On July 20th, 2019, exactly 50 years will have passed since human beings first set foot on the Moon. To mark this anniversary, NASA will be hosting a number of events and exhibits and people from all around the world will be united in celebration and remembrance. Given that crewed lunar missions are scheduled to take place again soon, this anniversary also serves as a time to reflect on the lessons learned from the last “Moonshot”.
For one, the Moon Landing was the result of years of government-directed research and development that led to what is arguably the greatest achievement in human history. This achievement and the lessons it taught were underscored in a recent essay by two Harvard astrophysicists. In it, they recommend that the federal government continue to provide active leadership in the field of space research and exploration.
The moment that the Apollo-11 mission touched down on the Moon, followed by Neil Armstrong‘s famous words – “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind” – is one of the most iconic moments in history. The culmination of years of hard work and sacrifice, it was an achievement that forever established humanity as a space-faring species.
And in the year’s that followed, several more spacecraft and astronauts landed on the Moon. But before, during and after these missions, a number of other “lunar landings” were accomplished as well. Aside from astronauts, a number of robotic missions were mounted which were milestones in themselves. So exactly what were the earliest lunar landings?
The first missions to the Moon consisted of probes and landers, the purpose of which was to study the lunar surface and determine where crewed missions might land. This took place during the 1950s where both the Soviet Space program and NASA sent landers to the Moon as part of their Luna and Pioneer programs.
After several attempts on both sides, the Soviets managed to achieve a successful lunar landing on Sept. 14th, 1959 with their Luna-2 spacecraft. After flying directly to the Moon for 36 hours, the spacecraft achieved a hard landing (i.e. crashed) on the surface west of the Mare Serenitatis – near the craters Aristides, Archimedes, and Autolycus.
The primary objective of the probe was to help confirm the discovery of the solar wind, turned up by the Luna-1mission. However, with this crash landing, it became the first man-made object to touch down on the Moon. Upon impact, it scattered a series of Soviet emblems and ribbons that had been assembled into spheres, and which broke apart upon hitting the surface.
The next craft to make a lunar landing was the Soviet Luna-3 probe, almost a month after Luna-2 did. However, unlike its predecessor, the Luna-3 probe was equipped with a camera and managed to send back the first images of the far side of the Moon.
The first US spacecraft to impact the Moon was the Ranger-7 probe, which crashed into the Moon on July 31st, 1964. This came after a string of failures with previous spacecraft in the Pioneer and Ranger line of robotic spacecraft. Prior to impact, it too transmitted back photographs of the Lunar surface.
This was followed by the Ranger-8 lander, which impacted the surface of the Moon on Feb. 20th, 1965. The spacecraft took 7,000 high-resolution images of the Moon before crashing onto the surface, just 24 km from the Sea of Tranquility, which NASA had been surveying for the sake of their future Apollo missions. These images, which yielded details about the local terrain, helped to pave the way for crewed missions.
The first spacecraft to make a soft landing on the Moon was the Soviet Luna-9 mission, on February 3rd, 1966. This was accomplished through the use of an airbag system that allowed the probe to survive hitting the surface at a speed of 50 km/hour. It also became the first spacecraft to transmit photographic data back to Earth from the surface of another celestial body.
The first truly soft landing was made by the US with the Surveyor-1 spacecraft, which touched down on the surface of the Moon on June 2nd, 1966. After landing in the Ocean of Storms, the probe transmitted data back to Earth that would also prove useful for the eventual Apollo missions.
Several more Surveyor missions and one more Luna mission landed on the Moon before crewed mission began, as part of NASA’s Apollo program.
The first crewed landing on the Moon was none other than the historic Apollo-11 mission, which touched down on the lunar surface on July 20th, 1969. After achieving orbit around the Moon in their Command Module (aka. the Columbia module), Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin rode the Lunar Excursion (Eagle) Module down to the surface of the Moon.
Once they had landed, Armstrong radioed to Mission Control and announced their arrival by saying: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Once the crew had gone through their checklist and depressurized the cabin, the Eagles’ hatch was opened and Armstrong began walking down the ladder to the Lunar surface first.
