The Space Race and Apollo 11
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The Most Successful Space Mission of all Times -Apollo 11
- JAMES CHAN
Introduction to the Cold War and Space Race
Prior to the 1960s, there has always been a dream to travel to the outer space. Research has been done continuously around the world to investigate methods for space travel. At that time, there was a dramatic competition between countries and each nation wanted to demonstrate their superiority in technology and military power. After the World War II drew a conclusion in the mid-20th century, a conflict began between the Soviet Unions and United States known as the Cold War. The Cold War was a competition between the two rivalries and had been on-going for many years. The two nations extended military funding’s to compete against each other on military forces and technological competition which initiated the Space Race. The Space Race was a crucial arena for the competition between the two epic rivalries (Collins, 1999).
Space Race happened between 1957 and 1975 where the two rivalries focused on attaining to be the first in space exploration. This supremacy was seen to be necessary in terms of national security and it was a symbolic of ideological superiority (Cram101 Textbook Reviews, 2013). The race involved efforts on launching satellites and human missions orbiting around the Earth, as well as unmanned probes to the Moon, Venus and Mars. Out of all the mankind achievements in the space race and 20th century, it was said that the Apollo 11 mission where humans finally escaped from the earth’s gravity and landed on the moon was the most groundbreaking and dominating milestone in the history of space travel (Brooks, et al., 2012).
Timeline of the Space Race
Figure 1: Timeline for Space Race
The first race into space started in 1957 after the Soviet Union successfully launched the ‘Sputnik’ satellite. It was the first manmade object to leave the Earth (Bille & Lishock, 2004). As a response, the US launched its first satellite, Explorer I, four months after the Russians which initiated the competition between the two nations. Momentarily the space race started to heat up and in 1959, the Soviet space program took the lead again with the launch of Luna 2, the first probe that reached the lunar surface (Kuhn, 2007). In 1961, the Soviet spacecraft Vostok 1 successfully sent the first person into orbit around Earth and on the other side, the US managed to send its first mankind into space three weeks later with the Freedom 7 without achieving orbit (Schefter, 2000). It was nearly a year after, in 1962, the US was able to catch up with the Russians and send its first person to orbit around the Earth with the Friendship 7 spacecraft.
At that time, the US President John F. Kennedy recognized the problem and suggested more work should be done for the US to reach a leadership position in this space race. Kennedy believes that the US could first achieve crewed lunar landing and soon started to fund NASA’s lunar landing program – Project Apollo (History.com, 2010). The ultimate goal of Project Apollo was to be the first country to safety send mankind on the moon and return them back to Earth by the end of 1960s (Brennan & Vecchi, 2001).
Shortly after Kennedy’s full support on the US lunar space programs, NASA has an increasing budget of 500% from 1961 to 1964 with 34,000 employees involved in the Apollo program (History.com, 2010). In conjunction with Project Apollo the US launched several programs such as the Gemini and Mercury program to develop the technology needed for the Apollo mission. From these programs, the Americans not only learnt how to change orbit of a spacecraft, but also performed the first rendezvous and docking of two spacecraft and accomplished the first spacewalk which are all necessity for the success of Project Apollo (Chaikin, 1999). After many years of flight testing and experiments conducted on the initial modules of the Apollo spacecraft, the launch of Apollo 8 in 1968 was the first manned space mission to orbit around the moon.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union’s Soyuz lunar landing mission proceeded alongside with Project Apollo to put the first man on the moon. The Soviet had planned for manned circumlunar flights around the moon in 1967 and manned lunar landings in 1968. However, the Soviet made four unsuccessful and one successful unmanned circumlunar mission between 1967 and 1970. In addition, four failed efforts to launch a lunar landing spacecraft between 1969 and 1972. The most significant setback was the launch pad explosion of the N-1 rocket on 3rd July, 1969 where the launch rocket hits the pad and destroyed the launching facility. Without the N-1 rocket, the Soviet was not able perform space launches anytime soon. In the same month, the US surpassed the Russians and won the race by landing on the moon with Apollo 11.
Apollo 11 Mission
In 16th July 1969, US astronauts Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin and Michael Collins was set off on Apollo 11 for the first lunar landing attempt (Brennan & Vecchi, 2001). The spacecraft consist of three parts namely Command Module, Service Module and Lunar Module. The Command Module is the cabin for the three astronauts, the Service Module supplies electricity, oxygen and water to the Command Module and the Lunar Module is used for lunar landing. The Apollo 11 spacecraft was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and was the fifth manned space mission of Project Apollo. Apart from sending astronauts to the moon and return them safety back to Earth, the secondarily objective of Apollo 11 was to perform human experiments on the lunar surface and return moon samples back to Earth. By studying the moon rocks and gathered data, it would greatly advance our scientific understanding of the moon’s history and what it consists of. (Moskowitz, 2009).
