If you thought driving on Earth is a chore, you haven’t tried off-roading on another planet. So far, robotic rovers have reached out to the moon and Mars, with astronauts actually driving a lunar car on the moon during NASA’s Apollo program. Those missions amount to what could be the first interplanetary road race. See how the endurance drives on other worlds stack up in the SPACE.com infographic above.
Leading the pack is an oldie of a space mission: the Soviet-era Lunakhod 2. This huge moon rover drove 23 miles (37 kilometers) on the moon during its 1973 mission and is currently the world champion for off-world driving, winning the gold medal.
In second place with silver is NASA’s Apollo 17 moon rover, which was driven by astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt in 1972. The astronauts drove 22.3 miles (35.89 km) during their mission, which was the last moon landing of NASA’s Apollo program.
The bronze medal for space driving goes to NASA’s Mars rover Opportunity, which has been driving across the plains of Meridiani Planum on the Red Planet since 2004. Opportunity has driven more than 22.03 miles (35.46 km) and is still going today.
The latest to enter the race is Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity, which is just getting started with only 0.4 mile (0.7 km) traveled so far.
Christmas – whether you’re religious or not – is a time when people gather their families together to reinforce the bonds that make us human.
In the era of modern telecommunications, distance no longer separates people the way it once did. Whether you’re on another continent, another planet, or floating out in space, satellites enable us to talk to and see each other, to feel connected.
And speaking of Christmas and space, it turns out the two have a bit of a history.
Space travel would explain how Santa can get around the world in one night. Kennedy Space Centre
Apollo 8 was a Christmas mission, the only one of all the Apollo missions. On December 21, 1968, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders blasted off from Cape Kennedy on a Saturn V rocket.
Their Christmas gift to the world was an extraordinary photograph that became one of the icons of the 20th century.
As they orbited the moon a few days after launch, an unscheduled change in orientation suddenly brought the earth into their view. The astronauts scrambled to get their cameras working, and Bill Anders took the famous shot of the Earth rising over the lunar horizon.
For the first time we saw our whole world from the outside. The fragility and beauty of the blue-and-white globe floating in the sea of darkness ignited an awareness of how interconnected the people of Earth are.
The nascent environmental movement drew inspiration from this vision and people really began to appreciate that we are only a small part of a rather large universe.
The Apollo program provided more concrete presents as well. The crew of Apollo 17, the last men on the moon, made a December 19 splashdown loaded with a 100kg-Santa’s-sack-worth of lunar rocks – our biggest collection so far. Many of these moon rocks were given as goodwill gestures to other nations.
They’re now the most valuable rocks in the world; each lump may be worth millions, as we have no idea when we’ll have the opportunity to get some more. Unbelievably, quite a few of these precious rocks have gone missing!
The Apollo missions demonstrated that humans could survive in space; what they couldn’t tell us was whether it was possible to actually live for an extended amount of time in space. This was the purpose of Skylab – the first US spacecraft to be designed as a living space, a home away from home.
Skylab was launched in 1973 and hosted three crews (Skylab 1 was unmanned) during its short working life. While in the space station, the astronauts enjoyed showers, a special dining area, and a sadly punishing toilet routine – everything that left their bodies had to be kept for future analysis.
The crew of the Skylab 4 mission celebrated Christmas in 1973 with a crafty piece of improvisation. Astronauts Gerald Carr, William Pogue and Edward Gibson made this charming Christmas tree out of empty food cans. Skylab 4 tin can Christmas tree. NASA
Wasting valuable mission time to make the tree may have been a passive act of resistance to having every minute of their waking days overplanned. Later in the three-month mission, the exhausted crew allegedly “mutinied” and chucked the first sickie in space.
On Earth and on the moon, space was quickly incorporated into Christmas traditions.
In 1947, Woomera in South Australia became the location of one of the earliest rocket launch sites in the world. The card shown below, with a Christmas greeting inside, depicts a V2-like rocket being launched over the desert.
Germany developed the V2 in WWII and it became the basis of Cold War space programs in the US, UK, France and Russia. Two ended up in Australia and are now at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The card seems to send a rather mixed message about war and peace …
Woomera Christmas card, likely from the late 1940s or early 1950s. Martin Wimmer
Soviet Russia also got into the Christmas card action though not officially – the celebration of Christmas was not encouraged during the Soviet era.
