Originally posted Dec 30, 2013
With a few RF measurements along the way
A holiday break can be a chance to step back a little from the demands of designing and testing the latest technology and instead pursue a deeper appreciation of other impressive technologies. I’d like to take that liberty here and offer a window into another world and another time: the Apollo space program that sent humans beyond Earth orbit for the first and only time, and allowed us to explore the moon in-person.
Well, not all of us. Even among the few blessed with “the right stuff,” only 12 were chosen to experience both the lunar journey and the chance to walk around on another world. For me, even as a kid, Apollo was the most compelling and fascinating technological adventure of my lifetime. Looking up at the moon at night and realizing that, in my direct view a quarter million miles away, there are people working and exploring the surface was awe-inspiring and unforgettable.
In the years since, I’ve wondered what the personal experience would have been, and fortunately there are excellent ways to satisfy this curiosity. The principal key is information now freely available on the Internet, primarily from or through NASA. As an example, I’ll share just one photo from Apollo 17, the last manned lunar mission.
Manned exploration of the lunar surface wasn’t just a matter of getting there, walking around, and scooping up a few samples. With the help of a specialized vehicle the astronauts covered a lot of ground and did a lot of science. Click to expand this photo and note how small the lunar module appears to be, though it’s more than 20 ft. tall! (Image AS17-140-21493 from NASA via apolloarchive.com)
I’ve found, to my great satisfaction, that the cumulative effect of absorbing the pictures, descriptions, chronologies and maps is a passable sense of what it was like to be there. Not the full experience, of course, but more than I expected and very worthwhile and enlightening.
It’s simple to do. Just start with one or two of the resources below and follow your curiosity:
- The Apollo Lunar Surface Journal is probably the single most useful resource. It includes pictures, detailed captions, radio transcripts and links to related sites.
- The Apollo Archive is a large repository of digital scans, including the high resolution pictures from the astronauts’ medium-format Hasselblad film cameras.
- Exploring the Moon by David Harland is a large-format book with full narratives of the surface explorations including detailed maps of the terrain covered by walking and driving. The book also describes the scientific objectives of each mission and the tradeoffs and moment-by-moment decisions involved.
- The Apollo Flight Journal is a companion to the lunar-surface journal and the great detail provided in the transcripts is an important part of understanding what’s involved in getting there and getting back. It adds a vital element of perspective that isn’t available any other way.
- Apollo by Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox provides comprehensive coverage of the entire program and a wealth of detail (previously published as Apollo: The Race to the Moon).
Some contend that the lunar landing happened 20 to 40 years earlier than it otherwise would have because of the contest between two superpowers and linkage to ICBMs and other high-priority military technology. Indeed, a successful moon landing by the end of the 1960s was predicted by very few science writers and science fiction authors, even in the late 1950s. After exploring the material described here I suspect you’ll agree that this was an achievement and timeframe without precedent.
Of course they couldn’t have gotten near the moon—literally, they had to aim at a lunar orbit insertion window just a few miles wide at a distance of 240,000 miles!—without some amazing RF and microwave technology for measurement and communications. They used wide-bandwidth S-band microwave links, pulse Doppler radars, flexible short range VHF links, and amazingly sophisticated telemetry.
Though most of the resources here point to older material, combining that material with new simulation technology can also be enlightening. A recent article Earthrise: Recreating an Iconic Moment in Space History shows how.
Lastly, some of the books covering this material—including one mentioned here—are out of print. A great source of used and hard-to-find books from small bookstores at great prices is the Advanced Book Exchange.
Happy holidays. I hope you enjoy the virtual journey as much as I did.