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Fifty Years Ago: Apollo 11 Rolls Out to the Pad


John Uri |
May 22, 2019

On May 20, 1969, while Apollo 10 was on its way to the Moon, the Saturn V that carried Apollo 11 on its historic journey took the first steps toward its ultimate destination. Apollo 11 astronauts Commander Neil A. Armstrong, Lunar Module Pilot Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin and Command Module Pilot Michael Collins were on hand to watch their rocket make its slow trek from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) to Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. They were busy preparing for the mission by practicing for the first moonwalk and training for splashdown and recovery, including wearing Biological Isolation Garments (BIGs) to protect Earth from possible lunar microbes. The Mobile Quarantine Facility that would house them from splashdown until arrival at the Lunar Receiving Lab was delivered to the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, now NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The Lunar Module (LM) completed tests to certify it for the loads it would encounter during the Moon landing.


Left: Apollo 11 astronauts (left to right) Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin pose in front of their Saturn V rocket at Launch Pad 39A. Right: The Apollo 11 Saturn V on Launch Pad 39A. Image Credits: NASA

On May 14, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins held a press conference at the Manned Spacecraft Center to discuss their upcoming mission. They each provided explanations about their specific roles for the mission and answered numerous questions from assembled reporters. 

  

From left: Apollo 11 astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins during the May 14, 1969, preflight press conference at the Manned Spacecraft Center. Image Credits: NASA

During the week of May 5, Apollo 11 prime and backup crew members trained for the first lunar surface Extravehicular Activity, or spacewalk. The training sessions, with the astronauts wearing pressure suits in near-vacuum conditions, took place inside Chamber B of the Manned Spacecraft Center’s Space Environment Simulation Facility. These training sessions followed previous ones in Chamber B that were conducted at sea level. During the simulations, astronauts practiced operations they would conduct on the Moon, including extracting experiment packages from the LM and setting them up on the surface.


Left: Armstrong inside Chamber B during lunar surface spacewalk training. Right: Aldrin inside Chamber B during lunar surface spacewalk training. Image Credits: NASA

 To safeguard against the remote possibility that astronauts returning from the Moon might harbor potentially harmful microorganisms, NASA put in a place a stringent postflight quarantine program for the crew, their spacecraft and the lunar samples they brought back. The Lunar Receiving Laboratory at the Manned Spacecraft Center was the facility where the postflight quarantine took place—but additional measures were required for the time period between splashdown and the crew’s arrival at the laboratory. The first of these measures involved the crew members donning BIGs prior to exiting the spacecraft after splashdown. Since the crew would not carry the BIGs with them to the Moon and back, one of the recovery personnel, also clad in a BIG, was to open the hatch to the capsule after splashdown and hand the suits to the astronauts inside, who then would don them before exiting onto life rafts.

Lieutenant Clancy Hatleberg of the U.S. Navy’s Underwater Demolition Team-11 (UDT-11) served as the biological decontamination swimmer for Apollo 11. In addition to providing the crew with the BIGs, he would also spray the capsule, astronauts and himself with a disinfectant before being lifted aboard the prime recovery ship. On May 24, the Apollo 11 astronauts and Lt. Hatleberg rehearsed these procedures in the Gulf of Mexico near Galveston, Texas, using a boilerplate Apollo Command Module and supported by the Motorized Vessel Retriever. 


Left: Apollo 11 astronauts (left to right) Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins aboard Retriever, preparing for water-egress training. Right: During water-egress training, Armstrong emerges from the boilerplate Command Module as U.S. Navy UDT swimmer Lt. Clancy Hatleberg observes. Aldrin and Collins are already in the life raft. All are wearing BIGs. Image Credits: NASA

Another component of the postflight quarantine program was the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) that would house the returning astronauts, along with a flight surgeon and an engineer, from their arrival aboard the prime recovery ship to their return to the Lunar Receiving Laboratory. The MQF designated for Apollo 11, the third in a series of four units delivered to NASA from the manufacturer Airstream Company of Jackson Center, Ohio, arrived at the Manned Spacecraft Center on May 12. Airstream built the MQFs under contract to Melpar, Inc., of Falls Church, Virginia. NASA engineers had put the first MQF through extensive testing, including aboard the USS Guadalcanal, the prime recovery ship for Apollo 9. Lessons learned from those tests were incorporated into the later units.

The MQF, a highly modified 35-foot Airstream trailer, contained a lounge, galley with microwave oven, sleeping quarters and a bathroom, was powered internally by a diesel generator and batteries, and could interface with the ship and aircraft power systems. It could support six people for up to 10 days. The MQF would be offloaded from the prime recovery ship, flown aboard a transport aircraft back to Houston and finally trucked to the Lunar Receiving Laboratory. 


Left: The MQF for Apollo 11, shortly after its arrival at the Manned Spacecraft Center, is lifted from a flatbed truck. Right: Workers push the MQF into Building 228 at the Manned Spacecraft Center. Image Credits: NASA

On May 7, to certify the LM and its systems for the loads it would encounter during a lunar landing, engineers at the Manned Spacecraft Center completed the fifth and final drop test with the flight-like LM-2 in the Vibration and Acoustics Test Facility. The first four tests conducted in March and April established the functioning of all LM systems after the impacts of a lunar landing. This final test qualified the LM’s pyrotechnics, and the series of tests completed the certification of the LM for the first lunar landing. 


Left: LM-2 ascent stage during a drop test in the Vibration and Acoustics Test Facility at the Manned Spacecraft Center. Right: LM-2 landing leg just prior to a drop test. Image Credits: NASA


The Saturn V rocket that would carry Apollo 11 on its historic mission shortly after leaving the VAB for Launch Pad 39A. Image Credit: NASA
The Saturn V rocket that would carry Apollo 11 on its historic mission shortly after leaving the VAB for Launch Pad 39A. Image Credit: NASA
Backup Apollo 11 Commander James A. Lovell reads a newspaper while waiting to enter the altitude chamber. Image Credit: NASA
Backup Apollo 11 Commander James A. Lovell reads a newspaper while waiting to enter the altitude chamber. Image Credit: NASA
Backup Apollo 11 Lunar Module Pilot Fred W. Haise emerges from the altitude chamber after completing a spacewalk training run. Image Credit: NASA
Backup Apollo 11 Lunar Module Pilot Fred W. Haise emerges from the altitude chamber after completing a spacewalk training run. Image Credit: NASA