back to article 50 years ago: Apollo 10 takes an unplanned spin above the lunar surface – and sh!t gets sweary

As you sup your evening pint or enjoy some lunchtime refreshment, depending on your timezone, cast your mind back 50 years to when Apollo 10 did the "everything" part of "everything but land" and nearly ended NASA's lunar ambitions for good. Apollo 10 (pic: NASA) It's 50 years to the day since Apollo 10 blasted off: America's …

  1. Chris G Silver badge

    That must have been one if the most historic sphincter clenching moments in human history, imagine being so close to a hard unscheduled landing, a quarter of a million miles from any help in the unlikely event you survived it.

    It is incredible what was achieved with the available technology and much of that success was down to the quality and courage of the mej involved.

    1. AdamT

      Well, that was part of the selection process! I recall one anecdote (possibly from the book "The Right Stuff") where they were testing one candidate (possibly John Glen) and he was strapped into the multi-axis spinning chair, carrying out tasks with smoke and flashing bright lights going on, when they dropped a ton of scrap metal onto a big metal plate right behind him. Apparently the only evidence that he'd even noticed was a single big jump on the heart monitor, then back to normal. Some later evidence that "the right stuff" didn't always work well when forming a larger crew but no doubt that at the start of the space programme, "calm under pressure" where "pressure = imminent death" was an absolute necessity...

  2. MJB7

    Last Man on the Moon - so far.

    See title

    I had hoped my son would be able to consider moving to Lunar City. Here's hoping a grandchild will have the option.

    (Icon because it's the nearest thing to a space suit.)

  3. Aladdin Sane

    Did the Apollo missions use extra fuel for the massive balls the astronauts obviously had?

    1. Marcelo Rodrigues

      "Did the Apollo missions use extra fuel for the massive balls the astronauts obviously had?"

      Nah, it balanced out in the end - by the lack of all that fear they wouldn't be dragging around.

  4. Saruman the White Silver badge

    Lets be honest folks, the crews of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions were all Real Men. I raise my glass to them, each and every one of them!

    1. ITAMRocks

      If you ever get the chance go and take a look at a Gemini capsule. Lovell & Borman spent almost 14 days cooped up in one of those, utterly beyond belief. At least they had the coolest space suits probably ever.

      Mercury capsules were also small but they were designed for flights lasting hours rather than days.

  5. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese

    The ever-ambitious NASA suggested the crew go ahead and land if all went well

    I never knew that a landing had been a possibility on this mission. Sounds like a somewhat casual and cavalier approach by NASA - assuming you haven't had any problems, do you fancy popping down to the lunar surface and making possibly the most celebrated act of the century?

    1. Mark 85 Silver badge

      Did the NASA guy suggest trying to land near a filling station since they purposely did not fill the fuel tanks?

    2. Saruman the White Silver badge

      I always thought that this was some controller's idea of being clever. NASA had a very thoroughly thought-out plan for getting to the moon, based on the idea of a set of incremental stages, each of which would test one part of the incredibly complex mission at a time. So Apollo 9 was tasked with simply going to the moon and coming back, Apollo 10 would actually perform everything but actually arrive at the surface, while Apollo 11 would actually touch down. Because of this the Lunar Lander carried by Apollo 10 was not capable of landing and taking off - it didn't have some essential equipment fitted (this was still being integrated back on Earth) and by no means had enough fuel to reach lunar orbit from the surface.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        <pedant mode>

        Apollo 7 - first manned flight. Tested Command/Service Module - 11 days in Low Earth Orbit

        Apollo 8 - went to the moon without a lunar module

        Apollo 9 - tested lunar module + docking in LEO (another 11 days)

        </pedant mode>

        1. MrReal

          "tested lunar module"

          To test the LM would require it to land on the moon and (the ascent stage) to take off again after while seeing how the LM dealt with the heat imbalance (one side was in full sun).

          Both LM landing and takeoff remained untested, Apollo 10 only tested the docking.

          1. Gene Cash Silver badge

            No, Apollo 10 tested about 80% of the landing, including the abort systems that would otherwise (hopefully) never have been used.

