Apollo Program

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Apollo Program
Apollo Program

Center: Langley Research Center
Location: Hampton, Virginia
Year Built: 1961 - 1972
Historic Eligibility:
Important Tests:

Back Arrow.jpg Programs and Projects Back Arrow.jpg Archives Collection


[top] Program Overview

The Apollo program, also known as Project Apollo, was the third human spaceflight program carried out by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) the United States' civilian space agency. The program was responsible for the landing of the first humans on Earth's Moon in 1969. First conceived during the Presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower as a three-man spacecraft to follow the one-man Project Mercury which put the first Americans in space. The first manned flight of Apollo was in 1968.

Apollo Manned patches

Apollo ran from 1961 to 1972, and was supported by the two-man Gemini program which ran concurrently with it from 1962 to 1966. Gemini missions developed some of the space travel techniques that were necessary for the success of the Apollo missions. Apollo used Saturn family rockets as launch vehicles.

Apollo Production Manned patches

Apollo succeeded in achieving its goal of manned lunar landing, despite the major setback of a 1967 Apollo 1 cabin fire that killed the entire crew during a pre-launch test. The Apollo 13 landing was prevented by an oxygen tank explosion in transit to the Moon, which disabled the command spacecraft's propulsion and life support. The crew returned to Earth safely by using the Lunar Module as a "lifeboat" for these functions.

Apollo set several major human spaceflight milestones. It stands alone in sending manned missions beyond low Earth orbit; Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to orbit another celestial body, while the final Apollo 17 mission marked the sixth Moon landing and the ninth manned mission beyond low Earth orbit. The program returned 842 pounds (382 kg) of lunar rocks and soil to Earth, greatly contributing to the understanding of the Moon's composition and geological history. The program laid the foundation for NASA's current human spaceflight capability, and funded construction of its Johnson Space Center and Kennedy Space Center. Apollo also spurred advances in many areas of technology incidental to rocketry and manned spaceflight, including avionics, telecommunications, and computers.

It became clear that managing the Apollo program would exceed the capabilities of Robert R. Gilruth's Space Task Group (see also JSC), which had been directing the nation's manned space program from Langley Research Center. So Gilruth was given authority to grow his organization into a new NASA center, the Manned Spacecraft Center, now known as Johnson Space Center. A site was chosen in Houston, Texas, on land donated by Rice University, and Administrator Webb announced the conversion on September 19, 1961. It was also clear NASA would soon outgrow its practice of controlling missions from its Cape Canaveral Air Force Station launch facilities in Florida, so a new Mission Control Center would be included in Houston.

[top] Langley Contributions

NASA Langley helped to establish many of the basic fundamentals and mission concepts central to the success of the Apollo program. Langley staff members and test facilities also played a major role in the Astronaut Training programs necessary to prepare NASA's astronauts for landing on the moon and moving around on its surface.

A memorandum from October 1961 provides a survey of Langley programs related to the navigation, guidance and control of the Apollo space vehicle.

[top] Launch

Groups at Langley supported programs for Apollo guidance and control. This included the effects of launch winds, body bending dynamics, aerodynamic forces for rigid and plastic bodies, and fuel sloshing problems.

[top] Injection and Mid-Course Guidance

Although most of the programs in this area were conducted at Ames, Langley covered a number of related problems. This included information on nominal trajectories and the constraints of circumlunar trajectories, and simple correction procedures for return.

[top] Lunar Landing

There was considerable effort at Langley in the area of lunar landing; and multiple buildings, including the Lunar Landing Facility and the hangar, were involved. Issues studied were visual sightings to complete landing, instrument landing, aborting a landing, and the effect of jet blasts on lunar surface particles.

[top] Lunar Orbit Rendezvous

John C. Houbolt Explaining LOR concept
Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR): One Saturn V would launch a spacecraft that was composed of modular parts. A command module would remain in orbit around the Moon, while a lunar excursion module would descend to the Moon, return to dock with the command ship, and then be discarded. In contrast with the other plans, LOR required only a small part of the spacecraft to land on the Moon, thereby minimizing the mass to be launched from the Moon's surface for the return trip.

John Houbolt lecture

Lunar Surface Rendezvous: Two spacecraft would be launched in succession. The first, an automated vehicle carrying propellant for the return to Earth, would land on the Moon, to be followed some time later by the manned vehicle. Propellant would have to be transferred from the automated vehicle to the manned vehicle.

