This week, let’s look back at the rocketry technology that sent us to moon on July 20, 1969. The times were different then as nations all over the globe were racing to be first in the great space race, with people dreaming of reaching space since the turn of the twentieth century. The first realistic means of space travel was first documented by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in his famous work “The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices,” published in 1903.
It was 16 years later (1919) when Robert H. Goddard, published a paper, “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes,” where he applied the de Lavel nozzle to liquid fuel rockets, making interplanetary travel possible. His paper influenced the key men in space flight, Hermann Oberth and Wernher von Braun.
The first rocket to reach space and put Germany in the lead of the space race was launched in June, 1944. The German V-2 rocket was used to attempt sub-orbital space flight in the British “Operation Backfire,” but did not achieve the altitude necessary. The Backfire report remains to date the most extensive technical document of the V-2 rocket. This triggered the British Interplanetary Society to propose the Megaroc, a manned suborbital flight vehicle. The Megaroc successfully sent pilot Eric Brown on a sub-orbital flight in 1949.
Over a decade later true orbital space flight, both manned and unmanned, took place during the “Space Race,” a fierce competition during the Cold War between Russia and the United States. The race began in 1957 with both nations announcing plans to launch artificial satellites. The U.S. announced a planned launch of Vanguard by spring 1958 and Russia claimed to be able to launch by the fall of 1957.
Russia won the first round with the launch of three successful missions, Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957; Sputnik 2, the first to carry a living animal, a dog named Laika and Sputnik 3, May 15, 1958, carrying a large array of geophysical research instruments.
The U.S., on the other hand, faced a series of failures until its successful mission with Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite, on February 1, 1958. Explorer 1 carried instruments that detected the theorized Van Allen radiation belt. The shock over Sputnik 1 triggered the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and gave it responsibility for the nation’s civilian space programs, beginning the race for the first man in space.
Unfortunately the U.S. lost again on April 12, 1961. Yuri Gagarin made a 108-minute single orbit flight on board the Vostok. Between this first flight and June 16, 1962, the USSR launched a total of six men into space, two pairs flying concurrently, resulting in 260 orbits and just over 16-days in space.
The U.S was falling further behind in the race to space. They only had one successful manned flight by Alan Shepard, May 5, 1961, on the Freedom 7 capsule. However, Shepard fell short of reaching space and only achieved a sub-orbital flight. It was not until February 20, 1962, when John Glenn became the first U.S. orbital astronaut, making three orbits on Friendship 7. President John F. Kennedy announced a plan at this time to land a man on the moon by 1970, officially starting Project Apollo.
Not to be outdone, USSR put the first woman in space on June 16, 1963. Valentina Tereshkova flew aboard the Vostok 6. Tereshkova married fellow cosmonaut Andrian Nikolayev and on June 8, 1964, gave birth to the first child conceived by two space travelers.
On July 20, 1969, the U.S. succeeded in achieving President Kennedy’s goal with the landing of Apollo 11. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to set foot on the moon. Six successful moon landings were achieved through 1972, with only one failure on Apollo 13.
Unfortunately, the USSR’s N1 rocket suffered the largest rocket explosion in history just weeks before the first U.S. moon landing. The N1 rocket booster was the most powerful single-stage rocket ever made. All four attempted launches resulted in failures. The largest, on July 3, 1969, destroyed the launch pad. These failures resulted in the USSR government officially ending its manned lunar program on June 24, 1974.