“Fly Me To The Moon” sang Frank Sinatra, but the idea of visiting Earth’s satellite inspired storytellers and visionaries for millennia before it was achieved by only twelve American astronauts between 1969 and 1972. In this article I will explore in more depth some of the Lunar exploration themes raised by my overview of space flight and missile technology model presentation Goes Like A Rocket.
The six Grumman Lunar Modules – originally termed Lunar Excursion Modules by NASA and often referred to as LEMs – that they used were all slightly different from each other and so the left hand side of my lunar diorama was an attempt to portray the typical equipment of an early Apollo (H-Class) Moon landing rather than replicate a specific mission down to the last footprint in the dust.
The LEM, astronauts, flag, S-band antenna dish (used from Apollo 12 onwards) and three stand-alone lunar surface experiments (out of many more actually deployed around a central station powered by a radioactive cylinder, not included) were all supplied as part of a 2009 Airfix set with the overall title “One Small Step For Man..”
This included a very impressive history on the instruction sheet and a painting guide which reflected the thin silver, gold and aluminium foil used to control the temperature of the flying LEMs and protect them from micro meteorites – as opposed to the simpler black and white scheme of early mock-ups which the first-issued Airfix Lunar Module kits recommended as accurate.
“One Small Step For Man..” also included astronauts with wheeled rovers and one and two seat flying machines and a rectangular representation of the lunar surface.
Although this was a vast improvement on the small injection moulded circle of “Moon” originally supplied with the 1970 vintage 1/72 scale Airfix LEM, I found that the four (aptly enough!) vacuum formed landing pad depressions did not quite line up with the descent stage and so some other lunar features were improvised to represent a level, if risky landing.
In fact, due to problems with the radar altimeter on Apollo 11’s LEM, Neil Armstrong had to land some distance from his intended spot and with only 30 seconds of fuel to spare. Although designated as Lunar Module Pilot (LMP), Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin’s role on Apollo 11 was that of an engineering officer for all the modules involved. However like all LMPs he had the skills to return the Lunar Module to orbit around the Moon had his Commander been incapacitated.
Indeed, had “Eagle” come to rest at more than 12 degrees from horizontal, both Neil and Buzz would have been unable to rendezvous with the orbiting Command and Service Modules and been doomed to die on the Moon: an eventuality for which US President Richard Nixon had prepared a special speech.
Similarly, although Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr was able to put Apollo 12’s LEM “Intrepid” down on the Ocean of Storms just 600 feet from the unmanned Surveyor 3 spacecraft – which had made its own automatic landing in April 1967 – the spot designated “Pete’s parking lot” had been avoided at the last minute as being too rough. Unfortunately this had been selected as far enough away for the LEM descent engine not to blow dust all over Surveyor 3, which ended up coloured beige rather than white!
In fact Apollo 12 only found Surveyor 3 due to the work of British selenographer Ewen Whitaker (1922 – 2016). After poring over digital photographs from both Surveyor 3 and NASA’s Lunar Orbiter spacecraft, the Londoner matched two distinctive rocks which identified the one crater among a thousand in the area in which Surveyor 3 had landed. Apollo 12 Lunar Module pilot Alan Bean was later to write to the electrical engineer turned amateur Moon mapper “Ewen, thanks for your unique work in finding the precise location of the Surveyor 3 spacecraft. Our primary mission objective would have been a failure if you had not been so careful and caring.” Ewen Whitaker had come to work for NASA through meeting American astronomer Gerard Kuiper and went on to identify the impact craters of the unmanned spacecraft Ranger 7 and Ranger 9 as well as the Saturn V upper stages of Apollos 13 and 14.
Before the soft landing of the Surveyors on the Moon in the mid 1960s some scientists believed that the lunar surface was covered in a layer of dust so thick that a spacecraft might disappear into it. Other experts meanwhile predicted pot holes, boulders or even a glass like slippery surface. As a result, Grumman’s Chief Missile and Space Engineer John Gavin and his team developed a computer programme allied to a quarter scale model lunar lander and evaluated 400 possible landing surfaces.
As history records however, the lunar seas were only covered with enough thickness of dust to support a boot print and talcum powder blown and brushed away from under the Airfix LEM descent engine bell was used to represent a slightly hesitant landing made on terrain rougher than expected.
