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Following the success of the Apollo 8 circumlunar mission, NASA believed that it could achieve a Moon landing by the summer of 1969 and meet President John F. Kennedy’s goal. Much work remained to accomplish that objective. Three crews and their backups trained for the next three Apollo missions while workers at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida prepared the spacecraft and rockets for those flights. With Apollo 9 in the home stretch to test the Lunar Module (LM) in Earth orbit in early March, preparations also continued for Apollo 10 in May, a lunar orbit test of the LM that served as a dress rehearsal for the Moon landing, and for Apollo 11, the landing mission itself planned for July.
Left: Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman and his wife Susan, at left, meet the Royal family at Buckingham Palace during the London stop of their European tour. Middle: Borman, left, meets with French President Charles de Gaulle and U.S. Ambassador to France R. Sargent Shriver during the Paris stop of the tour. Right: In Brussels, Borman, left, presents a model of the Saturn V rocket to Jean Rey, president of the European Commission.
Left: In Den Haag, The Netherlands, Apollo 8 astronaut Borman, right, describes the Lunar Module to Queen Juliana. Middle: At The Vatican, Borman, left, presents a photograph of the Moon from Apollo 8 to Pope Paul VI. Right: The Bormans, Frank, left, Susan, and sons Edwin and Frederick, hold a press conference in Lisbon, the last stop of their European tour.
As President Richard M. Nixon announced on Jan. 30, Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman, his wife Susan, and their two children Frederick and Edwin, set off on their European goodwill tour on Feb. 2, flying aboard a presidential Air Force jet. Borman’s Apollo 8 crewmates James A. Lovell and William A. Anders could not participate in the tour because they had already begun training as part of the Apollo 11 backup crew. The Bormans’ 19-day tour took them to London, Paris, Brussels, Den Haag, Bonn, West Berlin, Rome, Madrid, and Lisbon. They met with royalty, politicians, scientists, and Pope Paul VI, gave lectures during which Borman narrated a film from his flight, and held numerous press conferences.
Left: Apollo 9 astronauts Russell L. Schweickart, left, James A. McDivitt, and David R. Scott pose in front of the control panel for the spacecraft simulators. Middle: Fisheye lens view of Schweickart, left, and McDivitt in the Lunar Module simulator. Right: A technician poses in the Apollo A7L spacesuit, including the Portable Life Support System backpack used for the first time during Apollo 9.
Apollo 9 astronauts James A. McDivitt, David R. Scott, and Russell L. Schweickart planned to conduct the first crewed test of the LM during their 10-day Earth orbital mission. They and their backups Charles “Pete” Conrad, Richard F. Gordon, and Alan L. Bean spent many hours in the spacecraft simulators and training for the spacewalk component of the mission. The planned spacewalk, the first and only one before the Moon landing mission, would not only test the spacesuit and its Portable Life Support System but also demonstrate an external crew transfer should a problem arise with the internal transfer tunnel or hatches. McDivitt, Scott, and Schweickart provided details of their mission to reporters during a press conference on Feb. 8 at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), now NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. They explained that during the mission phase when the two vehicles fly separately, they will use the call signs Spider for the LM and Gumdrop for the Command Module (CM), lighthearted references to the shapes of the respective spacecraft.
Left: Apollo 9 astronauts Russell L. Schweickart, left, James A. McDivitt, and David R. Scott during the preflight crew press conference at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), now NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Right: Senior NASA management assembled for the Apollo 9 Flight Readiness Review at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC): Associate Administrator for Manned Flight George E. Mueller, left, Apollo Program Director Samuel C. Phillips, KSC Director Kurt H. Debus, MSC Director Robert R. Gilruth, and Marshall Space Flight Center Director Wernher von Braun.
