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Starts With A Bang

Celebrate The 50th Anniversary Of Apollo 9, Which Made The Moon Landing Possible

The Apollo 9 mission was the first to feature an in-space test of the Lunar Module, essential for landing astronauts on the Moon and returning them to Earth. Here, in a photo from March 6, 1969, the Command/Service Module and Lunar Module are shown docked together, as command module pilot David Scott stands in the open hatch. Lunar Module pilot Rusty Schweickart, already performing his EVA, took the photo. (NASA / RUSSELL SCHWEICKART)

50 years ago, Apollo 9 launched. Without it, we never would’ve landed on the Moon.

The Apollo program is most famous for its greatest achievement: taking humanity to the Moon.

It has now been nearly 50 years since humanity first set foot on another world: our Moon. But the Apollo missions that led up to the successful landings were indispensable stepping stones to that ultimate goal, and are in many ways just as vital to our history in space exploration. (NASA / APOLLO 15)

While the Moon landing missions garner the most fame, the others were essential to those ultimate successes.

The first view with human eyes of the Earth rising over the limb of the Moon. The discovery of the Earth from space, with human eyes, remains one of the most iconic achievements in our species’ history. Apollo 8, which occurred in December, 1968, was one of the essential precursor missions to a successful Moon landing. (NASA / APOLLO 8)

Apollo 8 first took humans to the Moon, and Apollo 10 served as the dress rehearsal for the first landing.

The Apollo 9 space vehicle was launched from the Kennedy Space Center on March 3, 1969, from a Saturn V rocket, returning to Earth 10 days later. It was the first Apollo mission to feature a full 3-person crew with all the spacecraft components and modules in place. In particular, this was the first Apollo mission to feature the use and testing of the Lunar Module, which would actually land humans on the Moon’s surface.(NASA)

But in between was Apollo 9, which was needed to prove the capabilities of the complete Apollo spacecraft.

On the first day of the Apollo 9 mission in low Earth orbit, the Command and Service Modules separated from the Lunar Module, which is shown here still attached to the Saturn V rocket’s third stage. All three astronauts, at this point, were still inside the Command Module; this image is shown prior to Lunar Module extraction from the Saturn V’s third stage. (NASA)

Successfully landing on the Moon and returning astronauts to Earth would require novel technology: the Lunar Module.

The Lunar Module was successfully deployed. Here you can see the landing gear out, demonstrating the potential for landing on the Moon. The return engines have not yet been fired. (NASA / APOLLO 9 ROLL 21/B)

The crew of James McDivitt, David Scott, and Rusty Schweickart rocketed into space aboard a Saturn V on March 3, 1969.

Inside the Lunar Module, mission commander James McDivitt photographs Rusty Schweickart, performing an EVA on March 6, 1969. Schweickart’s suit can be seen full of tubes, as he’s wearing a Portable Life Support System (PLSS), being tested for the first time on Apollo 9.(NASA / APOLLO 9 ROLL 20/E)

From low Earth orbit, they performed the first crewed flight of Apollo’s Lunar Module.

From the Command/Service Module, pilot David Scott photographs the Lunar Module in its landing configuration. Lunar surface probes can be seen extending from the ends of the landing gear foot pads. McDivitt and Schweickart are inside the Lunar Module. (NASA / DAVID SCOTT)

They successfully demonstrated module docking and extraction, proving Apollo was capable of a successful landing and return.

One of the most important components of a successful Moon landing is the return of the astronauts who land on the Moon to Earth. This requires a successful rendezvous of the Lunar Module with the Command/Service Module. Here, the latter is seen from the Lunar Module, prior to a successful docking and transfer of astronauts back to the main module. (NASA / APOLLO 9 FILM 24/F)

They completed a two-person spacewalk and successfully tested engines, spacesuit life support, and navigation.

Astronaut Rusty Schweickart on his EVA during the Apollo 9 mission, outside of the Lunar Module. The successful test of life support systems, docking, extraction, and other essential systems and technologies paved the way for a successful Moon landing just months later on Apollo 11.(NASA / APOLLO 9 FILM 19/A)

This marked the first test of the complete Apollo assembly in space.

After a successful landing on the Moon, it is essential to jettison the descent stage and perform a successful ascent off of the surface of the Moon. This picture, taken after the jettisoning of the descent stage, shows the ascent stage, which was successfully tested on March 7, 1969. (NASA / DAVID SCOTT)

It proved that Apollo was capable of a complete, successful round-trip involving landing on the Moon.

This photograph of Earth, from the Apollo 9 astronauts orbiting it, shows one of our planet’s most identifiable features: the Straight of Gibraltar. Hundreds of years ago, the Latin phrase ‘non terram plus ultra’ was written there, meaning ‘no land further beyond.’ The writers of that phrase never envisioned a journey like the one undertaken by the Apollo astronauts. (NASA / APOLLO 9 FILM 23/D)

Apollo 9’s crew joins the Apollo 8 astronauts as the only ones whose members all remain alive today.

The prime crew of the Apollo 9 mission. From left to right are commander James A. McDivitt, command module pilot David R. Scott, and lunar module pilot Russell L. (Rusty) Schweickart. All three remain alive today.(NASA)

Mostly Mute Monday tells the astronomical story of an event, object, or phenomenon in images, visuals, and no more than 200 words. Talk less; smile more.

Ethan Siegel is the author of Beyond the Galaxy and Treknology. You can pre-order his third book, currently in development: the Encyclopaedia Cosmologica.