CAMBRIDGE, Mass.On Aug. 9, 1961, Charles Stark Draper, director of the Instrumentation Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology received a telegram from U.S. Senator Leverett Saltonstall (R-Mass.) informing Drake that his lab has been selected to develop the guidance navigation system of the Apollo spacecraft.
"The $4 million contract (equivalent to $25 to $35 million in today's dollars) represented a significant vote of confidence in the skills and leadership of the students, faculty and staff of the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics to rise to one of the greatest technical challenges in history," said Ian Waitz, MIT Astro-Aero Department Head, at the recently held "Giant Leaps" event at MIT.
During three days here, June 10 to 12, MIT hosted numerous people who made a difference some 40 years ago. Among the dignitaries was Chris Kraft, the director of flight operations for Apollo. "I don't believe that either the politicians or we engineers had the vision of what we were about to launch. But in retrospect what it brought about was a tremendous change in the state of the world," reflected Kraft.
|Neil Armstrong (left) and Buzz Aldrin, first two human beings ever to have left their footprints on another world, stand beside a replica of their lunar landing module that was recently built by MIT students as a "hack" and appeared on top of the great dome at MIT.|
Kraft was very animated as he described just how unprepared the U.S. space program was when the decision to send men to the Moon was made. "In those days, 90 to 95 percent of the medical profession did not think that a human could work at zero gravity; some predicted that eyeballs would pop out or that the head would explode". Allan Shepard's six-minute space trip (the first U.S. person in outer space) disproved that.
But Kraft admitted that the scientists and engineers on the Apollo project needed to read a lot of Jules Verne fiction to come up with the appropriate orbital calculations for Apollo and its predecessor Mercury and Gemini spacecraft flights.
"We were literally flying by the seat of our pants," said Kraft. "Nobody knew the equations and everybody was guessing and hoping it all will work in the end."
Kraft also explained that in those times astronauts were former U.S. Air Force pilots who tested newly developed planes before flying their missions. "The Apollo astronauts did not get the chance to test the rocket with capsule on it. It was the real thing from the get go."
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, the first two astronauts on the Moon, were front and center on MIT's lawn, standing by a reproduction of the lunar module that had carried the two men to the surface of the moon 40 years ago. Armstrong recalled his initial concerns about the Apollo 11 mission. He had believed there was only a 50 percent chance of landing on the moon. "I was elated, ecstatic and extremely surprised that we were successful," he said.