10 Interesting Facts about the Apollo Missions

10 Interesting Facts about the Apollo Missions

Landing men on the Moon and bringing them all back safely to Earth was no small feat for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). In fact, at the height of the Apollo Program, nearly 400,000 highly skilled people were directly involved in designing, building, testing, and operating all of the project’s components and equipment.

Needless to say, much has been written about this spectacular, continuous program that ran from 1961 to 1972, and launched nine missions to the Moon, including having landed six manned craft between 1969 and 1972, with twelve astronauts having walked upon its surface. Consequently, the difficult process of selecting 10 interesting facts from a vast list is perhaps best described in the words of President J.F. Kennedy, who stated:

“No single project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none [other] will be so difficult to accomplish.”

The Saturn V launch vehicle was taller than the Statue of Liberty

The image below shows the comparative sizes of the various rockets that were developed during, and for the Apollo program.

The final version, named Saturn V (Saturn 5), was at 316 feet (96 meters) tall, and 33 feet (11 meters) in diameter, making it a full 58 feet (18 meters) taller than the Statue of Liberty as measured from its base to the tip of its torch, and 48 feet (15 meters) taller than the famous Big Ben clock tower in London. In terms of performance, this rocket was equally impressive. Fully fuelled, Saturn V weighed in at 6.5 million pounds (2,950 metric tons), and although it was originally designed to lift a payload of 261,000 pounds (118,000 kg) into a low Earth orbit, later upgrades and improvements for the final three missions allowed it to lift 310,000 pounds (140,000 kg) into low Earth orbit, and to send a final load of 90,000 pounds (41,000 kg) to the Moon.

The Saturn V launch vehicle

Apollo 8 was the first Apollo mission to orbit the Moon

Apollo missions 1 through 8 were designed to be proof-of concept and engineering tests, and were only ever meant to orbit Earth. In the case of Apollo 8, which was intended as a sort of full dress rehearsal for later Apollo missions, the Lunar Landing Module was not completed in time for the launch, so instead of wasting a horrendously expensive Saturn V on what was deemed to be “fruitless Earth orbits”, it was decided in December of 1968 to send Apollo 8 to orbit the Moon, instead.

The decision was driven primarily by the fact that in September of 1968, the Soviets had sent a couple of turtles, some worms, and other forms of wild life to orbit the Moon on their Zond 5 craft, and it was feared by many in NASA management that the Soviets could repeat the experiment with proper cosmonauts at any time. Apollo 8 was manned by Frank Borman, Jim Lovell (veterans from the Gemini program), and newcomer to space flight, William Anders. Apollo 8 orbited the Moon ten times in 20 hours, and transmitted TV images of the lunar surface on Christmas Eve, 1968, before returning safely to Earth.

Apollo 12 brought back some of the Surveyor 3 lunar probe

In November of 1969, Gemini veteran Charles “Pete” Conrad piloted and landed Apollo 12 within walking distance of the unmanned lunar probe, Surveyor 3, which had landed in the Sea of Storms just more than two years previously.

During Extravehicular activity (EVA) that lasted for a total of 7 hours and 45 minutes, Conrad and Alan L. Bean (the other crew member of the landing party), sauntered over to the Surveyor probe, took some pictures of it, and removed some parts that they then brought back to Earth with them. The pilot of the Command Module that orbited the Moon on this occasion was Richard F. Gordon Jr., another veteran of the Gemini program.

Apollo 13 failed because of poor workmanship during assembly

Apart from Apollo 1 that failed on the launch pad due to a fire that also killed the crew, and Apollo 13 that suffered severe damage during flight and had to be abandoned without landing on the Moon, the Apollo program had enjoyed a remarkable safety record.

However, in the case of Apollo 13, the subsequent enquiry found that the explosion of the oxygen tank (which nearly killed the crew) was the direct result of poor workmanship that caused the tank to be damaged during assembly of the crew module. Moreover, the enquiry also found that some associated parts did not conform to design specifications, which was the main reason why the entire Apollo program was grounded temporarily during 1970.

Nevertheless, Apollo 13 did manage to pass behind the far side of the Moon at a distance of 245 km (152 miles) above the lunar surface. When added to the 400,171 km (248,655 miles) the craft was away from Earth at that moment, it meant that the crew of Apollo 13 broke the record for the furthest distance humans have ever been away from Earth (at that time).

