...and the Apollo Program was born


* Así nació el programa Apollo

On 12 September 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech at Rice University on the U.S.'s National Space Effort. He reflected this way (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston): "But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?" And he answered: "We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard".

Weeks after having the Soviet Union placed first a human being, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit around the Earth, 12 April 1961, the then U.S. vice president Lyndon Johnson, in a reply to a memorandum, gave his view of the situation to President Kennedy. He said the United States of America should be realistic and recognize that other nations, regardless of their appreciation for the ​​idealistic values of the U. S. people, would tend to align with the country that they believed would become the world leader, that is, the winner in the long term. And at that time, something which was being increasingly identified as one of the most important indicators of global leadership were the dramatic achievements in space.


In all things space, the greatest U.S. specialist was definitely Wernher von Braun. Consulted by his government, von Braun explained that given a specific recent launch to Venus (the probe Venera 1), the Soviets had shown that they had at their disposal a rocket that could put 6350 kg of payload in orbit around the Earth. When one considered that the U.S. Mercury space capsule, for a single person, weighed only 1770 kg, it became immediately apparent that the Soviet rocket launcher would had been able to launch several astronauts in orbit simultaneously. (That capsule for several people could have been considered and could have served as a small "lab in space"). They could also perform a soft landing of a substantial payload on the Moon. von Braun's estimate of the maximum net payload weight that the Soviet rocket was able to land, gently, on the Moon was about 635 kg (one-tenth of its payload into low Earth orbit). This weight capacity was not sufficient to include a rocket for the flight back to Earth of a person who would had landed on the Moon. But it was entirely appropriate for a powerful radio transmitter, which could have sent lunar data back to Earth, and that would had been left on the lunar surface after completing its mission. A similar mission was planned for the U.S.'s project "Ranger", using an Atlas-Agena B launch rocket. The portion of "semi-soft" landing of the intended Ranger package weighed 133 kg. The launch date was set for January 1962.

The Soviet rocket existing at that time could have, furthermore, launched a capsule of 1800-2300 kg around the Moon, with a subsequent reentry to Earth's atmosphere. This availability of weight should be considered marginal for a trip of a person around the Moon. Specifically, it was not enough to provide the capsule and its occupant with a safe "abort-and-return" capability, a feature that, under NASA's procedural rules for the safety of pilots, was considered mandatory for all human spaceflight missions. However, von Braun warned that one should not underestimate the possibility that the Soviets could had substantially facilitated their task by simply ignoring this requirement.

To land a person on the Moon and bring him back to the Earth, a rocket about 10 times more powerful than the Soviet launch rocket to Venus was needed. The development of such super rocket could had been put on hold, through an orbital meeting and refueling in space of smaller rockets, but the development of this technique by the Soviets would not have been hidden from the eyes of United States, and undoubtedly it would have required several years of work (possibly as much or more time than the development of a large super rocket for a direct flight).

In short, von Braun believed that:

a) The United States of America did not have a good chance of defeating the Soviets in a race for a crewed "laboratory in space". The Russians could have had put it into orbit that same year, 1961, while the U. S. might have placed a (somewhat heavier) laboratory only after the availability of a reliable Saturn C-1 rocket, availability slated to happen in 1964.

b) The United States of America had a sporting chance of beating the Soviets on a soft landing on the Moon of a radio transmitting station. von Braun had no way of knowing if this goal was on the agenda of the Soviets, but he knew that regarding the launch rocket, they could had done it at any time. The U. S. planned to do that with the Ranger No. 3, powered by an Atlas-Agena B rocket, in early 1962.

c) The United States of America had a sporting chance of sending a crew of three people around the Moon before the rival, as much as the Soviets also had, (von Braun thought that by 1965 or 1966). However, the Soviets might have led a trip around the Moon before, if they had been willing to ignore certain safety features in case of emergencies, and limited that travel to a single person. The estimate was that they could had accomplished this simplified task in 1962 or 1963.

d) The United States of America had an excellent chance of beating the Soviets in the first landing of a crew on the Moon (including the capability to return, of course). The reason was that, to accomplish this feat, a leap in performance 10 times more than the rockets they had at that time was required. While in 1961 the Americans had no such rocket, von Braun knew it was unlikely that the Soviets did. Therefore, the United States of America did not have to enter the race to the obvious next goal in space exploration fighting against probabilities hopelessly in favor of the Soviets. von Braun dared to say he believed that, by committing to an all-out crash program, the United States of America could achieve this goal in 1967 or 1968.

He estimated that "an all-out crash program" meant more than two billion dollars a year, but also asked prudence in establishing working weeks beyond 46 hours, to avoid errors caused by fatigue.


A month later, President John F. Kennedy went before Congress and explained to the U. S. what he considered the "urgent national needs".

Among requests for weapons and more weapons to stop the Soviet Union, he said it was time for the U. S. to take a clear leadership role in space achievements, that according to Kennedy, in many ways might hold the key for the future of the United States of America on Earth.

Kennedy believed that the U. S. people had all the resources and talents necessary, but he said the truth of the matter was that they have never made ​​the national decisions or convened the national resources required for such leadership. They had never specified long-term goals within an urgent time frame, or managed the time and resources of the United States to ensure the fulfillment of those goals.

Recognizing the lead obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, which gave them many months of lead, and recognizing the likelihood that they would exploit this lead for many more months in the future, with even more impressive successes, Kennedy said that anyway the U.S. were required to make new efforts on its own. He added that although the U. S. could not guarantee that one day it would be the first, the U. S. could guarantee that not doing this effort would had left it last. He said that the United States of America ran an additional risk by doing so in full view of the entire World, but as the feat of astronaut Alan Shepard showed, this same risk increased the stature of the United States of America when it was successful. But for Kennedy that was not merely a race.

Now the space was open to the U. S., and according to the U. S. president, its enthusiasm to share its meaning was not governed by the efforts of others. He said that the U.S. was going into space because free people should fully participate in whatever Humankind must undertake.

Therefore, Kennedy asked Congress, above and beyond the increases that he himself had previously requested for space activities, to provide the funds needed to achieve specific national goals.

And firstly, Kennedy believed that the United States of America should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the end of that decade, of landing a person on the Moon and return him safely back to the Earth. "But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon" he sumarized in that special message to his U. S.'s Congress in Washington, DC, on Urgent National Needs (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston) but "it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there." And that way, on 25 May 1961, the Apollo moon Program was born.

Aldo Loup.

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Originally published in ABC Color, on 19 July 2010. Photograph: President John F. Kennedy talks with Wernher von Braun during a visit to the NASA George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, on 18 May 1963. Credit: U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command.