PROJECT APOLLO: THE CONCLUSION

Major Issues in Apollo

  1. Science in the Project
  2. Scientists as Astronauts; Astronauts as Scientists
  3. Lunar Sample Management and Quarantine

1. Science in the Project

Most of the issues over which NASA and the external science community wrangled grew out of the necessity to define, virtually from scratch, the scientific content of lunar exploration. One lunar scientist pinpointed the difficulty in midprogram:
. . . Apollo 11 marked the beginning of a new generation of lunar science... born in the hot arc of one of the greatest technical achievements in the history of society. Full recognition of, and attention to, the scientific aspects of the mission w[ere] for some time lost in the management and excitement of the larger enterprise both by NASA and an insufficiently involved and unprepared scientific community [emphasis added].27
To appreciate why attention to the scientific potential of Apollo was neglected for so long, it is necessary only to recall where the nation's manned space flight program stood at the time President Kennedy issued his challenge:
When lunar landing became the Apollo objective in May 1961, the United States had only 15 minutes of manned flight experience in space and a tentative plan for a spacecraft that might be able to circumnavigate the moon. No rocket launch vehicle was available for a lunar voyage and no route (mode) agreed on for placing any kind of spacecraft safely on the lunar surface and getting it back to earth. Nor was there agreement within NASA itself on how it should be done.28
Given those circumstances, it is easy to understand the reaction of one on whom much of the responsibility would fall.
Acutely aware that NASA's total manned space flight experience was limited to one ballistic flight and that he was being asked to commit men to a 14-day trip to the moon and back, [MSC Director] Robert Gilruth said he was simply aghast.29
It can hardly be doubted that Gilruth's reaction was shared by his fine engineers at the Manned Spacecraft Center - and by managers in the Office of Manned Space Flight as well. The 8- or 9-year time limit given them by Kennedy* would have daunted even the most optimistic engineer who was familiar with the state of the art in aerospace engineering and the complexities of a moon landing. Charged with that responsibility, they had to put first things first, and their single-minded concentration on essentials left science with a low priority. No evidence has been found that Bob Gilruth and his engineers actively opposed the incorporation of science into Apollo. They knew that it would have been absurd to land men on the moon if they did not at least leave their spacecraft to explore the surface - and, if possible, collect samples and emplace scientific instruments.

Still, the feeling developed among some scientists that MSC was obstructive toward science, and as much as anything else, the Houston center's narrow focus on nonscientific aspects of the program was responsible. Homer Newell, associate administrator for space science, knew well that MSC could be difficult to deal with, but he could at least perceive a reason for it:

[MSC's] need to be meticulously careful in the development and operation of hardware for manned spaceflight, plus [the center's] general disinterest in the objectives of space science as the scientists saw them, led to extreme difficulties in working with the scientific community.30
Not that other branches of NASA found the scientific community easy to work with. In its early days the space agency skirmished more than once with the National Academy of Sciences and its Space Science Board over the question of who should decide the content of the space programs, The executive director of the Space Science Board went so far as to urge that NASA rely exclusively on the outside scientific community for its science program, which would effectively have reduced NASA's role to providing launch vehicles and operational support for science (besides, of course, financing the experimenters). Newell later recalled that gradually a working arrangement evolved putting NASA "in the driver's seat, [with] the scientific community serving as navigator, so to speak, ... with a mixture of tension and cooperation that is best described as a love-hate relationship."31

Science would eventually become the navigator for lunar exploration as well, but only after the primary objective had been attained. During the early years the Manned Spacecraft Center at least made some significant gestures toward eventual accommodation of science, establishing an office to coordinate experiments, providing space in the lunar module to carry scientific equipment,32 and starting to train astronauts in the principles of field geology. It was less concerned with developing a full program of lunar exploration. MSC, in fact, could do little in that regard, because strategic planning for lunar exploration was the responsibility of the Office of Space Sciences and Applications (OSSA) at Headquarters.

For a considerable time following the establishment of Apollo, no organized lunar and planetary science lobby existed. So in formulating a program of lunar science, OSSA first sought statements of broad objectives from ad hoc groups, such as the Sonett committee, which established the basic criteria for science on the Apollo missions in 1962 and the training required for astronauts to execute the science program [see Chapter 2]. Considered and endorsed in principle at the 1962 Summer Study at the State University of Iowa, these criteria were then used by discipline-oriented planning teams to define specific scientific investigations. By mid-1964 these teams had listed the experiments expected to be the most productive - some to be conducted on the moon, some to be done on returned samples, and some to be carried out by instruments left on the lunar surface [see Chapter 3].

