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“We should all feel a jolt when we see this”. The Apollo 10 Command Module

a photo of a space capsule with black background

Apollo 10 Command Module, 1969. Apollo 10, carrying astronauts Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan. Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, London

We dip into the archives with Doug Millard of the Science Museum talking about the 1969 Apollo 10 Command Module, Charlie Brown

I’m over half a century old so I remember the Apollo programme very clearly – I’m just the right age to have enjoyed Apollos 10 and 11 as an 11-year-old boy. So being granted responsibility for Charlie Brown, the Apollo 10 capsule, was almost surreal.

For those who know and recognise the capsule, it rekindles memories of an amazing story, part of an era that is drifting off into history. But for those who are unfamiliar with that project or are too young to remember, it doesn’t look like a spaceship. It’s all wrong – the wrong colour, the wrong shape. It looks like it may have been kept in a barn somewhere.

 

Of course, the reason it’s that colour and looks like it’s been made out of wood is the scorching re-entry it underwent as it came back through the Earth’s atmosphere, which burnt off the plastic heat shield. But it’s a remarkable object that signifies so many things.

It’s part of the Cold War, part of post-war global affairs, part of the space race. When we look at the object itself, we’re seeing a final, frozen moment in time, but presumably millions of man-hours went into designing, developing, testing, constructing and flying that object.

close p of handles and hatches of the Apollo Space module

Courtesy Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, London

photo showing burnt metal and protective plates on a space module

Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, London

close up of the doorway hatch of a space module

Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, London

Apollo 10 was a home for three men for eight days, which is pretty amazing in itself given that it’s so small and confined. And on top of all that, it travelled three quarters of a million miles, went into space and visited another world.

We should all feel a jolt when we see this, but Rocket science isn’t difficult, actually – the maths is tricky, but it’s actually very straightforward. Newton basically sewed it up several centuries ago.

The big challenge for us is conveying the interior, because that does sing Space Age, Star Trek, Big Science. There’s a wonderful set of controls – even though they’re 40-plus years old, they still look the real thing. Like Concorde’s cockpit, it’s impressive, but there’s a real human touch – you can still see the astronauts’ writing on the console where they’ve done a bit of arithmetic.

It’s very cramped, and disorientating because of its shape – it’s quite unlike anything we’re used to here on Earth. Of course, the astronauts were trained until they were completely used to this strange enclosure, and in weightless conditions more space would have been available.

close up of heat damage on metal panels

Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, London

close up of the doorway hatch of the Apollo 10 module

Science Museum Group Collection © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum, London

I suppose we get used to the extreme descriptions, the clichés and the myth of the whole thing, but actually it’s all true. You almost need to sweep all of that away and start afresh, look at the sheer scale of the rocket, the power of its engines.

One graphic illustration is the plot of US energy consumption from 1968 or 1969. There’s a noticeable blip in this graph, and that represents Saturn 5 taking off. It was a significant contribution to the total US energy expenditure over 12 months – it’s something that’s difficult to conceive of these days.

But there is something about leaving Earth and venturing off into the unknown, which is really quite singular.

The Apollo 10 Module is on display in the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World Gallery. 

Doug Millard was speaking to Chris Broughton. This article was previously published on Culture24.org.uk

venue

Science Museum

London, Greater London

Where else can you find life-changing objects from Stephenson’s Rocket to the Apollo 10 command module, visit award winning exhibitions, take in a science show, catch an immersive 3D movie, enjoy the thrills of a special effects simulator, introduce children to science with fun, hands-on interactives and encounter the past,…

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