Since embarking on my personal investigations into the veracity of the Apollo lunar missions, and having concluded that they were in fact a hoax, a deception, several of my friends wondered aloud if I were a Holocaust denier (I am not) or a flat-earther (not one of these either), and have strongly urged me to ‘get a grip’.
So I took their advice by trying to get a better grip on the Apollo 11 command module’s EVA (extra vehicular) handles and I discovered an interesting discussion about the handles here. And from this forum a picture emerged of the command module Columbia post-recovery, aboard the rescue ship the USS Hornet.
Apollo 11 Command Module
Figure 1. Apolllo 11 Command Module aboard the USS Hornet
Figure 2. Two disks at the bottom of a handle with radioactive alert tape carefully placed on the disks AND the handle
In NASA’s Apollo Operations Handbook one can find a detailed description of the EVA handles from pages 2.12-51 to 2.12-53 and learn that:
“The fixed handles are aluminum, oval-shaped tubes 12 inches long with a support fitting at each end. The handles are used for EVA manoeuvring. The hatch has a smaller fixed handle near the hatch mechanism that is used for opening the hatch. All the handle supports are bolted into fiber-glass inserts into the ablative material. They may or may not burn off on entry.”
They may or may not be fixed handles – comparing fig 2.12-27 with the photo below it is quite clear that the models on display were not designed to be ‘flattened for launch’. Should the handles have been fitted in the first place?1
Figure 4. Aluminum handles on the Apollo 11 CM have replica RL disks (as displayed at the Smithsonian)
Handles were also used in earlier missions – this is the Apollo 4 CM:
Figure 5. Handle fitted to the Apollo 4 Command Module
As far as I can ascertain, the aluminum alloy used for the EVA handles was 2024-T3510 Aluminum, whose melting point is 1180 degrees Fahrenheit. For comparison’s sake, the melting point of Titanium is 3034 degrees Fahrenheit.
Figure 6. Assembly of an Apollo CM base heat shield
The construction of the module heat shield and the thermal protection subsystem for the command module entries from lunar orbit is discussed in detail by NASA in a 1974 summary of the performance of all the re-entry protection materials used during Apollo. And here is the conclusion:
“The thermal protection subsystem performed well on all operational lunar missions, and no anomalies requiring post-flight investigation were recorded. It is concluded that an adequate technology now exists to permit the efficient design of ablative heat shields for entry at lunar-return velocities."
Noticeable font style/size differences (in bold) in this document were revealed when transcribing the file into another electronic form, and infer changes to the original hardcopy document during its formatting as a PDF. However, by the time the four tests on the TPS had been carried out – two in 1966, one in 1967 and one in 1968 – it should have been clear that aluminum handles were not going to support even the very minimum of 1500 degrees expected on some parts of the craft.2
Dr. Phil Kouts has addressed the immense and complex requirements of an appropriate heat shield for re-entry from cislunar space in his excellent articles here and here along with the preliminary results of NASA’s only Orion heat shield testing to date: the 2014 Exploration Test flight ( EFT-1).
Re-entry following return from cislunar space was one of the principal challenges of the Apollo missions. The command module would have struck the Earth’s atmosphere (actually, it should have been a skip re-entry) at a speed of approximately 40,000 kmh, and the surface of the CM would have to cope with temperatures up to 5000 degrees F as it was enveloped by a thermal plasma.
Figure 7. Command Module during re-entry
The above illustration is a North American Rockwell artist's concept depicting how the re-entry of the command module would appear on return from the Moon.
Figure 8. NASA drawing of the thermal protection for the CM, ablator thickness and expected temperatures – all of which are higher than that tolerated by Aluminum
The artist's illustration (Figure 7) infers that the heat is being deflected away from the crew cabin thanks to the shape of the CM. However, note that the Soyuz capsules returning at much slower rates of entry from LEO, and therefore incurring less heat, are nevertheless almost completely burned. Nor do the Russians consider external handles an essential item, and the crews certainly feel the heat.3 For details see The Ride Down and also here.
Figure 9. Example of a burnt and severely scorched Soyuz TMA following a ground landing
In addition to the usual landing on the ground, the Soyuz TMA could also land on water if required – whereas the Apollo program only ever envisaged ocean splashdowns.
