(3 March 1969) — The Apollo 9 (Spacecraft 104/Lunar Module 3/ Saturn 504) space vehicle is launched from Pad A, Launch Complex 39, Kennedy Space Center (KSC) at 11 a.m. (EST), March 3, 1969. Aboard the spacecraft are astronauts James A. McDivitt, commander; David R. Scott, command module pilot; and Russell L. Schweickart, lunar module pilot. The Apollo 9 mission will evaluate spacecraft lunar module systems performance during crewed Earth-orbital flight. Apollo 9 is the second crewed Saturn V mission.
Since our earliest ancestors gazed up from dimming campfires to marvel at the night sky, the stars have been a source of awe and wonder for humankind. After thousands of years of tracking, mapping, and cataloging those mysterious points of light, twentieth century conflict brought with it an unexpected means of reaching them.
Following the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 satellite, the United States rushed to beat the Soviet Union into orbit. Though Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin earned the title of first human in space, the United States was quick to respond with their own crewed missions, eventually landing the first human on the moon.
The first crewed spacecraft to launch from the US were the tiny, claustrophobic Project Mercury spacecraft. These one-manned, bell-shaped capsules were launched atop modified Redstone and Atlas rockets, military missiles descended from the infamous German V-2 rockets of World War II. Between 1958 and 1963, the Mercury program made multiple flights, six of which (beginning in 1961) were crewed by human astronauts.
The Gemini capsules were a significant step up from the cramped Mercury capsules, capable of carrying a two-person crew. Launched atop powerful Titan II rockets, the Project Gemini missions perfected orbital rendezvous and docking procedures, paving the way for the technology, knowledge, and experience required to send astronauts to and from the moon. Both Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first two humans to walk on the moon, made their first spaceflights on Gemini missions.
Massive Saturn V rockets designed by Wernher Von Braun were used for the Apollo missions. With crews of three, these missions carried humans farther from earth than ever before, eventually culminating in six successful landings on the moon. A Saturn V rocket was also used for the Skylab missions, which saw the creation and maintenance of the first US space station. Another Saturn rocket, the Saturn IB, was later used for the Apollo-Soyuz mission, which involved orbital rendezvous and docking between an Apollo spacecraft and a Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
In 1981, the Space Shuttle program (or Space Transportation System) launched its first crewed mission. Utilizing twin solid rocket boosters and a giant external tank to help lift the glider-shaped orbiter into space, the space shuttle became the first reusable spacecraft to fly multiple missions. Without parachutes, the space shuttle landed like a plane upon return from orbit, avoiding the splashdown approach of previous spacecraft. In 2011, after 30 years of crewed operation, the Space Transport System had carried out 135 flights, including trips to the Russian Mir space station, and to the International Space Station, which relied upon the shuttle system for its construction. Now retired, the Space Transportation System remains one of the world’s most ambitious technological achievements.
Since the historic Apollo-Soyuz mission, Russia and the Unites States have worked together in the exploration of space, and the International Space Station is testament to international cooperation and friendship in space, rendering old Space Race tensions all but irrelevant. But for a relatively brief period of time, NASA’s mad dash to “beat the Russians” into orbit was very real and very relevant. In a significant way, Cold War tensions propelled the evolution of crewed rocketry like the rockets themselves propelled us into space.
We may still look up from dimming campfires to wonder at the night sky, but modern rocketry and technology have given us real hope of someday reaching out and touching the stars.
About the author:
Sean Nesler graduated Cal State Los Angeles with a BA in Television, Film and Media Studies and a minor in Science, Technology, and Medicine Studies. He’s a little obsessed with the history of space exploration, and will take any chance he gets to talk space.