Blending these additional terrain features into the existing vacuum formed moonscape with spray paint also led to the formation of some features akin to lava flows. However, although the lunar “maria” have traditionally been ascribed to outpourings of magma from the core of the young Moon, more recent research has uncovered the reason why there are no active lunar volcanoes despite the frequent “Moonquakes” detected by instruments left by the Apollo astronauts. Put simply, titanium rich rocks carried to the core from the surface during the Moon’s turbulent early geological periods – as replicated by Dutch and Scottish scientists using electric currents and a press – made the reserves of liquid magma at the centre of the celestial body too dense to reach the surface.
Furthermore Apollo 15’s LEM “Falcon” came to rest on the plain between the Lunar Appenines and Hadley Rille at an 11 degree angle due to one foot being in a depression. However, what David R. Scott and James B. Irwin described as their “Portable Leaning Tower of Pisa” was able to deploy the first manned Lunar Rover and then have the ascent stage blast off to join the Command Module “Endeavour” in orbit for the journey home, having landed with more than 100 seconds of hover time fuel remaining in the Descent Stage tanks.
Having outlasted its usefulness, the ascent stage of each Grumman Lunar Module would have been jettisoned either to crash into the Moon or orbit the Sun.
In all cases, the legs of the descent stage of the Grumman Lunar Module began their journey to the Moon folded to fit inside the third stage casing of the Apollo Saturn V launch vehicle underneath the combined Command and Service Modules (CSM). After Trans Lunar Injection, the CSM would separate from the Saturn V Third Stage, turn round and dock with the LM, using its small thruster rockets to separate all three Modules from the last part of the launch vehicle. Once in Lunar orbit, explosive bolts could then be actuated to spring the LM legs into landing configuration and lock them in to place.
To illustrate this stage of the mission, I added a Micro Machines CSM/LM combination to one upper wall of the diorama using superglue to adhere the Service Module rocket engine bell. Although small and relatively crude compared to the 1/72 scale Dragon Wings die cast equivalent released in 2011, this model fitted the box without dominating the scene and was much less expensive!
One detail missing from most model depictions of a complete LM in flight however are the three foot long probes extending from three of the landing pads. These cut the descent engine on contact with the lunar surface, thus committing the pilot to landing. Any manoeuvres to avoid rough ground would therefore have to be carried out relatively high above the Moon and with the engine blowing dust over the terrain.
Touchdown techniques and opportunities aside however, Project Apollo was able to send back to Earth a rich legacy of samples and images, not least those from later, more ambitious Moon walks and drives showing the LEM small and glittering against the endless black of space and the rolling lunar hills with their shades of brown and grey seen close up through a vacuum rather than distantly refracted through the atmosphere of Earth.
It was this sense of what Apollo 11 Lunar Module pilot Buzz Aldrin called “magnificent desolation” that I wanted to replicate in a diorama rather than just displaying a Lunar Module as the literal height of Grumman’s achievement.
Indeed, as can be seen in this website’s Cosmic Heroes article on the pioneering years of manned spaceflight, I had already made one attempt to model the Moon using the Airfix Lunar Module but to appreciate Grumman’s achievement in building Planet Earth’s first true space ship – that could only operate in a vacuum – it is worth considering its planned antecedents and considering the question “Why go to the Moon?”.
For Oliver Cromwell‘s brother in law Bishop John Wilkins, the Earth’s satellite was a possible trading partner as he described in his “Discourse Concerning a New World and Another Planet” of 1638.
Wilkins, who experimented with flying machines in the gardens of Wadham College, Oxford around 1654, was convinced the Moon was inhabited by a race known as the Selenites and planned to reach them in a wooden chariot powered by springs, gunpowder and feathered wings – just as Drake and Raleigh had set out across uncharted oceans a century earlier. Sadly for the inventor of the airgun, mileage recorder and prototype pneumatic tyre, the next 30 years saw the discovery of vacuum and other phenomenon which would make such a journey impossible with the technology of the time.
Indeed, intelligent Selenites also featured in H.G. Well’s 1901 novel “The First Men in the Moon”, their civilization being discovered by both a curious scientist and a businessman eager to make money on Earth from abundant Lunar gold. Cavor and Bedford’s spacecraft was powered by gravity-defying Cavorite, a fictional material despite Wells reading a serious research paper by John Henry Poynting into the subject which was published in “Nature” in 1900.