In 1965, the Summer Study at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, sharpened the focus by formulating 15 key questions about the moon that lunar science studies should be designed to answer. Following the Woods Hole sessions, a study group met at nearby Falmouth to make the first attempt to explicitly define an evolutionary program of lunar science for the next 10 to 15 years [see Chapter 3] [see Appendix 3]. The Falmouth report became the basis for much of the planning that followed.33

Thus while the Manned Spacecraft Center was working toward its primary aim of landing people on the moon, OSSA was preparing the ground for the scientific work to be done when they got there. In 1966, after years of encouragement from Headquarters, MSC established a Science and Applications Directorate, which assumed much of the responsibility for Apollo science and, more important to the science community, put a research scientist into the management structure at MSC [see Chapter 6]. The new office had no significant effect on Apollo plans immediately, but its influence was to become stronger as the project went on.

One of the first actions taken by Wilmot N. Hess, MSC's first Director of Science and Applications, was to convoke a summer study to translate the plans devised at Falmouth into scientific requirements for Apollo exploration: mission duration, lunar surface mobility, and scientific use of the command module in lunar orbit. Participants did their job well: in the preface to their report Homer Newel! noted that "the plans are optimistic and exceed the capability of the agency to execute."34 Even so, the most important recommendations that came out of the 1967 study at Santa Cruz [see Appendix 3] were carried out on the Apollo missions as soon as the required engineering and operational changes could be incorporated into the system.

Few questions were as important in the ultimate success of Apollo as making certain that the external science community had a voice in the planning of the missions. In the summer of 1967 Wilmot Hess created three science teams that would operate throughout the duration of the project: the Group for Lunar Exploration Planning (superseded in 1970 by the Science Working Panel), the Lunar Sample Analysis Planning Team and the Lunar Sample Preliminary Examination Team. The specific responsibilities of these groups were probably not more significant than their role in promoting cooperation between MSC and the science community. Establishment of the two teams concerned with lunar samples placed responsibility for sample distribution in the hands of scientists; the Group for Lunar Exploration Planning was intended to reassure scientists that their concerns were at least being considered in developing plans for later missions.

Yet when the first lunar landing mission succeeded in bringing back nearly 50 pounds (21 kilograms) of lunar samples for study, some scientists once more went public with the complaints that NASA was "not responsive to the needs of science" [see Chapter 10]. It is not easy to determine exactly what was meant by this charge, expressed as it was in such general terms. Nor is it easy to grant it much validity, considering that NASA began, immediately after Apollo 11, to incorporate some of the high- priority improvements in the Apollo system suggested by the Santa Cruz conference - the lunar roving vehicle, the extended lunar module, and modifications of mission plans to accommodate larger payloads - all of which would improve the scientific return. Trajectory designers at MSC set out to improve the landing accuracy of the second mission, explicitly if not solely for the benefit of science. What more NASA could have done for science in Apollo, short of turning the program over to scientists, is difficult to imagine.

The complaining scientists overlooked or ignored the fact that manned space flight officials could not be certain that the first attempt at a lunar landing would succeed. (Michael Collins, command module pilot on Apollo 11, confessed that on launch day he would not have given better than even odds that the whole complex mission would be carried out without a failure.35) That being true, it was not prudent to begin modifying the spacecraft before the first landing was accomplished.** If Neil Armstrong had been forced to abort his landing, George Mueller, chief of manned space flight, was prepared to send missions to the moon at the shortest intervals launch teams could manage until someone landed on the moon and returned safely to earth before the decade of the 1960s was out. As soon as that was done, Mueller urged MSC Director Bob Gilruth to do his best to accommodate science. Gilruth's response, following the first lunar science conference in January 1970, was to bring his principal lieutenants and a group of leading scientists to the table to work out their major differences, with the result that scientists' input to the later missions was effective and satisfying to the scientists [see Chapter 11].

Scientists as Astronauts; Astronauts as Scientists

Both were right and both were wrong. If lunar explorers had only a little time on the moon, science would be best served if one of the crew was a scientist of considerable experience who could make the most of what little he could see and do. On the other hand, an emergency in a lunar mission might leave no time for conscious thought. The ability to take the proper action instinctively would be expected of an experienced test pilot but might be difficult to instill into a person having little experience of acting decisively in emergencies.

As long as spacecraft were regarded as experimental rather than operational, Slayton's view - shared by Bob Gilruth - prevailed, modified by the addition of some basic instruction in geology to the astronaut training program. Eventually MSC yielded on the point of accepting scientists for astronaut training, but did so with the stipulation that they must also qualify as jet pilots, if necessary by taking flying training before starting in the astronaut program.

Fortunately, an astronaut's ability to react appropriately in a time-critical emergency was never really tested in Apollo.*** No lunar module pilot ever had to take over from a disabled commander during a lunar landing or had to bring back a lunar module from the moon alone. Whether a scientist, properly trained, could have performed as well as a test pilot was never determined. For what it is worth, Jack Schmitt was sure that he could have done it, and his commander, Gene Cernan, was satisfied to have Schmitt along.

