On my recent holiday in Northumberland, I both photographed the moon, and read about how almost 50 years ago, human beings landed on its surface.
This article is a review of the book I read: ‘How Apollo Flew to the Moon‘ by W. David Woods.
Staring at the moon and considering what we now know about its distance from Earth, its size, and its inhospitable surface, is an exercise in bridging emotional and intellectual understanding.
I have long-considered that the Apollo programme of manned spaceflights to the Moon to have been an exemplar of the power of human intellect, and overall one of humanity’s exceptional achievements.
The enormous cost of the programme (4% of the US Federal budget in 1967) was – in my opinion – well justified by the cultural shift it engendered.
‘We went to the Moon and discovered the Earth‘ is a truth expressed by many, including several of the early astronauts.
However this book is not about the cultural impact of the programme, but about how the journey was made. For anyone with a technical disposition the book will fascinate.
I took all 500 pages of the book on holiday with me and self-indulgently read it slowly from cover to cover: it was enormously enjoyable.
After an overview, the book follows the Apollo 11 mission through all its stages, sprinkling in astronaut comments and explaining the differences between earlier and later missions.
There are many fascinating details, but what came through to me above everything was NASA’s pervasive mindset of constantly, painstakingly, meticulously and expensively planning for failure.
The philosophy of not just being aware that an operation may fail, but making detailed plans for what you will do when it does is a lesson for anyone who wants a complex plan to succeed.
And not only were there back-up plans for failure, there were plans for failure of the back-up plans! Only at one or two key points in the entire mission were there operations which simply had to work.
So, for example, when their spacecraft fired a rocket engine to leave Earth’s orbit and head towards the Moon – or rather where the Moon was going to be in three days time – the rocket burn placed them into a so-called ‘free-return trajectory‘.
Thus if something went wrong on the voyage, or the rocket engine failed to fire – the spacecraft would sail around the Moon and head straight back to Earth.
Overall, the book is a great read for the technically minded. And in addition to the narrative there are occasional superlatives – like ‘vista-points’ on a highway – where you can stop and simply wonder.
- The total mechanical output power of five first stage rockets was 60 GW. This is equivalent to peak electrical supply of the entire United Kingdom.
- On its return from the moon, its speed just before entry into the Earth’s atmosphere was more than 11 kilometres per second.
- Since Apollo 17 returned in 1972. no human being has been more than 500 miles from Earth’s surface.