American spaceflight history: Apollo Project overcomes tragedy to land man on moon

1966-1972: The Apollo Program established US as space leader

As NASA and SpaceX prepare for the first astronaut launch from U.S. soil in nearly a decade, it’s important to understand how far human spaceflight has come since the first space explorer.

Leading up to the May 27 launch of NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, we’re taking a look back at milestones in U.S. human spaceflight that paved the way for future astronauts.

Last week’s time capsule story highlighted the Mercury and Gemini projects, both of which were crucial to the Apollo Project and the 1969 moon landing.

Building on the two previous programs, the Apollo spacecraft had room for three astronauts and required two more vehicles, a command module for transport to the moon and back and a lunar module used for landing on the moon.

Two types of rockets were used for the Apollo program, a Saturn IB rocket and later the more powerful Saturn V rocket for the first moon missions.

By the end of the Apollo program, 12 astronauts had walked on the moon.

Here’s a look at the events and significant moments from the Apollo program.

Jan. 27, 1967: Apollo 1 fire

From left to right: Apollo 1 astronauts Roger B. Chaffee, Edward H. White and Virgil I. Grissom practice for the mission in the Apollo Mission Simulator (Image: NASA History Office) (WKMG 2020)

What would have been the first human spaceflight under the Apollo program, known as Apollo 1, ended in tragedy. During a simulation on the launch pad a flash fire broke out, killing all three astronauts inside the capsule, Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. NASA says their deaths were the first directly related to the U.S. space program.

After the fire, an investigation led to major design changes and safety protocols improving the overall safety of the program.

As a result of the tragedy, the re-design of the spacecraft took more than a year and Apollo did not resume human flights until October 1968.

Dec. 21, 1968: First humans to orbit the moon

On Dec. 21, 1968, Apollo 8 launched atop a Saturn V rocket from the Kennedy Space Center with three astronauts aboard, Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, Jr. and William A. Anders. On Christmas Eve, the crew begin its historic orbit of the moon.

“It was an enormously significant accomplishment coming at a time when American society was in crisis over Vietnam, race relations, urban problems, and a host of other difficulties,” according to the NASA History Office. “And if only for a few moments the nation united as one to focus on this epochal event. Two more Apollo missions occurred before the climax of the program, but they did little more than confirm that the time had come for a lunar landing.”

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July 20, 1969: First moonwalkers

After Apollo 9 and 10, NASA prepared to send astronauts to the moon’s surface.

Astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Edwin E. Aldrin and Michael Collins launched atop a Saturn V from Kennedy Space Center on July 16, 1969.

Aldrin and Armstrong landed in the lunar module on the moon’s surface on July 20, 1969 while Collins orbited overhead in the Apollo command module.

When Armstrong set foot on the moon he uttered these famous words heard around the world to those watching and listening, “one small step for man—one giant leap for mankind.”

As the first two moonwalkers, Armstrong and Aldrin collected soil and rock samples and planted an American flag on the moon.

April 11, 1970: Apollo 13 - A ‘lifeboat’ in space

In this April 1970 photo provided by NASA, Apollo 13 command module pilot John Swigert helps to hook up a lithium hydroxide canister in the lunar module, in an effort to get rid of carbon dioxide in the cabin as the spacecraft attempts to return to Earth. The explosion of an oxygen tank in the service module forced the three-man crew to rely on the lunar module as a "lifeboat." (NASA via AP)

What could have ended in another disaster for the Apollo program turned into all of NASA working together to safely bring home astronauts John Swigert, Fred Haise and James Lovell after the second oxygen tank on Apollo 13 exploded two days into their mission, causing the first tank to fail.

Lovell realized about 13 minutes after the explosion that their precious oxygen was leaking out into space.

The astronauts flew around the moon but never landed on its surface as planned, instead using the lunar module they would have used to land on the moon to stay alive. The journey home was also fraught with new dangers requiring the crew to build a device to rid the spacecraft of carbon dioxide, ration their food and water and take corrective measures to navigate home.

In the end they did make it home. The cold, hungry and sleep deprived astronauts splashed down on April 17, 1970 having lost a combined 31.5 pounds in under a week, according to NASA.

December 1972: Final moonwalk

The Apollo 17 spacecraft, containing astronauts Eugene A. Cernan, Ronald E. Evans, and Harrison H. Schmitt, glided to a safe splashdown at 2:25 p.m. EST on Dec. 19, 1972, southeast of American Samoa. (Image: NASA) (WKMG 2020)

Apollo 17 marked the last time a human has set foot on the moon. It was the only moon mission to include a scientist on the crew, astronaut and geologist Harrison Schmitt.

NASA has big plans to return under the Artemis program but its Space Launch System has faced years of delays and is over budget. It seems more likely one of NASA’s private partners will play a vital role in returning humans to the lunar surface.

1973: Skylab - America’s first space station

The final years of the Apollo program were used to develop Skylab, an orbital workshop, and the predecessor of the International Space Station. At the end of the Skylab 4 mission, the orbiting lab was powered down for four years.

July 15, 1975: Competing space programs become allies, last flight for Apollo

The American and then Soviet Union space programs worked together to see if their spacecraft -- the U.S. Apollo capsule and Roscosmos’ Soyuz spacecraft-- could rendezvous and dock opening the way for an international collaboration and future missions.

On July 15, 1975, astronauts Tom Stafford, Vance D. Brand and Donald Slayton launched from Kennedy Space Center to meet the Soyuz spacecraft. The two spacecraft successfully docked and then the two crews conducted some experiments over two days.

According to NASA, the mission symbolized the lessening of tensions between the two superpowers rather than a significant scientific endeavor.

This mission also marked the final spaceflight for Apollo.

Next steps: NASA shifts toward developing a reusable spacecraft under the Space Shuttle Program. Check back on for the next time capsule of American spacelfight history.