Launched less than four months after Apollo 11 put the first astronauts on the Moon, Apollo 12 was more than a simple encore. After being struck by lightning on launch – to no lasting damage, fortunately – Apollo 12 headed for a rendezvous with a spacecraft that was already on the Moon. The mission would expand the techniques used to explore the Moon and show the coordination between robotic and human exploration, both of which continue today as we get return to return astronauts to the Moon by 2024.
Barely 40 seconds after liftoff, lightning struck the spacecraft. Conrad alerted Houston that the crew had lost telemetry and other data from the mission computers. As the Saturn V engines continued to push the capsule to orbit, ground controllers worked out a solution, restarting some electrical systems, and Apollo 12 headed toward the Moon.
Cameras at the Kennedy Space Center captured this image of the same lightning bolt that struck Apollo 12 striking the mobile platform used for the launch.
On the Moon
Apollo 12 landed on the Moon on Nov. 19, and on the second moonwalk Conrad and Bean walked approximately 200 yards to the Surveyor 3 spacecraft. One of seven Surveyor spacecraft sent to land on the Moon and to gather data on the best way to land humans there, Surveyor 3 had been on the Moon for more than two years, exposed to cosmic radiation and the vacuum of space. Scientists on the ground wanted to recover parts of the spacecraft to see what effects the environment had had on it.
Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad examines the Surveyor 3 spacecraft before removing its camera and other pieces for return to Earth. In the background is the lunar module that landed Conrad and lunar module pilot Alan Bean on the Moon.
Apollo 12 splashed down on Nov. 24. When Artemis returns astronauts to the Moon in 2024, it will be building on Apollo 12 as much as any of the other missions. Just as Apollo 12 had to maneuver off the standard “free return” trajectory to reach its landing site near Surveyor, Artemis missions will take advantage of the Gateway to visit a variety of lunar locations. The complementary work of Surveyor and Apollo – a robotic mission preparing the way for a crewed mission; that crewed mission going back to the robotic mission to learn more from it – prefigures how Artemis will take advantage of commercial lunar landers and other programs to make lunar exploration sustainable over the long term.
It will take incredible power to send the first woman and the next man to the Moon’s South Pole by 2024. That’s where America’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket comes in to play.
Providing more payload mass, volume capability and energy to speed missions through deep space than any other rocket, our SLS rocket, along with our lunar Gateway and Orion spacecraft, creates the backbone for our deep space exploration and Artemis lunar mission goals.
Here’s why our SLS rocket is a deep space rocket like no other:
It’s a heavy lifter
The Artemis missions will send humans 280,000 miles away from Earth. That’s 1,000 times farther into space than the International Space Station. To accomplish that mega feat, you need a rocket that’s designed to lift — and lift heavy. With help from a dynamic core stage — the largest stage we have ever built — the 5.75-million-pound SLS rocket can propel itself off the Earth. This includes the 57,000 pounds of cargo that will go to the Moon. To accomplish this, SLS will produce 15% more thrust at launch and during ascent than the Saturn V did for the Apollo Program.
We have the power
Where do our rocket’s lift and thrust capabilities come from? If you take a peek under our powerful rocket’s hood, so to speak, you’ll find a core stage with four RS-25 engines that produce more than 2 million pounds of thrust alongside two solid rocket boosters that each provide another 3.6 million pounds of thrust power. It’s a bold design. Together, they provide an incredible 8.8 million pounds of thrust to power the Artemis missions off the Earth. The engines and boosters are modified heritage hardware from the Space Shuttle Program, ensuring high performance and reliability to drive our deep space missions.
A rocket with style
While our rocket’s core stage design will remain basically the same for each of the Artemis missions, the SLS rocket’s upper stage evolves to open new possibilities for payloads and even robotic scientific missions to worlds farther away than the Moon like Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. For the first three Artemis missions, our SLS rocket uses an interim cryogenic propulsion stage with one RL10 engine to send Orion to the lunar south pole. For Artemis missions following the initial 2024 Moon landing, our SLS rocket will have an exploration upper stage with bigger fuel tanks and four RL10 engines so that Orion, up to four astronauts and larger cargoes can be sent to the Moon, too. Additional core stages and upper stages will support either crewed Artemis missions, science missions or cargo missions for a sustained presence in deep space.
