15.28: Combined spaceflight experience of the Apollo 14 crew, in minutes and seconds
On 5 May 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space. His 15-minute, 28-second sub-orbital flight was, according to Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham, “the most beautiful 15-minute ride that any American had ever known”.
In his autobiography, The All-American Boys, Cunningham describes Shepard as “capable, tenacious and just plain good at whatever he tackled”.
Shepard was all set to become the first man on the Moon. Then, a few months after his historic flight, the astronaut was diagnosed with a rare inner-ear condition and grounded indefinitely.
But he was determined to make it to the lunar surface and, in 1969, underwent risky surgery to correct his ear problem. The operation was a success and, by the summer of ‘69, America’s first – and now oldest – astronaut returned to flight status.
You might also like:
- The space stamps that sparked a scandal
- The 25-billion-dollar gamble
- The iconic images of our lonely home
Shepard was assigned to command Apollo 13 with astronauts Ed Mitchell and Stuart Roosa. Neither had flown in space before. They soon become known as “the rookie crew” and Nasa bumped them to Apollo 14, to give them more time to train.
Finally, on 5 February 1971, Shepard became the fifth man – and only Mercury 7 astronaut – to walk on the Moon. The mission was the first to carry a modular equipment transporter (essentially, a glorified wheelbarrow) which enabled Shepard and Mitchell to collect more lunar samples than previous missions.
Shepard also took the opportunity to become the first – and, so far, only – astronaut to play golf on the Moon. Live on TV, he fitted a six-iron to a modified sample collecting handle, and hit two balls “miles and miles”.
38,000: Total time astronauts spent training in simulators, in hours
For every hour in space, astronauts spent hundreds training on the ground. Every aspect of the mission was simulated as realistically as possible. Nasa even built giant models of the Moon, to show astronauts what the surface looked like from orbit, and a simulated lunar landscape so they could practice collecting soil and rock samples.
The cockpits the astronauts trained in were identical in every way to the real thing, with the same switches, dials and displays. The simulators were hooked-up to control consoles, where trainers could work through mission scenarios and throw system failures at the crew to see how they coped.
The lunar lander simulator almost cost Neil Armstrong his life (Credit: Nasa)
Mission control ran a similar training regime, with a team devoted to simulating spacecraft anomalies.
“It was funny,” says flight director Gerry Griffin, “they would give us an error and we’d handle it, they’d give us another, then there’d be two and we’d struggle a bit.”
“They could eventually bring us to our knees,” he says. “We would get kind of frustrated with them and say ‘that’s unrealistic’ but they would just smile at us – they never tried to run away but they did have a way out in case anyone really lost it.”
One simulator almost cost the first man on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, his life
Despite any tensions, the dedication to training and simulation proved itself time and again during the Apollo missions – from correctly interpreting the alarms during the Apollo 11 landing, to the drama of the Apollo 12 launch or explosion during Apollo 13.
One simulator, however, that almost cost the first man on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, his life was the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV), known as the “flying bedstead”. Fitted with a large turbofan engine and thrusters, the contraption was designed to replicate the handling of the lunar lander.
Armstrong was on his 22nd LLRV flight at a Houston airfield when the machine suddenly veered out of control. The astronaut ejected, parachuted to Earth and walked away unharmed. The LLRV crashed in a fireball a few seconds later.
You can watch a video of the crash here.
80.32: Total time spent outside on the lunar surface, in hours and minutes
Some $25bn and 400,000 people enabled 12 men to travel 238,855 miles (382,168km) to land on the Moon. But once outside their spacecraft, the astronauts only had enough oxygen and water supplies for a few hours at a time to work on the lunar surface.
Thanks to meticulous mission planning, checklists and itineraries, the astronauts got through a lot of science. They collected rocks and soil, and deployed experiments to study particles, gravity and magnetism.
The Apollo 11 astronauts spent little more than two hours exploring the surface of the Moon (Credit: Nasa)
During Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent two hours and 31 minutes outside the lander. Later missions allowed for two excursions and, with the final missions, three. During Apollo 17, astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt spent a total of 22 hours exploring the lunar surface.
