Wednesday, July 8, 2009

It Actually Is Rocket Science


Manned missions tend to get all the press and glory – and everyone forgets about the vital unmanned missions. I’ve always wondered if this irks the rocket scientists, engineers and controllers... how could it not?

By name, there were no missions formally classified as Apollo 2 or 3. After the tragedy that killed the crew of Apollo 1, the program continued with unmanned flight tests for 16 months. Early Saturn 1B rockets had only sequence numbers in the NASA program timeline and later, the named designations officially began again with the introduction of the first Saturn V.

When cruising through NASA security to
sabotage a Saturn V, don't forget your cat.
Apollo 4
Date: November 9, 1967
Launch Vehicle: Saturn V
NASA tested the stages and the Service Propulsion System (SPS), which is the rocket attached to the Lunar Module (an engine at one end of the cylindrical craft designed to enter and later escape lunar orbit).

Apollo 5
Date: January 22-24, 1968
Launch Vehicle: Saturn-1B
First launch of the Lunar Module, to verify ascent and descent propulsion. After the initial two rocket stages put the payload into orbit, the S-IVB would fire to provide an escape from Earth orbit and send the Apollo craft to the moon. Both worked perfectly.

Apollo 6
Date: April 4, 1968
Launch Vehicle: Saturn V
Not the raving success NASA hoped, but a crucial flight that highlighted necessary repairs and contingency plans. Severe oscillations occurred upon firing the first stage, two engines shut down prematurely during the second stage; and after Apollo 6 reached orbit, the third stage engine failed to re-ignite for a simulated "translunar injection,” so controllers used the SPS instead.

Numerous video clips from both Apollo 4 and Apollo 6 (mission control, ignition, launch, stages detaching and igniting) are featured in the March 1968 Star Trek episode "Assignment: Earth,” where Teri Garr and Agent Seven "align" Earth history by preventing a first strike disaster. Saturn V plays the nuclear missile.

This famous footage was used for numerous documentaries, countless newscasts and tirelessly by MTV in the 80s; today, it is often mistaken for Apollo 11 simply because the images are so familiar. (However, at the time the episode aired, the Apollo 11 launch was still 15 months in the future.)

On the same day as the launch, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. The Apollo 6 Command Module is on display at the Fernbank Science Center, in his hometown of Atlanta, Georgia.