Senior NASA managers met at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida for Apollo 9’s Flight Readiness Review the first week of February. At the end of the meeting, they set the launch date for Feb. 28. The following week, engineers in Firing Room 2 of KSC’s Launch Control Center conducted the Countdown Demonstration Test (CDDT), essentially a dress rehearsal for the actual countdown. On Feb. 12, McDivitt, Scott, and Schweickart participated in the final portion of the CDDT, as they would on launch day, by donning their spacesuits and climbing aboard their spacecraft for the final two hours of the test. Engineers began the countdown to launch on Feb. 26 but had to halt it the next day when the astronauts developed head colds. Managers reset the launch date to March 3, and the countdown restarted on March 1.
Left: The Apollo 9 Saturn V at Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida during the Countdown Demonstration Test (CDDT). Middle: Engineers in the Launch Control Center’s Firing Room 2 monitor the rocket and spacecraft during the CDDT. Right: Apollo 9 astronauts Russell L. Schweickart, left, David R. Scott, and James A. McDivitt pose in front of their Saturn V following the CDDT.
Stacking of the Apollo 10 vehicle in High Bay 2 of the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Left: The three stages of the Saturn V stacked on Mobile Launcher-3. Middle left: The Apollo 10 spacecraft, the Command and Service Modules and the Lunar Module (LM) encased in the Spacecraft LM Adapter, arrives from the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building. Middle right: Workers lift the spacecraft for stacking onto the rocket, the footpads of the LM’s folded landing gear visible. Right: Workers lower the spacecraft onto the Saturn V rocket’s third stage.
With Apollo 9 on Launch Pad 39A and almost ready to launch, workers in High Bay 2 of KSC’s Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) completed stacking of the Apollo 10 launch vehicle. The spacecraft, consisting of the Command and Service Modules atop the LM encased in the Spacecraft LM Adapter, arrived from the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building (MSOB) on Feb. 6 and VAB workers stacked it on the Saturn V rocket the same day. Engineers began to conduct integrated tests on the launch vehicle in preparation for rollout to Launch Pad 39B in mid-March. Apollo 10 astronauts Thomas P. Stafford, John W. Young, and Eugene A. Cernan and their backups L. Gordon Cooper, Donn F. Eisele, and Edgar D. Mitchell spent much time in spacecraft simulators and testing their spacesuits in vacuum chambers.
Left: Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, left, confers with support astronauts Ronald E. Evans and Harrison H. “Jack” Schmitt, the only geologist in the astronaut corps at the time, during training for deployment of the Early Apollo Science Experiment Package (EASEP). Right: Astronaut Don L. Lind, suited, practices deploying the EASEP instruments as Aldrin, in white shirt behind the dish antenna, oberves.
With their historic mission only five months away, the Apollo 11 prime crew of Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin and their backups James A. Lovell, William A. Anders, and Fred W. Haise busied themselves training for the Moon landing. Although the primary goal of the first Moon landing mission centered on demonstrating that the Apollo spacecraft systems could safely land two astronauts on the surface and return them safely to Earth, the surface operations also included collecting lunar samples and deploying experiments. During their two-and-a-half-hour surface excursion, Armstrong and Aldrin planned to deploy three instruments comprising the Early Apollo Surface Experiment Package (EASEP) – a passive seismometer, a laser ranging retro-reflector, and a solar wind composition experiment. On Jan. 21, 1969, astronauts Harrison H. “Jack” Schmitt, the only geologist in the astronaut corps, and Don L. Lind conducted a simulation of the EASEP deployment in MSC’s Building 9. Aldrin observed the simulation, obviously with great interest.
Left: Apollo 11 astronauts Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, left, and Neil A. Armstrong during geology training at Sierra Blanco, Texas. Right: Apollo 11 backup astronauts Fred W. Haise, left, and James A. Lovell at the Sierra Blanco geology training session.
