Celebrating 50 years since the mission of Apollo 11

July 17, 2019 - Grace Williams, Michael Nicholas & Vicky Nelson

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[19th century – taken from Emerin Semple scrapbook]

We’re celebrating the first lunar landing this year at the American Museum & Gardens. On August 3rd, we will be holding space race storytelling in the gardens, and have NASA exhibits in our Thomas Kellner exhibition. We also have some written content from our staff.

Read on…

Magnificent Desolation

Michael Nicholas


July 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the historic space flight by Apollo 11 and the first lunar landing. The race to be the first nation to set foot on the Moon seized the world’s imagination. Mike Nicholas, Museum Gardener, has long been fascinated by the history of space exploration. In this article he touches on some of the milestone missions and events that shaped the NASA space programme.

On 4 October 1957, the world changed, changed by one of the most inconspicuous of noises, a noise that was slow, deliberate, and rhythmic. The source of the noise was hundreds of miles away, and yet it could be picked up by amateur listening equipment. For many, this solitary noise provoked mixed emotions: wonder for many, sheer horror in others. This date heralded a new era of fascination in the possibility of space exploration, but amidst the euphoria, the harsh reality of Cold War tensions between the capitalist United States of America and the communist Soviet Union rapidly overshadowed this momentous event. For the Soviets had launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, and over the course of three weeks, this small, baseball-sized satellite travelled 43 million miles and completed 1,440 orbits of the Earth.


Politically, this was a huge blow to the United States, which had been overtaken by a country perceived as being backward. The launch of Sputnik 2 on 3 November 1957 only confirmed that the Soviet Union was more than capable of using satellites to spy against the Americans. On 31 January 1958, the Americans responded to this threat by launching Explorer 1, America’s first satellite.


Project Mercury

The space race had officially commenced and the United States required a specific agency to counter the rising threat of the Soviet Union’s own aspirations. On 29 July 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was founded. Shortly thereafter, on 7 October 1958, NASA unveiled its first bold plan. Project Mercury had three core objectives:

  • NASA wanted to place a human in orbit around the Earth
  • It wanted to understand how spaceflight would affect the human body
  • It wanted to know how to bring astronauts and their space vessels safely back to Earth


Potential candidates for the Mercury programme had to meet incredibly strict criteria and were subjected to extreme physical, psychological, and mental examinations. They also came solely from military test-pilot ranks. Of 110 candidates, only seven made the cut. Ironically, certain individuals who would go on to play a key part in future missions were turned away from the programme, including Neil Armstrong (the first man on the Moon, who lacked sufficient flying experience at the time) and James Lovell (who commanded the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission). On 9 April 1959, the seven pilots whom NASA had selected were announced to the world. The Mercury 7 included Malcolm Scott Carpenter, Leroy Gordon Cooper Jr, John Herschel Glenn Jr, Virgil Ivan (Gus) Grissom, Walter Marty Schirra Jr, Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr, and Donald Kent Slayton.


After the initial selection process, the Mercury 7 were sent on an intense and rigorous training programme that would have a strong influence on the Apollo missions. The training programme included basic astronautical science instruction, systems training, spacecraft control training, environmental familiarisation, and egress and survival training. A little known fact at the time was that 13 women, under private funding, also underwent the same selection process as that of the Mercury 7 and, in many cases, equalled or surpassed their male counterparts. At the time, however, NASA was seeking individuals who were highly qualified jet pilots and thus, sadly, these women were automatically excluded from any further participation.


On 12 September 1962, President John F Kennedy delivered a speech that, in time, would be a driving force behind changing the world forever. It was a bold declaration that rapidly accelerated a programme of exploration, human endeavour, and technological advancements.

We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are not willing to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too[i].


Project Gemini   

Following the historic flight of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the United States and NASA were plunged into a bitter crisis of confidence. For all that Project Mercury had achieved, President Kennedy quickly realised that a long-term solution was needed, bringing sharper focus on an incredibly ambitious goal: he wanted to put men on the Moon. In order to complete this task, NASA officials knew that this would call for a vast array of new techniques and technology, most of which had never been tested. It cannot be stressed enough how dangerous this period of the space race was for the Americans, for NASA was about to use techniques and equipment that had never been used, in an environment that was unforgiving. Crucially, if men were to attempt a landing on the Moon, there would be a requirement for the rendezvous and docking of spacecraft and components in orbit. Project Gemini served as a means of bridging the gap between Project Mercury and the Apollo Moon programme, which was still very much on the drawing board.


