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When Apollo 10 Nearly Crashed Into the Moon

May 21, 2019 in History

By Amy Shira Teitel

Apollo 10 marked NASA’s last step before going for Apollo 11′s full lunar landing. But the practice run came close to failure.

On May 22, 1969, almost four days and six hours after leaving the Earth, the crew of Apollo 10 was enjoying a delightfully uneventful mission. Rather, it was as uneventful as a mission to the moon could be.

Commander Tom Stafford and Lunar Module Pilot Gene Cernan had just returned from their close pass by the lunar surface and were readying to go through the staging maneuver that would bring them into the correct lunar orbit to rejoin Command Module Pilot John Young waiting in the Command-Service module. On schedule, the LM’s ascent engine fired.

Then all hell broke loose.

The crew saw the lunar horizon swivel past their window half a dozen times as Cernan yelled out “Son of a bitch!” Apollo 10’s lunar module, with two astronauts on board, was careening out of control a quarter of a million miles from home.

A view of the Moon’s surface photographed by the Apollo 10 astronauts in May of 1969.

Apollo 10 Was a Full Dress Rehearsal for Apollo 11

Apollo 10 marked NASA’s last step before going for the full lunar landing with Apollo 11. To that point, the space agency’s approach to landing on the moon had been incremental. Apollo 7 had tested the command-service module (CSM) in Earth orbit in October of 1968. Two months later, Apollo 8 had taken that same spacecraft for a test flight to the moon, ensuring it would be able enter and leave lunar orbit without any problems. In March of 1969, Apollo 9 was the first to take the full Apollo stack for a test drive, flying both the CSM and the lunar module (LM) on a simulated lunar landing mission in the relative safety of Earth orbit.

READ MORE: How Landing the First Man on the Moon Cost Dozens of Lives

Apollo 10’s mission plan was in effect a full dress rehearsal of a lunar landing that would stop just short of the surface. This would give NASA a final check that the CSM and LM could fly properly in lunar orbit. The lunar lander, later nicknamed Snoopy, would descend almost to the moon’s surface and then reascend and re-dock with the command module.

There was some concerns that the irregular gravitational environment around the moon from …read more


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