When he reached the bottom of the ladder, Armstrong said: “I’m going to step off the LEM now” (referring to the Lunar Excursion Module). He then turned and set his left boot on the surface of the Moon at 2:56 UTC July 21st, 1969, and spoke the famous words “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
About 20 minutes after the first step, Aldrin joined Armstrong on the surface and became the second human to set foot on the Moon. The two then unveiled a plaque commemorating their flight, set up the Early Apollo Scientific Experiment Package, and planted the flag of the United States before blasting off in the Lunar Module.
Several more Apollo missions followed which expanded on the accomplishments of the Apollo-11 crew. The US and NASA would remain the only nation and space agency to successfully land astronauts on the Moon, an accomplishment that has not been matched to this day.
Today, multiple space agencies (and even private companies) are contemplating returning to the Moon. Between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Russian Space Agency (Roscosmos), and the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA), there are several plans for crewed missions, and even the construction of permanent bases on the Moon.
Its an Epic Rocket Battle! Or a Clash of the Titans, if you will. Except that in this case, the titans are the two of the heaviest rockets the world has ever seen. And the contenders couldn’t be better matched. On one side, we have the heaviest rocket to come out of the US during the Space Race, and the one that delivered the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. On the other, we have the heaviest rocket created by the NewSpace industry, and which promises to deliver astronauts to Mars.
And in many respects, the Falcon Heavy is considered to be the successor of the Saturn V. Ever since the latter was retired in 1973, the United States has effectively been without a super-heavy lifter. And with the Space Launch System still in development, the Falcon Heavy is likely to become the workhorse of both private space corporations and space agencies in the coming years.
So let’s compare these two rockets, taking into account their capabilities, specifications, and the history of their development and see who comes out on top. BEGIN!
The development of the Saturn V began in 1946 with Operation Paperclip, a US government program which led to the recruitment of Wernher von Braun and several other World War II-era German rocket scientists and technicians. The purpose of this program was to leverage the expertise of these scientists to give the US an edge in the Cold War through the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
Between 1945 and the mid-to-late 50s von Braun acted as an advisor to US armed forces for the sake of developing military rockets only. It was not until 1957, with the Soviet launch of Sputnik-1 using an R-7 rocket – a Soviet ICBM also capable of delivering thermonuclear warheads – that the US government began to consider the use of rockets for space exploration.
Thereafter, von Braun and his team began developing the Jupiter series of rockets – a modified Redstone ballistic missile with two solid-propellant upper stages. These proved to be a major step towards the Saturn V, hence why the Jupiter series was later nicknamed “an infant Saturn”. Between 1960 and 1962, the Marshall Space Flight Center began designing the rockets that would eventually be used by the Apollo Program.
After several iterations, the Saturn C-5 design (later named the Saturn V) was created. By 1964, it was selected for NASA’s Apollo Program as the rocket that would conduct a Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LRO). This plan called for a large rocket to launch a single spacecraft to the Moon, but only a small part of that spacecraft (the Lunar Module) would actually land on the surface. That smaller module would then rendezvous with the main spacecraft – the Command/Service Module (CSM) – in lunar orbit and the crew would return home.
Development of the Falcon Heavy was first announced in 2011 at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. In a statement, Musk drew direct comparisons to the Saturn V, claiming that the Falcon Heavy would deliver “more payload to orbit or escape velocity than any vehicle in history, apart from the Saturn V moon rocket, which was decommissioned after the Apollo program.”
Consistent with this promise of a “super heavy-lift” vehicle, SpaceX’s original specifications indicated a projected payload of 53,000 kg (117,000 lbs) to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), and 12,000 kgg (26,000 lbs) to Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO). In 2013, these estimates were revised to 54,400 kg (119,900 lb) to LEO and 22,200 kg (48,900 lb) to GTO, as well as 16,000 kilograms (35,000 lb) to translunar trajectory, and 13,600 kilograms (31,000 lb) on a trans-Martian orbit to Mars, and 2,900 kg (6,400 lb) to Pluto.