Apollo 11 after splashdown
Figure 10. Apollo 11 CM shortly after splashdown
The NASA technical report asserts that stainless steel was preferred for the CM construction over aluminum precisely because of this point – if the ablator failed it needed a viable substructure. One which would not melt. Which also means that – despite that artist’s impression and the assertion that much of the structure would avoid the heat experienced by the heat shield at the base of the craft – it was not so much the shape of the craft but the materials of which it was composed that was of primary importance.
Table 1. Re-entry conditions and TPS heat tolerances
Despite the positive conclusions noted in this technical report signed off in 1973, and published in 1974 after all the testing and the Apollo program were over, there seemingly remained sufficient uncertainties for this paragraph to be included in its conclusions:
"Because of aerothermodynamic uncertainties associated with the many penetrations, cavities, and protuberances that were required in the heat shield, many of the singularities were recessed into the ablator and other protuberances were located in the leeward regions of separated flow. All of these regions were designed with a fair amount of conservatism."
Again there is a change of font style/size (one wonders what the word ‘fair’ replaced)) and the accompanying illustration of all these accessories does not include any handles.
Figure 11. No mention of any handles in this descriptive illustration
But no worries! NASA has an answer for everything, even if it isn’t straightforward: as it turns out, the CM’s thermal protection subsystems had been over designed. Why? Because the data supplied for all the manned Apollo missions accommodated a ‘crew preference’ as NASA put it, for an entry distance of 1500 nautical miles rather than the designed 3500 nm and this had resulted in lower heat rates and loading than was expected. But even so, it is highly doubtful that even titanium EVA handles would not have been burnt off.
So we have the situation where aluminum was rejected per se – yet it is supposed to be the material of which these handles were manufactured. And we must ask why are these aluminum handles still featuring on a spacecraft which should have destroyed them? – if it indeed it ever had them, and if it had re-entered the Earth's atmosphere at the necessary lunar return velocities.
Table 2. Apollo TPS test and mission data
However, when comparing the tables of the TPS testing, especially that of Apollo 4 in November 1967 with ‘the Apollo experience’, it looks as if the Apollo missions data have been cherry-picked from the TPS test data.4 So the answer to that question of handle survival must lie elsewhere – it would only be in 2014 that the answer could be found.
When designing the Orion heat shield and TPS systems it was decided that what had worked for Apollo would certainly work for the Orion EFT-1 test. Scaling up was not the issue, it was the materials that counted. So the Apollo heat shield and TPS were reproduced: the Avcoat material was recreated and gunned into the honeycomb structure. However, even before the test flight discrepancies were found in the filling which was uneven, thereby creating thermal contraction/expansion differences. It was not at all understood why this should be so. No doubt the general bemusement had something to do with the assumption that this method and material had worked perfectly well for Apollo – well, hadn’t it?
It was decided that since this particular Orion test was not going to be at lunar return velocity, it could fly with this problematic shielding. Importantly, it was also decreed that for any higher speeds, including that of a lunar return, it would be necessary to make several changes – how the Avcoat was assembled being only one of many. This was changed from hand gunning to a manufactured block system. After the test it was found that the Thermal Protection System covering the craft was inadequate for the job and this was also changed: adding an extra layer of protective fabric between the crew cabin and the service module, along with extra compression pads designed to absorb shock during launch and spacecraft operations, such as the separation between the CM and the service module.
During reentry these pads would serve as an ablative thermal protection system. And the conical walls of the CM (the ‘back shell’) would also get an additional silvery metallic thermal coating designed to reduce heat loss – and limit the high temperature exposure for the crew during reentry. This back shell would then be covered by an extensive 'grid' of 970 black tiles, like those of the space shuttle, designed to withstand temperatures up to 3000 degrees F. There is no indication of handles protruding from the Orion CM and all the recessed hatch and window coverings that are seen relative to EFT-1 thus far have pink coverings with flattened handles – (yes, they’re back again after 50 years!).
Figure 12. Orion-EFT-1 – Talia-Landman-KSC
All these changes indicate that the Orion test revealed that the ablative material was inadequate – even for the slower rate of entry than that of a lunar return. And that conditions in the CM were too cold when not in the Sun, and too hot otherwise, especially during reentry.
