Fifty Years ago, yesterday, a Saturn 5 rocket lifted off its launch pad at Cape Kennedy, Florida, on one of the most audacious adventures in the history of mankind. On board were three “spacemen” adventurers who carried the hopes and aspirations of people the world over on their shoulders.
The goal: to land a man on the moon’s surface and bring him safely back to mother earth. The odds of success? In 1961, when President Kennedy pronounced his determination for the nation to accomplish this before the end of the decade, many of the engineers with experience on the program which had not yet even sent Mercury astronaut John Glenn into local earth orbit thought Kennedy’s goal… “nuts.”
By the sheer force of national will fueled by an open checkbook for NASA from Washington, Kennedy’s daring commitment was realized. With over five months to spare before the decade’s end, astronauts Neal Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landed on the lunar surface on July 20, 1969. The confirmation came as Armstrong beamed back to earth, the message, “…the Eagle has landed.”
July 16, 1969 dawned bright and mostly clear over the Florida Cape. On that momentous day, the mighty Saturn 5 rocket with its crew of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Michael Collins, ponderously lifted from earth on a thundering plume of fire and smoke. The spectacle and the sound of it mesmerized the thousands who came to watch the launch for themselves. Even at the more distant viewing points from the launch pad, the rolling, rumbling thunder emanating from the engines of the Saturn 5 was sufficient to rattle windows and elicit speculations regarding the power and fury of whatever powers might ultimately bring about the end of the earth, itself.
Speaking less from a poetic standpoint and strictly from that of the rocket engineers who designed her, the mighty Saturn 5 at lift-off was developing 7.5 million pounds of upward thrust by expelling 15 tons per second of combustion materials from its five engine nozzles! These are incredible numbers.
Wernher Von Braun and the business end of the Saturn 5 rocket
This was Isaac Newton’s third law of motion on full and mighty display:
For every action, there results an equal and opposite reaction.
In full accordance with Newton’s third law, the forces within the combustion chambers, required to violently expel fifteen tons per second of combustion products from the rocket’s nozzles in a downward direction gave rise to equal and opposite reaction forces on the upper, closed walls of the combustion chambers. It is this reaction force which provides the requisite upward thrust to the Saturn 5. One can appreciate the rolling, earth-shaking thunder which was experienced far and wide during a Saturn 5 launch when the violence taking place within its combustion chambers is fully appreciated.
It is poetic justice that the fundamental principle behind rocket propulsion should stem from the fertile mind of Isaac Newton as first revealed in his Principia of 1687, the greatest scientific book ever published!
We celebrate, today, not only the complete success of Apollo 11 as a mission, but the spirit and can-do attitudes of NASA, President Kennedy, Congress, and the American people who were all-in with their support and enthusiasm for the Apollo 11 program. Those several days when space was truly opened for exploration will stand in the record of this nation as among the best of times for America, notwithstanding the array of “other” concerns which faced us then.
The cold war with the Soviets was one of those concerns, and anyone who has paid attention to America’s many triumphs in space will appreciate that a major impetus for Kennedy to issue his man-on-the-moon challenge in 1961 was the realization that space exploration meant rocket technology and rocket technology was key to our nuclear missile defenses and our national security. Despite the need for such gnawing pragmatism in the space program, the altruistic legacy of man’s exploration of outer space remains first and foremost in the consciousness of the American people.
Like Pearl Harbor, VE-day in World War II, President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, and 9/11 in 2001, Apollo 11 was one of those generational events which remain a life-long memory for those who lived through them. I remember clearly where I was and what I was doing fifty years ago. Linda and I were living in Santa Barbara, California, and I was half-way through my Masters Degree in electrical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara. We were renting half of a wonderful hillside duplex which overlooked that beautiful city with a line of sight toward the city harbor and west to the Pacific Ocean. As we intently watched all aspects of the Apollo launch on our little 19-inch black-and-white television during those several days, I recall countless time-outs to our front terrace-porch with coffee cup in-hand where I could enjoy the city view spread out below me while reflectively musing about the wonder of all that was happening on man’s remarkable journey to the moon and back. The few years we lived there encompassed some of the happiest times and circumstances of our young married lives; the triumphal success of Apollo 11 in July of 1969 played no small part in those special times for us and continues to provide joy in recollecting.
I have just finished watching the newly released DVD movie, Apollo 11, with my two young grandsons. The movie rates five-stars plus and does full justice to the drama and excitement of the event. As the movie ended, I counseled Matthew, my older grandson, that the times, the attitudes, and the circumstances which combined to make made Apollo 11 possible will represent a marker in humanity’s timeline, a marker which will always be remembered as “One giant leap for mankind.”
As a retired electrical engineer, I take time to reflect upon the countless scientific and technical people who made the moon landing possible:
-The physicists like Galileo, Newton, and Einstein who first unmasked the nature of gravity and the laws of motion.
-The electrical engineers/physicists who tamed electricity: men like Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell.
-The metallurgists who, over many decades, came to understand the nature and strength of materials – titanium, for example, found in the rocket nozzles of Saturn.
-The “ordinary” electrical and mechanical engineers and computer programmers who designed the immense support platform of equipment needed to support a mission like Apollo 11.
-The countless, faceless, folks who are so large in number, but nevertheless provided critical skills and support in management and mission control.
-The technician who was called upon when a leaky valve on the rocket halted the countdown before launch. With, virtually, the eyes of the world upon him, he entered the rocket assembly some two-hundred feet above the pad to tighten some bolts in order to mitigate the situation. I can only imagine the pressures on this fellow who remains faceless and nameless. He has lived with quite a memory of that time and his role in it, I am certain.
And, finally, there were the dreamers, the ancient astronomers (natural philosophers) who looked to the heavens in wonderment centuries ago and asked, “How and why is this?”