In 2015, the design was changed – alongside changes to the Falcon 9 v.1.1 – to take advantage of the new Merlin 1D engine and changes to the propellant tanks. The original timetable, proposed in 2011, put the rocket’s arrival at SpaceX’s west-coast launch location – Vandenberg Air Force Base in California – at before the end of 2012.
The first launch from Vandenberg was take place in 2013, while the first launch from Cape Canaveral was to take place in late 2013 or 2014. But by mid-2015, delays caused by failures with Falcon 9 test flights caused the first launch to be pushed to late 2016. The rocket has also been relocated to the Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex in Florida.
SpaceX also announced in July 0f 2016 that it planned to expand its landing facility near Cape Canaveral to take advantage of the reusable technology. With three landing pads now planned (instead of one on land and a drone barge at sea), they hope to be able to recover all of the spent boosters that will be used for the launch of a Falcon Heavy.
Both the Saturn V and Falcon Heavy were created to do some serious heavy lifting. Little wonder, since both were created for the sole purpose of “slipping the surly bonds” of Earth and putting human beings and cargo onto other celestial bodies. For its part, the Saturn V‘s size and payload surpassed all other previous rockets, reflecting its purpose of sending astronauts to the Moon.
With the Apollo spacecraft on top, it stood 111 meters (363 feet) tall and was 10 meters (33 feet) in diameter, without fins. Fully fueled, the Saturn V weighed 2,950 metric tons (6.5 million pounds), and had a payload capacity estimated at 118,000 kg (261,000 lbs) to LEO, but was designed for the purpose of sending 41,000 kg (90,000 lbs) to Trans Lunar Insertion (TLI).
Later upgrades on the final three missions boosted that capacity to 140,000 kg (310,000 lbs) to LEO and 48,600 kg (107,100 lbs) to the Moon. The Saturn V was principally designed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, while numerous subsystems were developed by subcontractors. This included the engines, which were designed by Rocketdyne, a Los Angeles-based rocket company.
The first stage (aka. S-IC) measured 42 m (138 feet) tall and 10 m (33 feet) in diameter, and had a dry weight of 131 metric tons (289,000 lbs) and a total weight of over 2300 metric tons (5.1 million lbs) when fully fueled. It was powered by five Rocketdyne F-1 engines arrayed in a quincunx (four units arranged in a square, and the fifth in the center) which provided it with 34,000 kN (7.6 million pounds-force) of thrust.
The Saturn V consisted of three stages – the S-IC first stage, S-II second stage and the S-IVB third stage – and the instrument unit. The first stage used Rocket Propellant-1 (RP-1), a form of kerosene similar to jet fuel, while the second and third stages relied on liquid hydrogen for fuel. The second and third stage also used solid-propellant rockets to separate during launch.
The Falcon Heavy is based around a core that is a single Falcon 9 with two additional Falcon 9 first stages acting as boosters. While similar in concept to the Delta IV Heavy launcher and proposals for the Atlas V HLV and Russian Angara A5V, the Falcon Heavy was specifically designed to exceed all current designs in terms of operational flexibility and payload. As with other SpaceX rockets, it was also designed to incorporate reusability.
The rocket relies on two stages, with the possibility of more to come, that measure 70 m (229.6 ft) in height and 12.2 m (39.9 ft) in width. The first stage is powered by three Falcon 9 cores, each of which is equipped with nine Merlin 1D engines. These are arranged in a circular fashion with eight around the outside and one in th middle (what SpaceX refers to as the Octaweb) in order to streamline the manufacturing process. Each core also includes four extensible landing legs and grid fins to control descent and conduct landings.
The first stage of the Falcon Heavy relies on Subcooled LOX (liquid oxygen) and chilled RP-1 fuel; while the upper stage also uses them, but under normal conditions. The Falcon Heavy has a total sea-level thrust at liftoff of 22,819 kN (5,130,000 lbf) which rises to 24,681 kN (5,549,000 lbf) as the craft climbs out of the atmosphere. The upper stage is powered by a single Merlin 1D engine which has a thrust of 34 kN (210,000 lbf) and has been modified for use in a vacuum.
