Saturn V

Today we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the inaugural flight of Wernher von Braun’s magnum opus, the giant Saturn V moon rocket.  This first flight was an unmanned mission, Apollo 4, and took place less than 10 months after the tragic launch pad fire that killed astronauts Gus Grissom, 40, Ed White, 36, and Roger Chaffee, 31.

Apollo 4 launch, November 9, 1967
Apollo 4 image of Earth at an altitude of 7,300 miles

The unmanned Apollo 4 mission was a complete success, paving the way for astronauts to go to the Moon.  After another successful unmanned test flight (Apollo 6), the Saturn V rocket carried the first astronauts into space on the Apollo 8 mission in December 1968.  On that mission, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders orbited the Moon for 20 hours and then returned safely to Earth.

Bill Anders took this iconic photo of Earth from Apollo 8 while in orbit around the Moon

“As of 2017, the Saturn V remains the tallest, heaviest, and most powerful (highest total impulse) rocket ever brought to operational status, and holds records for the heaviest payload launched and largest payload capacity to low Earth orbit (LEO) of 140,000 kg (310,000 lb), which included the third stage and unburned propellant needed to send the Apollo Command/Service Module and Lunar Module to the Moon.  To date, the Saturn V remains the only launch vehicle to launch missions to carry humans beyond low Earth orbit.”

Reference (for quoted material above)
Wikipedia contributors, “Saturn V,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed November 9, 2017).

Bringing Home Pieces of the Moon

The astronauts on Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17 between 1969 and 1972 brought back a total of 840 lbs of moon rocks and soil.  Each successive Apollo mission brought back a larger amount of lunar material.

The Soviets brought back a total of 0.7 lbs of lunar soil through their robotic sample return missions Luna 16 (1970), Luna 20 (1972), and Luna 24 (1976).

So, excluding lunar meteorites that have befallen the Earth, a total of 840.7 lbs of lunar material has been delivered to research laboratories here on Earth.

It has been over 40 years since we have brought anything back from the lunar surface.  There are many interesting areas yet to be explored.  Why not send a series of robotic geologists to the Moon in advance of human missions? The success of the Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity rovers on Mars show us the exciting work that can be done at a fraction of the cost of human missions.  One enhancement would be the ability of the lunar robotic rovers to collect moon rocks and soil and return them to the mother ship for delivery to Earth.

But our 40+ year wait for additional lunar material may soon be over!

China plans to launch the Chang’e 5 lunar lander in November of this year.  It is expected to land in the Oceanus Procellarum (“Ocean of Storms”) region of the Moon, scoop up at least 4.4 lbs of lunar soil and rock—including some at least six feet below the surface!  The lunar haul will be launched into lunar orbit, where it will rendezvous with the sample return module that will bring it back to Earth.  After a high-speed entry into Earth’s atmosphere, the sample return module will rapidly decelerate, then gently parachute down to the Earth’s surface, presumably somewhere in China.

Chang’e 5 promises to be one of the most exciting and important space missions this year.  Stay tuned!