Category: Saturn v

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

Launch Day

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Apollo 12 lifted off at 11:22 a.m. EST, Nov. 14, 1969, from our Kennedy Space Center. Aboard the Apollo 12 spacecraft were astronauts Charles Conrad Jr., commander; Richard F. Gordon Jr., command module pilot; and Alan L. Bean, lunar module pilot.

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.

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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.

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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.

Splashdown

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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.

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The Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB, at our Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is the only facility where assembly of a rocket occurred that carried humans beyond low-Earth orbit and on to the Moon. For 30 years, its facilities and assets were used during the Space Shuttle Program and are now available to commercial partners as part of our agency’s plan in support of a multi-user spaceport. To celebrate the VAB’s continued contribution to humanity’s space exploration endeavors, we’ve put together five out-of-this-world facts for you!

1. It’s one of the largest buildings in the world by area, the VAB covers eight acres, is 525 feet tall and 518 feet wide.

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Aerial view of the Vehicle Assembly Building with a mobile launch tower atop a crawler transporter approaching the building. 

2. The VAB was constructed for the assembly of the Apollo/Saturn V Moon rocket, the largest rocket made by humans at the time.

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An Apollo/Saturn V facilities Test Vehicle and Launch Umbilical Tower (LUT) atop a crawler-transporter move from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) on the way to Pad A on May 25, 1966. 

3. The building is home to the largest American flag, a 209-foot-tall, 110-foot-wide star spangled banner painted on the side of the VAB.

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Workers painting the Flag on the Vehicle Assembly Building on January 2, 2007.

4. The tallest portions of the VAB are its 4 high bays. Each has a 456-foot-high door. The doors are the largest in the world and take about 45 minutes to open or close completely.

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A mobile launcher, atop crawler-transporter 2, begins the move into High Bay 3 at the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) on Sept. 8, 2018.

5. After spending more than 50 years supporting our human spaceflight programs, the VAB received its first commercial tenant – Northrop Grumman Corporation – on August 16, 2019!

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A model of Northrop Grumman’s OmegA launch vehicle is flanked by the U.S. flag and a flag bearing the OmegA logo during a ribbon-cutting ceremony Aug. 16 in High Bay 2 of the Vehicle Assembly Building.

Whether the rockets and spacecraft are going into Earth orbit or being sent into deep space, the VAB will have the infrastructure to prepare them for their missions.  

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As the Apollo 11 mission lifted off on the Saturn V rocket, propelling humanity to the surface of the Moon for the very first time, members of the team inside Launch Control Center watched through a window.

The room was crowded with men in white shirts and dark ties, watching attentively as the rocket thrust into the sky. But among them sat one woman, seated to the left of center in the third row in the image below. In fact, this was the only woman in the launch firing room for the Apollo 11 liftoff.

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This is JoAnn Morgan, the instrumentation controller for Apollo 11. Today, this is what Morgan is most known for. But her career at NASA spanned over 45 years, and she continued to break ceiling after ceiling for women involved with the space program.

“It was just meant to be for me to be in the launching business,” she says. “I’ve got rocket fuel in my blood.”

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Morgan was inspired to join the human spaceflight program when Explorer 1 was launched into space in 1958, the first satellite to do so from the United States. Explorer 1 was instrumental in discovering what has become known as the Van Allen radiation belt. 

“I thought to myself, this is profound knowledge that concerns everyone on our planet,” she says. “This is an important discovery, and I want to be a part of this team. I was compelled to do it because of the new knowledge, the opportunity for new knowledge.”

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The opportunity came when Morgan spotted an advertisement for two open positions with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. The ad listed two Engineer’s Aide positions available for two students over the summer.

 “Thank God it said ‘students’ and not ‘boys’” says Morgan, “otherwise I wouldn’t have applied.”

After Morgan got the position, the program was quickly rolled into a brand-new space exploration agency called NASA. Dr. Kurt Debus, the first director of Kennedy Space Center (KSC), looked at Morgan’s coursework and provided Morgan with a pathway to certification. She was later certified as a Measurement and Instrumentation Engineer and a Data Systems Engineer.

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There was a seemingly infinite amount of obstacles that Morgan was forced to overcome — everything from obscene phone calls at her station to needing a security guard to clear out the men’s only restroom.

“You have to realize that everywhere I went — if I went to a procedure review, if I went to a post-test critique, almost every single part of my daily work — I’d be the only woman in the room,” reflects Morgan. “I had a sense of loneliness in a way, but on the other side of that coin, I wanted to do the best job I could.”

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To be the instrumentation controller in the launch room for the Apollo 11 liftoff was as huge as a deal as it sounds. For Morgan, to be present at that pivotal point in history was ground-breaking: “It was very validating. It absolutely made my career.”

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Much like the Saturn V rocket, Morgan’s career took off. She was the first NASA woman to win a Sloan Fellowship, which she used to earn a Master of Science degree in management from Stanford University in California. When she returned to NASA, she became a divisions chief of the Computer Systems division.

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From there, Morgan 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.

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To this day, Morgan is still one of the most decorated women at KSC. Her numerous awards and recognitions include an achievement award for her work during the activation of Apollo Launch Complex 39, four exceptional service medals and two outstanding leadership medals. In 1995, she was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame.

After serving as the director of External Relations and Business Development, she retired from NASA in August 2003.

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Today, people are reflecting on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11, looking back on photos of the only woman in the launch firing room and remembering Morgan as an emblem of inspiration for women in STEM. However, Morgan’s takeaway message is to not look at those photos in admiration, but in determination to see those photos “depart from our culture.”

“I look at that picture of the firing room where I’m the only woman. And I hope all the pictures now that show people working on the missions to the Moon and onto Mars, in rooms like Mission Control or Launch Control or wherever — that there will always be several women. I hope that photos like the ones I’m in don’t exist anymore.”

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For all those who have been lucky enough to see a Saturn V in person (highly recommend a visit to the Kennedy Space Center), it is simply massive.  I cannot image just how large this plume of flames from the engines must be.  One of the great engineering marvels.