Stepping Stones to the Moon

Today is the anniversary of the launch of Apollo 11, the fifth manned mission in NASA’s Apollo program, and the first to land humans on the surface of the Moon. Apollo 11 was the culmination of a decade of work to develop the technology necessary to meet President Kennedy’s goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” As it undertook each mission that would act as a building block for Apollo, NASA recorded its growing body of knowledge in many formats, including motion picture film. Many of these films are available to researchers through the National Archives and Records Administration.

The Lunar Orbiter program was an essential step toward the Moon landing, and it is documented in a fascinating NASA film titled Close Up of the Moon: A Look at Lunar Orbiter.

NASA launched five Lunar Orbiter missions between August 1966 and August 1967 with the intention of photographing the surface of the Moon and identifying potential Apollo landing sites. Described as an “orbiting photographic laboratory,” each Lunar Orbiter spacecraft used a camera to shoot high-resolution and wide-angle images onto 70mm film. The film was developed with an onboard processor and then scanned line-by-line for transmission back to Earth. Altogether, the Lunar Orbiter missions photographed 99% of the surface of the Moon.*

In addition to identifying landing sites, NASA scientists also had to develop their understanding of the human body so that spacecraft and spacesuits could be designed to protect the astronauts. The following clip from the stunning 1970 film Moonwalk One† depicts the many tests designed for this purpose and unveils Command Module Columbia, a life-sustaining capsule that would return the astronauts safely home.

Of course, Columbia was only one piece of the puzzle. Spacesuits with Portable Life Support System backpacks were necessary to keep the astronauts alive when they exited Lunar Module Eagle to explore the surface of the Moon. Moonwalk One shows the construction of a spacesuit as we hear the women who sew and manufacture it speaking about their work and the idea of going into space. They well understood the importance of their work. One tiny defect could easily put an astronaut’s life at risk.

It was contributions like these that made it possible for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to walk on the Moon as Michael Collins orbited overhead in Columbia. Decades after the Moon landing, we sometimes forget just how big the achievement was. There were so many points at which a single small failure could have meant failure for the mission. In the end, the spacecraft and equipment performed as they were designed to, and under the skilled guidance of the Apollo crew and Mission Control in Houston, the United States became the first, and so far only, country to send astronauts to the Moon and back.

This animation from Moonwalk One shows all the stages of the Apollo 11 mission. As designed, the only component to return to Earth was CM Columbia.

Building Command Module Columbia.

*For more about the Lunar Orbiter images, check out the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project! LOIRP, funded by NASA and private partners, is successfully digitizing and recovering images from analog tapes holding the data sent back to Earth by the Lunar Orbiter spacecraft.

Moonwalk One was directed by Theo Kamecke for NASA and released in theaters in 1970. Because it contains some copyrighted material (clips from television programs, etc.), the National Archives is unable to post the entire film online.