On this day in 1971, NASA astronauts travel through space, quickly approaching the moon. Did you know that Apollo 15 carried the only NASA crew composed entirely of former U.S. Air Force pilots?
It’s easy to forget what a big deal these Apollo missions were, but they accomplished John F. Kennedy’s goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” Better yet, they did it quickly—and they did it before any other nation in the world.
We’d overcome many difficulties along the way, of course.
The Apollo missions had begun with tragedy. In January 1967, the entire crew of Apollo 1 was killed during a prelaunch test. Nearly two years would pass before Apollo 7 finally launched, effectively carrying out the intended mission of Apollo 1.
Next came Apollo 8, which was the first manned spacecraft to leave the Earth’s orbit and travel to the moon. Apollo 8 orbited the moon, then returned to Earth. The next two Apollo missions were effectively dress rehearsals for landing on the moon. Finally, Apollo 11 met JFK’s challenge: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon. The crew of Apollo 12 would repeat the feat several months later.
JFK strove to get men on the moon within a decade. Determined astronauts beat the deadline by almost two full years.
By the time Apollo 13 took off in 1970, Americans had become accustomed to sending men to the moon. It seemed almost routine. In fact, when the crew of Apollo 13 sent a live TV broadcast back to Earth, the networks didn’t even bother to play the footage. Just a few minutes later, an oxygen tank explosion would remind the world that traveling to the moon is anything but routine.
NASA bounced back from that near disaster, and the next four Apollo missions were all completed successfully.
The crew of Apollo 15 chose a more challenging landing site than previous missions. They had a newly created lunar roving vehicle, and they would be able to move farther away from the main Lunar Module.
They’d have more opportunity to explore.
Two astronauts spent nearly three days on the moon, collecting samples and performing experiments. How odd to sleep and eat on the moon!? And don’t you think those three days must have been equally odd for the single astronaut, who was left alone in the Command Module that was orbiting the moon?
Alone in outer space. How surreal.
When the two astronauts finally departed from the moon, they left their lunar roving vehicle behind. It is still there today, as are the lunar roving vehicles from Apollos 16 and 17.
In the end, the Apollo missions would carry a total of 12 men to the moon. The United States remains the only nation that has accomplished such a feat.
“We choose to go to the moon,” JFK once said. “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win . . . .”
He surely would have been proud to see what was accomplished.
More stories about NASA
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Al Worden & Francis French, Falling to Earth: An Apollo 15 Astronaut’s Journey to the Moon (2011)
John F. Kennedy, Address at Rice University in Houston on the Nation’s Space Effort (September 12, 1962)
John F. Kennedy, Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs (May 25, 1961)
Mission Pages (NASA website)
Stuart A. Kallen, The Apollo Moonwalkers (1996)