Although not a part of the initial Falcon Heavy design, SpaceX has been extending its work with reusable rocket systems to ensure that the boosters and core stage can be recovered. Currently, no work has been announced on making the upper stages recoverable as well, but recent successes recovering the first stages of the Falcon 9 may indicate a possible change down the road.
The consequence of adding reusable technology will mean that the Falcon Heavy will have a reduced payload to GTO. However, it will also mean that it will be able to fly at a much lower cost per launch. With full reusability on all three booster cores, the GTO payload will be approximately 7,000 kg (15,000 lb). If only the two outside cores are reusable while the center is expendable, the GTO payload would be approximately 14,000 kg (31,000 lb).
The Saturn V rocket was by no means a small investment. In fact, one of the main reasons for the cancellation of the last three Apollo flights was the sheer cost of producing the rockets and financing the launches. Between 1964 and 1973, a grand total of $6.417 billion USD was appropriated for the sake of research, development, and flights.
Adjusted to 2016 dollars, that works out to $41.4 billion USD. In terms of individual launches, the Saturn V would cost between $185 and $189 million USD, of which $110 million was spent on production alone. Adjusted for inflation, this works out to approximately $1.23 billion per launch, of which $710 million went towards production.
By contrast, when Musk appeared before the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in May 2004, he stated that his ultimate goal with the development of SpaceX was to bring the total cost per launch down to $1,100 per kg ($500/pound). As of April 2016, SpaceX has indicated that a Falcon Heavy could lift 2268 kg (8000 lbs) to GTO for a cost of $90 million a launch – which works out to $3968.25 per kg ($1125 per pound).
No estimates are available yet on how a fully-reusable Falcon Heavy will further reduce the cost of individual launches. And again, it will vary depending on whether or not the boosters and the core, or just the external boosters are recoverable. Making the upper stage recoverable as well will lead to a further drop in costs, but will also likely impact performance.
So having covered their backgrounds, designs and overall cost, let’s move on to a side-by-side comparison of these two bad boys. Let’s see how they stack up, pound for pound, when all things are considered – including height, weight, lift payload, and thrust.
110.6 m (363 ft)
70 m (230 ft)
10.1 m (33 ft)
12.2 m (40 ft)
5 Rocketdyne F-1
3 x 9 Merlin 1D
5 Rocketdyne J-2
1 Merlin 1D
1 Rocketdyne J-2
22,918 kN (sea level);
24,681 kN (vacuum)
When put next to each other, you can see that the Saturn V has the advantage when it comes to muscle. It’s bigger, heavier, and can deliver a bigger payload to space. On the other hand, the Falcon Heavy is smaller, lighter, and a lot cheaper. Whereas the Saturn V can put a heavier payload into orbit, or send it on to another celestial body, the Falcon Heavy could perform several missions for every one mounted by its competitor.
But whereas the contributions of the venerable Saturn V cannot be denied, the Falcon Heavy has yet to demonstrate its true worth to space exploration. In many ways, its like comparing a retired champion to an up-and-comer who, despite showing lots of promise and getting all the headlines, has yet to win a single bout.
But should the Falcon Heavy prove successful, it will likely be recognized as the natural successor to the Saturn V. Ever since the latter was retired in 1973, NASA has been without a rocket with which to mount long-range crewed missions. And while heavy-lift options have been available – such as the Delta IV Heavy and Atlas V – none have had the performance, payload capacity, or the affordability that the new era of space exploration needs.
In truth, this battle will take several years to unfold. Only after the Falcon Heavy is rigorously tested and SpaceX manages to deliver on their promises of cheaper space launches, a return to the Moon and a mission to Mars (or fail to, for that matter) will we be able to say for sure which rocket was the true champion of human space exploration! But in the meantime, I’m sure there’s plenty of smack talk to be had by fans of both! Preferably in a format that rhymes!