  6. Red Ted Silver badge

    Charlie Brown at the London Science Museum

    Having looked at it a number of times, it really does look like something that has hurtled through the atmosphere at incredible speeds.

    To have been inside it when it did definitely required balls of steel!

    1. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese

      Re: Charlie Brown at the London Science Museum

      I think the other 'balls of steel' factor would be being the lone person left in the CM while other two guys go down to the moon. The sense of isolation must be incredible.

      1. Aladdin Sane

        Re: Charlie Brown at the London Science Museum

        Obligatory xkcd.

        1. Peter X

          Re: Charlie Brown at the London Science Museum

          What about the guy who took Elon Musk's car out for a spin around Mars?

          1. Aladdin Sane

            Re: Charlie Brown at the London Science Museum

            He's a Star Man.

      2. A. Coatsworth

        Re: Charlie Brown at the London Science Museum

        Edit: Ninja'd by Aladdin Sane

        Balls of steel? Definitely!

        Isolation? not necessarily: (obligatory)XKCD

      3. ratfox

        Re: Charlie Brown at the London Science Museum

        Due to the distances involved by the moon orbit, that person was nominated in the What If...? xkcd book as the human that was furthest away from any other human in history.

        (Probably, unless somebody got lost on a boat somewhere around Tasmania before Australia was inhabited)

    2. steelygaze

      Re: Charlie Brown at the London Science Museum

      I expect it looks a bit charred. As a 13 year old living in Suva Fiji I got up just before dawn to watch the rentry of Apollo 10 with my father. It looked like a steadily moving fireball coming out of the west. Every now and again bits of what I assume was the ablative heat shield would separate giving it a long blazing tail. It would have taken at least two or three minutes to pass overhead before disappearing in the east. I think they were touching down near Samoa to the east of us. A very vivid memory, hard to imagine being inside that.

      I didn't know it was in Science Museum. I will go and have a look when I am next in London.

  7. JeffyPoooh

    Question about the "2 seconds"

    They were as low as 47,000 feet from the Moon, and they were "2 seconds" from crashing into the Moon.

    Is anyone aware of any explanation for the combination of these two factoids?

    I don't recall seeing anything about them actually reaching a height above the Moon of, say, only 2,000 feet. I don't believe that they were descending at 23,500 feet per second (in addition to their forward velocity). So perhaps the 2 seconds was from a 'point of no return', or somrthing like that, where the impact would be much later. So it's unclear to me.

    Thank you.

    1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson

      Re: Question about the "2 seconds"

      My guess is that 2 seconds more would have meant the situation became unrecoverable, and crashing would be unavoidable, not that they would crash in a mere 2 seconds

      1. JeffyPoooh

        Re: Question about the "2 seconds"

        Yep. The 'Point of no return' is probably the explanation.

        Somebody should ask if they had parachutes, in case they needed to jump to safety. ;-)

        1. Saruman the White Silver badge

          Re: Question about the "2 seconds"

          Don't forget, the moon is like some pubs I know.

          No atmosphere to speak of and definitely no sign of a good beer.

  8. DropBear

    With all the respect that is due (which is ALL the respect there is of course), unless we're talking about a "soft" push-button here I'm a bit puzzled about how this could have happened - either a flip switch or a turn switch have pretty distinct actions for their different states, and attempting to set them into a position they were already in would feel immediately wrong even without looking. I guess I have some googling to do...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      either a flip switch or a turn switch have pretty distinct actions for their different states, and attempting to set them into a position they were already in would feel immediately wrong even without looking

      The PGNCS to AGS guidance control switch was a simple toggle switch that you can see here (top left control panel, uppermost toggle switch on the RHS, a little above the 'ABORT STAGE' button, labelled 'GUID CONT':-

      From the article, Cernan said that they hardly looked at the switches when they were busy. Presumably Stafford made the assumption that it was in the PGNCS position when going through his checklist, and simply toggled it without looking, inadvertently switching back to PGNCS mode.

      1. Jellied Eel Silver badge

        Space Engineers!

        So looks like I have something in common with real astronauts!