French science fiction writer Jules Verne meanwhile came a little closer to the eventual reality of Project Apollo. In his novels “From the Earth to the Moon” and “Around the Moon”, written just after the American Civil War, three astronauts are launched toward the Moon in a vehicle fired from a giant cannon named Columbiad located at Stone’s Hill in Florida. Their journey took five days, during which time the men encountered weightlessness, and due to a close encounter with the gravity field of an asteroid they did not land on the Moon but viewed its barren surface with opera glasses before passing into the cold and darkness of the far side. Finding themselves drifting back towards Earth – on what would later be called a Free Return Trajectory – the crew of two Americans and a Frenchman then tried to regain the Moon by firing the rockets that they had planned to use to cushion their vertical tail-first landing. However, this rocket burn has the opposite effect and the projectile fell back to Earth like a bright star, landing in the Pacific Ocean where the crew miraculously survived and are were picked up by the crew of a ship.
As it turned out, Stone’s Hill is relatively close to Cape Canaveral and the Apollo 11 Command Module – named “Columbia” – took three days to reach the Moon, which it then orbited just as Apollo 8 had done a few months earlier. In 1970, Apollo 13 used its LEM descent engine for course correction during a perilous return to Earth and all Apollo Command Modules splashed down in the Pacific, albeit having deployed parachutes to slow their descent!
Despite being impractical for manned use due to the lethal acceleration of the projectile, a Columbiad style space cannon even appeared as late as 1936 in the H.G. Wells inspired film “Things to Come”, which ended with a meditation on the nature of human progress and the quest for knowledge following another attempt to reach the Moon.
“And if we’re no more than animals, we must snatch each little scrap of happiness, and live, and suffer, and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done. It is this, or that. All the universe or nothing. Which shall it be?”
Or as David Scott of Apollo 15 said on the edge of Hadley Rille:
“I realise that there’s a fundamental truth to our nature: man must explore.”
These words were a definite development on “Because it’s there” – the reason George Mallory gave for wanting to climb Mount Everest in 1924 – and also on the We-do-it-because-we-can attitude of Jules Verne’s Moon voyagers. But H.G. Wells had also foreseen a second World War and from this came both technological and political developments which would ultimately make Moon landings a reality.
Thanks to the theoretical work of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) – who first conceived of multi-stage rockets, space stations and air locks among other ideas – and the practical invention of the liquid fuelled rocket motor by American Robert H. Goddard in 1926, the components of prospective space travel were already in place by 1944 when the first Nazi V-2 rocket bombs began to fall on England.
A year later – with both the USSR and USA eagerly collecting German rocket scientists and technology for their own research programmes – the first atomic bombs were detonated and by 1950 the two ideologically motivated superpowers had settled into Cold War: both restrained by mutually assured destruction through stockpiles of nuclear weapons yet eager to steal a march on each other wherever possible.
In this context, both the Moon – and space in general – was seen as the new high ground and spaceships an extension of the air power used to devastating effect during World War II. Both USA and USSR built nuclear armed intercontinental missiles derived from the German V2 and – although ultimately outlawed by international treaty – a satellite appeared as the ultimate strategic bomber, able to visit destruction anywhere on Earth.
The effect of the revelation of Sputnik 1 in 1957 on America is more fully explored in Cosmic Heroes but seven years earlier the George Pal film “Destination Moon” included the political and technical developments of the time in making a surprisingly accurate forecast of a Lunar landing.
The Technicolor feature portrayed four astronauts blasting off from New Mexico (at the time the real-life home of the White Sands missile proving ground) in a V-2 shaped rocket powered by a nuclear engine and landing on its finned tail. Like the Columbiad cannon imagined by Jules Verne, this space ship was privately built – this time by the combined efforts of the American aircraft industry, experiencing something of a renaissance due to the Korean War – and the astronauts claimed the Moon for the USA – an appropriation later also made illegal by international treaty. Indeed, it was only at the last minute before the launch of Apollo XI that the US government insisted that Armstrong and Aldrin plant the Stars and Stripes in the dust of the Moon rather than the light blue flag of the United Nations as proposed by NASA.