That said, the card below, which depicts St Nicholas and three USSR spacecraft, leaves no doubt that the spirit of Christmas nonetheless endured. (Bonus points if you can identify the spacecraft!)
Soviet rocket Christmas card. Mazaika
Not to be outdone on either the space or Christmas card race, NASA responded in style. In the shot below, the Apollo 14 crew of Alan Shepard, Ed Mitchell and Stuart Roosa, receive a Christmas card from James Loy, Chief, Protocol Branch for the KSC Public Affairs Office.
Note the crew peeping out from behind the Christmas tree on the card.
Every NASA mission generates merchandise and memorabilia – patches, t-shirts, mugs, etc. But did you know you could give your own Christmas tree a NASA makeover?
The image below, and the one above of Santa and an Apollo capsule, show souvenir Christmas tree ornaments from the Kennedy Space Centre.
This Christmas will be a quiet one in space. That said, on December 19 a crew of three flight engineers did launch from Kazakhstan to complete expedition 34 on the International Space Station.
Santa on the Moon. Kennedy Space Centre
NASA astronaut Tom Marshburn, Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko, and Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield will get to celebrate Christmas twice – once on December 25, and again for the Russian Orthodox feast on January 7.
Like many modern families, the Mars Rover family – Curiosity, Opportunity and Spirit – will spend the Christmas period far from each other, albeit on the red planet. (For Santa to include them in his rounds, he may need to battle the Martians – or so they thought in this classic 1964 film).
Similarly, the twin Voyager spacecraft are moving ever further apart from each other on their missions to interstellar space.
But it’s not all bad. The same technologies which created the Mars Rover family and the Voyager twins led to our modern telecommunications network.
Human and robot alike are linked in a web of electromagnetic waves that keep us communicating and connected. In space, no-one need feel alone, particularly at Christmas.
The authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.
After kangaroo hopping back to the lunar rover, Eugene and Jack drove back to the lunar module, Challenger. There they dusted each other off and loaded the last of their 100kg of lunar rock samples. Jack cleaned up inside While Eugene parked the rover a kilometre and a half away so the takeoff could be televised. Then hopping and skipping in the low lunar gravity he made the most of his last moments on the moon. Once back at the lunar module, one foot on the Challenger’s landing pad, Eugene Cernan lifted his other from the moon, and said:
As I take these last steps from the surface for some time to come, I’d just like to record that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow.
The next day, December 14, 1972, they blasted off from the moon, ending the sixth and last human exploration of the moon for the 20th century.
The last of the lunar Apollos
The Apollo program was a child of the cold war between the USA and Soviet Russia. It was invigorated by President Kennedy’s 1961 challenge to put man on the moon and return him safely before the decade was over. Once the landing of Apollo 11 was achieved in July 1969, the Apollo and NASA budgets came under savage scrutiny. It was the time of the war in Vietnam, budget problems for the 1972 fiscal year and followed the scare of Apollo 13.
The final two scheduled Apollo missions, 18 and 19, were finally cancelled in September 2, 1970. Apollo 20 had already been cancelled on January 2 so that its Saturn V rocket could be used as the launch vehicle for the Skylab space-station in 1973.
The Apollo program was an incredible, successful human feat. It remains the only program to have placed humans beyond low-earth orbit and onto another celestial body. Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to orbit another celestial body, while Apollo 11 landed the first humans on another world. The program returned 382 kg of lunar rocks and soil to Earth, contributing to the understanding of lunar geology.
It laid the foundation for NASA’s current human spaceflight capability, and funded construction of its Johnson Space Center and Kennedy Space Center. Apollo also spurred advances in many areas of technology incidental to rocketry and manned spaceflight and the start of huge opportunities for technology transfer, leading to more than 1,500 successful spinoffs related to areas as disparate as heart monitors, solar panels, and cordless innovation. More recently, we’ve seen a fledgling private-sector American space industry complete its first cargo delivery to the international space station.
Stepping up, walking tall
There is a marvelous fascination with human exploration. The Apollo missions are a great representation of that drive and curiosity. Apollo 17 astronauts, Eugene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt and Ron Evans, exemplified those attributes.