Generic instruction in geology, including classroom work and field trips, became part of overall NASA astronaut training beginning in 1964. Once assigned to a crew that had a very good chance of actually walking on the lunar surface and collecting rock and soil samples, those astronauts received specialized instruction in geology. On Feb. 24, 1969, the two prime moonwalkers Armstrong and Aldrin, along with their backups Lovell and Haise, participated in their only trip specifically dedicated to geology training. The field exercise in west Texas took place near Sierra Blanca and the ruins of Fort Quitman, about 90 miles southeast of El Paso. Accompanied by a team from MSC’s Geology Branch, the astronauts practiced sampling the variety of rocks present at the site to obtain a representative collection, skills needed to choose the best sample candidates during their brief excursion on the lunar surface.
Left: Workers mount the S-IC first stage on its Mobile Launcher in the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Middle: Neil A. Armstrong stands in front of the Lunar Module simulator at the Lunar Landing Research Facility (LLRF) at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Right: Aerial view of the LLRF at Langley.
By mid-February, all three stages of the Apollo 11 Saturn V had arrived in the VAB, and on Feb. 21, workers stacked the S-IC first stage on its Mobile Launcher in High Bay 1. They finished assembling the rocket in March. In an altitude chamber in the nearby MSOB, on Feb. 10, engineers conducted a docking test between the CM and the LM. Five days later, they mated the ascent and descent stages of the LM for further testing. With the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV) still grounded following its December 1968 crash, the Lunar Landing Research Facility (LLRF) at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, remained as the only high-fidelity trainer for the descent and landing of the LM on the Moon. Armstrong practiced landings in the LLRF on Feb 12.
Lunar Receiving Laboratory and Mobile Quarantine Facility
To minimize the risk of back contamination of the Earth with any possible lunar microorganisms, NASA designed and built the 83,000-square-foot Lunar Receiving Laboratory (LRL), residing in MSC’s Building 37. The facility isolated the astronauts, their spacecraft, and lunar samples to prevent any Moon germs from escaping into the environment, and also maintained the lunar samples in as pristine a condition as possible. The Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) provided isolation for the returning astronauts from shortly after splashdown until their delivery to the LRL, an activity that required transport of the MQF on a cargo jet aircraft. On Feb. 6, following its return from sea trials, workers placed the MQF inside Chamber A of MSC’s Space Environment Simulation Facility. The test in the large vacuum chamber checked out the MQF’s emergency oxygen supply during a simulated aircraft pressure loss. Three test subjects successfully completed the test.
Left: Workers truck the Mobile Quarantine Facility (MQF) into the Space Environment Simulation Laboratory (SESL) at the Manned Spacecraft Center, now NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Middle: Workers install the MQF in Chamber A of the SESL for a test of the emergency oxygen system. Right: Test subjects inside the MQF prepare for the emergency oxygen system test in the SESL.
To be continued …
News from around the world in February 1969:
Feb. 3 – Ibuprofen launched in the United Kingdom as a prescription anti-inflammatory analgesic.
Feb. 5 – The population of the United States reaches 200 million.
Feb. 7 – British band The Who record their song “Pinball Wizard.”
Feb. 7 – Diane Krump becomes the first woman jockey at a major U.S. racetrack (Hialeah, Florida).
Feb. 8 – The Allende meteorite weighing nearly two tons explodes in mid-air and fragments fall on Pueblito de Allende, Chihuahua, Mexico.
Feb. 9 – First flight of the Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet from Everett, Washington.
Feb. 21 – First launch of U.S.S.R.’s N-1 Moon rocket, not successful.
Feb. 24 – U.S. launches Mariner 6 to fly-by Mars.
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In 1994, a joint NASA and Department of Defense (DOD) mission called Clementine dramatically changed our view of the Moon. As the first U.S. mission to the Moon in more than two decades, Clementine’s primary objectives involved technology demonstrations to test lightweight component and sensor performance. The lightweight sensors aboard the spacecraft returned 1.6 million digital images, providing the first global multispectral and topographic maps of the Moon. Data from a radar instrument indicated that large quantities of water ice may lie in permanently shadowed craters at lunar south pole, while other polar regions may remain in near permanent sunlight. Although a technical problem prevented a planned flyby of an asteroid, Clementine’s study of the Moon proved that a technology demonstration mission can accomplish significant science.