It’s just the beginning
Crews at our Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans are in the final phases of assembling the core stage for Artemis I— and are already working on assembly for Artemis II.
Through the Artemis program, we aim not just to return humans to the Moon, but to create a sustainable presence there as well. While there, astronauts will learn to use the Moon’s natural resources and harness our newfound knowledge to prepare for the horizon goal: humans on Mars.
We call it a spacesuit, almost as if it’s something an astronaut pulls out of the closet. It’s more accurate to think of it as an astronaut’s personal spacecraft: self-contained and functional, with a design focused on letting astronauts work safely in space. Just as we’ve been able to improve rockets, satellites and data systems over 60 years, we’ve made great improvements to spacesuits.
When the first woman and next man step foot on the Moon in 2024, they will be wearing the next generation of spacesuit, called the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit, or xEMU for short. The new suit can be used under different conditions for various tasks, including walking, driving rovers or collecting samples. The design will also allow the suits to be used for spacewalks on the space station, or Gateway – our upcoming spaceship that will orbit the Moon. Future missions to Mars can build on the core suit technologies with additional upgrades for use in the Martian atmosphere and greater gravity.
60 Years of Improvements
Even before we had astronauts, pilots were using pressurized suits to fly at high speeds at altitudes where the air was too thin to breathe. Our first spacesuits – shown here worn by the first NASA astronauts in 1959 – were variations of the suit used by Navy test pilots.
The Gemini spacesuit – shown here in a photo of astronaut Ed White making the first American spacewalk in 1965 – added a line that could connect the astronaut to the spacecraft for oxygen, and which also served as a tether when they left the capsule for a spacewalk.
The Apollo astronauts had to completely separate themselves from the lunar module, so we added a portable life support unit, which the astronauts carried on their backs. The photo above shows the life support system on the suit of Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin as he deploys lunar experiments in 1969.
Though the bulky suits weren’t exactly easy to maneuver, astronauts still managed to get their jobs done and enjoy themselves doing it.
A Great Moment in Spacesuit History: Singing on the Moon
What, you wouldn’t sing if you were on the moon?
Different Suits for Different Functions
We have used different suits for different purposes. During the Space Shuttle program, astronauts inside the shuttle wore these orange “pumpkin” suits, which were designed to be worn within the cabin.
On spacewalks, special suits – made to be worn only outside the spacecraft – provided high mobility, more flexibility and life support as the astronauts worked in zero gravity.
During construction of the International Space Station, we should have issued a hard hat and a pair of steel-toed boots with each suit. Astronauts conducted more than 200 spacewalks as part of building the station, which took place from 1998 until 2011. Above, an astronaut at the end of the shuttle’s robotic arm is maneuvered back into the shuttle’s payload bay with a failed pump during the shuttle’s final flight in 2011.
Spacesuits are rarely the story themselves, but they make it possible for our astronauts to get their jobs done, even when they have to improvise. In the picture above, astronauts on a 1992 space shuttle mission are conducting a spacewalk they hadn’t originally planned on. The crew was originally supposed to use a specially designed grab bar to capture the INTELSAT VI satellite. Two attempts to use the grab bar on two-person spacewalks failed, so we improvised a plan to add a third spacewalker and have all three go outside and literally grab the satellite.
August 26 is celebrated in the United States as Women’s Equality Day. On this day in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was signed into law and American women were granted the constitutional right to vote. The suffragists who fought hard for a woman’s right to vote opened up doors for trailblazers who have helped shape our story of spaceflight, research and discovery. On Women’s Equality Day, we celebrate women at NASA who have broken barriers, challenged stereotypes and paved the way for future generations. This list is by no means exhaustive.
