During the 1960s there was a space race between the US and the USSR. President John Kennedy had challenged the US to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth before the end of the decade. This year will be the 50th anniversary of when man first set foot on the moon in July 1969 in the historic Apollo flight.

It is, however, important to remember the Apollo flights that came before the successful moon landing. Apollo 7 was launched on a small Saturn 1B booster. The flight was an earth orbital flight where the Apollo command service module was tried out and it performed flawlessly.

Apollo 8 was an audacious mission where the first manned Apollo/Saturn V rocket was launched towards the moon where it successfully orbited the moon and returned safely to the earth. Apollo 9 was an earth orbital mission where the command service module and the lunar module were test flown. Manoeuvres essential for flying to the moon were tested in earth orbit, including rendezvous and docking.

Apollo 10 was a full dress rehearsal. All aspects of a moon landing were carried out, including releasing the lunar module from the command module stopping just short of landing on the moon. This allowed Nasa to test the hardware and all procedures without the pressure of a moon landing.

Apollo 10 also set some records which still stand today

The Apollo 10 astronauts were Tom Stafford, Eugene Cernan and John Young. This was a very experienced crew that had all flown in space before. Stafford, a former Air Force test pilot, was the commander. He had flown on Gemini 6A with Wally Schirra and Cernan on Gemini 9. Cernan, a naval aviator, was the lunar module pilot. Young, also a naval aviator, was the command module pilot and he had already flown on Gemini 3 and Gemini 10.

The Apollo/Saturn V rocket is composed of several parts. The Saturn V is the booster rocket and still the largest ever successfully flown rocket. It was composed of three stages which fired sequentially, dropping each stage before the next one ignited. The Apollo spacecraft was composed of a command service module (CSM) and a lunar module (LM). The command module housed three astronauts and was the only part to return to earth. The service module carried a rocket motor and fuel and consumables to support the command module.

The lunar module was composed of two parts, the descent and ascent stage. They both dropped out of lunar orbit to land on the moon but only the ascent stage returned using its own engine and using the descent stage as a launching pad.

The massive rocket took off from Pad 39 B at the Kennedy Space Centre on May 18, 1969. Although there was heavy vibration the rocket reached earth orbit safely. The astronauts then fired the third stage to increase their speed and leave the earth’s gravity to travel towards the moon (translunar injection). Young then flew the CSM away from the third stage and turned around to dock with the LM and then separate from the third stage to reach the moon.

Once they orbited the moon Stafford and Cernan entered the LM, they separated from the CSM and dropped towards the surface of the moon, just as Apollo 11 would do some two months later. As the LM fell to about 15 kilometres above the moon’s surface the ascent stage separated from the descent stage and fired its rocket to reach orbit and link with the CSM.

Unfortunately, there was a problem as the capsule started spinning and the flight nearly ended in disaster. The astronauts yelled some expletives as they grappled to regain control of the capsule and managed to reach orbit. When all the astronauts were safely in the command module they separated from the ascent stage and returned to earth. The CM splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on May 26. The flown Command Module is on loan to the Science Museum in London.

Apollo 10 allowed Nasa to test all the components of their moon rockets. It also allowed them to test earth-moon communications and to test mission control coping with two rockets around the moon. The flight was a great success and this enabled Nasa to fly Apollo 11 in July and successfully land on the moon.

Apollo 10 also set some records which still stand today. The Apollo 10 astronauts attained the highest speed record of 39,897kph. They also have the record of travelling the furthest away from home at 408,950km. These records still stand.

Gordon Caruana Dingli is a surgeon, who has followed spaceflight for the last 50 years.

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