Monday, November 08, 2010

Apollo +50: Little Joe 5

This is a series that I am writing describing the history of the Apollo moon landings - 50 years ago. The Apollo project provides an excellent example of what can be accomplished when people study a problem, experiment, theorize on solutions, and conduct tests to conform or falisfy their theories. Nowhere in the whole Apollo project was any issue ever explained by saying, "God did it." Indeed, if these types of answers, rather than scientific answers, were the working model of the day, Apollo would never have lauched.

50 years ago today.

T minus 8 years, 9 months, and 10 days and counting.

Fifty years ago, we were 8 years, 9 months, and 10 days away from a human setting foot on the moon. However, at that time, nobody had a plan to get humans to the moon. NASA was still struggling to get humans into space. It wanted to get a human up to the edge of space, let him work through about five minutes of weightlessness, and get him back to Earth.

For that, NASA needed a relatively safe rocket. As we have said before, that rocket needed to survive "Max-Q". This was the point at which the constantly increasing speed of the aircraft working against the thinning atmosphere of the Earth as the spaceship climbed put the manned capsule under the greatest amount of stress.

This was also the day that John F. Kennedy defeated Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 election for President of the United States - the election that would actually result, six months later, in the launch of the Apollo moon program.

But this day in November, 1960, was going to be another day of disappointment. Sixteen seconds after launch, the escape rocket would fire prematurely. They would fire while the main booster rocket was still firing, which means that the main rocket was still accelerating, which means that it failed to pull the capsule away from the rocket. The capsule and rocket remained mated together while they both completed their ballistic flights and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean 14 miles down range.

Salvage crews were only able to recover less than half of the capsule.