Where No Man Has Gone Before, Preface


The purpose of this book is only partly to record the engineering and scientific accomplishments of the men and women who made it possible for a human to step away from his home planet for the first time. It is primarily an attempt to show how scientists interested in the moon and engineers interested in landing people on the moon worked out their differences and conducted a program that was a major contribution to science as well as a stunning engineering accomplishment.

When scientific requirements began to be imposed on manned space flight operations, hardly any aspect was unaffected. The choice of landing sites, the amount of scientific equipment that could be carried, and the weight of lunar material that could be brought back all depended on the capabilities of the spacecraft and mission operations. These considerations limited the earliest missions and constituted the challenge of the later ones.

President John F. Kennedy's decision to build the United States' space program around a manned lunar landing owed nothing to any scientific interest in the moon. The primary dividend was to be national prestige, which had suffered from the Soviet Union's early accomplishments in space. A second, equally important result of a manned lunar landing would be the creation of a national capability to operate in space for purposes that might not be foreseeable. Finally, Kennedy felt the need for the country to set aside "business as usual" and commit itself with dedication and discipline to a goal that was both difficult and worthwhile. Kennedy had the assurance of those in the best position to know that it was technologically possible to put a human on the moon within the decade. His political advisers, while stressing the many benefits (including science) that would accrue from a strong space program, recognized at once that humans were the key. If the Soviets sent men and women to the moon, no American robot, however sophisticated or important, would produce an equal impact on the world's consciousness. Hence America's leadership in space would be asserted by landing humans on the moon.

This line of reasoning was convincing enough for most congressional leaders, who would have to provide the money, and was accepted by a majority of Americans. But Apollo was conceived and developed in an era when the scientific community was emerging as a political force in the country. Scientific research was becoming a big business in the late l950s and early l960s, sustained by unprecedented financial support from the federal government. Science had constituted the major portion of NASA's early space program and was the rationale for the space program in the first place; hence scientists considered space to be their province. The investigations of the pioneer space scientists did not require a human's presence; hence man had, in their view, no important role in space. Since Apollo was not a scientific project, it was unnecessary; because it would be expensive, it probably would be detrimental to the legitimate space program already under way.

In one respect the critics were right: Apollo was not primarily a scientific project. The engineers charged with accomplishing the lunar landing within the decade had far too many problems to solve to give much thought to secondary matters - a category to which they relegated scientific experiments. Some may have felt that the landing itself was enough; the President had called for nothing more. Most probably reasoned that someone else would specify what the astronauts would do on the moon. For the engineers responsible for carrying it out, Apollo required a strict ordering of priorities: be sure we can get the crew there and back; then provide for other objectives. Risks abounded, and the glare of publicity surrounding Apollo made it certain that the loss of a single astronaut's life could imperil the project's very existence.

Objections by the scientists had no effect on the nation's determination to carry out the manned lunar landing. Science would, however, considerably affect the conduct of the lunar missions that followed the first landing. By the time the project ended in December 1972, engineers and scientists had developed a mutual respect and a commonality of aims. No one lamented more strongly than the scientists - not, for the most part, the same ones who had objected so vigorously to the program in the early days - the cancellation in 1970 of three planned lunar exploration missions.

Apollo might have been considered complete when the crew of the spacecraft Columbia came aboard the U.5.5. Hornet in the Pacific Ocean on July 24, 1969.

Indeed, for some years after President Kennedy proposed it, the first lunar landing was regarded as the objective of Apollo. Planning for manned space flights to follow the lunar landing began in 1963 with studies on how the Apollo spacecraft could be modified to extend the duration of the missions and increase the payload that could be carried to the moon. In l965 a program called "Apollo Applications" emerged, which included long-duration earth-orbital flights as well as lunar exploration. It would build and launch a few Apollo spacecraft and Saturn rockets each year, sustaining the nation's manned space capability and producing useful information while the nation decided what the next major step in manned space exploration would be.

By late 1967, however, it was clear that that decision would not come early, and that post-Apollo programs other than lunar exploration required more thought. An Office of Lunar Exploration Programs was opened in NASA Headquarters to direct the continued exploration of the moon under the Apollo banner, and the earth-orbital portion of Apollo Applications, which would evolve into Skylab, was split off.*

The development of the spacecraft, rockets, and launch facilities necessary to accomplish the primary goal of Apollo has been described in three prior volumes in the NASA history series.**

The story of the lunar spacecraft and the flight program up to the return of Apollo 11 is detailed in Chariots for Apollo. The present volume is both a parallel and a sequel to Chariots; it traces the development of the Apollo science program from the earliest days and continues the history of the Apollo program, laying major emphasis on the scientific exploration of the moon conducted on the later flights, Apollo 12 through Apollo 17.

One issue of great concern to scientists and engineers alike was whether a trained scientist should be included in the crew of the lunar module. If the point of man in space was to make best use of the unique capabilities of humans, would not manned space science require a professional scientist? Or were the intricacies and potential hazards of flying the spacecraft so great that only test pilots could be trusted to lead the missions? Could one professional be sufficiently trained in the other's skills to be an adequate surrogate? The qualifications of candidates for selection and training as astronauts, and the choice of crews for each mission were points that were never really settled during Apollo and remained a point of contention throughout the project.