These women were trailblazers at a time when most technical fields were dominated by white men. Janez Lawson (seen in this photo), was the first African American hired into a technical position at JPL. Having graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, she later went on to have a successful career as a chemical engineer.
Mathematician Katherine Johnson, whose life story was told in the book and film “Hidden Figures,” is 101 years old today! Coincidentally, Johnson’s birthday falls on August 26: which is appropriate, considering all the ways that she has stood for women’s equality at NASA and the country as a whole.
Morgan’s career at NASA spanned over 45 years, and she continued to break ceiling after ceiling for women involved with the space program. She excelled in many other roles, including deputy of Expendable Launch Vehicles, director of Payload Projects Management and director of Safety and Mission Assurance. She was one of the last two people who verified the space shuttle was ready to launch and the first woman at KSC to serve in an executive position, associate director of the center.
Oceola Hall worked in NASA’s Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity for over 25 years. She was NASA’s first agency-wide Federal Women’s program manager, from 1974 – 1978. Hall advanced opportunities for NASA women in science, engineering and administrative occupations. She was instrumental in initiating education programs for women, including the Simmons College Strategic Leadership for Women Program.
When those first six women joined the astronaut corps in 1978, they made up nearly 10 percent of the active astronaut corps. In the 40 years since that selection, NASA selected its first astronaut candidate class with equal numbers of women and men, and women now comprise 34 percent of the active astronauts at NASA.
"A couple of firsts here all make me smile,” Blackwell-Thompson said. “First launch director for the world’s most powerful rocket — that’s humbling. And I am honored to be the first female launch director at Kennedy Space Center. So many amazing women that have contributed to human space flight, and they blazed the trail for all of us.”
As we move forward as a space agency, embarking on future missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond, we reflect on the women who blazed the trail and broke glass ceilings. Without their perseverance and determination, we would not be where we are today.
“I felt I was an accepted team member. It was a great experience and a unique opportunity.”
Ruth Ann Strunk, a math major, was hired in 1968 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center as an acceptance checkout equipment software engineer. She monitored the work of contractors who wrote the computer programs designed to check out the command module, lunar module and the Apollo J mission experiments. These experiments were conducted aboard the service modules on Apollo 15, 16 and 17 by the command module pilots.
“I am proud of the advancement and the number of women who are working and enjoy working here,” Strunk said. “It was a wonderful opportunity NASA afforded me during Apollo that I have been able to use ever since.”
More than 45 years since humans last set foot on the lunar surface, we’re going back to the Moon and getting ready for Mars. The Artemis program will send the first woman and next man to walk on the surface of the Moon by 2024, establish sustainable lunar exploration and pave the way for future missions deeper into the solar system.
Our powerful new rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), will send astronauts aboard the Orion spacecraft a quarter million miles from Earth to lunar orbit. The spacecraft is designed to support astronauts traveling hundreds of thousands of miles from home, where getting back to Earth takes days rather hours.
Astronauts will dock Orion at our new lunar outpost that will orbit the Moon called the Gateway. This small spaceship will serve as a temporary home and office for astronauts in orbit between missions to the surface of the Moon. It will provide us and our partners access to the entire surface of the Moon, including places we’ve never been before like the lunar South Pole. Even before our first trip to Mars, astronauts will use the Gateway to train for life far away from Earth, and we will use it to practice moving a spaceship in different orbits in deep space.
Expeditions to the Moon
The crew will board a human landing system docked to the Gateway to take expeditions down to the surface of the Moon. We have proposed using a three-stage landing system, with a transfer vehicle to take crew to low-lunar orbit, a descent element to land safely on the surface, and an ascent element to take them back to the Gateway.
Return to Earth
Astronauts will ultimately return to Earth aboard the Orion spacecraft. Orion will enter the Earth’s atmosphere traveling at 25,000 miles per hour, will slow to 300 mph, then parachutes will deploy to slow the spacecraft to approximately 20 mph before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.
