7.4 How is it possible that everything went so smoothly?

IN A NUTSHELL: It didn’t. NASA went out of its way to give this impression, but the truth was quite different. Three astronauts died on the launch pad (Apollo 1). Apollo 13 suffered an explosion that scrubbed its lunar landing and almost killed the crew. Apollo 12 was struck by lightning at liftoff. Apollo 11 had a computer overload as it was landing on the Moon. Every mission had its significant malfunctions, equipment failures and close calls, and many crews were struck by nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, but all this wasn’t widely publicized.

THE DETAILS: Moon hoax theorists often express their sarcastic amazement at the perfection of the Apollo flights to the Moon. How is it possible that such incredibly complex and powerful machines, which pushed the envelope of 1960s technology, could work so flawlessly? And how could astronauts be so impeccably cool and professional on such life-threatening journeys?

Actually, this perfection is only an impression driven by superficial knowledge of the events and by the fact that the political importance of the lunar missions prompted NASA and the media to gloss over the errors and failures and the less dignified aspects of the endeavor. National prestige was at stake, so problems were played down in public. Some failures, however, were too big to be brushed under the carpet.

As a matter of fact, out of seven Moon landing missions, one failed (Apollo 13). Three astronauts died on the launch pad (White, Grissom and Chaffee, Apollo 1). All the missions had problems that brought the crew close to disaster or abort. Here are a few examples taken from the technical mission reports. A more extensive list of the various critical and non-critical malfunctions that affected the various missions is in the Discrepancy Summary section of the Post-launch Mission Operation Reports.

Apollo 7

Water from the cooling systems pooled in the cabin, posing a serious danger in an environment crammed with electrical wiring.

The crew was plagued by a cold that blocked their nasal passages: a serious problem in spaceflight, because in weightlessness fluid accumulates instead of draining and blowing one’s nose can cause severe ear pain, and because during reentry, with their head enclosed in the helmet, the astronauts would be unable to clear their ears and therefore compensate for cabin pressure changes, with the risk of eardrum damage. Despite NASA’s strong disagreement, the crew performed reentry without wearing their helmets and suffered no physical consequences.

The Apollo 7 crew also refused orders from Mission Control, and commander Walter Schirra had no uncertain words about the unprecedented workload of the maiden flight of the Apollo spacecraft, speaking openly of “tests that were ill prepared and hastily conceived by an idiot” and declaring that he’d “had it up to here” and that his crew was “not going to accept any new games... or going to do some crazy tests we never heard of before.” This was one of several underreported rebellions of spaceflight crews.*

* Apollo: the Epic Journey to the Moon, by David Reynolds and Wally Schirra.

Apollo 8

The first crewed flight around the Moon was troubled by bouts of vomiting and diarrhea during the first day of flight, nearly forcing an early return home.

Three of the five spacecraft windows were fogged by sealant leaks, hindering viewing and lunar photography. Water formed dangerous pools in the cabin.

Jim Lovell accidentally erased part of the computer’s memory, and the crew was forced to compute and reenter the correct data by hand.

Apollo 9

Astronaut Rusty Schweickart vomited repeatedly due to nausea induced by weightlessness forcing cancellation of the emergency procedure test (a spacewalk from the Lunar Module to the Command Module) that he was scheduled to perform.

One of the maneuvering thruster sets of the command and service module and the tracking lights of the lunar module failed due to a misplaced switch: these were crucial components, since the two modules had to maneuver and fly separately, 185 kilometers (115 miles) apart, in Earth orbit and then find each other and dock again, otherwise the two crewmembers in the LM would have died in orbit, unable to return to Earth. Rendezvous was achieved despite these failures thanks to the skill of the astronauts.

Apollo 10

When the ascent stage of the LM separated from the descent stage, just 14.45 kilometers (47,400 feet) above the lunar surface, an incorrect switch setting made the spacecraft spin wildly about two axes, coming dangerously to a so-called gimbal lock (loss of orientation of the navigation system). Astronaut Gene Cernan let slip a heartfelt “Son of a bitch!”, which was picked up by his open radio mike and transmitted live to world audiences back on Earth.

Apollo 11

During the first Moon landing, the lunar module’s computer overloaded repeatedly. The preprogrammed flight path would have taken the spacecraft to a boulder-strewn area, where landing and liftoff would have been prohibitive if not impossible. Only Armstrong’s manual intervention to change landing site saved the mission.

Radio communications in lunar orbit, after separation of the LM from the command module, were so poor and broken up that Armstrong and Aldrin in the LM didn’t hear the “go” to initiate descent to the Moon from Mission Control. Fortunately it was picked up by Michael Collins, in the command module, who relayed it to his colleagues.

After landing on the Moon, one of the propellant lines of the descent stage failed to vent correctly due to freezing, leading to a potentially explosive pressure buildup. Mission Control noticed the problem and was discussing it guardedly with the crew when it cleared itself up by thawing.

After the moonwalk, the astronauts realized that the knob of a circuit breaker required for arming the ascent engine was broken, probably because it had been struck by Aldrin’s backpack. If that circuit could not be operated, liftoff from the Moon would be impossible. The astronauts improvised by using a felt-tipped pen to operate the failed breaker.

On returning from the lunar surface, when the LM docked with the command and service module, the slightly incorrect alignment of the two spacecraft triggered an uncontrolled rotation that the onboard computers both tried to correct, contrasting each other and worsening the spin. Only Collins and Armstrong’s skills allowed to correct manually the chaotic tumbling of the mated vehicles.

Apollo 12

The lightning that struck the Saturn V during liftoff caused widespread instrument malfunctions and a total loss of meaningful telemetry. Only an unusual suggestion by John Aaron in Mission Control (the request to set “SCE to AUX”), radioed up to the astronauts, allowed them to restore telemetry and prevented the mission from being aborted immediately.

During the live TV broadcast from the Moon, the TV camera was pointed accidentally at the sun and its delicate sensor burned out, ending TV transmissions for the mission’s moonwalk.

At the end of the flight, during atmospheric reentry, the wind caused the command module to swing beneath its parachutes and the astronauts were subjected to 15 g of deceleration on impact; a camera fell from its holder and struck Alan Bean on his temple. Had it fallen slightly differently, it would have caused a potentially fatal head trauma.

Apollo 13

As already mentioned, an oxygen tank in the service module ruptured explosively, depriving the astronauts of air and power reserves. It became necessary to use the LM as a lifeboat and return hurriedly to Earth after looping around the Moon. James Lovell had to align the navigation systems manually by star sighting.

Apollo 14

On the way to the Moon, the docking mechanism between the LM and the command module failed five times before finally working. This meant that it might fail again when the LM returned from the Moon, forcing the astronauts to perform a dangerous spacewalk to transfer from the LM to the command module, but the decision was made to go ahead with the landing nonetheless.

An errant solder ball in the LM caused the onboard computer to receive a false abort signal, which during lunar descent could have triggered an unnecessary emergency climb back to orbit, canceling the Moon landing: in the nick of time, NASA and MIT managed to reprogram the computer to ignore the false signal.

Apollo 15

One of the three splashdown parachutes failed to open fully (Figure 7-4), leading to a violent impact with the ocean. The malfunction was probably caused by venting propellants, which could have caused all three parachutes to fail, with fatal consequences for the crew.

Figure 7-4. Apollo 15’s splashdown with a malfunctioning parachute. Detail of photo AS15-S71-42217.

Apollo 16

The command and service module main engine, crucial for returning to Earth, reported a malfunction while the spacecraft was in orbit around the Moon. The Moon landing was almost scrubbed.