As the first scientist to walk on the Moon, Schmitt put the training he’d provided for the other Apollo crews into practice.
“Wait a minute,” he says to Cernan during their second excursion, “there is orange soil!”
“It’s all over – orange!” he adds, excitedly, as they walk closer.
Thanks to the Moonwalkers of Apollo we know the Moon is ancient, lifeless and was formed from the same common materials as Earth
“Is it the same colour as cheese?” quips capcom Robert Parker in mission control.
The orange soil is one of the most significant scientific discoveries of the Apollo missions. Later analysis proved it to be molten drops of lava spewed from an ancient volcano.
Thanks to the Moonwalkers of Apollo we know the Moon is ancient, lifeless and was formed from the same common materials as Earth, likely through a giant cosmic collision. We know about moonquakes, the tenuous lunar atmosphere and the exact distance to the Earth.
If all that lunar science could be achieved in 80 hours, imagine what a permanent human presence on the Moon might achieve.
73: Time Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden spent alone in space, in hours
“Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and…er…”
While everyone feted the Moonwalkers, the third member of the Apollo crews can easily get forgotten. The command module pilot was the second in command of the mission and would need to fly the spacecraft home on his own if his companions were stranded on the lunar surface.
During Apollo 11, Mike Collins orbited the Moon while Aldrin and Armstrong made history on the surface. As command module pilot for Apollo 15, Al Worden spent 73 hours alone in orbit around the Moon, in July 1971, after waving Dave Scott and Jim Irwin goodbye.
Al Worden spent more than three days separated from his Apollo 15 colleagues in the command module (Credit: Nasa)
“I was alone but I was not lonely,” he says. “I didn’t have to talk to Dave and Jim any more, except once they came around [when the orbiting command module was above the landing site] and I said “hi”.”
“On the backside of the Moon, I didn’t even have to talk to Houston and that was the best part of the flight,” he says.
Worden’s job was to study the Moon from orbit with cameras and sensors, but he also got to look the other way out into space.
There are billions of stars out there – the Milky Way galaxy that we’re in contains billions of stars, not just a few – Al Worden
“What I found was that the number of stars was just so immense. I couldn’t pick up individual stars, it was like a sheet of light,” he says. “There are billions of stars out there – the Milky Way galaxy that we’re in contains billions of stars, not just a few. And there are billions of galaxies out there.”
“So, what does that tell you about the Universe? That tells you we just don’t think big enough.”
Read more about Worden’s experiences here.
47: Time since humans last walked on the Moon, in years
On 14 December 1972, Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan stepped off the surface of the Moon and climbed the steps of the lunar lander. His final words were every bit as poignant and meaningful as the first words spoken by Armstrong.
“We leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return,” Cernan said, “with peace and hope for all mankind.”
Gene Cernan was the last human to walk on the Moon - 47 years ago (Credit: Nasa)
A few days later, the Apollo 17 command module splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. And that was it. The Apollo Moon mission story had come to an end.
When I interviewed Cernan in 2014, and again two years later, he was still angry that mankind had not returned to finish what America started. The astronaut died in 2017 so never got to see the launch pads at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida refurbished for SpaceX’s Falcon and Nasa’s giant new rocket, the SLS.
It’s likely a few Apollo astronauts will still be around to see the first woman walk on the Moon
The SLS is the first launcher since the Saturn V capable of returning humans to the Moon. And 50 years after the Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their first small steps, we could finally be seeing the next giant leap.
Nasa has pledged to put humans back on the Moon by 2024 and to work with other international space agencies to later establish a Moon base. It’s a tight but (Nasa claims) achievable deadline and this time they promise that one of the astronauts will be a woman.
If Nasa can meet the goal, it’s likely a few Apollo astronauts will still be around to see the first woman walk on the Moon.
But it’s also possible the next person on the Moon might not be American. There is a chance the Chinese will get there before them.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital, and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday..