I was pleased to hear about the Artemis space programme. NASA tell us that “Artemis is the first step in the next era of human exploration. Together with commercial and international partners, NASA will establish a sustainable presence on the Moon to prepare for missions to Mars”. That sounds good to me, because the future isn’t what it used to be, and going back to the Moon is like going back to the future. I have fond memories of the Apollo space programme:
Public domain images courtesy of NASA: Saturn V, Apollo spacecraft, and docking and extraction of lunar module
At the top of the mighty Saturn V was the Launch Escape System or LES, which would be jettisoned after launch. Underneath that was the Command Module, the capsule. Underneath that was the Service Module, which together with the Command Module made up the Command and Service Module or CSM. Underneath that was the Lunar Module or LM shielded by adapter panels. These would later be jettisoned so that the CSM could turn round and dock nose-first with the LM. The top four components made up the Apollo spacecraft, underneath which were the three rocket stages.
That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind
As everybody knows, the first Moon landing was of course Apollo 11 on July 20 1969. The Lunar Module or “Eagle” was crewed by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, whilst Michael Collins stayed up in the Command Module or “Columbia”. I watched it all on TV. I remember “The Eagle has Landed”. See the NASA article for the details: 50 Years Ago: One Small Step, One Giant Leap. Funnily enough what I don’t remember was that there was no live TV coverage of the actual landing. We had to wait for a 16mm film to be developed after the mission got back. Eventually though, there was a video of the landing, and excellent stuff it was:
Screenshot from the Apollo 11 the complete descent video, courtesy of NASA
Like everybody else who lived through it, I recall the moment that man stepped foot on the Moon. Here’s the transcript: “Once on the ladder, Armstrong pulled a lanyard that released the Modularized Equipment Stowage Assembly (MESA) on the side of Eagle’s Descent Stage, on which was mounted a black and white TV camera, allowing hundreds of millions of viewers on Earth to see him descend the ladder down to the landing leg’s footpad. As a precaution, he practiced the three-foot jump back up to the ladder’s first rung, made easier in the one-sixth lunar gravity. Once back down on the footpad, Armstrong described that the footpads had only sunk one or two inches into the lunar dust which he noted was fine-grained, almost powdery. Armstrong announced, “I’m going to step off the LM now.” And at 9:56 PM Houston time he did just that, firmly planting his left foot onto the lunar surface, proclaiming, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
The future was bright
It was all rather low-resolution black and white footage, but it was an historic moment, one that made me feel so proud and optimistic for the future. It was the same for everybody else. The things that post-war boys had seen in their comics and on TV were coming true. The Mercury space programme started in 1958, only 13 years after all the hardship and sacrifice of World War II. The Gemini space programme started in 1961, only 15 years after World War II. The Apollo space programme started in 1963*, only 18 years after World War II. The future was bright. A mere 24 four years after World War II, man was on the Moon. It was a great achievement, one that went down in history, and shaped an awful lot of lives, including mine.
Screenshot from the Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon video, courtesy of NASA
The 1950s were the Boys Own years of Dan Dare, the legendary space hero in the Eagle comic. Like yours truly, Dan was born in Manchester. He was also bound by a sense of honour, never lied, and would rather die than break his word. The 1960s gave us Fireball XL5, then Stingray, then Thunderbirds. They were the years of True Grit, when England won the World Cup. When astronauts were made of the Right Stuff. When men were men and people faced up to danger and got things done. Big things. The Saturn V was 363 feet tall, one foot shorter than St Paul’s Cathedral, which was London’s tallest building for two hundred and fifty years until 1963. The NASA administrator at the time was of course James E Webb, after whom they named the space telescope.