In early 1961, direct ascent was generally the mission mode in favor at NASA. Many engineers feared that a rendezvous —let alone a docking— neither of which had been attempted even in Earth orbit, would be extremely difficult in lunar orbit. However, dissenters including John Houbolt at Langley Research Center emphasized the important weight reductions that were offered by the LOR approach. Throughout 1960 and 1961, Houbolt campaigned for the recognition of LOR as a viable and practical option.

In late 1961 and early 1962, members of the Manned Spacecraft Center began to come around to support LOR. The engineers at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) took longer to become convinced of its merits, but their conversion was announced by Wernher von Braun at a briefing in June 1962. NASA's formal decision in favor of LOR was announced on July 11, 1962. The LOR method had the advantage of allowing the lander spacecraft to be used as a "life boat" in the event of a failure of the command ship. This happened on Apollo 13 when an oxygen tank failure left the command ship without electrical power. The Lunar Module provided propulsion, electrical power and life support to get the crew home safely.

The success of the chosen lunar-orbit rendezvous (LOR) strategy ultimately depended on whether the astronauts could learn to safely land the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) on the Moon’s surface and return into orbit to dock with the mother ship.

[top] Lunar Excursion Module


The Lunar Module (LEM) was designed to descend from lunar orbit to land two astronauts on the Moon and take them back to orbit to rendezvous with the Command Module. A major obstacle in designing a training procedure, however, was that the LEM would handle far differently in the Moon’s atmosphere, with 1/6th the gravitational pull of Earth’s. The problem thus became how to reproduce the operation of the LEM in a low gravitational environment. The solution was conceived as an erector set model in the home workshop of W. Hewitt Phillips (see autobiography of W. Hewitt Phillips). The solution came in the form of the Lunar Lander Research Facility (LLRF), a training simulator that allowed NASA engineers to study the complex lunar landing process and give the Apollo astronauts critical hands-on pilot training in the LEM.

The Lunar Excursion Module Simulator (LEMS), designed and fabricated from 1963 to 1965 at Langley, was a manned rocket-powered vehicle used to familiarize the Apollo astronauts with the handling characteristics of a lunar-landing type vehicle. Suspended from cables from the Lunar Lander Research Facility, the LEMS allowed the astronauts to experience the lunar environment where gravity is only one-sixth of that on Earth. The LEMS was used to help train every astronaut who set foot on the moon. The training model is currently on display at the Virginia Air and Space Museum in Hampton, VA.

This single-seat LEM was flight tested at Langley in 1962.


This model of an early LEM was tested at Langley in 1963.


[top] Model Testing at Langley

[top] 16-Foot Transonic Tunnel

Apollo (October 1962) / Saturn (December 1962)

On July 20, 1969, the Saturn launch vehicle carried the Apollo Command, Service and Lunar Excursion Modules to the moon and successfully landed the first humans on its surface fulfilling John F. Kennedy’s national goal of “landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade”. Tests in the 16-Foot Transonic Tunnel on the Apollo Escape System and the Saturn nozzle hinge moments were both initiated in 1962. The performance of the escape rocket (utilizing hydrogen peroxide hot jets), a check for jet plume impingement on the Command Module, and the aerodynamic interaction between the Command and Service Modules during separation were studied during 5 additional tunnel entries between 1963 and 1964. In addition, Service Module panel flutter characteristics were studied during 1964 and 1968 tunnel entries.

The photographs show the Apollo command module/service module separation model and Saturn rocket hinge-moment model in the 16-Foot Transonic Tunnel. Both models used hydrogen peroxide hot jets to simulate rocket exhausts.

For more model testing in this facility, see Escape System and Panel Flutter.

[top] 16-Foot Transonic Dynamics Tunnel

March 1963 with Engineer Thomas Brydsong.


[top] Continuous-Flow Hypersonic Tunnel

The Continuous-Flow Hypersonic Tunnel was used to study problems spacecraft encounter as they leave or enter the atmosphere at very high speeds. The tunnel's equipment processes air to the extremely high pressures and temperatures needed to accelerate air to ten times the speed of sound. The large vacuum spheres were used to start the air flow. The facility contributed to the development of space programs from Apollo to the Space Shuttle.

Watch a video on the 1962 Apollo Project Fire.

See Project FIRE for additional documents.

[top] Tow Tanks

Tow Tank Tests

Photographed on 03/14/1963. -- Sandy M. Stubbs, an engineer in the Impacting Structures Section (within the Structures Research Division), inspects a model of the Apollo command module before conducting a test of water landing characteristics in Langley's tow tank facility, building 720.

