The madness of verifying the flight systems of the Lunar Module did verge on the weird for a time.

You may know that the Command Module design was subjected to many a test for flotation, recovery, launch escape, thermal, electrical, vacuum, and on and on. For some of these tests, the Command Module was attached to a special solid-motor rocket called the Little Joe II. (Its name honored its predecessor, the Mercury spacecraft test rocket, the Little Joe).

This is what the Apollo tests often looked like.

Little Joe II

So apparently, a few engineers believed that the second spacecraft in the new lunar orbit rendezvous configuration needed flight qualification checks.

Totally reasonable, except that the spacecraft in question was the Lunar Module.

To the defense of the engineers, very early concepts of the LM (back in its “LEM” days) appeared with a somewhat sleeker and quasi-streamlined appearance than the final result. Here’s one appearance from a 1963 NASA video noting the lunar orbit rendezvous procedure.

LEM Concept 1963

I don’t believe that the NASA engineers forgot that the LM was intended only for flight in outer space. They simply wanted to get a firm grip on the vehicle’s flight stability. And earthlings would naturally want to fly something to get that data.

But hey. Atmosphere. The moon hasn’t one, and the LM would never work in one.

So this note appeared in a NASA chronology digest on the Apollo design history.

December 10-17

As a result of wind tunnel tests, Langley Research Center researchers found the LEM Little Joe II configuration to be aerodynamically unstable. To achieve stability, larger booster fins were needed. However, bigger fins caused more drag, shortening the length of the flight. MSC was investigating the possibility of using more powerful rocket engines to overcome this performance degradation. (See February 10, 1964.)

“Monthly Progress Report No. 11,” LPR-10-27, p. 42; MSC, “ASPO Status Report for Week Ending December 17, 1963.”

The principle of a non-aerodynamic spacecraft took a while to sink in for many, since the early LM designs included many earthly elements that were not needed at all in microgravity and lunar gravity. Seats, for one.

Maybe one reason for the disconnect in thought is that everyone involved at the time had grown up with space vehicles in science fiction that often looked like you’d fly it directly out of the atmosphere to the moon, and back to land on earth. Chesley Bonestell was among many that made brilliant art that captured this.

moon rocket - bonestell 1960
“Unloading Empty Fuel Tanks on the Moon” by Chesley Bonestell, from Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1960

It was also barely a year since NASA decided on lunar orbit rendezvous over earth-orbit rendezvous and direct-ascent to get to the moon, using vehicles that would have kept a streamlined appearance.

Apollo Evolution

Grumman (despite its own history as an aircraft manufacturer) learned quickly to toss many aviation concepts out the window to realign the Lunar Module as a true spacecraft. It would be obliged to work with Newtonian principles in flight, sure. But it didn’t need to have hybrid aerodynamic qualities needed by the Command Module. It certainly didn’t need to use features that added more weight.

By February 1963, the Manned Spacecraft Center finally gave the engineers the clue to go work on something more important.

February 10

MSC directed Grumman to stop all work on the LEM Little Joe II program. This action followed the ASPO Manager’s decision against a testing program for the LEM comparable to that for the CSM. (See December 10-17, 1963.)

We should definitely give the Langley guys some points for bat-crap crazy diligence.


The Apollo Spacecraft – A Chronology (NASA document)

Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft (NASA publication)

Project Apollo Lunar Orbital Rendezvous Technique (1963 NASA film)

The Chesley Bonestell, LLC Image Gallery