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Choice morsels discovered and misplaced stories recalled about early astronauts in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs during the race to the Moon...

Project Mercury began the race

There were six solo spaceflights of America's one-man Mercury capsules by six astronauts. The first was in May 1961 and the last was in May 1963. The first was the shortest, 15 minutes, 22 seconds. Longest was the last at 34 hours, 19 minutes.

Clothing worn by America's seven original Mercury astronauts -- Alan Shepard, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra and Deke Slayton -- as well as training equipment, log books, photographs and personal mementos are in the Astronaut Hall of Fame near Cape Canaveral at Titusville, Florida.

Project Gemini bridged the gap

America launched ten two-man Gemini capsule flights, carrying 20 astronauts to Earth orbit between March 1965 and November 1966. The longest flight was 14 days by Gemini 7.

Apollo completed the final leg of the journey

The first live color TV from space was on Apollo 10. The crew used the first portable color TV camera, which weighed "only" 10.5 pounds and cost $250,000 to develop.

Eleven of NASA's three-man Apollo capsules were launched on Moon-preparation flights and actual flights to the Moon. The flights blasted off between October 1968 and December 1972. They carried 33 astronauts. Three of the flights circled the Moon and six landed on the Moon. The longest flight was 12 days, 13 hours, 48 minutes.

Lightning struck the mighty Saturn 5 moon rocket twice during lift off of Apollo 12 from Cape Canaveral on November 14, 1969.

To protect the Apollo 11 astronauts from germs, a NASA doctor called off a dinner President Richard M. Nixon had wanted to give for Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins on July 14, 1969, the night before they were to leave for the first Moon landing. Later Collins said, "I'm sure presidential germs are benign."

Where did the Apollo astronauts land on the Moon?
  • Apollo 11 landed at Mare Tranquillitatis (Sea of Tranquility)
  • Apollo 12 at Oceanus Procellarum (Ocean of Storms), a large young area of the Moon previously visited by the unmanned probes Luna 9, Luna 13, Surveyor 1 and Surveyor 3
  • Apollo 14 at the Fra Mauro formation cone crater
  • Apollo 15 at at Hadley Rille
  • Apollo 16 at Cayley-Descartes formation in the lunar highlands
  • Apollo 17 at at Taurus-Littrow, a highland area on the border of Mare Serenitatis
Unable to steal the thunder

Apollo 11 was to be launched July 15, 1969, to make the first manned landing on the Moon on July 20. In an attempt to dull the Apollo 11 publicity, the USSR sent the unammned probe Luna 15 on July 13 on a mission to land an unmanned lunar rover on the Moon, pick up a soil sample, and return it to Earth. Luna 15 arrived in lunar orbit 48 hours before Apollo 11, but the attempt failed. The probe orbited the Moon 52 times, then crashed onto the lunar surface on July 21.

Walking on the Moon

Spacesuits were vital to astronauts walking on the Moon because there was no oxygen and temperatures ranged from minus 250 to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. They constantly were bombarded by high velocity micrometeroids, gravity was zero, and the vacuum threatened to boil body fluids. Even so, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong asked Buzz Aldrin on July 20, 1969, "Isn't it fun?"

Tracy Knauss of Tennessee was said to have the world's largest moonwalk collection in a climate-controlled bank vault. The collection includes:
  • 60 miles of audio tape recording ABC, CBS and NBC broadcasts
  • 500 newspapers from 50 states and seven countries
  • 185 different July 21, 1969, day-after newspaper front pages from Anchorage to Rome
  • personal letters from Neil Armstrong before and after Apollo 11
  • gifts from the first man to walk in space, Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov
  • even a single sheet of white paper bearing the signatures of each of the 12 men who walked on the Moon
The Moon rocks

The Apollo astronauts found the Moon covered by a layer, from 3 to 66 feet deep, of fine soil and rock fragments called regolith. Water, wind and life, which change Earth's soil, are not found on the Moon. That means that lunar soil has built up on the airless surface over billions of years of bombardment by meteorites, most of which probably are so small they would have burned in Earth's atmosphere. The meteorites shattered solid rock and scattered debris widely, mixing the soil in a process scientists call gardnering. The astronauts found no sedimentary rocks. All the rocks they found were igneous -- solidified volcanic lava.
    Minerals in the Moon rocks were mostly the same as in Earth lava, although three new minerals were discovered. One was named Tranquillityite for the Apollo 11 landing site. Another was labeled Armalcolite for Apollo 11 astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins. The third new mineral was named Pyroxferroite.
Tripping merrily across the dusty and orange soil, these guys picked up a lotta rocks in a short time...
    Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin collected 48.5 lbs. of rocks during 21 hours 36 minutes on the Moon.

