Most people can tell you which Apollo mission landed on the moon. Apollo 11 – July 20, 1969. So what happened to Apollo 1 through 10?
Apollo was the follow on to a program called Gemini, and lasted through the 1960s (until 1972) proving that long term manned space flight was possible. Moving quickly to counter the Soviet threat of a moon shot, Apollo was hustled in with many of the heroes of the earlier ‘right stuff’ era forming the core crew for the new, more ambitious program of landing on the moon by the end of the decade.
Apollo 1 was ready for testing in 1967. And during that testing, the program gained tragic infamy for establishing that short-cut engineering designs that result in electrical sparks within the capsule’s high oxygen environment would be tragic and fatal.
In the minutes it took to open the doors of the capsule, Apollo 1 and its three astronauts were incinerated.
NASA vowed to listen more closely to the concerns of the astronauts from that moment onwards, and appointed an astronaut to lead the engineering of each mission, bringing the team closer to a Skunkworks model than ever before. As the people sitting on top of the 36 storey Saturn V rocket, it seems fair that the astronauts were designated to be the client!
Thus Apollo missions 2 through 7* were unmanned, as NASA rapidly iterated and re-engineered the capsule design, Saturn V rocket design and electronics needed to get to the moon and back. Validated learning (in Eric Ries’ parlance) was best achieved by launch and recovery. The Apollo 1 fire had put the program back 20 months in total, endangering President Kennedy’s goal of getting to the moon and back by the end of the decade.
Meantime the Soviets roared ahead, successfully landing the first (unmanned) vehicle on the moon’s surface, and sending a craft in orbit around the moon and returning it to earth.
Apollo 7, on October the 11, 1968 saw the re-start of the USA’s manned missions. Apollo 8, 9 and 10 went in quick succession from December 1968 to June 1969. Again, rapid iterations with learning employed for the subsequent rocket and module designs.
Through adhering to these rapid engineering iterations, rather than a big design up front model, the USA redefined the word ‘possible’ for a generation to come.
* True space nerds will note that various names were given to the test launches and developments after Apollo 1, some of which were Apollo or Saturn-Apollo.