They were asphyxiated by high concentrations of carbon monoxide
Sadly three crew members were killed in 1967 in a capsule fire atop Apollo 1. They were Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. It was a tragic event, and a grim story in its own right. Pure oxygen is dangerous, especially at high pressure in the presence of material that doesn’t normally burn. Especially when there were no explosive bolts like there were on Grissom’s Mercury capsule. That sank after splashdown on July 21, 1961 because the hatch blew off prematurely. See Space Myths Busted: Gus Grissom Didn’t Blow The Hatch on Liberty Bell 7. The Apollo 1 hatch was difficult to open, all the more so because it opened inward, and because the oxygen in the command module was at a pressure of 16psi. On top of that the pressure increased to 29psi due to the fire. They couldn’t get out. Note this: “The NASA crew systems department had installed 34 square feet (3.2 m²) of Velcro throughout the spacecraft, almost like carpeting. This Velcro was found to be flammable in a high-pressure 100% oxygen environment. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin states in his book Men From Earth that the flammable material had been removed per the crew’s August 19 complaints and Joseph Shea’s order, but was replaced before the August 26 delivery to Cape Kennedy”.
Images courtesy of NASA: 1) Backup crew in training, McDivitt, Scott and Schweickart 2) The fire-blackened Apollo 1 capsule
There are pictures of the bodies online if you’re interested. If it’s any consolation they didn’t burn to death. They were asphyxiated by carbon monoxide after the fire melted their oxygen tubes. They were unlucky, because more Apollo astronauts died in aircraft crashes than on the job. Whilst some say 13 is an unlucky number, I’d say the Apollo 13 crew were lucky. After the explosion in an oxygen tank in April 1971, they made it home. So did all the other Apollo crews.
And that, was that
Apollo 12 landed on the Moon in November 1969. Apollo 14 landed on the Moon in January 1971. That’s when Alan Shepherd played golf and Edgar Mitchell threw a javelin. Then Apollos 15 and 16 landed on the Moon in July 1971 and April 1972 respectively:
Screenshot from the Wikipedia article Apollo program
The last mission was Apollo 17. It launched on December 7 1972, crewed by Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans, and Harrison Schmitt. They took the famous Blue Marble picture as they headed out from Earth. Cernan and Schmitt landed on the Moon on December 11. Like the previous two missions they had a lunar rover. After three Earth days on the Moon they took off on December 14, then after some deep-space EVA, they all splashed down in the Pacific on December 19. And that, was that. That was the end of the Apollo space program. Fifty years ago. It was fifty years ago when man last walked on the moon. Of those twelve good men, eight are dead. Neil Armstrong died ten years ago. Buzz Aldrin is ninety two. Our heroes are receding into history.
Skylab was an Apollo spinoff
There were other NASA activities of course. There’s been a whole host of uncrewed NASA missions, such as Voyager, Galileo, the Hubble Space Telescope, Discovery, Cassini, the Mars Exploration Rover, and the James Webb Space Telescope to name but a few. These are great missions that have advanced our knowledge greatly, and it would take a me a whole host of articles to do them justice. That’s if I could, because all I could give is a reheat**. And even if I could, the fact remains that they’re not manned missions. Skylab was. See the List of NASA missions on Wikipedia. Skylab was an Apollo spinoff, launched in May 1973. But it was only occupied three times, and fell to Earth in 1979 scattering debris in the Indian Ocean and Western Australia. In addition the Space Shuttle program ran from 1981 to 2011 and achieved some great things. But it was only ever a low-Earth orbit, the payload wasn’t great, and there were the Challenger and Columbia disasters in 1986 and 2003:
Columbia re-entry debris, picture by Dr. Scott Lieberman
A reusable spaceplane re-entering the atmosphere at circa 17,500 mph is vulnerable. Especially when it has little fuel left and the aerodynamic qualities of a brick. A piece of insulating foam falls off the main fuel tank, it damages the wing, and then the heat of re-entry creates a blowtorch inside that wing. NASA haven’t solved the problem, so they’ve gone back to fifty-year-old rocket science.
