Moon Machines

14 January 2009

In the summer of 2008, I had the pleasure of watching a documentary on the Science Channel entitled “Moon Machines“. The program focused on the various elements used to take humans to the Moon between 1968 and 1972 during Project Apollo. Divided into multiple episodes, the documentary examined the Saturn V rocket, the Apollo Guidance Computer, the Apollo Command Module, the Lunar Module, the Lunar Rover, and the astronauts’ Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) suits. Using archival footage and interviews with the men and women who worked on Project Apollo, each episode was chockfull of details and information.

My favorite episode of “Moon Machines” dealt with the Apollo Guidance Computer. At the outset of Project Apollo, computers were still in their infancy. Entrusting computers with the lives of three humans thousands of miles from Earth was a big leap of faith in the early 1960s. Based in part on research conducted by MIT professor David Mindell, the episode examines how a select group of scientists and engineers created a sophisticated and reliable guidance and navigation system along with a computer with newly written programs. With computer software not yet invented and computer memory minuscule compared to today’s technology, the challenge of navigating a 500,000 mile round trip from the Earth to the Moon was intimidating to say the least.

The episode focusing on the Saturn V rocket is an incredibly engrossing one. The massive Moon rocket was developed by two very different yet very enthusiastic groups who shared an intense desire to explore space: World War II German rocket scientists and a new generation of young engineers from across the United States. In the 1960s, with the Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union more intense than ever, engineers and scientists developed an unprecedented 363-foot-tall rocket with more than one million working parts that produced 7.5 million pounds of thrust. The Saturn V rocket was an achievement of engineering genius.

The Saturn V rocket propelled the Apollo Command Module into space. The Apollo Command Module was unlike any vehicle ever designed. The module had to serve as a fully pressurized vessel giving its three human occupants communication devices, food, navigation equipment, oxygen, power, protection from the vacuum of space, and water for a two-week round trip to the Moon. Construction of the module required immense resourcefulness and tenacity and typifies the indefatigable commitment of all who worked on Project Apollo.

Apollo 16 Command Module. U.S. Space and Rocket Center. Huntsville, Alabama.

Apollo 16 Command Module. U.S. Space and Rocket Center. Huntsville, Alabama.

Once the astronauts were propelled into lunar orbit, they used the Lunar Module to descend to the Moon’s surface. The Lunar Module had nearly impossible demands placed upon it. The module had to be extremely light and also extremely durable, two requirements that were almost unattainable. This episode of Moon Machines showcases the perseverance of the project’s scientists and engineers who built the ungainly machine that took humans to the Moon.

After landing on the Moon, the astronauts then had to egress the Lunar Module. In order to leave the relative safety of the Lunar Module and walk on the Moon, the astronauts had to wear a specially designed  EVA suit. However, designing a suit that was flexible enough to pick up a penny yet durable enough to protect the astronaut from the harsh environment on the lunar surface was no easy task. While on the Moon, the astronaut had to be able to conduct experiments and collect lunar samples while encapsulated in what was essentially a small, personal spacecraft. This episode of Moon Machines documents the arduous task of designing and constructing the Apollo EVA suit, one of the most expensive and most resilient articles of clothing ever made.

While astronauts on Apollo 11, Apollo 12, and Apollo 14 had to traverse the lunar surface on foot, the astronauts of Apollo 15, Apollo 16, and Apollo 17 utilized an all-wheel drive Lunar Rover. The story of the Lunar Rover is a fascinating one. Due to budget restrictions, early concepts for lunar roving vehicles and habitation units were scrapped. However, this episode of “Moon Machines” details how a small group of engineers convinced NASA to build the small, yet functional Lunar Rover. The story of the Lunar Rover, like many aspects of Project Apollo, is one of determination in the face of nearly insurmountable obstacles.

“Moon Machines” is an exceptional documentary and should be required viewing for anyone interested in human spaceflight. The aspect of the series I find most impressive is its focus on the women and men who designed and built the machines that took humans to the Moon. Most spaceflight documentaries focus almost solely on the astronauts. “Moon Machines” is the first documentary of its kind. Never before have I seen a documentary which gives long overdue recognition to the designers and builders in America’s space program. While the documentary covers a wide-range of topics, it never loses its focus on the men, women, and machines of Project Apollo.