Production of the Gemini spacecraft moved at breakneck speed. Unlike the Mercury spacecraft, the Gemini rockets included a pressurised re-entry module, which was designed in consultation with the Project Mercury pilots. After a series of unmanned flights, Gemini 3 was launched on 23 March 1965. The spacecraft worked beautifully and the only issue came when John Watts Young produced and shared a smuggled corned-beef sandwich whilst in flight, an act that saw him severely reprimanded by NASA officials.


The path was now clear for an even more daring mission. Although the Soviets had achieved their first spacewalk a few months before, the crew of Gemini 4 enjoyed the prestige of being the first American astronauts to perform an Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA), consisting of an astronaut tethered to the spacecraft whilst floating freely in space. Gemini 5 spent 8 days in orbit, smashing the five-day space endurance record held by the Soviet Vostok 5. On 25 October 1965, NASA planned for the Gemini 6 crew to rendezvous with an unmanned Agena Target Vehicle (ATV) in orbit; the ATV, however, was lost due to an explosion in space.


1966 saw the most daring missions of the Gemini programme, with the crew of Gemini 8 successfully docking with their ATV but subsequently forced to retire when a jammed thruster sent the linked spacecraft into a dangerous and terrifying spin whilst in orbit. Following a setback with the Gemini 9 mission, Gemini 10 saw its crew dock not only with their own ATV but also with the abandoned Gemini 8 ATV.


Project Apollo

1967 saw the beginning of the Apollo programme, NASA’s ultimate means of sending American astronauts to the Moon. The daring of the two previous programmes would be eclipsed by that of this latest programme as NASA drove headlong toward this goal. AS-204, designated as the first manned mission of the Apollo programme, was scheduled for lift-off on 21 February 1967. Following the successes of the Mercury and Gemini programmes, NASA clearly felt confident of their new technological advancements. This confidence, however, was to have tragic consequences.


Prior to the scheduled launch date, the crew of AS-204, otherwise known as Apollo 1, were proceeding with a ‘plugs-out integrated test’. This meant that the crew would be carrying out tests of the systems and procedures, operating as closely as possible to actual flight conditions, including a simulated launch. During this time, no substances or materials that would be used during an actual launch were used. Ignition fuel, for example, would not be circulated around the rocket at any time and thus the test was not deemed hazardous. Almost immediately, the crew became aware of a strange smell that was circulating around the command module. Much to the frustration of the crew, their problems were also compounded by communication issues between the command module and launch control.


The first sign of trouble began when launch control noticed a sudden surge in the spacecraft’s voltage followed by erratic spikes from the astronaut’s bio-medical sensors. Moments later, the crew announced that there was a fire in the cockpit. Due to a cockpit that was filled with pure oxygen, the spark from the power surge immediately created a firestorm within the command module. The inner wall of the module ruptured and dense smoke and flames billowed out, preventing ground crews from reaching the trapped astronauts. There were also fears that the module would soon explode, which in turn would ignite the solid fuel rocket in the launch escape tower above the command module. If this occurred, it would destroy the rocket, kill ground personnel, and possibly destroy the launch pad. All three astronauts – command pilot Virgil Ivan ‘Gus’ Grissom, senior pilot Ed White, and pilot Roger Bruce Chafee – perished in the fire. The disaster prompted NASA to take a step back, re-evaluate their safety procedures and completely overhaul their rocket and module.


After a series of unmanned test flights and subsequent successful manned flights, the crew of Apollo 8 achieved something quite remarkable, for they were the first men to orbit the Moon and return to Earth safely. It was a significant feat of technological advancement and human achievement. Following this success, the crew of Apollo 10 executed a simulated lunar landing, hovering just above the Moon’s surface, to provide a dress rehearsal for the following mission.


The Apollo 11 mission has rightly taken its place as one of history’s most defining moments. With thirteen seconds of fuel remaining, the lunar module touched down on the Moon’s surface. All around the world, people watched with amazement as Mission Commander Neil Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin ‘Buzz’ Eugene Aldrin Jr walked on the Moon. Between 1969 and 1972 the Americans achieved a total of six manned lunar landings, a truly impressive feat. With its incredible achievements, sometimes in the face of astonishing odds, the Apollo programme eventually came to a close, but it remains an example of technological achievement, ingenuity, and human endeavour. The Apollo programme helped lay the groundwork for NASA’s next project.