In its plot twist of the engine using more fuel than expected and the ship having to be lightened to return to Earth, “Destination Moon” paid homage to Fritz Lang’s 1929 feature “Woman in the Moon” which also introduced the concept of multi-stage rockets and a countdown to cinema audiences. “Woman in the Moon” itself looked back to H.G. Well’s novel “The First Men in the Moon” as the German crew voyaged in search of gold – while in “Destination Moon” the American astronauts discover uranium.
In both cases however the landing vehicles were streamlined – due to having to negotiate the Earth’s atmosphere – and left the Moon complete with the implied possibility of a future mission.
More practical evidence for the militarisation of the Moon came with a number of proposals around the time that America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) became operational 1 October 1958, co-ordinating efforts to launch Explorer and Vanguard satellites that had previously been led by the US Army and Navy.
In May 1958 the US Air Force sponsored a study into the possibility of detonating a small atomic bomb on the Moon so that the explosion and dust cloud would be visible from Earth. This was in response to a widely publicised – and partly true – rumour that the USSR was planning to do the same thing to commemorate the 40th anniversary of its October Revolution. However, Project A119 – as it was known – was cancelled in January 1959 due to worries about the reliability of the launch vehicle, World opinion rather than just American morale and the risk that the missile could miss the Moon and fall back uncontrolled to Earth.
Even if Project A119 had succeeded however, it would have prejudiced any scientific study of the Moon’s natural radiation and also interfered with Lunex, another US Air Force project of 1958, which envisaged sending a three man spacecraft (pictured above) directly from Earth to the Moon in 1967 prior to the construction of a 21 man permanent base there.
Interestingly, although drawings show a blended wing crew return vehicle not totally unlike the Space Shuttle orbiter of the 1980s, the whole assembly landing on the Moon would have made first contact with a descent stage fitted with four landing pads which would in turn have provided a firing base for an ascent stage to propel the aerodynamic “lifting body” off the Lunar surface and towards Earth.
Even allowing for the two lowest stages of the vehicle to be sacrificed in order to return the crew to an aircraft-style landing on Earth however, the Lunex lander would have been heavier – and thus required a more powerful rocket to launch from Earth – than the eventual Apollo approach of just putting manned descent and ascent stages on the Moon and leaving the crew return portion in Lunar orbit: albeit for potentially more difficult separation and docking manoeuvres.
The Lunex planners also identified the problem of an aerodynamic crew return vehicle either burning up on re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere or skipping off it – a problem solved by heat resistant tiles on the Space Shuttle and variable geometry wings on Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne – and more immediately the unknown challenges of making a rocket-cushioned tail-first landing and then launching a spacecraft off the Moon with no external back up.
Meanwhile, on 8 June 1959, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency presented the US Department of the Army with a report entitled “Project Horizon, A U.S. Army Study for the Establishment of a Lunar Military Outpost” stating:
“The lunar outpost is required to develop and protect potential United States interests on the moon; to develop techniques in moon-based surveillance of the earth and space, in communications relay, and in operations on the surface of the moon; to serve as a base for exploration of the moon, for further exploration into space and for military operations on the moon if required; and to support scientific investigations on the moon.”
Project Horizon envisioned a first lunar landing by two soldier astronauts in April 1965 with a twelve soldier base – complete with Davy Crockett missiles and Claymore mines to deter an overland Soviet attack – operational in December 1966.
Before the actual landing however, 147 Saturn 1 rockets would have contributed to the construction of a space station in Earth orbit, near which a lunar shuttle craft would also be built from components flown up from Earth. The 16 seat shuttle craft would then move back and forth to the Lunar surface as required – sacrificing a descent stage each time – with separate vehicles connecting the low Earth orbit space station with Earth itself – much as was to be depicted in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey” and had already been suggested earlier in the 1950s by Wernher von Braun in a series of articles published in “Collier’s” magazine.
Incidentally, the Project Horizon space station and Moon base would have been constructed from used cylindrical fuel tanks much as the NASA Skylab of the 1970s was converted from the third stage of a Saturn V rocket.