As one American space journalist wrote in 2014,
“When one peruses the numbers, it is apparent that Apollo 4 traveled almost half a century ago to a far higher apogee, executed independent manoeuvres with its main propulsion system, re-entered the atmosphere at far higher velocity, experienced far higher surface heating, and rode atop a far more powerful booster than Orion did on Friday, 5 December 2014. This, in a sense, is disappointing."5
The data presented here come from NASA, but it clearly shows that its Orion engineers are encountering results now which demonstrate that Apollo did not, could not have performed a lunar return since the Apollo TPS and heat shield were equally inadequate for the job. Rendering it doubtful that any handles on an Apollo CM would survive the trip and therefore even more likely that the Apollo CMs did not return from the Moon.
It is also of interest that across the CMs allegedly flown and now exhibited as such, the Apollo 4 and 6 flew handles of different finishes, while of the Apollo missions themselves, Apollo 12 and 13* did not have any handles at all. No handles were fitted to the Apollo 13 CM and no handles were on the command module picked up in the Atlantic by the Russians shortly after the Apollo 13 flight and taken to Russia. The module was later handed back to the US and loaded on the Icebreaker Southwind in Murmansk during September 1970 – read more here.
In summary, the aluminum handles fitted to the Apollo 11 command module would never have survived the heat of re-eentry from cis-lunar orbit.
It really looks as though it’s actually NASA that needs to get a grip.
Emanuel E Garcia, MD
My thanks to James Ward for catalysing this idea
Aulis Online July 2019
*No handles were fitted to the Apollo 13 CM – except for the movie Apollo 13 (Imagine Entertainment, Universal Pictures 1995) – wherein it was deemed necessary to add them to the command module.
1. Now you see them, now you don’t. It has been said that the radio-luminescent disks on the handles posed a radioactive danger – and were removed before putting the Apollo 11 CM on exhibition. The toxicity of the nuclear waste ( promethium 147) which powered these glow-in-the-dark disks, meant that all the original handles were sent to a radioactive waste dump. Which justifies any lack of handles, while the one remaining exhibit from the Apollo 11 CM was saved from the dump for research purposes. Which justifies the existence of these handles. We have this tale from Steve Jurvetson, an ardent collector of space memorabilia and associated with Elon Musk, he purchased this Apollo 11 handle at auction in 2000.
However, the same material was supposedly used at various locations within the cabin – but not considered a potential hazard for the occupants. Jurvetson nevertheless managed to have his handle mounted upside down – which just about sums up the inauthenticity surrounding handles made from a material proscribed by the engineers of the CM.
2. In addition, here is one video and here another on the construction of the heat shield for the module, which extended over its entirety.
3. Anousheh Ansari was in space in 2006. Interestingly the g forces experienced on re-entry felt twice as much as the same load experienced on the simulator. Furthermore, from this blog it is clear that the inability to walk is not linked to long periods in zero gravity – see the blog section A Second Birth. Note that the the Soyuz TMA returns from the ISS at much lower temperatures (which nevertheless result in a totally burnt craft) spends some 5 minutes in the burn zone and 15 minutes on the parachutes. Taking overall some 20 minutes total entry time available here.
4. That Apollo ‘crew preference’ turns out to be even less than stated, averaging at a 1274 NM range. Well under the expected 1951 NM test results of November 9 1967. Only the Apollo entry velocities and the inertial flight path angle correspond to the testing times done during the lunar re-entry of November 9 1967 – the only test to have simulated the lunar return velocity. The average entry time for an Apollo return was of 845 seconds, which is half way between the 674 seconds earth orbit entry testing of February 26 1966 and the 1060 seconds lunar entry testing of November 9 1967. Finally the recorded heat rate for the Apollo flights averaged 297Btu/ft2-sec well below the 425Btu/ft2-sec expected for a lunar return. The heat loading, averaging for Apollo at 26,401Btu/ft2 is nowhere near the expected 37,522Btu/ft2 but rather more in line with the 27,824 Btu/ft2 loading on the April 4 1968 CM test which returned at a lower velocity than that of a lunar return due to the disastrous performance of the Saturn V.
5. See this article – plus here and again here and Apollo 13 CM photos.
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