In the 1960s, NASA created concept art showing every phase of an Apollo mission. The timing of mission events varied from flight to flight, particularly since later missions spent more time exploring the Moon’s surface. For a sense of just how much longer the later missions were, Apollo 11 splashed down 195 hours and 18 minutes after launch, while Apollo 17 was longer by half; the spacecraft splashed down 301 hours and 51 minutes after leaving the Earth. But following along with the time of Apollo 11 mission events works for putting these beautiful images into context.
You can download hi-res versions of these vintage images from NASA. And for anyone interested, the full timeline on Apollo 11’s mission is here and Apollo 17’s is here.
Update on February 15, 2016: After I posted this on Facebook, one of my followers, Jim O’Kane, commented that he animated these images a few years ago. It’s pretty incredibly gorgeous, so I thought I’d share it!
Apollo Launch Vehicles
The Saturn V and the smaller Saturn IB rockets, here broken into stages, were the two that launched Apollo missions to the Moon and into Earth orbit respectively.
The Apollo Spacecraft
Cutaway showing the Apollo command-service and lunar modules as they were stacked in launch configuration.
The first S-IC stage of the Saturn V (here showing the early 500-F paint scheme) ignites and the rocket lifts off just after the countdown clock hits zero.
Second Stage Ignition
About two minutes and 45 seconds into the flight, the first S-IC stage cut off and the S-II stage ignited, adding more velocity to get the spacecraft into Earth orbit.
About three minutes and 20 seconds into the flight, the launch escape tower was jettisoned.
A little more than nine minutes into the flight, the third S-IVB stage ignited as the S-II stage fell away, its fuel expended. NASA
Earth Orbit Insertion
The S-IVB stage was the one that put the spacecraft into Earth orbit just before the 12 minute mark after launch.
About two hours and 50 minutes into the mission, the S-IVB reignited for the translunar injection burn, the burn that would send the astronauts out of Earth orbit and off to the Moon.
Command Module Separation
Three hours and 15 minutes into the mission, the crew separated the command-service module from the S-IVB stage to begin transposition and docking.
Command Module Turn Around
After separating from the S-IVB, the next step was turning the command module (CM) around so its docking probe was facing the landing module (LM).
With the CM facing the LM, the command module pilot guided his spacecraft to dock with the LM.
Lunar Module Extraction
Once the CM and LM were docked, the last step in this phase was to separate the LM from the S-IVB, leaving the crew with a Moon-ready spacecraft.
The whole transposition and docking took about ten minutes.
Midcourse correction burns were built into the flight plan to give mission controllers multiple options to refine the spacecraft’s trajectory on its way to the Moon.
Lunar Orbit Insertion
About 75 hours and 50 minutes into the mission it was time for lunar orbit insertion. The crew burned their main service module engine — the Service Propulsion System or SPS engine — against their direction of travel, slowing the spacecraft so it could be captured by the Moon’s gravity.
The crew settled into lunar orbit, taking some time to check that everything was GO for the lunar landing.
Transfer to LM
Getting ready to land on the Moon, two astronauts, the commander and lunar module pilot, transferred into the Lunar Module.
When everything was ready to go, the Lunar Module separated from the Command Module, leaving the command module pilot alone in the orbiting spacecraft. This happened about 100 hours and 12 minutes into the flight.
Lunar Module Descent
About 101 hours and 36 minutes into the mission, the crew burned the Lunar Module’s descent engine for a few seconds, beginning its trip down to the lunar surface.
The full lunar descent took a little over an hour and was some of the trickier flying of the mission. With only orbital photographs of the landing site, it was up to the commander to pick a safe spot in the landing area to put down the LM.
102 hours and 44 minutes into the mission,
Apollo 11 landed on the Moon.
After getting the GO to stay on the Moon (confusing terminology), the crew went through their EVA prep checklist — suiting up and depressurising the LM so they could safely open the door, step outside, and start exploring the Moon’s surface.
Liftoff from the Moon
124 hours and 22 minutes into the flight, about 20 hours after landing, it was time to leave the Moon. The descent stage acted as a launch platform for the ascent stage, which carried the crew back into lunar orbit.
Lunar Orbit Rendezvous
To get the crew back together, the commander piloted the lunar module to a docking with the command module; only in a contingency situation would the command module be the active vehicle in the rendezvous.
Docked in Lunar Orbit
After leaving the Moon’s surface, it took about three and a half hours for docking. The spacecraft — and the crew — were finally be reunited.
The Lunar Module didn’t come back to Earth, except on Apollo 13 when it became the lifeboat for the crew. About 130 hours into the mission, after transferring all the Moon rocks and any other items into the command module, the crew jettisoned the lunar module’s ascent stage.
Getting back home meant the Transearth Injection burn. Adding speed behind the Moon sent the crew out of lunar orbit and on a path back to the Earth. The burn came 135 hours into the mission and lasted about three minutes.
Midcourse Correction Again
Just like on the way to the Moon, on the way home there were multiple midcourse correction burns built into the flight plan so mission controllers could refine the spacecraft’s path and make sure it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere at exactly the right point.
The spacecraft didn’t got into orbit around the Earth, it just came hurtling back from the Moon and slammed right through the atmosphere to splashdown traveling at more than 36,000 feet per second.
Command-Service Module Separation
Finally back at Earth, about 194 hours and 50 minutes into the mission, it was time to jettison the service module.
Command Module Entry
Only the command module was equipped with a heat shield to return safely through the Earth’s atmosphere.
About 195 hours and three minutes into the mission, the command module entered the Earth’s atmosphere.
Drogue Chute Deploy
After falling for about 11 minutes, it was time for the smaller drogue parachutes to deploy, beginning to slow the spacecraft’s fall for a smooth splashdown.
Main Chutes Deploy
The drogue parachutes pulled out the main chutes, slowing the spacecraft to a gentle 32 feet per second.
195 hours and 57 minutes after launching, the crew opened the spacecraft hatch and and breathed fresh air again.