Although neither Projects Lunex or Horizon progressed beyond the feasibility study stage, their respective Direct Ascent and Earth Orbit Rendezvous formats were considered by NASA for Project Apollo as a follow up to Project Mercury, which competed with the Soviet Vostock missions in placing a single astronaut at a time in low Earth orbit. In fact the name Apollo – originally the Greek god of light, music and the Sun – was chosen by NASA manager Abe Silverstein as early as 1960: before either Yuri Gagarin or Alan Shepherd had flown in space or President John F. Kennedy declared America’s intention of putting a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. After reading a book on mythology, Silverman thought that the image of Apollo riding his chariot across the Sun was appropriate to the grand scale of the proposed program.
Also considered was the concept of Lunar Surface Rendezvous, in which an automated craft laden with propellant would land on the Moon first to refuel a manned vehicle arriving either from Earth orbit or directly from Earth itself.
This idea of supplies being provided ahead of a manned landing has also been suggested as one component of a mission to Mars while in 1962 a symposium of the Institute of Aerospace Sciences did briefly think about a shelter full of food and oxygen being sent ahead of a one-man one-way mission to the Moon. This would have enabled the United States to rapidly claim the glory of beating the Russians to the lunar surface and kept the astronaut in question alive until he could be rescued by a more technically complex Apollo mission. The idea was not considered for long, but it did provide the basis for the novel “The Pilgrim Project” by Hank Searls which was filmed by Robert Altman in 1968 as “Countdown” with James Caan in the leading role.
On 11 June 1962 however, the eventual Lunar Orbital Rendezvous (LOR) format – first suggested by the British Interplanetary Society in 1939 – was chosen and definitive work on both the Saturn V launch vehicle and the Lunar Excursion Module could begin. By this time though, the Command and Service Modules had already been planned with other mission formats in mind, causing the Service Module main engine to be made powerful enough to lift the combined CSM off the Moon and heavier than was ultimately needed.
The LOR format was also selected by the USSR for its attempts to land just one cosmonaut on the Moon’s surface using the N-1 booster, on which work was finally abandoned in the 1970s after a series of test launches ended with mid-air explosions.
The Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation was chosen to build the Apollo Lunar Module in November 1962 ahead of eight other American firms which had submitted a 60 page proposal to NASA. Main sub contractors for the project were further identified as Bell Aerosystems for the ascent engine, Hamilton Standard for environmental controls, Marquardt for the reaction control system and Rocketdyne for the descent engine.
However, the latter was dropped in 1965 in favour of a hypergolic engine (using chemical propellants which would react to provide thrust without the presence of oxygen) developed by Space Technology Laboratories (TRW). Bell Aerosystems also designed and built five Lunar Landing Research and Training Vehicle, somewhat similar to the British “Flying Bedstead” of the 1950s but with one gimbal mounted vertical jet engine capable of supporting 5/6 of the weight of the craft and hydrogen peroxide thrusters to represent attitude control. Of these unstable vehicles three crashed although thanks to rocket powered ejection seats all of the pilots – including Neil Armstrong – survived.
Grumman project leaders Thomas J. Kelly and John Gavin meanwhile were faced with the challenge of making their Lunar Module sufficiently light yet practical and reliable and as such four landing legs were specified as being a compromise between the lightweight minimum of three and the most stable yet heavy and complicated approach of five.
Similarly, the Ascent Stage developed from a pure cone shape to something akin to a helicopter cockpit – pictured above – with seats, large windows for the best view of the lunar surface and a second docking port so that the crew could actively dock with the CSM. However, seats were deleted and the second docking port replaced by a simple hatch to save weight, making the two crew stand up for LOR while the CSM pilot had full responsibility for docking. In the same way, two small triangular windows replaced the Westland Dragonfly type glazing and batteries rather than CSM type fuel cells provided electrical power.
This minimalist design philosophy thus makes an interesting comparison with the two-person lander proposed by the American Golden Spike Company in 2012 and designed by Northrop Grumman which has an offset transparent ball-type crew compartment and four landing legs.
Although the Grumman Lunar Module was to become the most reliable craft of the Apollo program, development delays and the resolution of 14 000 design imperfections initially held back the progress of the whole US Moon effort with Apollo 5, the first unmanned flight of LM-1 in Earth orbit, being planned for April 1967 not lifting off aboard a Saturn 1B until 22 January 1968.
A second unmanned test flight – of LM-2 – was originally planned but cancelled as unnecessary and LM-3 not being ready by December 1968 prompted NASA to send Apollo 8 around the Moon boosted by a Saturn V rocket as much as any rumours of a similar Soviet mission.