[top] High Intensity Noise Research Facility

Noise Research Facility is cylinder in photo center
An addition on an existing facility, known as 1221A, was built in 1965. A separate structure 24-feet in diameter and 20-feet long, housed the Low Frequency Noise Facility. This facility had been built to conduct noise studies in support of the Apollo program. The Noise Facility was removed in 1987.

[top] Impact Dynamics Research Facility

In the late 1950s, NASA began using Tow Tank 2 for space capsule testing. The facility was renamed the Impact Dynamics Research Facility, and capsules were subjected to impacts on various surfaces including sand, land, and water.

Several videos are available on the tests associated with the Apollo Program:

1959: Water Landing Characteristics of a 1/6-Scale Model Re-entry Capsule with an 80-Inch Heat Shield
1960: Landing Energy Dissipation for Manned Re-entry Vehicles
1961: Landing of Manned Re-entry Vehicles
1961: Effect of a Load-Alleviating Structure on the Landing Behavior of a Re-entry Capsule Model
1962: Preliminary Landing Tests of a 1/6 Scale Dynamic Model of a Lunar Excursion Vehicle
Investigation of the Landing Characteristics of a Re-entry Vehicle Having a Canted Multiple Airbag Load Alleviation System
1963: Characteristics of a Lunar Landing Configuration Having Various Multiple-Leg Landing Gear Arrangements
1963: Landing Characteristics of a Re-entry Vehicle with a Passive Landing System for Impact Alleviation
1964: Dynamic Model Investigation of the Landing Characteristics of a Manned Spacecraft
1965: Model Investigation of Techniques for Full Scale Landing Impact Tests at Simulated Lunar Gravity
1965: Landing Characteristics of the Apollo Spacecraft with Deployed Heat Shield Impact Attenuation Systems
1966: Dynamic Model Investigation of the Rough Water Landing Characteristics of a Spacecraft
1967: Dynamic Model Investigation of Water Pressures and Accelerations Encountered During Landing of the Apollo Spacecraft
1967: Flight Test of Ringsail Parachute Deployed at Mach 1.39

[top] 20-Foot Spin Tunnel

In the 1960s, tests were conducted in the 20-Foot Spin Tunnel to look at the Apollo command module configuration. Watch a video of this test. This building dating back to 1941 was built to study primary factors that influenced the spin or the relative effectiveness of piloting methods to recover from spins.

[top] Early Apollo Launch Vehicle Model Tests

This early Apollo Launch Vehicle Model was tested at Langley in 1962.


[top] Documentation

[top] General

1960 May - Meeting Minutes. Meeting minutes of the initial meeting of the Langley Lunar Mission Study Group.

1960 May - Memorandum. Memo to John Becker on the expected input to Lunar Mission Study Group on reentry aerodynamics, heating, configuration, and aeromedical problems.

1960 November - Apollo Technical Liaison Plan. Systematic plan for liaison in various technical areas between the NASA organizations.

1960 December - Meeting Minutes. Meeting minutes for the Lunar Mission Steering Group. Original copy, signed by John Becker, in archives collection File #3.

1961 June - Memorandum. Memo to LaRC Associate Director on design of operation considerations for manned lunar landing test facility.

1961 October - Memorandum. Provides a survey of Langley programs related to the navigation, guidance and control of the Apollo space vehicle.

1962 October - 1962 Gravitational Simulator. October 1962 narrative and budget proposal for a gravitational simulator. Original copy signed by George Brooks, Head Vibration and Dynamics Branch, in archives collection file #1.

1963 - Some Considerations in Research Programs to Assure U.S. Capability for Constructing Manned Outposts on the Lunar Surface. Langley report prepared for Headquarters. File includes memos and reports for study, archives collection File #2.

Garrick Letter. I.E. Garrick, chief of the Dynamic Loads Division, wrote a letter in 1969 on lectures given to the astronauts and supporting Houbolt in his theory of the lunar rendezvous.

Newspaper Clippings - archives collection File #4

1989-07-15 The Virginia-Pilot. Moon Men: The Story Behind the Lunar Mission

1989-07-17 Daily Press. Engineer's bold step led to first moon walk

1989-07-17 Daily Press. 20 years later, astronauts come "home

[top] Apollo 7



[top] Apollo Artifacts

The following artifacts were contributed by Pam Evans.

Note from Pam Evans 2013

LaRC Public Affairs Response to Pam Evans Info Request

The News and Observer, Raleigh, North Carolina, 1971

Apollo LM Model

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