Left: The Clementine engineering model on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in Washington, D.C. Image credit: courtesy NASM. Right: Schematic illustration showing Clementine’s major components and sensors.
The DOD’s Strategic Defense Initiative Organization, renamed the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization in 1993, directed the Clementine project, formally called the Deep Space Program Science Experiment. The Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington, D.C., managed the mission design, spacecraft manufacture and test, launch vehicle integration, ground support, and flight operations. The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in Livermore, California, provided the nine science instruments, including lightweight imaging cameras and ranging sensors. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Beltsville, Maryland, provided trajectory and mission planning support for the lunar phase, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, provided trajectory and mission planning for the asteroid encounter and deep space communications and tracking through the Deep Space Network. Clementine’s primary planned mission involved the testing of new lightweight satellite technologies in the harsh deep space environment. As a secondary mission, Clementine would observe the Moon for two months using its multiple sensors, then leave lunar orbit and travel to 1620 Geographos, a 1.6-mile-long, elongated, stony asteroid. At a distance of 5.3 million miles from Earth, Clementine would fly within 62 miles of the near-Earth asteroid, returning images and data using its suite of sensors.
Left: Technicians prepare Clementine for a test in an anechoic chamber prior to shipping to the launch site. Middle: Workers lower the payload shroud over Clementine already mounted on its Titan IIG launch vehicle. Right: Liftoff of Clementine from Vandenberg Air Force, now Space Force, Base in California.
The initial idea behind a joint NASA/DOD technology demonstration mission began in 1990, with funding approved in March 1992 to NRL and LLNL to start design of Clementine and its sensors, respectively. In an incredibly short 22 months, the spacecraft completed design, build, and testing to prepare it for flight. Clementine launched on Jan. 25, 1994, from Space Launch Complex 4-West at Vandenberg Air Force, now Space Force, Base in California atop a Titan IIG rocket.
Trajectory of Clementine from launch to lunar orbit insertion. Image credit: courtesy Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
The spacecraft spent the next eight days in low Earth orbit checking out its systems. On Feb. 3, a solid rocket motor fired to place it on a lunar phasing loop trajectory that included two Earth flybys to gain enough energy to reach the Moon. During the first orbit, the spacecraft jettisoned the Interstage Adapter Subsystem that remained in a highly elliptical Earth orbit for three months collecting radiation data as it passed repeatedly through the Van Allen radiation belts. On Feb. 19, Clementine fired its own engine to place the spacecraft into a highly elliptical polar lunar orbit with an 8-hour period. A second burn two days later placed Clementine into its 5-hour mapping orbit. The first mapping cycle began on Feb. 26, lasting one month, and the second cycle ended on April 21, followed by special observations.
Left: Composite image of the Moon’s south polar region. Middle left: Image of Crater Tycho. Middle right: Image of Crater Rydberg. Right: Composite image of the Moon’s north polar region.
During the first month of mapping, the low point of Clementine’s orbit was over the southern hemisphere to enable higher resolution imagery and laser altimetry over the south polar regions. Clementine adjusted its orbit to place the low point over the northern hemisphere for the second month of mapping to image the north polar region at higher resolution. Clementine spent the final two weeks in orbit filling in any gaps and performing extra studies looking for ice in the north polar region. For 71 days and 297 lunar orbits, Clementine imaged the Moon, returning 1.6 million digital images, many at a resolution of 330 feet. It mapped the Moon’s entire surface including the polar regions at wavelengths from near ultraviolet through visible to far infrared. The laser altimetry provided the first global topographic map of the Moon. Similar data from Apollo missions only mapped the equatorial regions of the Moon that lay under the spacecraft’s orbital path. Radio tracking of the spacecraft refined our knowledge of the Moon’s gravity field. A finding with significant application to future exploration missions, Clementine found areas near the polar regions where significant amounts of water ice may exist in permanently shadowed crater floors. Conversely, Clementine found other regions near the poles that may remain in near perpetual sunlight, providing an abundant energy source for future explorers. The Dec. 16, 1994, issue of Science, Vol. 266, No. 5192, published early results from Clementine. The Clementine project team assembled a series of lessons learned from the mission to aid future spacecraft development and operations.