On the other hand, 11 of the 12 men who walked the moon were pilots who did have to play the role of scientist, at least to a limited degree, in selecting lunar samples. As might be expected, their performance varied, but at least publicly none of the scientists ever seriously faulted the results. Jack Schmitt, who took an active interest in geology training before he was assigned to Apollo 17, later rated the performance of the crews as generally good:

We got excellent sampling, we got excellent photography, . . . but until Apollo 17 we did not get very much good, solid descriptive work, with one exception - that exception being Neil Armstrong. . . . He was probably the best observer we sent to the moon, in spite of very limited training; he just had a knack for it.38
The best-prepared crew, in terms of time spent in preparation for exploration, was that of Apollo 15. Scott, Irwin, and Worden put in more training sessions on lunar surface operations than any crew [see Appendix 7], and, with Jack Schmitt on their backup crew, they had more tutoring than the others as well. Dave Scott took a special interest in the lunar science,39 and it paid off; Apollo 15 was acclaimed at the the as the most productive mission yet flown [see Chapter 13] and, except for Schmitt's descriptive work on Apollo 17, was not surpassed by the last two missions. The scientists' delight with the results of Apollo 15 may have been influenced by the fact that it was the first of the extended missions, with all the extra work that allowed, but that does not detract from the performance of Scott and Irwin.

Whether all the missions would have benefited from the presence of a geologist was not settled in Apollo. By the time Jack Schmitt flew on Apollo 17 it had become clear that geological clues were not as obvious on the lunar surface as they are on earth. Possibly an experienced field geologist could have found more than the astronauts did. Still, the conditions of working on the moon (i.e., limited time and the restrictions on mobility and dexterity imposed by the space suit) suggest that the advantage would not have been as great as some believed. A longer program might have provided more time for that kind of work, but by the time the missions began to fly, scientific emphasis had shifted away from the field and into the laboratory.

Apollo experience provided no final answer to the question of the relative capabilities of scientists and astronauts in space exploration. Manned space flight programs later evolved to the point where specialists of both kinds could go into space, so the debate has lost some of the relevance it had before Apollo.

Lunar Sample Management and Quarantine

The most troublesome requirement imposed on the management of lunar samples, however, was biological containment. From the construction of the LRL to the conduct of mission operations, the requirement to prevent contact between the earth's biosphere and the objects and persons who had been to the moon made Apollo more costly and more complex.

The added cost and complexity were unavoidable after a conference sponsored by the Space Science Board issued a formal statement in 1965 that the earth must be protected from back-contamination by any organisms that might be brought back from the moon [see Chapter 4]. The cult of extraterrestrial life, although lacking the smallest shred of positive scientific evidence to support it, had many followers among scientists and the public.40 NASA could not refute such a warning, nor could it afford to ignore it. What if the believers were right? Granted the infinitesimal probability that living organisms existed on the moon, and the real question of whether they might survive on earth and be dangerous, the consequences of releasing them on earth were so potentially enormous that the chance could not be taken.

So, without enthusiasm but at considerable expense, MSC built the Lunar Receiving Laboratory with provisions for two-way biological containment (preventing biological contamination of the samples and the escape of contaminants from the samples into the laboratory) and modified recovery procedures to isolate spacecraft and astronauts from the earth's biosphere. As the system was finally implemented, one serious gap remained: the crew would leave the command module by opening the hatch and clambering into the recovery raft. MSC refused to consider hoisting the returned spacecraft aboard ship with the astronauts inside or to add a biological filter to the post-landing ventilation system. The Interagency Committee on Back Contamination objected, but MSC held firm, on the grounds that crew safety would be imperiled. The committee settled for biological isolation garments and application of a biocide to the spacecraft.

In the event, the precautions proved unnecessary and quarantine was abandoned after the third lunar landing. Apart from the expense, quarantine was irksome to engineers and scientists alike, for it impeded postflight debriefings and delayed the release of samples to principal investigators. In any case, quarantine was not intended to be absolute: the second guideline governing procedures stated, "the preservation of human life should take precedence over the maintenance of quarantine." If a command module had begun to sink during recovery operations, or if a major fire had broken out in the crew quarters of the receiving laboratory, or if a quarantined astronaut had suffered a medical emergency that could not be handled within the LRL, quarantine would have been broken.41

The results of biological and chemical examination of the returned lunar samples indicated that life never has existed on the moon - or at least that it left no traces at the sites examined. As did the data returned from Mars by the Viking landers a few years later, the Apollo results showed that the only conclusion that can be reached at present concerning the existence of life elsewhere in our solar system is, "not proven."