Figure 2: Apollo 11 Components
After launch, the spacecraft entered lunar orbit about 76 hours into the mission. On 20th July 1969, the Lunar Module started to descend after undocking with the Command Module. The US ended the space race on the same day by successfully landing the lunar module on the moon. It was the first manned lunar landing and first time mankind had experienced lunar gravity. After 6.5 hours after landing, Neil Armstrong was the first to step out of the spacecraft. He became the first human to set foot on the moon and his famously quote “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” was symbolic (Brennan & Vecchi, 2001). 500 million people gathered around television and countless audience listened via radios around the world to witness this historical moment. There were never so many people tuned in for a single event at the same time before. After a short period of time, President Richard Nixon connected with the astronauts via a telephone call from the White House. It was the most historic telephone call and longest distance call ever. After two and a half hours of lunar surface exploration, the crew collected 21.5 kg of lunar materials and started its mission back to Earth. Eventually, the Apollo 11 mission landed in Pacific Ocean on July 24.
Figure 3: Apollo 11 on the moon (Image by NASA)
The US clearly won the space race by landing the first human on the moon and leapedto a commanding position in space competition. Subsequently, the Soviet decided to cancel their space program in 1970 after the successful moon landings by the US.
Although the Apollo 11 mission seems to be successfully, there were many challenges during the mission. After landing on the moon, the astronauts weren’t able to open the hatch due to unexpected low atmosphere pressure outside. They had trouble depressurizing the cabin and it took longer than expected to open the hatch (Wilford, 2010).
The most risky and fatal challenge faced by the Apollo 11 spacecraft was for it to return to earth safety. While the astronauts were moving back to the cabin to prepare for its way back to Earth, Aldrin unintentionally broke the circuit breaker which was important to start up the engine (Jones, 1995). Fortunately, a felt-tip pen in the cabin fit into the slot and successfully activated the switch to fire the engine. In addition, the spacecraft was designed to be powered by a single engine for it to depart from the lunar surface. Based on previous testing’s performed in space, the engine has a high failure rate and it was a gamble for the engine to work actually as planned. If the engine did not work properly, it was impossible for the astronauts to return and there was no way to rescue them.
During the space race, both the US and the Soviet Unions were rushing to be the first to land on the moon. Both nations performed countless human experiments and activities which involves high investments and high risk (Harland, 2010). The fail attempts sacrificed lives and a high portion of the governments spending’s has gone to make these programs possible. During the 1960s, some Americans did not believe that the Apollo mission was worth its cost. People protest against the use of funding’s and many others quietly opposed the space missions (Madrigal, 2012). Despite Apollo 11 worked out the best, the Apollo team soon realized how lucky they were for the mission to succeed. As a result, lessons were learnt and the risk and flexibility of such missions should be taken into consideration for future space missions. Moreover, the space programs were conducted within individual countries during the space race. In the future, it is expected that international joint efforts between countries should be made for space explorations (Malik, 2008).
Reason of Success
The reason why the US can achieve such accomplishment in such short period of time is because of the government’s determination. The government sees the Apollo mission to be a long term strategic decision as it will benefit the US on both the administrative leadership and international politics standings. The US government has a clear goal and gives fully financial support to the NASA space programs. In addition, NASA works closely with industrial contractors and universities to make the program possible.
Argument to be the Most Successful Space Mission
The Apollo 11 success demonstrated both economic and technological superiority of the US over rival nations. Project Apollo was a triumph for NASA engineers to design, build and operate innovative spacecraft engineering systems in an environmental where humans wasn’t able to explore before. The integration and organization of the program demonstrated the superiority in engineering and technology of the US. The mission not only the first manned lunar landing, but is also a technological challenge and groundbreaking inventive in spacecraft engineering. The Apollo program achieved enormous achievements as well as leaving legacy for NASA and the spacecraft engineering industry. The mission will not be repeated and the findings of the mission will benefit the world of astronomy, science and engineering forever. It acts as an important milestone and motivation for future space exploration projects. No matter how many lunar landings will be performed in the future, it would never be comparable to the first step on the moon. It will always be remembered in the history of space exploration and thus I believe the Apollo 11 is the most successful space mission of all times.
During the years of space race, numerous space programs has been accomplished and the technology developed throughout the course of the space race has opened up new applications to space that would change the quality of life on Earth (Bille & Lishock, 2004). Despite Apollo 11 being a success and was the first lunar landing on human’s history, lessons were learnt and sacrifices were made to achieve its goals. The Apollo 11 achievement was a great leap for mankind and I believe that Apollo 11 is the most successful space mission ever.
Word Count: 1983
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