"We Called It 'The Bug'"
The Apollo Lunar Module wasn't pretty. But it got the job done.
- By D.C. Agle
- Air & Space magazine, September 2001
Courtesy of NASA
(Page 9 of 10)
It was our Grumman support team’s first direct experience with astronauts on a real mission, and I found it exciting that men whom I knew were up in space flying our machine. The giant three-stage Saturn V booster lifted off on schedule and performed flawlessly, placing the spacecraft into exactly the planned Earth orbital altitude. The critical maneuvers of command and service module (CSM) separation from the spacecraft/LM adapter, and rotation and docking to the LM, went perfectly. After six hours of checking out the CSM and its systems, [commander James A.] McDivitt fired the service propulsion system, and the powerful rocket engine boosted the heavily laden CSM-LM combination into a higher orbit. He sounded relieved that the dormant LM was still there after the force of the first burn. Following these operations the crew settled down for a meal and sleep. I took advantage of the quiet time to hand over my Mission Control watch to a colleague.
I was back to Mission Control early the next morning, listening to the crew puffing as they donned their spacesuits to enter the LM, which they had named Spider. The crew channel went dead. We did not learn until the postflight briefings that [lunar module pilot Russell L.] Schweickart had vomited. After some delay he entered the LM and flipped dozens of switches to activate its systems. He commented that the LM was quite noisy, particularly its environmental control system. McDivitt joined him, and after they unpacked the television camera in the LM cabin we watched them on worldwide TV. Our friend McDivitt promptly embarrassed us by pointing out to the world a washer and other bits of manufacturing debris floating through the cabin under zero gravity. It was a chastisement we deserved, and it motivated us to still more stringent efforts to clean the cabin and all closed compartments of the LM during assembly and test.
McDivitt and Schweickart extended the LM’s landing gear, which locked smartly into place upon command. They checked out the LM’s systems and fired the LM descent engine for more than six minutes at full thrust while in the docked condition, simulating much of the powered descent burn that would be required to bring the LM down from lunar orbit for landing. When McDivitt and Schweickart rejoined Dave Scott in the command module, they felt that their LM would be up to the challenges ahead.
The fifth day in orbit was the crucial part of the mission for the LM—the demonstration of the LM’s flight maneuverability, and its ability to rendezvous in orbit from a far distance. My colleagues and I scrutinized the instrumentation readouts on our consoles carefully as the crew reactivated Spider’s systems. Hundreds of pressure, temperature, voltage, current, and other measurements located in all the systems were sampled several times a second, giving us detailed real-time information on the LM’s health and performance. With all systems activated, Spider looked good to the crew, to the flight controllers, and to me. Over the net came Flight Director Gene Kranz’s crisp voice: “Apollo 9, you’re go for LM sep” (lunar module separation).
No longer joined at the head to the command module Gumdrop, Spider cavorted briefly, testing her reaction control system, and then pirouetted slowly before Gumdrop’s windows, preening for Dave Scott’s inspection. He pronounced her beautiful. After 45 minutes of maneuvering within three miles of Gumdrop, McDivitt fired the descent engine, putting more distance between the two spaceraft. Subsequent firings increased the separation distance to over 110 miles, where the pilots could no longer see each other’s spacecraft. Spider’s crew then separated the ascent from the descent stage while igniting the ascent engine in an orbital simulation of lunar liftoff, and successfully completed orbital rendezvous with Gumdrop.
Spider performed so consistently well that I never felt any apprehension as I watched each critical event of the mission click off like clockwork. I could hardly believe that this agile machine, dancing so gracefully through space, was the same crotchety beast with the broken wires and structural cracks that had given us fits for over two years of ground testing. Was our LM design and construction really good after all, or were we just lucky? I was not sure, but thought it was some of both.
—from Moon Lander: How We Developed the Apollo Lunar Module, Thomas J. Kelly, © Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001.
The Soviet Lunar Module
They were the first to fly a satellite, a man, and a woman into space. So in the early 1960s most were betting that the Soviets would also be the first to land a man on the moon. That man was supposed to be Voskhod-2 spacewalker Alexi Leonov. His machine was the lonniy korabl, or lunar cabin.