For a brief period in the 1960s and 1970s, 12 people ventured all the way to the surface of the Moon. The accomplishment at the time was hailed as a political victory over the Soviet Union, but as decades have passed the landings have taken on more symbolic meaning with NASA — a time of optimism, of science and of the American spirit.
The last lunar landing was Apollo 17, which took place on Dec. 11, 1972. Commander Eugene Cernan and lunar module pilot Harrison Schmitt did three moonwalks in the Taurus-Littrow valley, scoping out the highlands to try to get a geologic sense of the area. Among their more memorable findings are orange soil. You can see some pictures from their sojourn below.
A moon rocket thundering from a pad in Florida. Two moons discovered around Mars. Space tourism. These are all things that are part of history today — and which were also predicted in literature years or decades before the event actually happened.
This fun infographic (embedded below) shows a series of fiction books that were curiously prescient about our future, ranging from From The Earth to the Moon to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Submarines, rocket ships and other pieces of technology were all imagined long before they were reality, so what inspired these authors?
“Many writers of the past have predicted the facts of our present society with a level of detail that seems impossibly accurate,” wrote Printerinks, a print and toner shop that produced the graphic.
“Some of them were even derided in their times for what were called outlandish and unbelievable fictions. Yet their imaginations were in reality painting portraits that would eventually be mirrored by history books a century later. Which seems to beg the question, Where does inspiration come from? So to decide for yourself whether these writers were seers or just plain lucky, explore our History of Books that Predicted the Future.”
You can click on the graphic for a larger version. Is it missing anything? Let us know in the comments.
There’s a conspiracy theory that astronauts never landed on the Moon. Is it all a conspiracy? Were the Moon landings faked? What is the evidence that we actually went to the Moon?
Apparently, there’s an organization called “NASA”, who’s done a remarkable job of sticking to their story. They say Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969, and set foot on the surface 6 hours later.This same organization claims there were 5 additional missions which successfully landed on the Moon, and an alleged total of 12 people went for a walk there.
Can you imagine? According to them, they spent $24 billion, which is more than $150 billion in inflation adjusted dollars. Their so-called “Apollo” program allegedly employed 400,000 people, supported by more than 20,000 companies and research institutions. I say “alleged”, as some people choose to think the Moon landings were acts of cinematic chicanery.
More than 10 years ago, Fox popularized the Moon landing conspiracy with a show called “Did We Land On The Moon?”. They revealed several pieces of evidence about the hoax and cover-up citing incorrect shadows on the Moon, lack of background stars, and more. Each of the pieces of evidence they present is wrong and easily explained once you understand the underlying science.… Or at least, that’s what they would have us believe.
Phil Plait successfully brings a NASA supporting voice to this story, explaining how the evidence against moon landings is at best, fantasy and misunderstanding. A more cynical view might be to suggest it’s a deliberate manipulation created to maintain an anti-scientific narrative to foster ignorance, mistrust and uphold a larger political agenda. Do a little search for “Phil Plait moon landing” and you’ll see him present even-handed science over any one of the arguments. In fact, if you buy into that whole “evidence” idea, he appears to successfully tear apart the conspiracy arguments.
Some still, are not convinced, possibly including you. “NASA and Phil, they’re in cahoots. Phil’s a PhD astronomer, which means he studies space, one of the letters in NASA stands for SPACE, I think it’s the A.” Coincidence? I think not. There’s collusion going on there.
The main pillar of any conspiracy requires a few select people keeping a really, really, really big secret. Looking at the numbers, the select group required to successfully fabricate the appearance of hurling metal capsules containing humans at our orbiting neighbor and then retrieving them, additionally keep their story straight for at best 45 years, and never, ever slip up… is about 400,000 humans.