Eugene Cernan is ‘Captain America’ to a tee. A US Navy pilot who, like much of America, was caught up in the early space race. In 1962 he watched, captivated, on TV the launch of John Glenn. Who in the third manned Mercury capsule became the first American to orbit the earth. Cernan at the time lacked the coveted ‘test-pilot’ wings to be selected in the September 1962 second group of astronauts, which included Apollo 11 commander, Neil Armstrong. Cernan was picked, in October 1963, for the third astronaut group - which included the other Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.
Cernan became the second American astronaut, after Ed White on June 3 1965, to perform an extra-vehicular activity - a spacewalk. His Gemini 9 spacewalk lasted 2 hours and nine minutes, travelling 57,600 km, and rated as one most difficult achievements of his life. The brutal mechanics of Newton’s third law in action in space making seemingly simple tasks into exhausting and challenging experiences, resulting in fogging his helmet and pushing his heart rate to 188 bpm. His experiences made NASA rethink the training required for future extra-vehicular activities.
On January 27, 1967 Tom Stafford, John Young and Cernan were in an altitude chamber “trying to bring a new, untried, stubborn spacecraft up to launch standards”. Meanwhile, in an identical craft, Apollo 1 astronauts veteran Gus Grissom, first American spacewalker Ed White and Cernan’s closest friend the rookie Roger Chaffee, were conducting similar tests atop a Saturn rocket at Cape Kennedy. Minutes later they were dead, killed in a fire - a tragedy stunning the close-knit space community.
In May 1969, Cernan, as part of the Apollo 10 crew along with Tom Stafford and John Young achieved a number of records and a “dry-run” for the Apollo 11 landing two months later. As befitting a crew of test pilots they set the record for the highest speed attained by a manned vehicle at 39,897 km/h during the return from the Moon on May 26, 1969 and hold the record of being the humans who have traveled to the farthest point away from home, some 408,950 kilometres. Cernan and Stafford came within 15.6km of the lunar surface in their lunar module Snoopy.
Harrison “Jack” Schmitt is a geologist and one of the NASA group 4 astronauts, “the scientists”, that were announced on June 28, 1965. His and their story is worthy of is own post, coming in January 2013.
Ron Evans was picked as a Command Module specialist from the beginning of his NASA career. Chosen in April 1966, one of the group 5 astronauts, he was support crew for Apollo 1 and back-up command module pilot for Apollo 14. I found him notable for his almost invisibility in memoirs of the time. In both Deke Slayton’s and Eugene Cernan’s fascinating autobiographies Ron Evans is there an accepted, uncontroversial part of the missions, without a strong personality, extremely competent - obviously the perfect man for the pilot seat of the command module America.
Adventures in the Taurus-Littrow valley
A moon landing was the payoff for all the hard-work, according to Cernan, “the ultimate dream for any pilot.” Following the tradition began by Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11, Cernan, as Commander, was first out on the moon. As he skipped around Schmitt quipped, “Hey, whose been tracking up my lunar surface?” and then stepped out onto a geologist’s paradise - the moon.
The primary objectives for Apollo 17 were: to sample lunar highland material older than the impact that formed Mare Imbrium and investigate the possibility of relatively young volcanic activity in the same vicinity. The Taurus-Littrow valley was selected with the prospects of finding highland material in the valley’s north and south walls and the possibility that several craters in the valley surrounded by dark material could be linked to volcanic activity
Cernan and Schmitt had a three-day lunar surface stay, conducting three periods of extra-vehicular activity, either moonwalking or driving around in the third Lunar Roving Vehicle. They amassed over 22 hours on the surface during these periods in which they collected lunar samples and deployed scientific instruments.
The largest haul of lunar rocks was collected by the two moon-walkers as well as deploying the Apollo lunar surface experiments package (ALSEP), a feature of all manned lunar missions. The stations ran from deployment until they were turned off on 30 September 1977 due to: budgetary considerations, the power packs could not run both the transmitter and any other instrument, and the ALSEP control room was needed for the attempt to reactivate Skylab.
They also carried out gravimeter experiments to learn about the moon’s internal structure. The gravimeter was used to obtain readings at the landing site in the immediate vicinity of the lunar module, as well as various locations on the mission’s roving routes.
Meanwhile the command module also housed a series of scientific experiments. A special bay housed three experiments (as well as cameras and altimeter) for use in lunar orbit: a lunar sounder, an infrared scanning radiometer, and a far-ultraviolet spectrometer. The film canisters were recovered by Ron Evans in a spacewalk after docking with the returned lunar module.