Artemis was Apollo’s twin sister
That’s why we now have the Artemis programme. In Greek mythology, Artemis was Apollo’s twin sister. The Artemis program uses the Space Launch System or SLS rocket. Whilst the Artemis I SLS isn’t quite as big as the Saturn V, it’s still a brute at 322 feet tall. Especially since it delivers 8.8 million pounds of thrust as opposed to the Saturn V’s 7.6 million pounds of thrust. Especially since future versions are envisaged to be 366 ft tall:
SLS evolutionary path image from the NASA Space Launch System Reference Guide
The SLS is topped by the Orion spacecraft which consists of a Launch Abort System, a Crew Module, and a Service Module. It’s the same general plan as Apollo’s Command and Service Module. However the Service Module is provided by the ESA and is known as the European Service Module or ESM. That sounds odd. Why can’t NASA come up with their own service module? It looks odd too. It looks like the ESM is too small for the Crew Module:
Orion spacecraft artist’s impression courtesy of NASA
That doesn’t auger well. Something else that doesn’t auger well is that the lunar module is not currently defined. See NASA Awards SpaceX Second Contract Option for Artemis Moon Landing dated 15/11/2022. It says this: “NASA initially selected SpaceX to develop a human landing system variant of Starship to land the next American astronauts on the Moon under Artemis III, which will mark humanity’s first return to the lunar surface in more than 50 years. As part of that contract, SpaceX will also conduct an uncrewed demonstration mission to the Moon prior to Artemis III”.
The only thing it does reliably, is crash and burn
Yes, one option is to use a SpaceX Starship to ferry the astronauts down to the lunar surface and then back up. Which brings my Artemis happiness to a record-screeching halt. Because whilst I like Elon Musk, I do not like his “starship”. That’s because the only thing it does reliably, is crash and burn:
Screen shots from SpaceX recordings
Another option is for a Lunar Module more like the Apollo Lunar Module. But that ought to remind you that the spacecraft on top of Artemis I is the Orion spacecraft. It isn’t the Artemis spacecraft. It doesn’t include a Lunar Module. You’d think that after fifty years NASA would have this all worked out. They’d have an Artemis spacecraft with a Command Module in the form of a detachable nose cone. The underside of this would be a robust heat shield for re-entry. There would also be a hatch leading through to some more comfortable crew quarters and workspace. Then there would be another hatch giving access to the Lunar Module. This would sit inside the payload doors of the Service Module. What’s not to like? Add a few solar panels and a fuel tank or two, and it would start looking like The Hermes in The Martian. That would be a good start.
As far as I can see there is no vision of an Artemis spacecraft
But that’s not what we’ve got. There is no Artemis spacecraft. And as far as I can see there is no vision of an Artemis spacecraft. That definitely doesn’t auger well. What we’ve got right now is a cobbled-together hodge-podge of a progamme, using bits and pieces from here and there to make some kind of political statement and put down a marker. We have airy fairy talk of Gateway, a space station orbiting the Moon. To be supplied by the SpaceX Dragon X. And supplemented by the Human Landing System which appears to be that SpaceX starship. That’s devolving responsibility and putting things off, and not knuckling down to the task in hand. No small wonder six out of ten Artemis cubesats have gone AWOL. See Matt Strassler talking about that here. No small wonder there’s criticism. This isn’t Moon Direct. This isn’t the right stuff. This is the wrong stuff. And my oh my, what do we have here? The NASA Artemis web page says “NASA will land the first woman and first person of color on the Moon”. Oh FFS.
Artemis screengrab from the NASA Artemis website
Virtue signalling is no substitute for picking the best people you can get. If you don’t do that, there’s an increased risk that the world will watch as the crew dies shrieking and screaming in a spectacular ball of flame. Then the media will have a feeding frenzy of hand-wringing recrimination that will put “the Artemis generation” back into their safe space, and put Artemis into an early grave. I love you NASA, but come on, get a grip. Do away with the danger. Move on from the fifty-year-old rocket science. Take a tip from the USAF and their little blue book. Take a tip from Mark Watney, and science the shit out of this. Start by understanding the fundamental physics. For example, when you have two currents going the same way down two parallel wires, those wires attract. It’s only a small residual force because most of the raw Coulomb forces cancel, but not quite. We call it electromagnetism. Then when you stop the currents, the wires still attract, but with an even smaller residual force. About 10³⁶ times smaller. Because now even more of the raw forces cancel, but not quite. Only now we don’t call it electromagnetism any more. We call it gravity.
Edit 11/12/2022: I was pleased that the Artemis I capsule splashed down successfully. Here’s a video showing the mission highlights: Artemis I Mission Highlights – YouTube. Back to the Moon and beyond!
* Some sites say the Apollo programme started in 1961, others say it started in 1962.
** I suppose this article is a reheat. Sorry about that.