This month we approach the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. The first landing on the moon. What many have forgotten is that Apollo 10 paved the way for Apollo 11. This is their story
Quick NASA Summary
John Kennedy challenged America to land a man on the moon and safely return him to earth by the end of the 1960s. The Apollo program was designed to fulfill that challenge. However, the Apollo program started on a tragic note when Astronauts Grissom, White and Chafee were burned alive in their capsule during a test at Cape Canaveral. The incident occurred in January of 1967. The tragedy of Apollo 1 delayed the program for 17 months.
Apollo 7 – 9
Manned Apollo flights resumed with Apollo 7 in October 1968. This was a test of the Command Module in earth orbit only. Apollo 8 flew over Christmas 1968 bringing three astronauts in an orbit of the moon and back to earth. Three months later, Apollo 9 flew in March of 1969. Apollo 9 was the first to fly both the Command Module and Lunar Module, but never left earth’s orbit.
An Interesting Proposition
Things were going fantastically for NASA. Three successful flight in six months. Apollo 11 was scheduled to be the first to land on the moon. However, with its recent success some began to push to have the program schedule moved up. Should Apollo 10 be the first to land on the moon?
Three veteran astronauts were chosen for Apollo 10. John Young had flown in the Gemini program and was the Command Pilot. Eugene Cernan, also a Gemini veteran, was the Lunar Module pilot. The Mission Commander: Thomas Stafford.
NASA officials broached the idea of Apollo 10 landing on the moon. Absolutely not, was Stafford’s reply. Apollo 10’s job was to test the Command and Lunar Module in the moon’s atmosphere, to check communications and survey a landing site for Apollo 11. Stafford felt that Neil Armstrong and the others aboard Apollo 11, needed the data from Apollo 10 to accomplish a safe landing. The idea of Apollo 10 being the first on the moon was squashed.
Apollo 10 launched in May 1969. After leaving the earth’s orbit on the way to the moon, Apollo 10 relayed back the first color television pictures to the earth. Once they entered the moon’s orbit, Stafford and Cernan entered the Lunar Module and separated from Young in the Command Module.
The Lunar Module then descended towards the lunar service practicing the engine firing necessary for a safe descent. The primary target was the Sea of Tranquility, the area that had been identified for a possible lunar landing by Apollo 11. They got within 47,000 feet of the surface. More technical details can be found at NASA.
The next big test was firing of the engines for an ascent back up to rendezvous with the Command Module. That is when the excitement began. When Stafford activated a switch to begin the ascent the Lunar Module began to tumble around all three axes. A stage of the Lunar Module flew off and almost hit the spacecraft. Stafford realized they were in trouble but was able to bring the Lunar Module back to control. For full details on the incident see: Excitement
Stafford, Cernan and the Lunar Module successfully rendezvoused with Young and the Command Module. After a few more orbits over the moon the crew headed home and splashed down in the Pacific on May 26, 1969
Service Before Self
One of the three core values of the Air Force is “Service Before Self”. It can be tough for an Air Force officer to demonstrate this attribute. There is always a pull to pursue self-accomplishment, but one should never do so at the risk of the larger organization.
Thomas Stafford exhibits this trait like few others. Almost every American knows the answer to, “Who was the first man on the moon”? Neil Armstrong is a household name. Very few know Thomas Stafford. Stafford had the chance at the fame but bypassed it for the greater good of NASA and America. For that he is to be commended.