Left: A global map of the Moon created from Clementine images. Right: A global topographic map of the Moon based on Clementine data.
Left: Composite image of Earth taken by Clementine from lunar orbit. Middle left: Colorized image of the full Earth over the lunar north pole. Middle right: Color enhanced view of the Moon lit by Earth shine, the solar corona, and the planet Venus. Right: Color enhanced image of the Earthlit Moon, the solar corona, and the planets Saturn, Mars, and Mercury.
Its Moon observation time over, Clementine left lunar orbit on May 5, heading for Geographos via two more Earth gravity-assist flybys. Unfortunately, two days later a computer glitch caused one of the spacecraft’s attitude control thrusters to misfire for 11 minutes, expending precious fuel and sending Clementine into an 80-rotations-per-minute spin. The problem would have significantly reduced data return from the asteroid flyby planned for August and managers decided to keep the spacecraft in an elliptical geocentric orbit. A power supply failure in June rendered Clementine’s telemetry unintelligible. On July 20, lunar gravity propelled the spacecraft into solar orbit and the mission officially ended on Aug. 8. Ground controllers briefly regained contact between Feb. 20 and May 10, 1995, but Clementine transmitted no useful data.
Despite the loss of the Geographos flyby, Clementine left a lasting legacy. The mission demonstrated that a flight primarily designed as a technology demonstration can accomplished significant science. The data Clementine returned revolutionized our knowledge of lunar history and evolution. The discovery of the unique environments at the lunar poles, including the probability of large quantities of water ice in permanently shadowed regions there, changed the outlook for future scientific missions and human exploration. Subsequent science missions, such as NASA’s Lunar Prospector and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, China’s Chang’e spacecraft, and India’s Chandrayaan spacecraft, all built on the knowledge that Clementine first obtained. Current uncrewed missions target the lunar polar regions to add ground truth to the orbital observations, and NASA’s Artemis program intends to land the first woman and the first person of color in that region as a step toward sustainable lunar exploration.
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In early 1969, the goal set by President John F. Kennedy to land a man on the Moon seemed within reach. A new president, Richard M. Nixon, now sat in the White House and needed to chart America’s course in space in the post-Apollo era. President Nixon directed his science advisor to evaluate proposals for America’s next steps in space. He established a Space Task Group (STG), chaired by Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, to report back to him with their recommendations. The STG delivered its report to President Nixon on Sept. 15, 1969, who declined to select any of the options proposed. Instead, more than two years later, he directed NASA to build the space shuttle, just one element of the ambitious plans the STG had proposed.
Left: President John F. Kennedy announces his goal of a Moon landing during a Joint Session of Congress in May 1961. Right: President Kennedy reaffirms the goal during his address at Rice University in Houston in September 1962.
On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy, before a Joint Session of Congress, committed the United States to the goal, before the decade was out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. President Kennedy reaffirmed the commitment during an address at Rice University in Houston in September 1962. Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, who played a key role in establishing NASA in 1958, and under Kennedy served as the Chair of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, worked with members of Congress to ensure adequate funding for the next several years to provide NASA with the proper resources to meet that goal. Following Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, now President Johnson continued his strong support of the space program to ensure that his predecessor’s goal of a Moon landing could be achieved within the stipulated time frame. But with increasing competition for scarce federal resources from the conflict in southeast Asia and from domestic programs, Johnson showed less interest in any space endeavors that might follow the Moon landing. The space agency’s annual budget peaked in 1966 and began a steady decline three years before Kennedy’s goal was met. From a budgetary standpoint, the prospects of a vibrant post-Apollo space program did not look too rosy, the Apollo triumphs of 1968 and 1969 notwithstanding.
