The moment is etched in the collective memory of an entire generation—the blurry black-and-white image of Neil Armstrong descending the stairs of the Apollo 11 lunar module on July 20, 1969 to become the first human being to step foot on the moon. “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.”
But this first was not the last for NASA. The United States would go on to complete six crewed missions to the moon that landed a total of 12 astronauts (all men) from 1969 to 1972 in a series of Apollo missions numbering up to Apollo 17. The only mission that failed to reach the moon’s surface was Apollo 13, which suffered a critical power and oxygen failure mid-flight, and was forced to make a heroic emergency reentry.
Rod Pyle, author most recently of First on the Moon: The Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Experience, says that the cultural and technological significance of Apollo 11 can’t be overstated, but that the ensuing Apollo missions also deserve more attention.
After Apollo 11 and Apollo 13, Public Interest Faded
For example, Apollo 12, which reached the moon almost exactly four months after Apollo 11, pulled off the space program’s first pinpoint landing. The Apollo 11 lunar module narrowly avoided being smashed to pieces on moon boulders thanks to Armstrong’s last-minute manual adjustments, but the result was an off-target arrival.
Apollo 12 commander Charles “Pete” Conrad and mission control really wanted to nail the second moon landing, which was programmed right next to the Surveyor 3 module, an unmanned NASA landing craft that had been on the moon since 1967.
“And they did it,” says Pyle. “He came right down next to Surveyor 3. It was an astonishing achievement that we don’t hear much about.”
The American public’s initial fascination with landing a man on the moon quickly faded, says Pyle. The Apollo 13 disaster grabbed TV ratings, because American astronauts’ lives hung in the balance. But by Apollo 14, less than two years after 600 million people watched the first moon landing, the prevailing attitude was, “The moon? Been there, done that.”
“I remember watching Apollo 14 as a kid, and there are these two men struggling up the side of a crater with this little wheeled equipment carrier,” says Pyle. “They’re doing the incredible work of exploration and discovery, and then the networks cut away to soap operas. Suddenly I’m watching ‘General Hospital.’ That’s the way it was through Apollo 17, and yet each of these missions did something increasingly daring and fascinating.”
Among the highlights of the later missions was the debut of the “moon buggy,” the first lunar rover. The lightweight unit folded up under the lunar landing module, ran on electric power and boasted its own onboard navigation system that communicated directly with mission control on Earth. Apollo 15 astronauts drove 17 miles across the lunar surface collecting rocks from different geological formations.