        The Lunar Module Pilot exclaimed "SON OF A BITCH" over the open microphone as the spacecraft corkscrewed over the surface.

        I do that in Space Engineers, often followed by a mental note to add gyros (or more gyros) if I or my craft survive the experience.

        As for toggles, this is why I like RealSwitches(tm). So presumably a checklist could be to check switch is toggled up/down/left/right, and fingers can feel that a whole lot easier than if it's a fake button on a touch screen.

        But I guess that episode also demonstrated why it's a good idea to have people that can fly/not panic and survive, rather than placing their trust in software written by a coder who doesn't have skin in the game. Or just dead by bug.

    2. SkippyBing

      'attempting to set them into a position they were already in would feel immediately wrong even without looking'

      There's a mental process called cognitive dissonance where you carry out an automatic action without realising it's the wrong one. It's possible all they were thinking was toggle that switch, and did, without registering which way up it was. I've read an account by a helicopter pilot who dropped an under-slung load rather than turn on the landing light, which must have been a bit of a surprise to all involved! In that case there were two switches on opposite sides of the control.

      1. Gene Cash Silver badge

        From usenet, ages ago, comp.risks:

        "He was carrying the bombs on one pylon, and the refueling pack on the other. During the run in, there seem to have been some Stores Management Issues, and they nailed the boat with the refueling pod."

        1. SkippyBing

          I think that was probably an S-3 Viking in the first Gulf War, I remember seeing photos of one with a refuelling pod included in the markings on the nose for how many bombs it had dropped!

  9. Michael H.F. Wilkinson
    Thumb Up

    Thanks for bringing back more memories!

    I didn't know that Charlie Brown was in the London Science museum. Must go over and see it (and get the kids to see it)

    1. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese

      Re: Thanks for bringing back more memories!

      I didn't know that Charlie Brown was in the London Science museum. Must go over and see it

      I remember seeing it when I was a very small person, so must only have recently arrived there. Must ask my Dad if our trip had been planned because it was a new exhibit.

      I had some time to kill in London last year and popped back to the Science Museum for a look around....the space gallery was far and away the best bit...worth it for Charlie Brown and Black Arrow / Prospero.

      1. phuzz Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: Thanks for bringing back more memories!

        The Flight exhibit on the top floor is pretty good (but less interesting for small people).

        There's some one-of-a-kind exhibits in there, including Frank Wittle's first jet engine, and the Schneider Trophy, as in, the actual Schneider Trophy trophy itself, next to the S.6B that won it. There's the first Hawker P1127 (the prototype that lead to the Harrier) and Alcock and Brown's Vickers Vimy (first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight).

        Basically, the more of a plane geek you are, the more fun you'll find it.

    2. ITAMRocks

      Re: Thanks for bringing back more memories!

      It's awesome. I cried. We were there to see Tim Peake's Soyuz but for me Apollo 10 was the highlight. It's been to the frickin moon and it's literally within touching distance. Being a 1970 kid Apollo was experienced secondhand for me and so has mythical and iconic status. Would be a bit like seeing the remains of Jimi's guitar he torched at Monterey.

  10. Black Betty

    Alternate history movie plot.

    Moon Nazis shoot them down.

    Dialogue: Houston you're not going to believe this. Snoopy is taking fire from the Red Baron. We're going down!

  11. This post has been deleted by its author

  12. Herby

    Charlie Brown & Snoopy...

    What about Linus & Lucy...

    Other than that is the title of a Vince Guaraldi jazz riff used on the _Peanuts_ specials.

  13. Mark Dempster

    >The ever-ambitious NASA suggested the crew go ahead and land if all went well<

    That contradicts another version of events that I heard years ago (might even have been in the book 'First Man'?), which was that NASA deliberately put insufficient fuel into the craft because they were worried that the astronauts might be a little 'gung-ho' & decide to go down in history as the first men on the moon

    I wonder which version is true? Giving them the option to try if they felt confident enough doesn't really sound like NASA...

    1. dgc03052

      I suspect the real reason less fuel was loaded was because the LM was overweight - they would want to test the system as a whole with the expected weight and balance. Then they would half-joking make the comments about not enough fuel to land.

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