So, there are really two sides to this story, the NASA side which is… They went to the Moon. and everyone is telling the truth. OR, they never went to the Moon, and somehow 400,000 people have never, ever, ever, ever let it slip that they made a bunch of fake moon rocks, or the rockets shot up didn’t really go anywhere. It’s all a big ruse. The thought 400,000 people have managed to keep their mouths shut is definitely the more romantic perspective. Seeing people come together to screw with everyone, and then never blabbing. This truly is a triumph of the human spirit.
When something big does happen, like the Chelyabinsk meteor, we see the evidence everywhere – for example captured on Russian dashboard cameras. For the lunar landing, NASA suggests something similar. There are independent astronomers who tracked the rockets escape from Earth’s gravity, and are either providing unsolicited, nonpartisan unfunded support of the events, or they’re in on the whole thing. The Russians, who were in a race with the Americans to be the first to set foot on the Moon, allegedly tracked the missions in horror and disappointment.
NASA just keeps sticking to this story that they sent people to the moon. In fact, they just keep on producing more of their “evidence”. They recently published high resolution images of the surface of the Moon captured by their own Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Adding a whole new generation of secret keepers, who now know the secret handshake and get participate in the rigging of Oscar nights.
They imaged all of the alleged Apollo landing sites, and they haven’t missed any detail. You can see the landers, rovers, and even the astronauts’ footsteps. The images show that all the flags planted are still standing, except Apollo 11, which was blown over by the exhaust from the ascent engine. Or alleged exhaust from an alleged ascent engine, if you’re still thinking 400,000 people are continuing to punk the triumphs of mankind. Some might suggest that a big paycheck was sent on over to China and Japan, to have them verify the landing sites by photographing them with their own spacecraft.
According to NASA the astronauts placed retro-reflectors during their missions which reflect light directly back to Earth. Apparently these can be used this to calculate the distance to the Moon with 1 cm accuracy. So, if you want to confirm that humans went to the Moon for yourself, you could just point a high-power laser at the landing sites. Sure, there are many large independent institutions which have verified the existence of these retro-reflectors, but who knows, maybe they’re some how pawns of our silent and vigilant 400,000 co-conspirators.
What do you think? Make up a conspiracy theory for your favorite triumph of human innovation and exploration! Post it in the comments below.
Yes, we actually landed on the Moon. No, aliens didn’t crash land at Roswell. What is it about space exploration that leads to so many conspiracy theories? We’ll try to get to the bottom of these conspiracy theories, poke holes in their ridiculous ideas and help you build your baloney detection kit.
Mission planners really hate it when space robots land off course. We’re certainly improving the odds of success these days (remember Mars Curiosity’s seven minutes of terror?), but one space agency has a fancy simulator up its sleeve that could make landings even more precise.
Shown above, this software and hardware (tested at the European Space Agency) so impressed French aerospace center ONERA that officials recently gave the lead researcher an award for the work.
“If I’m a tourist in Paris, I might look for directions to famous landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe or Notre Dame cathedral to help find my position on a map,” stated Jeff Delaune, the Ph.D. student performing the research.
“If the same process is repeated from space with enough surface landmarks seen by a camera, the eye of the spacecraft, it can then pretty accurately identify where it is by automatically comparing the visual information to maps we have onboard in the computer.”
Because landmarks close-up can look really different from far away, this system has a method to try and get around that problem.
The so-called ‘Landing with Inertial and Optical Navigation’ (LION) system takes the real-time images generated by the spacecraft’s camera and compares it to maps from previous missions, as well as 3-D digital models of the surface.
LION can take into account the relative size of every point it sees, whether it’s a huge crater or a tiny boulder.
At ESA’s control hardware laboratory in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, officials tested the system with a high-res map of the moon.
Though this is just a test and there is still a ways to go before this system is space-ready, ESA said simulated positional accuracy was better than 164 feet at 1.86 miles in altitude (or 50 meters at three kilometers in altitude.)
Oh, and while it’s only been tested with simulated moon terrain so far, it’s possible the same system could help a robot land on an asteroid, or Mars, ESA adds.
No word on when the system will first hitch an interplanetary ride, but Delaune is working to apply the research to terrestrial matters such as unmanned aerial vehicles.