We will establish sustainable lunar exploration within the next decade, and from there, we will prepare for our next giant leap – sending astronauts to Mars!
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo Moon landing, remember that many Apollo astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, the first person on the Moon, were test pilots who flew experimental planes for NASA in our earliest days. Since long before we landed on the Moon, aeronautics has been a key piece of our mission.
The U.S. founded the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), our predecessor, in 1914. NACA, collaborating with the U.S. Air Force, pioneered the X-1 aircraft, the first crewed plane to achieve supersonic speeds. NACA was largely responsible for turning the slow, cloth-and-wood biplanes of the early 1900s into the sleek, powerful jets of today.
When NACA was absorbed by the newly formed NASA in 1958, we continued NACA’s mission, propelling American innovation in aviation. Today, our portfolio of aeronautics missions and new flight technologies is as robust as ever. Below are seven of our innovations flying out of the lab and into the air, getting you gate-to-gate safely and on time while transforming aviation into an economic engine!
Our X-59 Quiet SuperSonic Technology (QueSST) flies faster than the speed of sound without the window-shattering sonic boom. This innovation may kick off a new generation of quiet, supersonic planes that can fly over land without disturbing those below. Once adopted, QueSST’s technologies could drastically reduce the time it takes to fly across the U.S. and even to other countries worldwide!
Our X-57 Maxwell will be the first all-electric X-plane, demonstrating the benefits distributed electric propulsion may have for future aviation. The Maxwell is named for Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who is known for his theories on electricity and electromagnetism. The name is also a play on words because, as X-57 engineer Nick Borer said, “It has the maximum number of propellers.”
Our airborne science program provides Earth scientists and astrophysicists with the unique insights that can be gleaned from the air and above the clouds. By flying aircraft with Earth science instruments and advanced telescopes, we can gather high resolution data about our changing Earth and the stars above. Airborne science outreach specialist (and champion aerobatics pilot) Susan Bell highlights Fire Influence on Regional to Global Environments Experiment – Air Quality (FIREX-AQ), a joint mission with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“FIREX-AQ will investigate the impact of wildfires and agricultural fires on air quality,” Susan said. “Living in the Western U.S., I witness firsthand the impact that smoke can have on the communities we live in and up in the air as a pilot.”
Our Search and Rescue (SAR) office serves as the technology development arm of the international satellite-aided search and rescue program, Cospas-Sarsat. Recently, the Federal Aviation Administration adopted SAR’s guidance regarding the testing and installation of the NASA-developed beacons required for planes. These recommendations will greatly improve aviation beacon performance and, ultimately, save more lives.
SAR developed the recommendations through crash test research at our Langley Research Center’s gantry in Hampton, Virginia, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin trained for the Apollo Moon landing!
Our Mission Adaptive Digital Composite Aerostructure Technologies (MADCAT) team at our Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley uses strong, lightweight carbon fiber composites to design airplane wings that can adapt on the fly. The composite materials are used to create “blocks,” modular units that can be arranged in repeating lattice patterns — the same crisscrossing patterns you might see in a garden fence!
Our Revolutionary Vertical Lift Technology (RVLT) project leverages the agency’s aeronautics expertise to advance vertical flight capabilities in the U.S. The RVLT project helps design and test innovative new vehicle designs, like aircraft that can take off like a helicopter but fly like a plane. Additionally, the project uses computer models of the complex airflow surrounding whirring rotors to design vehicles that make less noise!
We’re with you when you fly — even on Mars! The 1958 law that established the agency charged us with solving the problems of flight within the atmosphere… but it didn’t say WHICH atmosphere. We’re applying our aeronautics expertise to the thin atmosphere of Mars, developing technologies that will enable flight on the Red Planet. In fact, a small, robotic helicopter will accompany the Mars 2020 rover, becoming the first heavier-than-air vehicle to fly on — err, above — Mars!