Left: President Richard M. Nixon, right, meets with his science advisor Lee DuBridge in the Oval Office – note the Apollo 8 Earthrise photo on the wall. Right: President Nixon, left, and Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, right, introduce Thomas O. Paine as the nominee to be NASA administrator on March 5, 1969.
On Feb. 4, just two weeks after taking office, President Nixon directed his Science Advisor Lee A. DuBridge to appoint an interagency committee to advise him on a post-Apollo space program. Nine days later, the President announced the formation of the STG to develop a strategy for America’s space program for the next decade. Vice President Agnew, as the Chair of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, led the group. Other members of the STG included NASA Acting Administrator Thomas O. Paine (the Senate confirmed him as administrator on March 20), the Secretary of Defense, and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology.
Left: Proposed lunar landing sites through Apollo 20, per NASA planning in August 1969. Right: Illustration of the Apollo Applications Program experimental space station.
At the time, the only approved human space flight programs included lunar missions through Apollo 20 and the Apollo Applications Program (AAP), later renamed Skylab, that involved three flights to an experimental space station based on Apollo technology. Beyond a general vague consensus that the United States human space flight program should continue, no approved projects existed to follow these missions when they ended by about 1975.
Left: Concept of a fully reusable space shuttle system from early 1969. Middle: Illustration from early 1969 of low Earth orbit infrastructure, including a large space station supported by space shuttles. Right: Cover page of NASA’s report to the interagency Space Task Group.
Within NASA, given the intense focus on achieving the Moon landing within President Kennedy’s time frame, officials paid less attention to what would follow the Apollo Program and AAP. During a Jan. 27, 1969 meeting at NASA chaired by Paine, a general consensus evolved that the next step after the Moon landing should involve the development of a 12-person earth-orbiting space station by 1975, followed by an even larger outpost capable of housing up to 100 people “with a multiplicity of capabilities.” In June, with the goal of the Moon landing about to be realized, NASA’s internal planning added the development of a space shuttle by 1977 to support the space station, and truly optimistically, the development of a lunar base by 1976, among other highly ambitious endeavors that included the idea that the U.S. should begin preparing for a human mission to Mars as early as the 1980s. These proposals were presented to the STG for consideration in early July in a report titled “America’s Next Decade in Space.”
Left: The Space Task Group’s (STG) Report to President Nixon. Right: Meeting in the White House to present the STG Report to President Nixon. Image credit: courtesy Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
Still bathing in the afterglow of the successful Moon landing, the STG presented its 29-page report “The Post-Apollo Space Program: Directions for the Future” to President Nixon on Sep. 15, 1969, during a meeting in the White House Cabinet Room. In its Conclusions and Recommendations section, the report noted that the United States should pursue a balanced robotic and human space program but emphasized the importance of the latter, with a long-term goal of a human mission to Mars before the end of the 20th century. The report proposed that NASA develop new systems and technologies that emphasized commonality, reusability, and economy in its future programs. To accomplish these overall objectives, the report presented three options:
Option I – this option required more than a doubling of NASA’s budget by 1980 to enable a human Mars mission in the 1980s, establishment of a lunar orbiting space station, a 50-person Earth orbiting space station, and a lunar base. A decision would be required by 1971 on development of an Earth-to-orbit transportation system to support the space station. A strong robotic scientific and exploration program would be maintained.
Option II – this option maintained NASA’s budget at then current levels for a few years then anticipated a gradual increase to support the parallel development of both an earth orbiting space station and an Earth-to-orbit transportation system, but deferred a Mars mission to about 1986. A strong robotic scientific and exploration program would be maintained, but smaller than in Option I.
Option III – essentially the same as Option II but deferred indefinitely the human Mars mission.
In separate letters, both Agnew and Paine recommended to President Nixon to choose Option II.
Left: Illustration of a possible space shuttle orbiter from 1969. Right: Illustration of a possible 12-person space station from 1969.
