The Apollo Missions
Though NASA expected their complicated machines would not always work right, the first deaths in the space program still came as a shock -- because the fatal mishap occurred on the ground. Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee had been selected as the crew for Apollo 1, the first flight of the next generation of spacecraft succeeding the Gemini program. On January 27, 1967, during a practice launch countdown, a flash fire erupted inside the sealed cockpit. Within seconds the men were unconscious; minutes later they were dead. Because of the pressure of the fire, and the fact that the spacecraft's hatch opened inward, there was no hope of escape.
Investigation of the Apollo 1 Accident
Extensive reviews followed the accident. Ultimately the cause of the fire was determined to be a spark from worn wiring insulation; once the fire started it had been fueled by the spacecraft's pure oxygen, high-pressure atmosphere and a large number of flammable items in the cabin. Only in hindsight did NASA realize that the fire had been a tragedy waiting to happen.
Top to Bottom Revisions
After Apollo 1, the space program continued with a renewed purpose and diligence. Frank Borman, the astronaut on the review committee, became the main liaison with contractor North American Aviation. Rather than fixing things piecemeal, the contractors made "maybe a thousand" top to bottom revisions and the spacecraft improved exponentially. Borman believed that "the fire enabled us to vastly improve the Apollo capsule, so I am convinced that the fire really helped in the long run. Because I am afraid if we had gone the way we were going, if we hadn't done the engineering and changed the capsule, we might have had a catastrophic event in space. So I would argue that the Apollo fire was an important plus. Of course, how can you say it's a plus when three people got killed, but their lives were not in vain, and the fire itself created a scenario where a vastly improved spacecraft came out of it."
Early Apollo Missions: Earth Orbit
Apollo missions flew unmanned until October 11, 1968, when Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele and Walt Cunningham orbited the earth for ten days in an Apollo command-service module.
Apollo 8: Lunar Orbit
With the Lunar Module still in process and reports of Soviet advances in their lunar program, NASA decided to change the mission of Apollo 8. Rather than another Earth orbit and the scheduled Lunar Module test, it became the first mission to break Earth orbit, orbit around the moon, and then return to Earth. Frank Borman was commander, James Lovell navigator and command module pilot, and William Anders, who had trained to operate the Lunar Module, took photographs to establish viable landing areas for future missions. Their mission launched on December 21, 1968 and lasted for six days.
Apollo 9 and Apollo 10: Lunar Module Tests
The Lunar Module was completed in time for Apollo 9, the first earth orbit test of that equipment. On March 3, 1969, James McDivitt, Dave Scott and Rusty Schweickart went into orbit and they returned ten days later. Once both modules were known to function, Apollo 10 tested the equipment in the moon's orbit. During the eight-day mission beginning on May 18, 1969, Tom Stafford, commander, and Gene Cernan, Lunar Module pilot, came within 50,000 feet of the surface of the moon. John Young piloted the command module. Cosmonaut Alexei Leonov remembered the Soviet reaction to Apollo 10: "We used to joke that Stafford, rather than just doing a maneuver, could have changed his mind and landed, but he is a man of discipline, and so he approached, descended, did the maneuver, and left."
Apollo 11: Moonwalk
Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin became the first men to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969. People around the world heard Armstrong's historic announcement: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." They spent just under 21 hours on the moon, including a two-hour moonwalk, before returning to orbit in the Lunar Module and docking with the Apollo 11 command module, which was piloted by Michael Collins.
Later Apollo Missions: Moon Explorers
With one exception, subsequent Apollo missions put ten more men on the moon. Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon and Alan Bean collected rocks from the Ocean of Storms on Apollo 12. Alan Shepard who had been the first American in space, commanded Apollo 14 and landed with Ed Mitchell in the Fra Mauro highlands; Stuart Roosa piloted the command module. Dave Scott, Al Worden and Jim Irwin were the crew of Apollo 15, the first mission to use the four-wheel-drive lunar rover. John Young, Ken Mattingly and Charlie Duke of Apollo 16 and Gene Cernan, Ron Evans and Harrison Schmitt of Apollo 17 traveled ever farther and collected more moon rocks on their missions.
Apollo 13: Lunar Module Turned Lifeboat
In April 1970, an explosion in an oxygen tank aboard Apollo 13 aborted that mission. Ingenuity and clear thinking in space and in mission control allowed the crew — Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise -- to slingshot around the moon and return to earth safely, using the Lunar Module as a lifeboat of sorts. By that time, Apollo 20 had already been cancelled for budgetary reasons. Following the troubles of Apollo 13, Apollo 18 and 19 were scrubbed as well.
Twelve American men are the only humans to walk on the surface of the moon.