Another issue concerned the scientific study of the samples returned from the missions, which was complicated by the U.S. Public Health Service's insistence on quarantining everything returned from the moon until it could be shown that no exotic microorganisms had been accidentally imported. The Lunar Receiving Laboratory and its role in the storage, dissemination, and preservation of the lunar samples are important to the scientific story of Apollo. Finally, this history must make a first cut at answering the following questions: what have scientists made of the data produced by Apollo? Do we understand more about the origin and history of the moon and the solar system as a result of Apollo's six voyages? Any answers to these questions can only be provisional since, like all scientific questions, they are subject to revision as new investigators apply new techniques to the samples. By the time this history was written, scientists had reached consensus on very few answers to the questions that lunar exploration hoped to clarify, but I have tried to summarize their tentative conclusions.

A program as complex as Apollo is not easily handled by a simple chronological account. In the early stages, from 1961 to roughly the end of 1966, the several phases of the program had to be hammered out more or less independently and many complex relationships had to be built. For those reasons I have organized the early chapters of the book topically, the better to deal in some detail with these early developments.

By early 1967 most of the separate elements were in place; then on January 27, 1967, the program was shaken to its foundations by the command module fire that killed three astronauts in training for the first manned Apollo mission. The fire was a watershed for Apollo, setting back operations by a year or more while NASA and its contractors examined every detail of spacecraft design, manufacture, and management. It had almost no negative effect on the science program; in fact, lunar exploration probably benefited by the delay, which gave some much-needed time to the development of the lunar surface instruments and the lunar receiving laboratory. From the fire to the first lunar landing in July 1969, a basically chronological account of development is somewhat more manageable. The other accident in the Apollo program, the aborted Apollo 13 mission, was deliberately mentioned only briefly in the main text. To have covered that flight in detail, dramatic as it was, would have lengthened the story unacceptably; and since other authors have dealt with it in detail[see Ref. 11-77], I decided to treat the essentials of the accident, the management of the flight, and the results of the investigation in appendix 8. The safe return of the crippled spacecraft and its three crewmen is a monument to the skill and determination of hundreds of dedicated individuals; the subsequent investigation was a masterly piece of engineering detective work, lacking a "body" - the failed spacecraft itself - to provide clues; but space did not permit full treatment of the flight in all its aspects. As for its impact on lunar science, Apollo 13 created a delay of a few months, giving scientists a little breathing space, which they welcomed, to refine plans for later missions. The loss of one load of lunar samples and the data from one more set of surface experiments was of small importance in the end. More than that was lost a few months later when two of the remaining six missions were canceled.

In writing this history I was granted unrestricted access to the extensive Historian's Source Files at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, to the files in the History Office at NASA Headquarters, and to documents stored at the various Federal Archives and Records Centers. To the extent possible within the time constraints of my contract, participants reviewed my drafts and offered comments. They also corrected factual errors where they found them. Their comments were given thoughtful consideration and incorporated into the history whenever the documentation seemed to support them or when an insider's viewpoint yielded insights the historian cannot glean from the documents alone. The interpretations of events here recorded, as well as any errors that remain, are my responsibility.

I have tried to define fairly and accurately the arguments on both sides of the scientific and technological issues that bore on the conduct of the Apollo exploration missions. I found it somewhat difficult to treat the opposition to the Apollo program voiced by many prominent scientists. Of course the scientists who spoke against Apollo and later criticized NASA's management of it were merely exercising their right to political expression. One reviewer who took exception to my treatment noted that this was the only avenue open to the scientists, who were put off by the engineers and had no choice but to "go public" with their objections, in the hope that political pressure would gain what their efforts within the system had not. Nevertheless, their objections, usually based on the unspoken assumption that purely scientific projects were entitled to privileged treatment, often smacked of intellectual arrogance. More imitating still - even to an outsider - few of those who criticized the project wanted to assume any responsibility for managing it. On the whole the objectors preferred to remain outside, where they could pursue their rewarding scientific careers while freely criticizing NASA - often in ignorance of the political, operational, and cost restrictions within which the space agency had to operate. Those scientists who made a commitment to the program and stayed with it to the end, establishing close relationships with mission planners and scaling their objectives to the capability of the system, deserve more credit than they usually get for the ultimate scientific productivity of Apollo. The reader who suspects that I have a lingering bias in favor of Apollo's engineers is probably correct. I would not dispute the scientists' assertion that the engineers in charge of Apollo often seemed to be throwing roadblocks in the way of science. I suggest, however, that the engineers' reluctance to stretch the missions as far and as soon as the scientists wanted grew out of a healthy respect for the limitations of their equipment and procedures. However easy it may have come to seem, landing on the moon and returning to earth was not a bit less hazardous on the last mission than on the first. When lives are at risk, the line between boldness and recklessness can seem narrow to those who carry the responsibility. NASA and the nation paid the price of haste on January 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger and its crew of seven were lost 73 seconds after launch.

One word about terminology. Throughout the text I have used generic terms like "scientific community" as convenient shorthand, which may be misunderstood. Obviously no single, homogeneous "scientific community" exists now, or ever did, and I use the term only to indicate the source of comments or criticisms. Terms like "manned space flight enthusiasts,", "Headquarters officials," or "MSC engineers" only categorize the source of a comment and do not imply that all persons in that category agreed with the statement or point of view thus attributed.


Houston, 1987

* See W. David Compton and Charles D. Benson, Living and Working in Space: A History of Skylab, NASA SP-4208 (Washington, 1983).

** Courtney G. Brooks, James M. Grimwood, and Loyd S. Swenson, Jr.,Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft,NASA SP-4205 (Washington, 1979); Roger E. Bilstein, Stages to Saturn: A Technological History of the Apollo/Saturn Launch Vehicles, NASA SP-4206 (Washington, 1980); Charles D. Benson and William Barnaby Faherty,Moonport: A History of Apollo Launch Facilities and Operations, NASA SP-4204 (Washington, 1978).]

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