The first manned Lunar Module flight was therefore Apollo 9 on 3 March 1969. However, as was the case with LM-4, carried to the Moon on Apollo 10, the ascent stage of LM-3 would have been too heavy to lift off from the lunar surface. For this reason both Apollos 9 and 10 were incremental test flights, LM-4 being short-fuelled to save weight during a lunar orbital flight separated from the CSM.
In fact LM-5 “Eagle” was only delivered to NASA just in time for the planned launch date of Apollo 11 and although sufficiently light for the landing mission was non-standard to LMs 6 to 9. Due to this, and the unique deployment of the more easily set up Early Apollo Surface Experiments Package (EASEP) rather than the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) of Apollos 12-17, Apollo 11 is considered as a G-Class mission rather than the H-Class of Apollos 12-14 and the J-Class designation of Apollos 15-17.
Having proved its worth on Apollo missions 9 to 14 the basic Grumman Lunar Module design was enhanced for the final three J-Class missions of Apollo 15 -17. Indeed, LM-7 “Aquarius” was to work well beyond its design envelope, acting as a lifeboat for the successful return of Apollo 13 and earning John Gavin a Distinguished Public Service Medal for his part in managing the crisis.
The table (left) should be cross referenced with the Apollo mission table in Cosmic Heroes in terms of Grumman Lunar Module Descent Stage locations.
Unlike a field or aerodrome on Earth, few vehicles have ever arrived on the Moon. None have either completely left or left complete and no footprints or tracks will ever erode due to lack of any wind or rain. As such, a lunar diorama even with an Apollo mission in progress has only limited interest due to the small realistic possibility of change.
As such, I decided to give the crater floor on the right hand side of the diorama – enlarged beyond the Airfix vac-formed base – to a possible future spacecraft that also harked back to both the rounded Soviet style of spacecraft construction and to some of the seriously proposed but unfulfilled lunar expeditions described above.
At the time the specific provenance of this “fantasy” model rocket was unknown ( more of which later!) and I acquired it already built and added paint and super-detailing. I deliberately did not apply any national or corporate markings as from the viewpoint of 2015 the next manned Moon landing may not be American or even be financed by a national government.
In practical terms though, the future lander – like the Grumman Apollo LEM – will have no need of streamlining if it is to operate solely on the Moon or in the vacuum of space and could similarly feature ladders, handrails, access platforms incorporating steering jets, solar panels and even a cargo pannier box for small wheeled surface vehicles or reaction-powered flying machines.
To minimise mass – just as the LEM was built from thin metal foil – the new spacecraft could comprise just of a framework holding together spherical fuel and oxidant tanks with a multi-nozzle rocket engine below and a crew module on top.
This came fitted with its own emergency escape motor as built on the model and I added the air lock to avoid the astronauts having to depressurise the module for every extra-vehicular activity: a luxury not available on the Grumman LEM. The future lander also has larger landing pads and hydraulic legs to allow it to right itself for lift off if it lands on uneven ground.
However, just as the Grumman LEM worked at the limit of 1960s technology to facilitate a 75 hour stay by two astronauts, so such a substantial re-usable vehicle as the modelled Future Lander would only be justified by a more regular human presence on the Moon than two Apollo missions a year – and most probably by a Moon base of some description.
Unlike the habitats proposed under either Projects Horizon or Lunex however, the lack of ideological superpower rivals in the 21st Century would mean that such a base would most likely be civilian and scientific in nature and perhaps the result of international co-operation.
Rather than trading with Selenites, the next wave of lunar explorers could well be surveying much more of the Moon and in more depth than the Apollo astronauts while astronomers could use the airless natural satellite to search for extra-solar planets and environmental scientists look back at climate change on Earth. Similarly, a radio telescope on the side of the Moon away from Earth would be shielded from the planet’s radar and broadcasting, thus enhancing the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence and other electromagnetic phenomenon.
As an orbiting laboratory too, the Moon has the advantage over current space stations of its own gravity – albeit 1/6 that of Earth – in keeping astronauts in better health during extended periods away from their home planet. Likewise, due to being further away from Earth and minutely drifting away, the Moon would be unaffected by upper atmosphere drag compared to a low Earth orbit space station and have resources of its own to offer in terms of land area on which to spread photo-voltaic panels, craters and pits for nuclear power plants and a crust rich in both metal ores and Helium 3 isotopes for fusion reactions.