The White House released the report to the public at a press conference on Sep. 17 with Vice President Agnew and Administrator Paine in attendance. Although he publicly supported a strong human spaceflight program and enjoyed the positive press he received when photographed with Apollo astronauts, and initially sounding positive about the STG options, President Nixon ultimately chose not to act on the report’s recommendations. Faced with the still ongoing conflict in southeast Asia and domestic programs competing for scarce federal dollars, the fiscally conservative Nixon decided these plans were just too grandiose and far too expensive. He also believed that NASA should be considered as one America’s domestic programs without the special status it enjoyed during the 1960s, one of the lasting legacies of the Nixon space doctrine. Even some of the already planned remaining Moon landing missions fell victim to the budgetary axe. On Jan. 4, 1970, NASA canceled Apollo 20 since it needed its Saturn V rocket to launch the Skylab experimental space station – NASA Administrator James E. Webb had turned off the Saturn V assembly line in 1968 and none remained beyond the original 15 built under contract. In September 1970, reductions in NASA’s budget forced the cancellation of two more Apollo missions, and for a time in 1971 President Nixon considered cancelling two more but he relented, and they flew as the final two Apollo Moon landing missions in 1972.
Left: NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher, left, and President Richard M. Nixon announce the approval to proceed with space shuttle development in 1972. Right: First launch of the space shuttle in 1981.
More than two years after the STG submitted its report, in January 1972 President Nixon directed NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher to develop the Space Transportation System, the formal name for the space shuttle, the only element of the recommendations to survive the budgetary challenges. At that time, the first flight of the program was expected in 1979; in actuality, the first flight occurred two years later. It would be 12 years after Nixon’s shuttle decision before President Ronald W. Reagan approved the development of a space station, the second major component of the STG recommendation, and another 14 years after that before the first element of that program reached orbit. In those intervening years, the original American space station had been redesigned and evolved into the multinational partnership called the International Space Station.
The International Space Station as it appeared in 2021.
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By European Space Agency
We're joining the global community this weekend in celebrating the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. As part of our efforts to inspire the next generation of scientists, engineers and space enthusiasts, we're featuring three young professionals working with us. Here's a glimpse into the projects they're working on, and stay tuned for their videos on ESA’s Instagram for a peek into a day in their lives at ESA.
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5 min read
Preparations for Next Moonwalk Simulations Underway (and Underwater)
Deep Space Station 13 at NASA’s Goldstone complex in California – part of the agency’s Deep Space Network – is an experimental antenna that has been retrofitted with an optical terminal. In a first, this proof of concept received both radio frequency and laser signals from deep space at the same time.NASA/JPL-Caltech Capable of receiving both radio frequency and optical signals, the DSN’s hybrid antenna has tracked and decoded the downlink laser from DSOC, aboard NASA’s Psyche mission.
An experimental antenna has received both radio frequency and near-infrared laser signals from NASA’s Psyche spacecraft as it travels through deep space. This shows it’s possible for the giant dish antennas of NASA’s Deep Space Network (DSN), which communicate with spacecraft via radio waves, to be retrofitted for optical, or laser, communications.
By packing more data into transmissions, optical communication will enable new space exploration capabilities while supporting the DSN as demand on the network grows.
A close-up of the optical terminal on Deep Space Station 13 shows seven hexagonal mirrors that collect signals from DSOC’s downlink laser. The mirrors reflect the light into a camera directly above, and the signal is then sent to a detector via a system of optical fiber.NASA/JPL-Caltech The 34-meter (112-foot) radio-frequency-optical-hybrid antenna, called Deep Space Station 13, has tracked the downlink laser from NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) technology demonstration since November 2023. The tech demo’s flight laser transceiver is riding with the agency’s Psyche spacecraft, which launched on Oct. 13, 2023.
The hybrid antenna is located at the DSN’s Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, near Barstow, California, and isn’t part of the DSOC experiment. The DSN, DSOC, and Psyche are managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California.