    Apollo 12 astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean gathered 74.7 lbs. in 31 hours 31 minutes.

    Apollo 14's Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell scooped up 96 lbs. in 33 hours 31 minutes.

    Apollo 15's David Scott and James Irwin collected 170 lbs. in 66 hours 55 minutes.

    Apollo 16's John Young and Charles Duke gathered 213 lbs. in 71 hours 2 minutes.

    Apollo 17's Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt collected 243 lbs. in 75 hours.
Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, the first geologist in space, found the most colorful stuff on the Moon -- orange glass -- near Shorty Crater. That suggested the possibility of ice within the Moon.
    Soil and rocks from the Moon were not returned only by Americans. In 1970, the USSR's unmanned probe Luna 16 landed at Mare Foecunditatis and picked up 101 grams of soil, sealed it in a box, and launched itself back to Earth. That was the first automated sample retrieval from another celestial body.

    In 1972, the USSR unmanned probe Luna 20 probe, the second USSR sample return mission, landed at Mare Crisium, collected 5 oz. of sub-surface soil with a hollow drill, put the soil in box, and returned to the USSR.

    In 1974, the USSR's unmanned probe Luna 23 made a soft landing on the Moon. Its drill was damaged, but a soil sample was returned to Earth.

    In 1976, the USSR's unmanned probe Luna 24, the last unmanned lunar soil sampler in the series, completed a soft landing at Mare Crisium. Its automatic drill penetrated 6.6 ft., retrieved 3.9 oz. subsoil, sealed it in a box and blasted off for Earth.
Everybody wants in on the fun. Japan said in 1996 it hopes someday to land a soil sampler and moonquake measurer on the Moon. Equipment aboard an Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) unmanned lander would penetrate the lunar soil.

The Moon rovers

The first lunar rover, a wheeled vehicle on the Moon, was carried to the lunar surface by the USSR's unmanned probe Luna 17 in 1970. Luna 17 landed at Mare Imbrium and sent out the instrumented Lunokhod 1 lunar rover vehicle to get soil samples and analyze density and composition. Lunokhod broadcast TV over its 2.5 mile range and observed stars with an X-ray telescope.
    The next year, in 1971, U.S. Apollo 15 astronauts David Scott and James Irwin landed on the Moon at Hadley Rille. They drove the first manned Moon rover, a four-wheel battery-powered vehicle, 17 miles along the front of Apennine Mountain. They picked up rocks and soil and sunk probes which revealed a hot interior of Moon, maybe radioactive decay.
Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, in 1972 during man's sixth and last landing on the Moon, in the Littrow Valley at the foot of the Taurus Mountains, took the longest ride in a Moon car. They drove their lunar rover 21 miles at speeds of up to nine mph. Unfortunately, Cernan snagged a hammer and ripped the fender on the rover. He patched it with plastic Moon maps. He also dented the rover's tires driving over rocks.

Blowing down the flag

As Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin blasted off in their lunar excursion module (LEM) from the Moon's surface on July 21, 1969, on a return trip up to the command service module Columbia in lunar orbit, their exhaust blast toppled the American flag they had planted in the lunar soil into the dirt.

The last man on the Moon

Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan was the last man on the Moon. He left a plaque which read, "Here Man completed his first exploration of the Moon December 1972 A.D. May the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind."

Taking a walk on the way home

In 1971, U.S. Apollo 15 astronaut Alfred M. Worden took the first-ever deep-space spacewalk on the way home from the fourth manned Moon landing. At 197,000 miles from Earth, he stepped outside Apollo 15 for 16 minutes to retrieve two film cassettes with pictures he had made of the Moon from lunar orbit while David Scott and James Irwin had been walking on the Moon.

Naming Moon craters and asteroids

Astronomers named 25 craters on the Moon for space pioneers. Such memorials usually commemorate dead persons, but the International Astronomical Union paid tribute to a dozen U.S. and USSR space pioneers in 1970. Most of the craters named after American space fliers are in and around the 280-mi.-wide Apollo crater on the far side of the Moon. Most craters honoring cosmonauts also are on the far side, in and around the 233-mi.-wide lava basin known as Mare Moscoviense.


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