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Hoffmann would always show up at 10:59 to make sure we were still open. He’d yell and curse and threaten to fire us all if we closed early. I was 17 and worked the night shift at a Dairy Barn store on Long Island, selling milk and bread. But this night it was different. We left a little after 10 p.m. because there were just no more customers to be had.

It was eerie seeing the streets deserted, traffic lights turning with no cars in either direction and none for miles. It was the exciting night of the moon landing, July 20, 1969 and everyone was home glued to their television sets watching and waiting. Hoffmann was probably at home too.

They had already landed hours before. It took a while but eventually the fuzzy pictures indicated the side of a structure, the Eagle lander module. Just before 11 p.m. you could see a person emerge and struggle down the ladder.

Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for a man” wasn’t small at all. He had to drop about 3 1/2 feet from the foot of the Eagle’s ladder to the surface. I looked over and saw my mother crying from emotion. The awesome ability of America was shouted to the world in those tense moments. You have to admit, the moon is a tough place to explore. By rocket it is three days journey to get there from Earth. There is no atmosphere to spread out the searing solar radiation that hits the moon’s surface. Its gravity is tiny, only one-sixth that of Earth, making it hard to walk and balance. The astronauts had to move around by slowly loping or hopping with both feet like a kangaroo. There is no water in the central regions the Apollo teams explored. Above all, they went using 1960s technology. But, you have to admit, it worked. Let’s take a very short look at some interesting facts.

The main Saturn V rocket that blasted the crew into space was designed under the guidance of Wernher von Braun at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. You may recall that as a young man, von Braun worked for the Nazi Germany rocket development program during World War II. He helped design and develop the V-2 rockets at Peenemünde that bombed London.

Historians think it is quite possible that without the direction of von Braun, America may never have gone to the Moon. There were very few rocket scientists in the US after the war, a carry-over from the terrible treatment that our own pioneer in the field, Robert Goddard, received.

The Saturn V’s size and payload capacity dwarfed all other previous rockets successfully flown at that time. With the Apollo spacecraft on top, it stood 363 feet tall and weighed over 3,000 tons. The Saturn V consisted of three stages with the second and third stages using liquid hydrogen as a fuel due to its low weight density. The first stage, the largest one, with five Rocketdyne F-1 engines, used a highly refined form of kerosene, RP-1, as the propellant because by volume, kerosene is significantly more powerful than liquid hydrogen. This allowed the size of the first stage to be reduced by a factor of three.

If something had gone wrong in the first few moments after lift-off, there was enough chemical energy stored in the 203,000 gallons of fuel to give an explosion equivalent of a small atomic bomb.

This actually happened in Russia during the space race. In those days, the Russians had developed the N1 rocket as a competitor to the Saturn-V. About the same height and power, their version was a complete failure.

During the second launch attempt of an N1, the rocket crashed back onto its launch pad shortly after liftoff and exploded, resulting in one of the largest artificial non-nuclear explosions in human history. Completely embarrassed by the loss, the USSR covered this up until the 1990s. It is said that every component of the Apollo program had the “living daylights” tested out of it, primarily because we were concerned with human lives. This helped NASA prevail and the program become a success.

By comparison, the Russian N1 moon rocket was never put on a test stand to see how its engines reacted in unison when firing. This led to a failure in every N1 test launch. While on the moon, Armstrong and Aldrin created a now-famous image as they erected the American flag. This wasn’t as easy as it looked. The pole went in the first 5 to 6 inches of lunar soil easily but then met with resistance.

The astronauts had to lean the flag back slightly to get it to stay in the ground. By the time the last Apollo mission (17) was over three years later, 12 men had walked on the lunar surface.

Some people now say that America isn’t really great after all. There was even a recent movie about the moon landing that purposely left out the flag placement. Well, it’s been 50 years and no other country has even come close to duplicating this achievement.

Not great?

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Gary Hanington is Professor Emeritus of physical science at Great Basin College and chief scientist at AHV. He can be reached at garyh@ahv.com or gary.hanington@gbcnv.edu.

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