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Apollo missions were propelled by a bold vision

July 20, 1969.

This summer marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped to the moon’s surface while Michael Collins flew above them in lunar orbit. About 650 million people worldwide watched the live event on television. Millions of others listened to it on their radios or followed the progress of the astronauts in their newspapers. Those of us who watched will never forget where we were when those grainy images of human beings on the moon’s surface flickered on our television screens.

In Apollo to the Moon: A History In 50 Objects (National Geographic, 2018, 303 pages), Teasel Muir-Harmony, a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and a scholar of space history, transports us back to the days of the Apollo program and the various flights to the moon by giving us a history of the items associated with these spacecraft, ranging from Apollo 11’s command module Columbia to the Gillette safety razors and Old Spice brushless shaving cream used by Apollo crew members, from urine collection and transfer assembly to Eugene Cernan’s space suit from Apollo 17.

In addition to informing her readers about these various objects used by NASA, Muir-Harmony provides plenty of anecdotes about these flights. In her chapter “Urine Collection and Transfer Assembly, Apollo 11,” for example, she writes that Buzz Aldrin was the first human being to urinate on the moon.

“Unfortunately for Aldrin, his urine collection device (UCD) bag broke as he took a large leap from the bottom rung of the lunar module ladder onto the moon. As he walked, his left boot filled with liquid. Each subsequent step Aldrin took on the lunar surface sloshed.”

We learn about the intense debate over the correctness of raising an American flag on the moon (“All six flags that Apollo astronauts raised on the moon remain, although their stars and stripes have been bleached white by solar radiation”), the problems with reentering the earth’s atmosphere (“the temperatures at reentry became so hot that atoms were stripped of their electrons”), the careful quarantine measures taken after the first few flights after the astronauts returned to earth (Airstream vacation trailers were modified into these quarantine units), the close relationship at that time “between the United States and Australia in the history of spaceflight (Australia’s location vis-à-vis the United States made it a “geographically strategic location for supporting the U.S. space programs.” It was this position and some changes in the Apollo 11 astronauts’ schedule that also gave Australia the honor of “enabling the entire world to watch the live flight on television.”)

“Apollo 13,” the movie featuring Tom Hanks, remains a vivid reminder of the dangers in these explorations. After a blast crippled two fuel cells and an oxygen tank, astronauts aboard the spacecraft faced possible death from slow asphyxiation. The men in the spacecraft needed filters to remove carbon dioxide, but the ones in the command module and landing modular were incompatible. While the world watched this drama with horror, fascination and pity, the engineers at NASA went to work. In Apollo To The Moon, Muir-Harmony shows us the crude device they produced: the “Lithium Hydroxide Canister Mock-Up.”

“Using only the limited supplies that were available on board Apollo 13 — plastic bags, plastic-coated cue cards from a three-ring reference binder, hoses from the lunar space suits and gray duct tape — they (the engineers) devised the filtration system pictured here and then radioed instructions to the Apollo 13 crew. The jury-rigged contraption worked perfectly.”

(Apparently Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski in the film “Gran Torino” was right: “Take these three items, some WD-40, a vise grip and a roll of duct tape. Any man worth his salt can fix almost any problem with this stuff alone.”)

Indeed, what will strike most readers of Apollo To The Moon is that the objects chosen by Muir-Harmony appear both sophisticated and primitive. Given the times, the engineering behind some of these cameras and lunar craft is exquisite. The care and skill that went into building the spacecraft and all the necessary accouterments, and the number of people involved in a launch, from those who designed and built the equipment to those who planned out how to feed the astronauts, staggers the imagination. 

On the other hand, half-a-century separates us from these bold pioneers. Theirs was a time when engineers still used slide rules, when computers were in their infancy, when famed newsman Walter Cronkite had to use a model of the lunar landing craft to explain to television viewers what was happening on the moon “because much of the flight was out of sight of film cameras.” Space capsules like Freedom 7, which is featured in Apollo To The Moon and which carried the first American astronaut, Alan Shephard, into space, now appear as old-fashioned and rinky-dink as the Wright Brothers airplane. 

It was primitive.

And it worked.

In the Foreword to Apollo To the Moon, former astronaut Michael Collins writes of the National Air and Space Museum as having acquired “an incomparable collection, from the Wright Flyer to the space shuttle.” He then adds: “Beyond that, as demonstrated in this fine book, the curators have displayed their exceptional expertise in organizing these national treasures into fascinating exhibits.”

Thanks to Teasel Muir-Harmony and the National Air and Space Museum, we now have some of these exhibits at our fingertips.

(Jeff Minick is a writer and teacher. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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