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Moon landing
blog 22 Jul 2019

From the Earth to the Moon: Moon Landing

Written by Hans Jongste
The Apollo project had and still has impact on all kinds of aspects of our lives. Astronomy benefitted from space technology, by using space-based telescopes, we can look to the Universe in detail, and go back in time almost 14 billion years. Telecommunications was improved by communication satellites. Plans are made to return to the Moon by 2024. Photos of Earth taken from the Moon and showing Earth as a rising blue planet have (hopefully) changed mankind’s understanding how unique this place is in that it can sustain life.

Before the 1960s people already were thinking about space travel and visiting the Moon. 

In his novels “From the Earth to the Moon” (De la Terre a la Lune, 1865) and “Around the Moon” (Autour de la Lune, 1870), later published as a single novel, French science-fiction writer Jules Verne described a journey to the Moon and back in 28 days. 

By using the science and technology of his time, Verne imagined that a capsule was shot as a projectile to the Moon from a very large space gun located in Florida. The capsule brought a group of three people to the Moon. As the story goes, the capsule followed a (quasi) parabolic trajectory that included a ‘fly-by’ around the Moon along the ‘dark side’ that is invisible from Earth. 

You may have guessed: no moon landing took place.

I think Verne understood a moon landing would have complicated the story. It is difficult to imagine how the capsule after landing should have returned to Earth, without a miraculous and inexplicable escape.

Using 19th century technology, one could build a space gun on the Moon to let the capsule return, but then the question would be how to get all materials there and construct the gun. In space flight you need to bring your own stuff.

When the Apollo project was developed NASA considered various scenarios how to bring humans to the Moon and safely back to Earth. These scenarios involved optimization of take-off mass, payload and fuel.

Hundred years later, rocket technology solved the issue. By using a rocket that brings its own fuel (and oxidizer) to the Moon, landing and taking-off can be done.

When the Apollo project was developed NASA considered various scenarios how to bring humans to the Moon and safely back to Earth. These scenarios involved optimization of take-off mass, payload and fuel. 

One option was a so-called ‘direct descent’ with a single spacecraft landing on the Moon, and afterwards returning to Earth. Another (and better) option was a ‘Lunar Orbit Rendez-vous’ that would use a ‘mothership’ orbiting the Moon and a smaller ‘lunar module’ travelling between the mothership and the surface of the Moon.

The lunar module was designed and built by Grumman. The design included a descent stage and an ascent stage that included a cabin for the astronauts. (see photo of the Eagle that landed in July 1969. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin is in the front.) The descent stage and ascent stage were designed to land together. Only the ascent stage was to return to the ‘mothership’, to reduce transport of mass and fuel consumption as far as possible. (more on the Apollo project lunar modules here)

I suspect the readers in 1865/1870 must have been a bit disappointed that there was no moon landing, in spite of the suspense Verne built up. 

Fortunately for the readers, the story ended well: more or less in a same way as Apollo_11 the capsule returned to Earth. Verne’s capsule re-entered the atmosphere, and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean near the coast of California. In contrast to the re-entry of Apollo_11, the story does not mention if parachutes were used to slow down the descent. Nevertheless the travelers survived and were rescued by a ship. Still a wonderful story and a good read, Jules.

Back to July 1969. I remember that I watched the moon landing on television late in the evening. My parents woke me up and let me watch. I also remember that I saw Neil Armstrong climbing down the ladder of the lunar module and stepping on the moon surface. At the time the broadcast in black and white seemed a bit unsharp and speckled.

Many people remember where they were, what they were doing at the time of a great event. Thinking of it, the Apollo project is still unique in bringing humans to other worlds, even after 50 years. Remarkable to have witnessed. Congrats, NASA.