* The phrase, "before this decade is out," was deliberately chosen by the President to allow for some flexibility of interpretation. It could without serious equivocation be construed as meaning either 1969 or 1970. See Theodore C. Sorenson, Kennedy (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), p. 525.

** MSC's refusal to anticipate scientific requirements and modify the spacecraft to accommodate them was one of the scientists' most serious complaints. The head of the Experimental Planetology Branch, Solar System Exploration Division, at Johnson Space Center pointed out in criticizing the draft of this book that "It require[d] at least a year of lead time for even the simplest of new ideas to be introduced into a program as complicated as Apollo. Therefore, waiting until after the first one or two successful landings to begin accommodating the scientists' wishes was guaranteed to delay any implementation for a long time." He also cited Gilruth's waiting until early 1970 to work out MSC's differences with the scientific community as a similar source of irritation for scientists. Wm. C. Phinney to William Waldrip, "Review of Apollo History," Mar. 31, 1987. The point is certainly valid, but it presumes, as scientists typically did, that science should have taken precedence as early as Apollo 12. The present author does not agree. The last 2 1/2 years before Apollo 11 were spent recovering from the AS-204 fire, which totally occupied spacecraft engineers and program managers. Problems with the lunar module lingered through 1968. To have begun modifying the untried lunar module to suit the purposes of science a year or more before the first lunar flight would have been to invite trouble.

*** Apollo 13 was indeed an emergency, but the responsibility for saving the mission was in the hands of experts on the ground. The success of the rescue did not depend on the crew's ability to act swiftly in a critical situation.

**** Carbon compounds, for example - possible relics of extinct life or precursors of life on the moon - could be detected if present to the extent of a few parts per billion.


27. Wasserburg, "The Moon and Sixpence of Science."

28. Courtney G. Brooks, James M. Grimwood, and Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft, NASA SP-4205 (Washington, 1979), p. xv.

29. Ibid., p. 31.

30. Homer E. Newell, Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science, NASA SP-4211 (Washington, 1980), p. 246. Newell also commented that the Houston center "developed an arrogance born of unbounded self-confidence and possession of a leading role in the nation's number-one space project, Apollo."

31. Ibid., pp. 204-205.

32. Brooks, Grimwood, and Swenson, Chariots, p. 127.

33. NASA 1965 Summer Conference on Lunar Exploration and Science, NASA SP-88 (Washington, 1965),

34. 1967 Summer Study of Lunar Science and Exploration, NASA SP-157 (Washington, 1967), p. iii.

35. Michael Collins, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974), p. 360.

36. A Review of Space Research, report of the Summer Study conducted under the auspices of the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences at the State University of Iowa, June 17-August 10, 1962, National Academy of Sciences-National Research Council Publication 1079 (Washington, 1962), p. 11-19. A questionnaire sent to several prominent scientists before the study sought opinions on the place of scientists in manned space flight. To the question, "How do we develop our astro-scientists?" the consensus of replies included the statement that qualified scientists "should go through astronaut training for part of each year to become familiar with problems of space flight. It is hoped that this would not involve too large a fraction of their time, since emphasis should be on their development as scientists."

37. An unnamed Marshall Space Flight Center engineer paraphrased Slayton's attitude as, "it is easier to teach an astronaut to pick up rocks than to teach a geologist to land on the moon." Minutes of the combined MSFC staff and board meeting, Nov. 10, 1969. This statement should be read alongside the scientists' estimate of the difficulties of space flight training cited in 36.

38. Harrison H. Schmitt interview, May 30, 1984. Elbert King, who was involved with crew training for the earlier missions, confirmed Schmitt's evaluation of Armstrong's ability as an observer: "Armstrong . . . never said much, was kind of quiet on field trips, and we really didn't know how much of this he was soaking up. . . . It turned out that he had really picked up a lot of it and was doing very well with it." Elbert H. King, Jr., interview with Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., May 27, 1971, tape in JSC History Office files.

39. Schmitt interview.

40. See, for example, the report of a series of science workshops sponsored by NASA's Ames Research Center, The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: SETI, NASA SP-419 (Washington, 1977). One group stated the central proposition this way: "The conclusion that the origin and evolution of life is inextricably interwoven with the origin and evolution of the cosmos seems inescapable" (p. 41). The question arose again in the Viking mission to Mars, which carried experiments designed to detect life. Some scientists, it seems, desperately wanted to detect life on Mars. See Edward Clinton Ezell and Linda Neuman Ezell, On Mars: Exploration of the Red Planet 1958-1978, NASA SP-4212 (Washington, 1984), pp. 409-14.

41. Richard S. Johnston, Lawrence F. Dietlein, M.D., and Charles A. Berry, M.D., eds., Biomedical Results of Apollo, NASA SP-368 (Washington, 1975), pp. 410-11, 418.


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