Following the shock of the Soviet Union's Sputnik satellite in 1957, and the additional humiliations inflicted upon the U.S. in April 1961 - the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the first manned space flight by Yuri Gagarin - it came as no big surprise that the U.S. would try to surpass the Soviet achievements in space as soon as possible. What was surprising was the form and the timing of President Kennedy's response. On May 25th , 1961 he proposed to a joint session of congress that the U.S. "should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth".
Even to those of us who understood something of what this challenge implied - and perhaps especially to us - the audacity of Kennedy's announcement was staggering. Just consider the following points:
As a consequence, what rockets and spacecraft to design and build was very much an open question at this point. The feasibility of rendezvous and docking operations was unproven. The problem of space navigation was unsolved. (It turned out that - if memory serves - the returning Apollo capsule had to hit a 40-km wide corridor going into the atmosphere at the end of its 380,000 km return trip from the Moon. Coming in too low meant excessive g forces and incineration; going too high meant skipping out into space again, much as a flat stone thrown at a low angle to a water surface may skip the surface instead of penetrating it.) Computers were primitive by today's standards. ("We went to the Moon on 16 K.") Engineers still carried sliderules. And to top it off, this was in an age when a hefty share of rocket launches ended in spectacular explosions. Indeed the first attempt to orbit an unmanned Mercury capsule had failed just a month earlier, when the Atlas rocket had had to be destroyed by the safety officer.
My Canadian colleague Dr. David Goodenough used to say: "Out of the three constraints on a project: What is to be achieved? By when? How much can it cost?, I refuse to commit myself to more than two." Kennedy had followed this principle in his announcement, but contrary to prevailing beliefs, in practice there was a cost cap. NASA Administrator James Webb had committed to a budget of some 22 billion US dollars for the whole project. He had wisely included a huge margin in the figure he had presented to Kennedy, and in turn his managers had their own margins. For instance, Wernher von Braun made sure that his Saturn rockets had a lot more power than the original requirements stipulated, knowing from experience that initial weight budgets were bound to be exceeded. - As it turned out, the runout cost of the program was within budget, but in announcing the objective, Kennedy must have known that he was taking an enormous risk on the financial side as well.
Kennedy's aide and speech writer Ted Sorensen wrote: "The routine applause with which the Congress greeted this pledge struck him, he told me in the car going back to the White House, as something less than enthusiastic. Twenty billion dollars was a lot of money. The legislators knew a lot of better ways to spend it."
Unlike von Braun, Kennedy and Webb were no spaceflight romantics. There is no evidence that they were particularly impressed with the awesome fact, that after 4,000 million years of evolution, within our own short lifetime on this planet - a mere blink of the eye - mankind would break the bonds of gravity and travel to another celestial body. A transcript released just a few years ago shows that Kennedy tried to imprint the overriding importance of beating the Soviets to the Moon on Webb, while Webb tried to defend a "balanced program" with equal priority for unmanned planetary missions etc. - Surprisingly, Webb left NASA in October 1968, just on the eve of NASA's greatest achievements.
In July 1962, Kennedy made another courageous decision, when he endorsed NASA's proposal to adopt the Lunar Orbit Rendezvous approach for Apollo. This mode had originally been dismissed as an exotic, extremely risky scenario. It would greatly increase the number of milestone events during the mission that could go wrong, with disastrous consequences. But one farsighted engineer at the Langley Research Center, John Houbolt, gradually managed to convince top management that this mode was the most practical way - perhaps even the only one - to meet the deadline. The decision-making process makes for fascinating reading. The early favored scenario of a single launch of the huge Nova booster and a direct flight to the Moon's surface had to be discarded because of the time required to build and test the monster rocket. The scenario preferred by the Marshall Space Flight Center under von Braun, assembly and fuelling in low Earth orbit before departing on a direct flight to the Moon's surface, was considered more viable, but the design of the large moon lander turned out to be very tricky, with the crew residing high above the ground. Gradually, the numbers convinced von Braun that Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) was the way to go, and he showed great leadership in bringing his lieutenants over to the LOR camp.
But even with all the rationale provided by the engineers and their calculations, there still was a lot of uncertainty in assessing the risks involved in the different scenarios. The two orbital Mercury flights that had taken place at the time of the LOR decision demonstrated how hazardous spaceflight still was. During John Glenn's flight there had been an indication that the heat shield had come loose, and a high-risk decision had been made to attempt re-entry with the retro-rockets still attached to the heat shield, something that could have perturbed the air flow to a dangerous degree. Scott Carpenter's flight overshot the intended recovery area by some 400 km due to an off-nominal attitude of the spacecraft when the retro rockets were fired. And the previous summer, Grissom's sub-orbital flight had ended in the loss of his spacecraft after splashdown. Grissom himself had been half drowned. - Rendezvous and docking operations still lay in the future, and there still was no detailed information on the conditions on the lunar surface. The first Ranger closeup images were to be transmitted as late as 1964, and the first unmanned Surveyor lunar lander arrived in June 1966.
In 1962, there obviously was no experience of building and operating a rocket as large as the Saturn V, 110 m tall and weighing 3000 tons at launch, burning 13 tons of fuel per second. Just how reliable would it be? Major technical problems would have to be overcome, and were. As late as in August 1968, there were unacceptable longitudinal oscillations in the vehicle during launch ("pogo oscillations"), yet, remarkably, the problem was fixed and the Saturn V sent on a manned circum-lunar mission just four months later. - Earlier, the minor engineering problem of building the Vertical Assembly Building to accomodate the Saturn V, the world's largest building by volume at the time, had been solved. The building was designed to withstand hurricane force winds...
Above all, in the case of the LOR scenario, Kennedy had to face the very real possibility that American astronauts might be stranded in lunar orbit without any hope of rescue, facing a slow and very public death. And for months and years after that, every time someone looked at the moon, there would be the knowledge that the corpses were still circling up there.
Today, with the record of six successful landings on the Moon, and with no loss of life in space during all of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Skylab programs, it is all too easy to overlook the many risks that were present, and the close calls that were averted, during that era. In addition to the tragic Apollo 1 fire, there was the accelerating spin of the docked Gemini-Agena vehicle with Armstrong and Scott in 1966; the dramatic explosion on Apollo 13 that nearly proved fatal (and would have been, had it occurred on Apollo 8); the wildly gyrating Lunar Module on Apollo 10; Apollo 12 struck by lightning during launch; and undoubtedly a large number of small problems that could have escalated but didn't.
The Apollo program was hugely successful, but there were no guarantees that this would turn out to be the case when Kennedy made his decision in 1961.
|Last edited or checked June 6, 2013.|