Apollo, Tested and Prepped for The Final Countdown!

NASA drawing, to scale, of Little Joe II and three Saturn rockets, for Apollo. In the public domain because it’s a work of the US government’s NASA.

We last discussed in the previous article the meaning of the letter designated missions of the Apollo Program that had followed the Apollo 1 catastrophe of January, 1967. Before One, there had been other tests of the Apollo components since the early 1960’s. The Little Joes had been one such test vehicles of the future Apollo capsule and escape tower system. The Little Joe II always reminds me of a mini version of Apollo.

Later test missions of Apollo components and Boilerplate spacecraft would be fitted on the powerful Saturn rockets. (Boilerplate spacecraft are non-functioning dummy spacecraft most commonly used to test manned spacecraft.) When coupled with Apollo components, these missions were designated as AS missions or Apollo/Saturn configured Spacecraft. There had been previous test missions of the Saturn I rocket before Apollo 1 starting with mission AS-201, followed by AS-202 and AS-203. The two hundred series of these test flights were designated for the Saturn I and Saturn 1B rockets, were as the 500 series were for the Saturn V [Moon] rocket.

In fact the designation, “Apollo 1” is a posthumous name given as a tribute to the fallen astronauts in honor of their sacrifice. The actual designation for One was AS-204, which would have been the fourth test flight of the AS-200 series and that it technically made it Apollo 4. But rather than rename these previous test missions as Apollo 1, 2, and 3, and since the fourth mission never got off the ground, AS-204 remained as Apollo One, as Apollo’s Two and Three went off into oblivion.

The program resumed with the test flight of Apollo 4 in November, 1967 leading the way and up to a year later, Apollo VII which would be the C mission, the first manned mission. It was the mission that the ill-fated crew of Apollo 1 should have flown.

Apollo 10, launched on May 18, 1969, would be the final dress rehearsal for the first moon landing. The Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) would come within 47,000 feet of the lunar surface. At that altitude the LEM ascent stage separated and returned the two astronauts to unite with the Command Module and its pilot. The crew were all veterans of spaceflight. John W. Young had flown on Gemini 3 and Gemini 10, and Thomas P. Stafford had flown on Gemini 6 and Gemini 9 the latter with Eugene A. Cernan.

Upcountry History Museum 11-24-2013 Apollo 10 – Snoopy To The Moon – Snoopy and Charlie Brown Figures.
Apollo Moon landing mission profile. Derived from Apollo 8 mission profile.

Now this begs the question, having come so close, why didn’t they just land on the Moon? The simple answer was that the LEM (or “Snoopy” as it was called) was not ready for a lunar landing and it would have been too risky for the Astronauts.  Craig Nelson wrote in his book “Rocket Men” that NASA took special precautions to ensure Stafford and Cernan would not attempt to make the first landing. Nelson quoted Cernan as saying “A lot of people thought about the kind of people we were: ‘Don’t give those guys an opportunity to land, cause they might!’ So the ascent module, the part we lifted off the lunar surface, was short-fueled. The fuel tanks weren’t full. So had we literally tried to land on the Moon, we couldn’t have lifted off.” That, in my opinion, is kind of freakish on NASA’s part to risk that, if true. What if in an emergency the crew needed to make a landing to fix a problem?

Apollo and the naming of spacecraft:  I speculate too that NASA would not want “Snoopy” to be the first to land on the Moon. Whenever the LEM separated from the Command/Service module (CSM), the two spacecraft had been given call sign names for ease of identification. The crews were allowed to name their crafts as Apollo 9 astronauts did: GumDrop and Spider; and as did Apollo 10: Snoopy and Charlie Brown.

Replicas of Snoopy and Charlie Brown…Capcom Charlie Duke seated in foreground. Courtesy of NASA

After the flight of Apollo 10’s Charlie Brown and Snoopy, assistant manager for public affairs Julian Scheer wrote to George M. Low, the Manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), suggesting “the Apollo 11 crew be less flippant in naming their craft.”

The success of Ten’s mission now led the way for the final countdown of putting men on the Moon and returning them safely to the Earth.  And so, for Eleven, the two spacecraft would be the given patriotic names: Columbia and Eagle. It’s been said that CSM spacecraft, Columbia is in reference to Christopher Columbus. And of course the Eagle is in reference to the majestic American Bald Eagle, the national symbol designated by the Second Continental Congress in 1782.

Although this was an achievement for all humankind, this was also a crowning moment for the United States of America in the midst of the Vietnam War, social unrest and the Cold War with its technological and geopolitical rival, the Soviet Union.


Apollo manned development mission patches. Click on a patch to read the main article about that mission:

Apollo 1 Mission Patch courtesy of NASA

Apollo 7 Mission Patch courtesy of NASA

Apollo 8 Mission Patch courtesy of NASA

Apollo 9 Mission Patch courtesy of NASA

Apollo 10 Mission Patch courtesy of NASA

Apollo 11 Mission Patch courtesy of NASA