The Apollo program cost only $20.4 billion

However, the cost of $20.4 billion was in terms of 1970’s dollars. Corrected for inflation, the Apollo program’s total cost comes to about $109 billion in today’s money. Considering that 11 manned Apollo missions were flown, the cost per manned mission comes out at $9.9 billion per manned mission, but if we take into account that only six missions resulted in landings on the Moon, each Moon landing cost an eye-watering $18 billion or so. Nonetheless, below are some of the Apollo costs broken down in terms of 1970’s dollars-

Aircraft/Operation Cost

Apollo spacecraft $7,945.0 million
Saturn I launch vehicles $767.1 million
Saturn IB launch vehicles $1,131.2 million
Saturn V launch vehicles $6,871.1 million
Launch vehicle engine development $854.2 million
Mission support $1,432.3 million
Tracking and data acquisition $664.1 million
Ground facilities $1,830.3 million
Operation of installations $2,420.6 million

The Apollo program created many spin-off products

While there are probably as many spin-off products that are mistakenly attributed to the Apollo program as there are genuine ones, portable cordless vacuum cleaners, as we know them today is perhaps the best known.

When NASA announced the need for a portable, self-contained drill with which to extract core samples from beneath the lunar surface during Apollo missions, the Black & Decker Company was tasked with developing such a device. To do this, the company developed a computer program to aid in designing the drill’s electric motor so that it used the least possible amount of energy, while doing what it was designed to do. Soon after the drill was shown to be effective, the same computer program was used to design a miniature, portable vacuum cleaner, named the Dust Buster, which was light, cordless and naturally proved a popular household tool when it was first marketed in 1979.

Apollo settled the question of the Moon’s origin

Genesis RockThe image above shows the Genesis Rock, one of the rocks that was brought back from the Moon by the crew of the Apollo 15 mission. This rock is composed almost entirely of the calcium-rich feldspar mineral anorthite, and is thought to be a remnant of the Moon’s original highland crust.

The Genesis Rock was also found to contain a cocktail of minerals collectively known as KREEP*(found in rocks brought back by Apollo 12). Analysis of this rock and others show that the entire surface of the Moon was once molten, which supports the theory that the Moon was formed through a violent collision between the Earth and a massive astronomical object soon after Earth’s formation.

* KREEP, an acronym from the letters “K” (the atomic symbol for potassium), “REE” (rare-earth elements) and “P” (for phosphorus), is a geochemical component of some lunar impact breccia and basaltic rocks.

One Moon Buggy was repaired with duct tape

Moon Buggy repaired with duct tape
Credit: Apollo 17, NASA

Although the LRV Lunar Rover was developed, built, and tested in only 17 months, the popular Moon Buggies were remarkably reliable, and never suffered serious breakdowns or defects while in service on the Moon.

One notable exception was the Apollo 17 Rover, whose one fender extension broke off when a crew member (Eugene Cernan) accidentally hit it with a hammer. Cernan and Schmitt, the other crew member on the Moon, tried to stick the fender back on with duct tape to avoid being smothered by moon dust, but this proved unsuccessful, because the fender fell off after an hour of driving. Eventually, the astronauts made a makeshift fender with their lunar maps and clamps used for the landing modules’ interior light.

Both the maps and the clamps were brought back to Earth, and the maps are now exhibited in the National Air and Space Museum, with the maps bearing the abrasion marks of lunar dust being thrown against them by the Rover’s wheel.

The original tape recording of the Apollo 11 landing are still missing

When NASA tried to restore the original recordings of the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 2009, the tapes were found to be missing. At the time, or soon after the Apollo 11 mission, a crippling shortage of magnetic tape forced NASA managers to re-use miles of recorded tape that was stored in the archives, and despite an exhaustive search over several years, the tapes could not be found, and are thought to have been accidentally erased.

Dick Nafzger, a TV specialist at the Goddard Space Flight Center, summed up the search in these words- “We’re all saddened that they’re not there. We all wish we had 20-20 hindsight. I don’t think anyone in the NASA organization did anything wrong, I think it slipped through the cracks, and nobody’s happy about it.”

However, since the Apollo 11 landing was recorded in a relatively high-resolution format that was not compatible with commercial TV broadcasting, the original recording was converted to the NTSC television format in a real-time process as the landing and first Moonwalk progressed, and many of the resulting low quality conversions have survived.

All of the Apollo landing sites have been observed

Landing site of Apollo 11
Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State

The image above shows the landing site of the Apollo 11 mission at Tranquillity Base, as seen from an attitude of 50 km (31 miles) by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2012. Abrreviations in the photo are as follows: Lunar Module (LM), Passive Seismic Experiment Package (PSEP), and Lunar Ranging Retro Reflector (LRRR).

In fact, all the manned Apollo landing sites have now been observed and photographed by various lunar orbiters, including Japan’s SELENE probe, which had found the landing site of the Apollo 15 mission.

Interestingly, it was found that all of the US flags left by Apollo astronauts are still upright, with the exception of the Apollo 11 flag that was blown over by the crew capsule’s rocket blast as it lifted off from the surface. What is not known however, is how much of the flags’ original color remains, but given the level of solar radiation on the Moon’s surface, it is highly unlikely that any color would have survived at all.

Related Articles