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Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing: The Apollo Program and the Saturn V Rocket.

2009 is one of those years in which we are compelled to look back in time to the beginnings of manned space flight to re-live (or learn about, for the first time) the amazing events that opened our imaginations to all of the possibilities and adventures awaiting us beyond Earth's atmosphere. With that reflection then also comes the urge to look forward, knowing that even after all the amazing leaps in technology that humans have developed just within the last fifty years, there are even more incredible days to come!

40 years ago on July 16th 1969, human beings first walked on an object of the solar system that was not the Earth. When we try to imagine the historic occasion, it may seem like "ancient history" to those of us who were not around at the end of the sixties. This is especially true when we look at what a different world we are in today in terms of technology. However, take it from me, forty years is not really that long and can fly by you faster than you think.

As we approach the 40th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 Mission Lunar Landing, I would like to share with you just a few of the interesting, fun, incredible and perhaps some little-known facts about the Apollo Program. The beginnings of the program can be traced back to 1961 and President Kennedy's historic speech. After the tragic Apollo 1 mission fire of January 27th 1967 in which the prime crew, Edward White, Virgil "Gus" Grissom & Roger Chaffee lost their lives, up until Apollo 7 in October of 1968, the Apollo program consisted of unmanned test missions. Indeed before Apollo 4 the Apollo name was not even used (Apollo 1's name was reserved after the accident). Each mission simply had a serial number to identify it.

Apollo 4 was the first test flight of the giant Saturn V booster rocket. This is the rocket that was perfected to take the Apollo Missions safely beyond Earth's atmosphere. Its November 9th, 1967 launch was accomplished in an "All-Up" fashion. The common technique at the time for rocket test flights was to test them in stages. However, the Saturn V's first flight was as a complete rocket, with all stages included.

Walter Cronkite was reporting on this successful test launch from a studio four miles away from the launch site. When the rocket took off, ceiling tiles began falling in the studio, the building's windows began to shake and Cronkite had to dampen the studio booth's window so that it would not shatter in on him! Obviously, we learned a lot about the power of launching rockets from the Saturn V. Today observers can watch launches from a minimum safe distance of only about 2 kilometers because of the dampening system built directly into the launch pad.

Apollo missions 5 & 6 were also unmanned missions that tested further the capability of the Saturn V to deliver its payload safely into Earth orbit. The Apollo 6 mission's command module test unit landed back on Earth 10 hours after initial launch. Each of the missions to follow Apollo 6 would be manned missions. We will be back next time to talk a bit about the Apollo 7 mission which got us a few steps closer to actually touching that wild, distant object, our Moon.

Oh yes, if you ever find yourself near one of the 3 Saturn V, or "Moon Rockets" that are on public display, by all means get yourself over there for a visit. There is one at the Kennedy Space Center. There is one at the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and there is one at Johnson Space Center's Rocket Park in Houston, just down the road from where I am typing right now! You can learn all of the amazing facts about the Saturn V from books and film, but you really need to visit one and see its true size, close-up to get a real appreciation for what a major accomplishment its conception, design, construction and implementation are. It is a gigantic testament to the power of the human mind, and for all of you students out there it is a big reminder of just how far math & science can take you!