Splashdown in the Pacific on December 19, 1972 brought this “first phase” of human space exploration to a close - I now wait for the second phase to begin and wonder who might it be?
This article was first published on Australian Science on December 18, 2012.
The Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into an elliptical low Earth orbit on October 4, 1957. This surprise precipitated the space age and triggered the space race. The launch ushered in new technological, political, military, and scientific developments.
On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first person in history to leave the Earth’s atmosphere and venture into space. His flight aboard a Soviet Vostok rocket lasted 108 minutes, at the end of it he had ignited the manned space race.
Who were men who responded to these Soviet firsts, launching America into space and then onto the moon?
NASA selected the first US astronauts, the Original Seven (also referred to as the Mercury Seven and Astronaut Group 1), on April 9, 1959. This was the only astronaut group with members who flew on all classes of NASA manned orbital spacecraft of the 20th century — Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the Space Shuttle.
The first American launched into space was Alan Shepard, followed by Gus Grissom. Their ballistic flights were followed by orbital flights by John Glenn then Scott Carpenter, each managing three orbits. Wally Schirra made six orbits and Gordon Cooper completed the Mercury project with 22 orbits. Cooper was the first American travelling in space for over a day and the last American to be launched solo into Earth orbit. Deke Slayton, was grounded in 1962 due to a heart arrhythmia, but reinstated in 1972 and flew on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975.
With the announcement of the Gemini program and planning of the Apollo program a second group of astronauts were selected by NASA and announced on September 17, 1962. The New Nine augmented the original Mercury 7. While the original seven had been selected to accomplish the simpler task of orbital flight, the new challenges of rendezvous and lunar landing led to the selection of candidates with advanced engineering degrees (for four of the New Nine) as well as test pilot experience.
This illustrious group became the first group with civilian test pilots in the group; Neil A Armstrong, first man on the moon and Elliott M See Jr, killed in a plane crash four months before he was due to pilot Gemini 9. Two of this group, Charles Conrad Jr and James A Lovell Jr, had been candidates for the original seven, but were not selected then for medical reasons. In addition, the group was Frank F Borman Jr, James A McDivitt, Thomas P Stafford, Edward H White II, and John W Young.
NASA announced the third group of astronauts, the “Apollo fourteen” in October 1963. Four (Charles A Bassett II, Roger B Chaffee, Theodore C Freeman, and Clifton C Williams Jr) died in training accidents before they could fly in space. Chaffee was killed along with Grissom and White in the Apollo 1 fire. All of the surviving ten (Edwin E “Buzz” Aldrin Jr, William A Anders, Alan A Bean, Eugene A Cernan, Michael Collins, R Walter Cunningham, Donn F Eisele, Richard F Gordon Jr, Russell “Rusty” L Schwiekart, and David R Scott) flew in the Apollo program; five (Aldrin, Cernan, Collins, Gordon, and Scott) also flew Gemini missions. Aldrin, Bean, Cernan and Scott walked on the Moon.
Group 3 was the first group to include candidates with no test pilot background. They are the only ones of the first 19 NASA astronaut groups to have no members at all fly on the Space Shuttle.
The fourth group of astronauts, the Scientists, selected by NASA in June 1965, came as a rude shock to the existing astronauts. While the astronauts of the previous three groups were required to have college and some advanced degrees, they were chosen for their test pilot expertise. The six members of this group, on the other hand, were chosen for their research and academic backgrounds. Doctorate degrees were required and minimum flight time requirements were waived for this group.
This group included the science poster boy, Harrison H Schmitt, a geologist, the only scientist to walk on the Moon. Owen K Garriott, Edward G Gibson and Joseph P Kerwin all flew to Skylab. Garriott also flew on the Space Shuttle. While Duane E Graveline and F Curtis Michel left NASA without flying in space. Graveline is missing from the photo above. He was removed from the program almost immediately as a consequence of his wife filing for divorce. Astronauts, even scientist ones, still needed to clean cut all-Americans. Divorce, like failure, was not an option.
John Young labelled the next astronaut group, selected by NASA in April 1966, the “Original Nineteen” in parody of the original seven Mercury astronauts. Of the six Lunar Module Pilots that walked on the Moon, three came from this group (Charles M Duke Jr, James B Irwin, and Edward D Mitchell). This group is also distinctive in being the only time when NASA hired a person into the astronaut corps who had already earned astronaut wings, X-15 pilot Joseph “Joe” H Engle.
