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American Civilian Space Program (NASA)


During the first half of the 1970s, with public support waning, and cutbacks in funding and personnel, the American manned space program achieved great results. From Apollo 13 (April 1970) through Apollo 17 (December 1973), eight more astronauts walked on the moon. Skylab began the U.S. venture into a permanent presence in space with three long-stay visits in 1973, which laid the foundation for the future International Space Station (ISS). Finally, international manned space cooperation started with ASTP, which would eventually lead to the mutually successful visits of the American Space Shuttle to the Russian space station Mir in the 1990s.


The 1970s quite literally started off with a bang for NASA with the now famous words "Houston, we've had a problem" from the Apollo 13 commander, James Lovell, the first man to go twice to the moon. The launch of the planned third manned lunar landing began quite uneventfully on April 11, 1970. It was a sign of America's boredom with moon flights that live transmissions from the Command Service Module (CSM) "Aquarius" were not carried live by any major TV networks. Less than one day from lunar orbit, an oxygen tank exploded blowing the side of the CSM, and causing loss of most electrical power and oxygen. The only thing that saved the astronauts was the oxygen and power reserves in the Lunar Module (LM) "Odyssey", now called a lifeboat. The lunar landing was canceled, the astronauts retreated to this lifeboat, rounded the moon using the engines of the LM, and returned safely to earth on April 17, 1970. It would be almost a year before another lunar flight was attempted.

Apollo 14 was launched on January 31, 1971, commanded by America's first man into space, Alan Shepard, who had not flown since 1961 due to a inner ear problem. Because of his medical condition, Shepard was assigned as the chief of the astronauts corps under Deke Slayton. However, by 1969, he had returned to flight status, and using his powerful position, he was selected to command the Apollo 14 mission. This was much to the disappointment of many other experienced astronauts who had flown on previous Gemini and Apollo flights. His crew consisted of Stuart Roosa and Edgar Mitchell, both rookies. The assigned landing site was the Fra Mauro area, originally assigned to the Apollo 13 mission. Apollo 14 was the last "H" Apollo flights, which called for a limited stay on the moon, and no excursions beyond visual range of the LM. Liftoff was uneventful, but after insertion into lunar orbit, the CSM had to make six attempts to dock with the LM. Once in lunar orbit, and after separation between the CSM and the LM occurred preparing for the lunar landing, a computer fault developed activating the abort system. After fixing that problem, the landing radar failed, but Stuart Roosa overcame that difficulty. Apollo 14 landed just 90 feet short of its intended target. All exploration was successful, and one of the more memorable events of the mission was a game of lunar golf by Shepard, hitting the world's longest drive in history. Apollo 14 returned to earth on February 9, 1971.

The last three missions of the Apollo lunar program (Apollo 15, 16, and 17) were called "J" missions. Upgraded spacecraft systems, improved life-support equipment and space suits, and the introduction of the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), greatly enhanced the scientific return of all these flights. All of these improvements would permit lunar excursions of 20 miles versus 2-5 miles with the previous Apollo "H" missions. It was with Apollo 17 that the first Scientist-Astronaut, Harrison Schmitt, a trained geologist, finally went to the moon. Apollo 17 was also the only night launch of a Saturn V. Manned lunar exploration ended with the landing of Apollo 17 on December 19, 1972. The cost to send twelve men to the moon was approximately $24 billion dollars. Some say that it was not worth the cost, but most Americans look back at this period of time with great and understandable pride in the great accomplishments of American know-how, ingenuity, and technology. It appears that it will be a long time before such a feat is duplicated.

America's first, and so far its only, space station was the Skylab missions of 1973. The prime idea behind Skylab was to utilize as much as possible hardware and technology from the Apollo program. Skylab had its early beginnings from an original proposal from Douglas Aircraft Corporation in 1962, calling for modifying a Saturn IB second stage into a orbital station. Once in orbit, the second stage would be drained, and made habitable. This was known as the wet concept. Another concept called for using a Apollo CSM / LM combination as a long-term orbital space station. In 1965, the Apollo Applications Program (AAP) was setup within NASA and in that same year, the go-ahead was given for the Orbital Workshop (OWS) as part of the AAP. In 1970 this OWS formally became Skylab, but with a new twist. Instead of using a spent Saturn IB second stage (wet concept), the space station would be launched by a Saturn V, and be launched dry. But all this seemed academic when the Skylab was launched on May 14, 1973, and problems occurred immediately. Apparently, 63 seconds after launch, the micrometeorite shield came loose, taking with it one of two solar panels. To make matters worse, the remnants of the micrometeorite shield had jammed the other solar panel. Skylab was a useless piece of space junk, orbiting without power or thermal protection. But the ingenuity of flight controllers on the ground, and the repair mission of the first Skylab crew saved the station. This provided for three successful long-duration space stays of 28, 59, and 84 days in space. The 84 day Skylab record was not broken until 1977 with the flight of Soyuz 26 to the Salyut 6 space station. The scientist-astronauts (chosen in 1977) proved themselves a extremely valuable and worthy partner in space exploration, because Skylab 3 Commander, Alan Bean, claimed "the flight was 50 per cent more productive having (them) aboard " in earth resources and space sciences research. A derelict Skylab made a final curtain call in 1979 when it reentered the earth’s atmosphere over Australia.

The call for international cooperation in space goes back to the earliest days of the space race. When the race was neck and neck, cooperative overtures were diplomatically rebuffed, but limited contact was maintained during the time period of 1962 through 1969. This was the political environment until Apollo 8 orbited the moon in 1968 and Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969. Again, President Nixon made overtures about a joint spaceflight in 1970 and the Soviet responded positively. A mutual agreement was signed in 1972. The original idea called for an Apollo spacecraft to dock with a Salyut space station, but this was changed to a linkup between a Soyuz and Apollo spacecrafts. NASA needed this flight desperately since no manned missions were planned for until 1978. The Skylab missions were scheduled for 1973 and the first Space Shuttle launches were not to occur until 1978-79 at the earliest (the first launch did not occur until 1981). Once the agreement was made, it took another three years (1972-1975) for the mutual docking device to be designed and manufactured (a Soviet design was accepted), and mutual operations to be agreed upon. It became know as the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP). The American crew selected included a seasoned veteran, Tom Stafford, and two rookies, Vance Brand and Deke Slayton, although Slayton could hardly be called a rookie since he had been intimately connected with the American space program for 16 years when he finally flew on ASTP. This mission offered Deke, one of the original Mercury astronauts, the last opportunity to finally flew on a spacecraft. The Russians chose two veterans, Alexi Leonov, the world's first space walker, and Valery Kubasov. Soyuz 19 was launched first on July 15, 1975 and the Apollo 18 lifted off 7 _ hours later. The two spacecraft linked up two days later on July 17. They orbited linked together for three days before Soyuz 19 returned to earth. Apollo 18 stayed in orbit four more days. This was to be America’s last manned mission for over six years. For the rest of the 1970s decade, NASA's manned flight focus concentrated on designing, building, and testing the Space Shuttle system.



Nicholas M. Short, Sr. email:
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