A New Era- The Shuttle Programme  

By the 1970s, NASA had turned its attention to even bolder plans for space exploration. Previously, spacecraft had taken the form of capsules launched into space on a rocket and then parachuted back to Earth at the end of a mission. To reduce costs, NASA envisioned a space plane that could fly into orbit and then return. As always, it was an important technological achievement, but it failed to reduce costs because of the constant need to refurbish the spacecraft following each mission. One of the most famous missions the shuttle fleet undertook was to repair the Hubble Space Telescope whilst in orbit. Space Shuttle Endeavour rectified the problems in December 1993 whilst a further four missions corrected minor problems and installed new features. The final shuttle mission took place in July 2011 by the crew of Space Shuttle Atlantis[ii].


1986 and 2003 were to prove the undoing of the shuttle programme, however. On 28 January 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger blew up 73 seconds after launch with the loss of all seven crew members, including Sharon Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher who had joined the flight crew as a payload specialist. On 1 February 2003, NASA lost its flagship shuttle, Columbia, which broke up during re-entry. All seven crew members were killed. These two disasters heralded the end of an ambitious programme that never reached its full potential. In 2004 President Bush made a speech that pledged funds to other space exploration programmes and effectively initiated the end of the space shuttle programme, following the completion of the International Space Station[iii]. As with any great venture, broader horizons arise, spurred by humanity’s desire to push the boundaries and to accomplish what is deemed impossible.


Armstrong and Aldrin’s moon walk was watched by people around the world. This American achievement was a landmark in world history and subsequent NASA space missions have similarly had global audiences. It is fitting, therefore, that during the 50th anniversary year of the Apollo 11 mission, a series of photographs of the NASA space programme are on display at the American Museum. The photographs – two of the 2009 Atlantis shuttle launch and one of the Apollo flight room – are part of All Shook Up: Thomas Kellner’s America. This is an exhibition of photographs of American landmarks taken by the German photographic artist Thomas Kellner.


Kellner creates works based on subjects around the world but has a particular enthusiasm for America, including the work of NASA. He first tried to photograph inside NASA’s mission control in 2006, but was unable to secure the necessary permissions for access. Several years later a chance encounter with American astronaut Leland D. Melvin – one of the crew members of the space shuttle Atlantis – provided Kellner with the opportunity he so desperately desired. Melvin gave Kellner a special pass to the VIP section at the 2009 launch of Atlantis and the following year he was finally able to gain access to the Apollo flight room.

In my view, Kellner’s unique style captures a range of emotions: the tension in mission control, the exhilaration of the final countdown, and the explosive shockwave from the launch.
Beyond this, I feel that the photographs also represent individual moments in time that are composed to create a larger picture. The space programme is a perfect example of this; every small moment brought mankind one step closer to an astonishing achievement and the grand picture was to put man into space.

President John Kennedy’s Rice Stadium Moon Speech, 12 September 1962 https://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm

https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/537939main_ss-launches-080311.pdf (14 May 2019).

‘Why did NASA end the space shuttle program?’ www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/02/02/why-did-nasa-end-the-space-shuttle-program/#736aa41a799f (14 May 2019).

[19th century trading card]

Before the space race….

Vicky Nelson (Learning and development officer) 

Before NASA was even an acronym, the Navajo people had a great creation story – explaining how the sun and moon are given so was enough light to life by, and to mark the different seasons. The star constellations are the quartz scraps from making the sun and moon.
Navajo Creation of the Sky

A Navajo legend describes the Four Worlds that had no sun and the Fifth World, which represents Earth. According to the legend, the first people of the Fifth World were given four lights but were dissatisfied with the amount of light they had on Earth. After many attempts to satisfy the people, the First Woman created the sun to bring warmth and light to the land, and the moon to provide coolness and moisture. These were crafted from quartz, and, when there were bits of quartz that were left behind by the carving, they were tossed into the sky to make stars.


The American Museum & Gardens runs regular educational programmes. Please visit our Learning & Development page for more information.