Saturday, July 18, 2009

Return to Apollo

NASA reported this week that for the first time the Apollo Lunar Modules have been able to be visualized from a new satellite named the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) which arrived in lunar orbit on June 23, 2009. In the image below you can see the the Apollo 14 Lunar Module Base on the right and the scientific experiment package on the left with footprints traversing between the two sites. This is incredible detail for an orbiting imaging satellite.

The images (all the sites except Apollo 12 have been imaged so far), are particularly timely given the 40th anniversary of the first lunar landing coming on July 20th. I can remember being glued to my television set at home that summer day watching the commentary provided by Walter Cronkite. I was saddened to hear that Mr. Cronkite died yesterday at the age of 92. For me, he was the voice of the Apollo lunar missions. The New York Times has a number of video clips of Cronkite on their website including this video of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing in which he is visibly moved by the landing. We all were.

I didn't know at the time I was watching the first landing that within a year after college graduation, I would be hired by Bendix Aerospace Systems Division which had the prime contract to design and manufacture the Apollo Lunar Surface Experment Package (or ALSEP in the jargon of the day). I worked on experiments that were flown on the later Apollo 14 through 17 missions. Those were exciting times when as a nation we could feel good about some of our accomplishments. The quagmire of Vietnam eventually brought the Apollo missions to a premature conclusion with the cancellation of Apollo flights 18, 19, and 20.

When I think now about how primitive our technology was in the late 1960's, I am all the more impressed with the accomplishments of the NASA team. Despite the subsequent successes on SpaceLab, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station, we have not yet surpassed that "one small step" which was taken on a day in July forty years ago.

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