Home Table of Contents What's New Image Index Copyright ScienceViews Search

Apollo Expeditions to the Moon



Training was the name of the game, and they trained until it seemed the labors of Hercules were child's play - how to make a tent out of your parachute in case you came down in a desert; how to kill and eat a snake in the jungles of Panama; how to negotiate volcanic lava in Hawaii. An Air Force C-135 flew endless parabolas so the astronauts could have repeated half-minute doses of weightlessness. They wore weights in huge water tanks in Houston and in Huntsville to get a feel of movement in zero and one-sixth gravity.

"The great train wreck" was John Young's description of the contraption beyond the console. At the top of the stairs was a compartment that exactly duplicated a command module control area, with all switches and equipment. Astronauts spent countless hours lying on their backs in the CM simulator in Houston. Panel lights came on and off, gauges registered consumables, and navigational data were displayed. Movie screens replaced the spacecraft windows and reflected whatever the computer was thinking as a result of the combined input from the console outside and astronaut responses. Here the astronauts practiced spacecraft rendezvous, star alignment, and stabilizing a tumbling spacecraft. The thousands of hours of training in this collection of curiously angled cubicles paid off. Many of the problems that showed up in flight had already been considered and it was then merely a matter of keying in the proper responses. At left (below), Charles Conrad and Alan Bean in the LM simulator at Cape Kennedy prepare to cope with any possible malfunctions that the controllers at the console outside could think up to test their familiarity with the spacecraft and its systems.

Hair-raising was the device called the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle, a sort of flying bedstead, which had a downward-pointing jet engine, gimbal-mounted and computer-controlled to eliminate five-sixths of gravity. In addition, it had attitude-controlling thrusters to simulate the way the LM would act before touchdown on the Moon. If the trainer ran out of fuel at altitude, or if it malfunctioned, the Apollo commander - for he was the only one who had to fly the thing - had to eject, which meant he was catapulted several hundred feet into the air before his parachute opened. That was exactly what happened to Neil Armstrong a few months before his Apollo 11 mission, when his bedstead started to tilt awry a hundred feet above the ground. Armstrong shot into the air, then floated to safety; the machine crashed and burned.

Dozens of training aids sharpened astronaut skills, but the most indispensable were flight simulators, contraptions built around copies of CM and LM control areas and complete to every last switch and warning light. Astronauts on prime status for the next mission would climb in to flip switches and work controls. The simulator would be linked to a computer programmed to give them practice too. What made it exciting was that training supervisors could also get in the loop to introduce sneaky malfunctions, full-bore emergencies, or imminent catastrophes to check on how fast and well the crews and their controllers would cope. Surrounding the mockup spacecraft were huge boxes for automatic movie and TV display of what astronauts would see in flight: Earth, Moon, stars, another spacecraft coming in for docking. When John Young first encountered a simulator he exclaimed "the great train wreck!". Hour after weary hour the spacemen had to solve whatever problems the training crews thought up and fed into the computer. The Apollo 11 crew calculated they spent 2000 hours in simulators between their selection in January and their flight in July 1969.

Neil Armstrong contemplates the distance between the footpad and the lowest rung: would he be able to get back up? (The bottom of the ladder had to end high to allow for shock-absorber compression of the LM leg.) He decided he could do it. Ascent proved no problem in reduced lunar gravity.

Preparing for the unknown was a challenge. How much work could be done by a man within a pressurized (and hence stiff-jointed) spacesuit? What effect would the lesser lunar gravity have on his efforts? This truck-borne hoist, adjusted to take out five-sixths of his weight, gave preliminary indications. It also previewed the loping and kangaroo-hopping gaits that would occur on the Moon. A different way to simulate lunar gravity was also tried out; see the rig here.

Some of this bone-cracking training was done in Houston but much of it at the Cape, in Downey, Calif. (the CM), or Bethpage, Long Island (the LM). When the astronauts were not training they were flying in their two-seater T-38 planes from one place to the other, or doing aerobatics to sharpen their edge, or simply to unwind. Their long absences proved a plague on their home lives, and there was hardly a man among them who did not consider quitting the program at one time or another "to spend some time with my family".