More crucially, unmanned spacecraft such as Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and LCROSS sent to the Moon in the 21st Century have discovered signs of of water ice, nitrogen and sulphur in regions shaded from sunlight. In turn, this makes more likely a Moon base that would not need to have all its oxygen and water expensively brought up from Earth but could grow its own food on hydroponic farms: assisting such activities as refuelling spacecraft (which could also be lofted to orbit on electromagnetic catapults) and even building parts for new ones, perhaps for expeditions to Mars and beyond.
Obviously the infrastructure to achieve all the scientific goals mentioned above would be expensive but in the long term a more efficient financial investment in the exploration of space than the Apollo missions.
In the graphic above – taken from the 1970 Brooke Bond Picture Card album “The Race into Space” – illustrates a sequence of travel from Earth to Moon starting with a winged space shuttle flying to a space station in low Earth orbit.
This of course was a reality from 1981 to 2011 with NASA’s Space Transportation System helping to build the International Space Station, which can still be accessed in 2015 by Soyuz, Jules Verne, Dragon and Progress spacecraft launched atop conventional step rockets.
Unfortunately the American Space Shuttle orbiter – launched vertically with uncontrollable solid boosters rather than from a winged mother ship as once planned – suffered two fatal losses during its 30 year career and although dubbed as reusable required expensive refurbishment after every mission which in turn slowed the number of launches scheduled for each year.
As a future alternative, large cargo payloads may still be launched by expendable rockets with a winged crew return vehicle being developed based on the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, designed to be launched at altitude from a White Knight jet propelled carrier aircraft. Indeed, at some point space tourism may even extend as far as the Moon.
Interestingly, the 1970 graphic shows the next stage in the journey being from the low Earth Orbit space station to another one in geosynchronous orbit – close to the position of modern communication satellites as described in The Telstar Story. However, more recent research into carbon fibre nanotubes – lighter yet stronger than any other man made material – has raised the possibility of a satellite in geosynchronous orbit being linked to the Earth’s surface by cable and that cable in turn supporting an elevator vehicle which could take astronauts and cargo into space without any need for chemical rockets.
Leaving this concept aside though, a space transfer vehicle ( or “Space Tug”) of some sort would still be needed to link space stations in orbit around the Earth with each other and with the envisaged nuclear engined vehicle constantly travelling from Earth to Lunar orbit and back again.
Although research into a nuclear powered ROVER spaceship was mentioned in the same speech by US President John F. Kennedy in which he announced the goal of sending men to the Moon, more recent unmanned probes have been powered by a stream of ions instead of hot gases and this technology could be used on a larger scale for an Earth-Moon shuttle, moving at a constant velocity and perhaps cutting down the three days that it took the Apollo spacecraft to reach the Moon.
Indeed, the smaller space transfer vehicles themselves might have ion engines although chemical rockets would be needed for more responsive acceleration and braking and for landing on and taking off from the Moon near any permanent base or other location.
It is for this kind of transfer work in the vacuum of space that I would see my “fantasy rocket” being used, perhaps even picking up loads from the lunar surface and flying them to an orbiting station or even docking directly to an ion powered shuttle for the journey to Earth orbit where it could undock and proceed to a geosynchronous space station (possibly to unload to a carbon nanotube based elevator) or a low Earth orbit station, thereby minimising the difficult and dangerous transfer of payloads from one space vehicle to another.
Once emptied and refilled with an outbound load, the lunar-landing-capable space tug would then hitch a ride with another nuclear powered spacecraft back to Lunar Orbit and the Moonbase. During its piggy-back Moon-Earth-Moon travels, the space tug could be maintained in zero gravity by astronauts tethered to its structure or yellow grab rails or if gravity and/or a breathable atmosphere were needed to make repairs such work could be done in a hangar building on the Moon – perhaps even a temporary inflatable one that could be moved to a location best suited to the job.