“Our hybrid antenna has been able to successfully and reliably lock onto and track the DSOC downlink since shortly after the tech demo launched,” said Amy Smith, DSN deputy manager at JPL. “It also received Psyche’s radio frequency signal, so we have demonstrated synchronous radio and optical frequency deep space communications for the first time.”
Now that Goldstone’s experimental hybrid antenna has proved that both radio and laser signals can be received synchronously by the same antenna, purpose-built hybrid antennas (like the one depicted here in an artist’s concept) could one day become a reality.NASA/JPL-Caltech During a test of the experimental antenna, this photo of the project team at JPL was downlinked by the DSOC transceiver aboard Psyche. NASA/JPL-Caltech In late 2023, the hybrid antenna downlinked data from 20 million miles (32 million kilometers) away at a rate of 15.63 megabits per second – about 40 times faster than radio frequency communications at that distance. On Jan. 1, 2024, the antenna downlinked a team photograph that had been uploaded to DSOC before Psyche’s launch.
Two for One
In order to detect the laser’s photons (quantum particles of light), seven ultra-precise segmented mirrors were attached to the inside of the hybrid antenna’s curved surface. Resembling the hexagonal mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, these segments mimic the light-collecting aperture of a 3.3-foot (1-meter) aperture telescope. As the laser photons arrive at the antenna, each mirror reflects the photons and precisely redirects them into a high-exposure camera attached to the antenna’s subreflector suspended above the center of the dish.
The laser signal collected by the camera is then transmitted through optical fiber that feeds into a cryogenically cooled semiconducting nanowire single photon detector. Designed and built by JPL’s Microdevices Laboratory, the detector is identical to the one used at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory, in San Diego County, California, which acts as DSOC’s downlink ground station.
“It’s a high-tolerance optical system built on a 34-meter flexible structure,” said Barzia Tehrani, communications ground systems deputy manager and delivery manager for the hybrid antenna at JPL. “We use a system of mirrors, precise sensors, and cameras to actively align and direct laser from deep space into a fiber reaching the detector.”
Tehrani hopes the antenna will be sensitive enough to detect the laser signal sent from Mars at its farthest point from Earth (2 ½ times the distance from the Sun to Earth). Psyche will be at that distance in June on its way to the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter to investigate the metal-rich asteroid Psyche.
The seven-segment reflector on the antenna is a proof of concept for a scaled-up and more powerful version with 64 segments – the equivalent of a 26-foot (8-meter) aperture telescope – that could be used in the future.
An Infrastructure Solution
DSOC is paving the way for higher-data-rate communications capable of transmitting complex scientific information, video, and high-definition imagery in support of humanity’s next giant leap: sending humans to Mars. The tech demo recently streamed the first ultra-high-definition video from deep space at record-setting bitrates.
Retrofitting radio frequency antennas with optical terminals and constructing purpose-built hybrid antennas could be a solution to the current lack of a dedicated optical ground infrastructure. The DSN has 14 dishes distributed across facilities in California, Madrid, and Canberra, Australia. Hybrid antennas could rely on optical communications to receive high volumes of data and use radio frequencies for less bandwidth-intensive data, such as telemetry (health and positional information).
“For decades, we have been adding new radio frequencies to the DSN’s giant antennas located around the globe, so the most feasible next step is to include optical frequencies,” said Tehrani. “We can have one asset doing two things at the same time; converting our communication roads into highways and saving time, money, and resources.”
More About the Mission
DSOC is the latest in a series of optical communication demonstrations funded by NASA’s Technology Demonstration Missions (TDM) program and the agency’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program. JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages DSOC for TDM within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate and SCaN within the agency’s Space Operations Mission Directorate.
For more about NASA’s optical communications projects, visit:
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Ian J. O’Neill
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Last Updated Feb 08, 2024 Related Terms
Deep Space Network Space Communications & Navigation Program Space Communications Technology Space Operations Mission Directorate Space Technology Mission Directorate Technology Demonstration Technology Demonstration Missions Program Explore More
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