The group as a whole is roughly split between the half who flew Apollo (Duke, Ronald E Evans Jr, Fred W Haise Jr, Irwin, T Kenneth Mattingly II, Mitchell, Stuart A Roosa, John Swigert Jr, and Alfred M Worden) and the other half who flew Skylab and Shuttle (Vance D Brand, Gerald P Carr, Engle, Don L Lind, Jack R Lousma, Bruce McCandless II, William R Pogue, and Paul J Weitz) providing the core of Shuttle Commanders early in that program. John S Bull resigned from the program for medical reasons, whilst Edward G Givens Jr died in a car crash after being support crew for Apollo 7.
The final group of this era, the second group of scientist-astronauts, were appointed by NASA on August 11, 1967. They were labelled the “excess Eleven” with only five, including the first Australian born astronaut Philip Chapman, given formal assignments in the Apollo Program, and these were all non-flying. These were: Joseph P Allen, Chapman, Anthony W England, Karl G Henize, and Robert A R Parker. Chapman resigned from NASA in July 1972 due to lack of space-flight opportunities. Three others, Donald L Holmquest, Anthony A Llewellyn, and Brian T O’Leary resigned earlier from the group for various reasons.
Assignments for the group were delayed by the requirement to spend a full year to become qualified as jet pilots (as were the Group 4 scientists before them). This requirement for scientists to be trained as jet pilots was eventually lifted with the creation of the Mission Specialist position in the Shuttle Program. The seven members (Allan, England, Henize, William “Bill” Lenoir, Story Musgrave, Parker, and William E Thornton) of Group 6 who stayed with the program after Apollo went on to form the core of Shuttle Mission Specialists, accomplishing a total of 15 flights.
In all 66 men became NASA astronauts during this first era of manned space exploration. No women were included - although there was an unofficial group called the First Lady Astronaut Trainees- not being jet test pilots there were ineligible to become astronauts.
Was this a “boys’ own adventure”? Was this a period of great social upheaval in the USA? Did this era cement in the US politicians and public the image of supremacy and isolationism in space endeavors? Yes, is the answer to all three questions.
There are a myriad of stories from these groups’ exploits. These stories have a contemporary relevance as we reach an era of: new commercial space opportunities (leisure, exploration and mining), new entrants (China and India), and find the US and Europe hampered by self-imposed budget challenges and hurdles.
There is no doubt that space exploration can be a hazardous adventure. Forty-five years ago on January 27, 1967, Apollo 1’s crew—Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II and Roger Chaffee—was killed when a fire erupted in their command module during testing.
The mission was to be the first crewed flight of Apollo, and was scheduled to launch Feb. 21, 1967. This was to be Chaffee’s first spaceflight. White had piloted Gemini 4 in 1965 and Grissom was a veteran of both the Mercury (Redstone-Mercury 4, 1961) and Gemini (Gemini 3, 1965) programs.
Apollo 1 was originally designated AS-204 but following the fire, the astronauts’ widows requested that the mission be remembered as Apollo 1 and following missions would be numbered subsequent to the flight that never made it into space.
The exhaustive investigation of the fire and extensive reworking of the Apollo command modules postponed crewed launches until NASA officials cleared the them for flight. Saturn IB schedules were suspended for nearly a year, and the launch vehicle that finally bore the designation AS-204 carried a lunar module as the payload, instead of a command module. The missions of AS-201 and AS-202 with Apollo spacecraft aboard had been unofficially known as Apollo 1 and Apollo 2 missions. AS-203 carried only the aerodynamic nose cone.
In the spring of 1967, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight, Dr. George E. Mueller, announced that the mission originally scheduled for Grissom, White and Chaffee would be known as Apollo 1, and said that the first Saturn V launch, scheduled for November 1967, would be known as Apollo 4. The eventual launch of AS-204 became known as the Apollo 5 mission. No missions or flights were ever designated Apollo 2 or 3.
The second launch of a Saturn V took place on schedule in the early morning of April 4, 1968. Known as AS-502, or Apollo 6, the flight was a success, though two first-stage engines shut down prematurely, and the third-stage engine failed to reignite after reaching orbit.
It was not until Apollo 7 (11-22 October 1968) that NASA attempted to, and successfully launched a manned Apollo mission.
(Photo credits: NASA history achieves)