars Rovers? Nothing I can tell.

If you can't see the direct connection between this and this, I don't know how I could possibly explain it to you


So Apollo invented the car? No lunar rover, no Mars rover? A connection isn't a dependency.

Thinking like that got the got us a good idea that was underfunded and wound up costing more in terms of dollars and lives (the Shuttle program).

Apollo was a much riskier venture for human participants. One crew. Ironed in the ground and a second almost lost to deep space. We should have cancelled STS after Challenger.
posted by humanfont at 6:17 AM on December 20, 2011


Budgets were cut, along with the last three moon missions, so that NASA could focus on the Shuttle.

Despite all that, two Saturn V rockets went unused along, with a command and lunar module or two. The added cost of those missions wouldn't have been that much, since the equipment was already built.

NASA administrators didn't fight too hard to save those last three missions because they were worried about getting a crew killed. Apollo 13 really freaked them out, the accident occurred from almost ridiculous chain of small errors. They worried that a fatal accident would cause the end of the program, so they were ok with letting the program go, figuring that a safer method would be devised later.

According to Chris Kraft, in his auto biography, if the administrators had that no one would return they would have actually fought for those last three missions.

As to Nixon, his administration considered ending the program after Apollo 15, on the rationale it was so successful that the program was "done". Others wanted to completely close the program, but Nixon wanted to keep, feeling that astronauts were heros and America needed that. He just didn't want them spending 5-10% of the budget, he preferred 1% or less.

Had NASA's funding levels continued at those higher levels, they had every intention of being on Mars at some point in the '80s.

Note that James Webb (yes, the telescope is named after him), who was responsible for much of the political wheeling and dealing that got NASA that high budget, fully intended for NASA to be sort of like WPA, with the best of intentions. The program would employ millions in a high tech arena paid for by the government. Some in Congress saw that and took steps to block it.

They were helped by the choice of mission mode to land on the moon. Originally, it was thought that a single, giant spaceship would have to be built. It would take off from Earth, land on the moon and then come back to Earth, fully intact. Doing that would have required a space station for refueling and various others devices. In short, an infrastructure that would not have been easy to get rid of, much like military bases in the US.

However, going to the moon that way was going to be really difficult and would not have been done by 1970. Werner Von Braun wasn't sure how he was going to do it, but that's the direction he and others at NASA were working towards.

But Dr. John Houbolt, almost single handedly, got mode changed to Lunar Orbit Rendezvous, which was much cheaper, required less infrastructure and it least seemed like it could make the 1970 deadline.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:21 AM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Awesome post. Thanks.
posted by VicNebulous at 7:21 AM on December 20, 2011


Even as human life forms finally got the chance to stare into the celestial bodies that were unimaginable to people of even 50 years past, somewhere, some place, some unimpressed accountant said “And why are we doing this again?”

I wonder if humanfont was behind the defunding of what would of been the largest supercollider in the world, not in Europe, but here in the heart of the United States.
posted by amazingstill at 9:16 AM on December 20, 2011


Nixon could have cancelled Apollo at any time since nearly all of it was during his presidency.

It wasn't so much the cancellation of Apollo as the neutering of the STS program into some useless LEO 'shuttle' or something which is where the real damage of Nixon's policies came home to roost.
posted by mikelieman at 10:32 AM on December 20, 2011


That last video is amazing, everyone should watch it. Enjoying the stories about Mission Control as well.
posted by Four Flavors at 1:22 PM on December 20, 2011


That last video is narrated by Carl Sagan and pretty much sums up this post.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:56 PM on December 20, 2011




We had a choice. Build the ISS and send astronauts, cosmonauts and rich space tourists into LEO for a couple of decades or build the super colliding super conductor and ensure our dominance of physics for another generation. We chose the ISS, which was a poor decision.
posted by humanfont at 12:09 PM on December 21, 2011


Photos of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, before its final power down later this week.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 1:48 PM on December 21, 2011


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