National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Glenn Research Center

Tom Benson: Apollo Program

July 10, 2013

The Academites had the privilege to meet again with Tom Benson in the evening. On one of the conference room tables, a model Apollo capsule sat in the shadow of a Saturn V model. Once people took their seats, Tom set out on his characterization of the Apollo years.

Mr. Benson started out by giving an overview of all the benefits that the investment in space travel returns: stimulating the economy and research in various fields, as well producing spinoff technologies. The moon was chosen as a specific target in space because it is the nearest heavenly body to Earth and presented the most feasible benchmark.

During World War II, the US developed and used the atomic bomb for the first time. But they weren’t the only ones with nuclear capabilities. The USSR was also developing nuclear weapons, and with the availability of intercontinental missiles, the threat of nuclear war grew. With a stockpile of nuclear warheads and long-range missiles on both sides, it quickly became clear that if one nation attacked the other, the other would quickly retaliate. This led to the concept of M.A.D. (Mutually Assured Destruction). Both sides knew that they couldn’t test their missiles across oceans, so they chose to test their capability by launching into space. Thus the Space Race was born.

Russia won the first benchmark by putting Sputnik in orbit in 1957. In response, the US established NASA and charged the organization with putting the first man in space. The Mercury Program was the direct result and tried to get the first man to suborbital altitudes. However this also went to the Russians as Yuri Gagaren made his famous flight into space. During this time there was tension between the astronaut leader, John Glenn Jr., and the lead engineer, Von Braun. John, ever the military pilot, wanted to be largely in command of the space modules, but Von Braun was adamant that no human could safely pilot the spacecraft. Of course eventually, the astronaut won out.

The next phase of the NASA program now aimed to shoot straight for the moon! The Gemini Program was started to begin testing space capabilities to go near the moon. One tragic accident occurred while testing a Gemini capsule on the ground. 3 astronauts sat inside the sealed, high-pressure capsule in a 100% oxygen atmosphere. A spark from the internal wiring caused a fire and led to the loss of 3 human lives.

Tom continued with a thorough description of the Apollo program ending with the high point of Tom’s visit: the moon rock specimen he had brought with him. It was encased in a clear pyramid of material and everyone was in awe at the sight. The specimen made its way through to everyone’s hands as the Academites examined it and took pictures with it.