Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.
These two men are laying down their lives in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding……
– William Safire, Presidential Speech Writer
The above speech was drafted on July 18, 1969, when the crew of Apollo 11 were more than half the way to the Moon to make history. Little did the public know that there was a slight chance only one of the three-man crew would make the return journey home. As we all know, Armstrong and Aldrin returned home safely, along with Collins, after being the first humans to walk on the Moon. Thus, the speech never had to be used. But why were the lives of these American Heroes put on such a thin thread? How did they make it through? Well the answer is a combination of engineering, bravery and a little bit of luck.
Before we get to it, let’s take a quick look at the machines that took men from the Earth to the Moon. The Apollo Space Program needed a bigger and more powerful launch vehicle to make the quarter of a million mile journey. The Saturn V was thus built for this very purpose. The largest rocket ever built!
This rocket was a three stage rocket, upon which sat the three astronauts in the Command and Service Module (CSM). The CSM would be their home for the entirety of the mission. In order to land on the Moon, two astronauts boarded another small spacecraft called the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM). The LEM was docked with the CSM before being flown down to the surface.
The LEM was barely big enough to seat two astronauts. It consisted of two stages: The Descent Stage, which was used to fly down to the surface of the Moon, and the Ascent Stage, which was used to fly up and dock with the third astronaut aboard the CSM. The Descent Stage served as a launch platform for the Ascent Stage.
The LEM was a feat of engineering and design. Every single component had to be built from scratch and tested. The electronics and guidance systems also had to be integrated and implemented perfectly.
The only issue with the LEM was that the ascent engine couldn’t be tested. The fuel and oxidiser, which were used to produce thrust, corroded the engine to such an extent that they couldn’t reuse the engine. That meant they couldn’t make sure the engine worked properly until they fired it on the Moon. The implications of this were such that they had to rely purely on their Engineering and Manufacturing, to make sure the engine worked the way it was expected. Ofcourse they tested a lot of engines without failure, but there was still a possibility of an engine failure on the actual Mission.
An engine failure meant that the astronauts couldn’t ascend from the surface, and they were stranded on the Moon’s surface to die. A rescue mission to the Moon wasn’t possible and feasible. Thus, the astronauts had to place trust in the Manufacturing of the LEM.
The precise procedures and protocols that NASA would have followed incase the Ascent Engine failed are a bit hazy, but the following are known.
First of all, NASA would spend the remaining time the astronauts had, before they ran out of supplies, trying to tirelessly fix the problem. If no solution had presented itself in the time, the family of the doomed astronauts would be put in contact to say their ‘goodbyes’. After which NASA would cut off communication with the Astronauts.
Michael Collins, the third astronaut, who was left in orbit aboard the CSM, would also be instructed to bid farewell to his fellow crewmates and cut off communications. The priority of the mission would be focussed to bring back Collins safely. In order to be prepared for this scenario, Collins was trained to return home alone, carrying out the roles of his crewmates.
Michael Collins would then have to make the 3 day journey home, alone…
Thankfully and luckily, the Ascent Engine fired successfully and the LEM got off the ground, eventually meeting up with the CSM. The crew of Apollo 11 splashed down as heroes on July 24th 1969, in the Atlantic Ocean.
Final Year, Mechanical Engineer