Editor's Note (July 19, 2019): Saturday, July 20 marks
50 years since Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first
men to land on the moon. Today, we look back at a recent study in which Georgia Tech
scientists analyzed the first lunar landing logs in order to improve and advance
space exploration technologies.
By Jason Maderer | Originally published January 16, 2018
Digital design by Monet Fort
No one plans like NASA, and when it came to exploring the moon, the Apollo program
was no different. However, even despite their best efforts, the astronauts
consistently demonstrated the challenges of keeping to schedule.
Georgia Institute of Technology researchers recently analyzed the archived mission
reports from the Apollo moonwalks to see how well moonwalkers were able to stick to
their expected timelines. The Georgia Tech team also examined life support systems —
oxygen, power and water consumption levels — to see if the relationships between
NASA’s pre-flight estimates and timeline performance were accurate.
Buzz Aldrin on the Apollo 11 mission
in 1969. Image courtesy of NASA.
The moonwalks were a success. However, on nearly every extravehicular activity
(EVA), those activities took longer than predicted to complete and individual tasks
were sometimes skipped entirely to get the moonwalkers back on schedule. Astronauts
were at times an hour behind schedule.
“Most of that time was lost when trying to walk or drive across the lunar surface,”
said Karen Feigh, an associate professor in Georgia Tech’s Daniel Guggenheim School
of Aerospace Engineering. “Only one of the 11 EVAs we analyzed, Apollo 15’s first
moonwalk, finished ahead of schedule — and most of it was behind schedule until the
That EVA was historic. It marked the first-ever drive of the lunar rover.
July 31, 1971
- The inaugural drive of the first car on the moon occurred on the Apollo 15
mission. Image courtesy of NASA.
Click the image above to view the full-sized
timeline of all 6 Apollo moon landing missions.
As for life support systems, predicted consumable usage estimates were
underestimated by as much as 20 percent compared to what was actually required by
the crew to complete the EVA.
Feigh and the Georgia Tech team looked at all EVAs during Apollo 15, 16 and 17,
which represent the exploration-class EVAs performed during the Apollo program.
Matthew Miller, Ph.D.
Aerospace Engineering Researcher
“These missions serve as the only precedence to help understand and guide future
exploration EVA programs, including NASA’s `Journey to Mars’ program,” said Matthew
Miller, who wrote the report as a doctoral aerospace engineering student at Georgia
Tech. “The synthesis of timeline execution and life support trends from Apollo
captured in this study provides realistic bounds on what future exploration missions
might likely face.”
The research was presented to NASA as a technical paper (download
here), which has been reviewed and archived by the organization. Miller compiled
a portion of the data and worked alongside NASA engineers as part of his NASA Space
Technology Research Fellowship (NSTRF) at the Johnson Space Center.
Georgia Tech graduate John Young, AE 1952 (center), was the
commander of the Apollo 16 mission. On February 7, 1972, his team participated in a
Lunar Rover training exercise at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Also pictured is
Lunar Module Pilot Charles M. Duke (left) and Command Module Pilot Thomas K.
Mattingly II (right). Image courtesy of NASA.
Georgia Tech alumnus John Young
pushing the speed limits of the lunar rover during the "Grand Prix" demonstration on
April 21, 1972. Image courtesy of NASA.
In addition to the analysis of the mission reports, the researchers used the data
to help inform the development and simulation of a computer timeline management
system. This system served as a prototype for a new way of calculating how far ahead
or beyond astronauts get while performing EVAs by integrating life support system
performance and timeline execution trends. This effort contributes to the goal of
making EVAs more efficient and predictable in anticipation of future surface
missions well beyond the moon.
During the Apollo missions, the crew was in radio contact with mission control in
Houston, which kept track of the clock and communicated schedule adjustments in real
time. That won’t be possible when astronauts land on Mars.
“Communication delays will be too extreme to rely on mission control,” said Feigh.
“Astronauts will have to depend on the crew inside the spacecraft to monitor their
progress during EVAs.”
“Spacewalks are planned for years in advance and very scripted, but they’re highly
unpredictable and require real-time intervention by a host of people — both in-space
and on the ground,” said Miller, who graduated this past August. “They’ll be even
more unpredictable on another planet. We need to develop better technology that
monitors and updates timelines autonomously, preferably in a way that allows the
crew inside the spacecraft to focus on other essential duties.”
Georgia Tech is honoring the memory of alumnus and American hero John Young,
who died on January 6. Read More.