Indeed, had room on my diorama permitted I would have liked to have built a model Moon base although in its earliest and most achievable guise this would have consisted of little more than a door in a turret leading down to some cylindrical dwellings buried to protect them from solar radiation and meteorites, as once again envisaged by Brooke Bond in 1970 and illustrated above. In contrast, the type of lunar city depicted by Stanley Kubrick in “2001: A Space Odyssey” would be much further into the future and the science fiction staple of geodesic domes easier to erect but much more vulnerable.
Instead I hinted at buried cylinders by equipping the lunar rover supplied by Airfix with a bulldozer blade (made from part of a yoghurt pot) as well as solar panels to recharge its batteries and surrounded it with the kind of flying “chariots” also expected for future missions.
Although not yet tested, these vehicles be the equivalent of helicopters on Earth and would let astronauts travel long distances without inflicting their boot and tyre marks on the otherwise pristine lunar surface that would be prized by geologists. They could also rendezvous with a landed space tug for guidance, refuelling or rescue missions or even to help build a network of lattice beacon towers across the lunar surface. These would not only guide any lost astronauts by radio signals and as landmarks but relay signals from one base to another, thus avoiding the need for navigation satellites cluttering the orbit of the Moon.
IT WAS A LINDBERG!
A chance discovery on Facebook in early 2017 brought closure to the question of the “fantasy” spaceship’s origin. The immediate answer was renowned Gloucestershire modeller Ron Brooks who sadly passed away in December 2015 – but when I saw him last he could not remember where he got the kit from to add to his collection. It turns out it was first moulded in 1958 by Paul Lindberg and was originally part of a set entitled “Five Space Ships of the Future” which included a transport rocket, wheel type space station, flying saucer and Sputnik like satellite rocket. After that it was available on its own as “US Moon Ship” ( maker’s reference HL602), then in 1970 as “Mars Probe Landing Module” and in 1979 as “Star Probe Space Shuttle”. Glencoe Models then re-issued the kit as “Lunar Lander in 1993” before the moulds passed to Round 2 models. Most of the components were moulded in white styrene plastic with a translucent red used for the crew compartment “portholes” and engine nozzles. Decals included the identity USMS (United States Moon Service?) 09661. The functional design was based on an illustration by artist Chesney Bonestell for one of the Collier’s Magazine spaceflight articles in 1952. However, this was for a vehicle to orbit the Moon in the manner of Jules Verne’s Columbiad or the real-life Apollo 8 – hence the absence of any visible crew hatch or, more importantly, access ladders.
Thinking that a Moon lander would make a more exciting model though, Lindberg added landing legs and also some astronauts to stick on to the square base supplied. These were at least to 1/96 scale along with the rest of the Moon Ship – which also explains why the crew compartment seemed so cramped for the 1/72 scale Airfix astronaut figures that I added. Had the original model been moulded in 1/72 scale like the Grumman LEM however, it would have been even taller and required more skill from the pilot astronaut to land. Presumably with his face pressed up against a porthole so that he could see where the feet and surface were while trying to keep the whole vehicle from toppling over! This would have been particularly likely given the small landing feet – which I enhanced by adding four Sterling penny pieces painted black. In economic terms, this is known as quantitative tightening!
Also of interest on the box artwork seen above was Chesley Bonestell’s visualisation of lunar mountains and craters that were much more sharp and jagged than those eventually encountered by the Apollo astronauts. Similarly, Lindberg’s 1/96 scale Moon explorers are wearing Litton suits. Although more like the pressure garments NASA did use than the mini spacecraft with arms and legs put forward by Grumman and Republic, the Litton Industries USAF Mark 1 Extravehicular and Lunar Surface Suit is characterised by the welding mask like visor and corrugated arms and legs around a rigid torso. The Litton suit was tested during 1958 -59 for more than 600 hours at simulated altitudes exceeding 100 miles and development continued into the mid 1960s. Although it did allow a wide range of body movements, the Litton suit did not allow the astronaut to withdraw his arms from the sleeves to pick his nose – unlike Grumman and Republic’s unfeasibly cumbersome offerings.
In the end, an alternative to the early, soft fighter pilot style pressure suits worn during the Mercury and Gemini missions – that was both rigid and flexible enough to cope with walking around on the Moon – was inspired by a suit of armour built in 1520 to allow King Henry VIII to compete in a foot combat tournament. This masterpiece of design with its articulated joints perfectly enclosed the wearer’s body with scarcely a millimetre’s gap yet allowed a full range of movements.