Wednesday, 19 February 2014



A review of a superb documentary series that reveals the astonishing and gargantuan engineering task that faced NASA and its contractors in meeting President Kennedy's challenge of putting a man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s.

The Moon landings are often regarded as mankind's finest achievement, and this 2008 Discovery Science Channel miniseries certainly gives an in-depth account of why.  At its peak in the 1960s, NASA's Project Apollo employed nearly 400,000 people, and this series is a tribute to the scientists, engineers and astronauts who made Kennedy's audacious dream come true.

Moon Machines is a series of six forty-five minute programmes, each focussing on a particular piece of essential hardware developed specifically to place an American on the Moon by the end of 1969.  It includes episodes concentrating on the Saturn V rocket, the Command Module, the Lunar Module, the Lunar Module's Guidance Computer, the Apollo Spacesuits and the Lunar Rover.

Using hours of original historic footage from NASA and its contractors, and interviews of the surviving engineers and scientists Moon Machines records those brief years in the sixties when (regarding spaceflight at least), anything seemed possible and when if materials orcomponents didn't pre-exist, they were almost magically developed and created by NASA and its engineers.
Everything about the Apollo program was gargantuan in size, from its budget to its workforce to the hardware itself.  The first episode for example, about the development of the Saturn V launch vehicle, a monster at nearly three hundred and fifty feet tall and mankind's largest ever flying machine, reveals how the three stages of the booster were designed by an army of engineers and employees at three different companies: Boeing, North American Aviation, and the Douglas Aircraft Company.  Of the hundreds of thousands of components developed and manufactured, all had to work together... perfectly.  And all of this under the watchful eye of Wernher Von Braun and his German colleagues who worked on the V-2, from which the Saturn rockets were ultimately derived.

The series encompasses the setbacks such as the Apollo I launchpad fire when NASA lost
three astronauts, caused by inherent problems with the Command Module, the oxygen tank
explosion on board the Service Module of Apollo XIII when the Grumman-built Lunar
Module Aquarius was used as a lifeboat boat to bring Jim Lovell and his crew home, and the
numerous failures of launch vehicle stages on the test launch pad.

Every single employee interviewed in the series has a real glint of justifiable pride in their
eyes for the problems overcome and the triumphs, whether it was their work on the MIT-
developed guidance computer with its hand-wound copper wire memory, the women who
laboriously worked on the spacesuits, the Grumman engineers who produced the first ever
true spacecraft and the untestable lunar ascent engine, or the Douglas Aircraft Company
whose S-IVB Saturn V third stage worked perfectly on each mission and without which Trans-Lunar Injection and Lunar landings would not have been possible.

I love this series, probably because it bravely goes further than a mere entry-level
introduction to NASA's Apollo Program.  It delves much deeper into its history, and the
design and engineering of much of the fantastic hardware involved.  Ultimately, it is a tribute
to man's greatest ever voyage of discovery, and the amazing men and women who built the

Moon Machines that allowed it to happen.


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