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(Courtesy of NASA)

"We Called It 'The Bug'"

The Apollo Lunar Module wasn't pretty. But it got the job done.

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.

Due to the payload limitations of the N-1, the Soviet moon launcher, Leonov’s lunar cabin weighed in at only 12,257 pounds, one-third the weight of the Apollo lunar module. With the scales of rocket science already tipping against them, the Russians were forced to delete many cosmonaut-friendly features from the LK, like a docking tunnel between the Soyuz mothership and the LK lander, separate descent and ascent stages, and one other thing—a second cosmonaut.

That’s right, after flying into lunar orbit with a comrade, Leonov was to spacewalk from the Soyuz to the LK, power up and pressurize the cabin, and fly the spacecraft on to the moon all by his lonesome.

And even in the out-of-this-world world of lunar landings, the ride from lunar orbit to the surface promised to be exceptional. After separation from the Soyuz, the LK’s computer would fire a booster stage that would plunge the LK like a cannonball toward the moon. At 4,921 feet the computer would jettison the booster and fire up the LK’s throttleable main engine. “It was a pretty gutsy way to do things,” says Apollo 11 pilot Buzz Aldrin. “But there is a lot of merit to it also. The handling characteristics of the spacecraft would be much better because you have a lighter-weight vehicle.”

Improved handling or not, peering through the circular landing window, and with the clock ticking on his extremely limited fuel supply, Leonov would certainly have had his hands full. “When I saw the moon’s surface on the screen,” says Leonov, “I would have only three seconds of hover time to decide where to land. Then I had to proceed with the landing. Difficult, but after many training sessions it was enough. It could be done.”

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