I've always been curious how did the Apollo 11's Eagle ascent stage of the Apollo Lunar Module navigate back to the Apollo Command/Service Module (CSM) that was in lunar orbit?

Was it simply a case of being able to see it and thrust in the general direction, or was there something more sophisticated at work? Was the CSM itself in a selenostationary orbit, or was it moving with respect to the lunar surface, thus making it even more difficult?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I only asked this way because it's highly coupled to the first question... To the point that I'm not sure you can answer the first question without answering the second! Thanks for the info. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 12:16
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It does not seem any different from any other orbital rendezvous - it starts with a proper launch timing - see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_rendezvous $\endgroup$
    – Suma
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 13:24
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ A selenostationery orbit would be right here on Earth, if I'm interpreting that correctly :). Anyway ground control knew exactly where the CSM was, but didn't know the lander's exact position! There is a mass of stuff on the Apollo lunar Surface Journal, try this page: hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a11/a11.launch.html $\endgroup$
    – Andy
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 15:13
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ For reference the 'selenostationery orbit' bit was not my original words. I originally stated lunar stationary orbit - since I was looking for an equivalent to geostationary. I believe someone with more knowledge than me has changed that. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 15:24
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ A "selenostationary" orbit would be 88465 km from the center of the Moon. Such an orbit would not be stable because it is outside the Moon's sphere of influence. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 17:16

1 Answer 1


The process was a great deal more sophisticated than pointing and thrusting, and the CSM was cooking along at over 1600 m/s, circling the moon every 2 hours.

Mission control, however, had fairly precise tracking of the positions of both the CSM and the landing site, and they computed the correct time of launch to begin the rendezvous using powerful Earth-side computers. The CSM was tracked using the Unified S-Band system. For Apollo 11, the LM's position was determined by using the LM's rendezvous radar to determine the direction and distance to the CSM (see commentary at 121:00:34) as it passed overhead, but for the later Apollo missions, I believe there was better tracking of the LM down to the surface and landing sites could be pinpointed by comparing observations from the surface against Lunar Orbiter imagery.

The LM ascent stage launched initially into a 18km x 87km elliptical orbit somewhat behind the CSM, which was orbiting at 105km x 116km (a higher, slower orbit). At the high point of that elliptical orbit, about an hour after liftoff, the LM circularized its orbit using its RCS thrusters; this is called the "Coelliptic Sequence Initiation" burn.

I believe from this point on, Eagle could detect Columbia on rendezvous radar.

Two and a half hours later, with the LM about 72km from the CSM and approaching at 34 m/s, they did another RCS burn called "Terminal Phase Initiation" to intercept the CSM. 10 minutes after that, Armstrong was able to see the CSM. Until the ships were very close together, the maneuvering was all done under computer control using radar data; once they were close together and velocity-matched, they manually flew the approach.

All the maneuvering of the approach was done by the LM, but the CSM was at each point prepared to make the reciprocal maneuver, such that if the LM's crew, computers, or RCS failed, the CSM would have taken over as the active participant in the rendezvous.

This transcript and commentary covers the ascent and this one covers the rendezvous and docking. The mission timeline here summarizes the LM maneuvers from ascent starting at 124:22.

Since the rendezvous approach plan was fairly leisurely, and the RCS thrusters capable of quite precise small adjustments, any small deviation in the initial ascent (due to errors in the estimated positions of the craft, the timing of the launch, or variation in the performance of the ascent engine) would be easily taken care of in the following maneuvers. This incremental approach is the key to any orbital rendezvous, whether in Earth orbit or lunar.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Incredible... especially when you consider the computers back then! Thanks :) $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 16:57
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ The key takeaway is that the computers back then, on the ground and in the two spacecraft, were, with the procedures in place, quite capable of handling the job. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 18:25
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ "Mission control, however, had fairly precise tracking of the positions of both the CSM and the landing site" I wonder, do you have any information on how this was achieved? $\endgroup$
    – Alex
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 1:30
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The Unified S-Band system on the Apollo CSM provided range, range-rate, and direction information, with which the position of the ship could be determined pretty closely. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unified_S-band#Ranging I'm not sure if the LM position was determined in a similar way, or by the crew sighting landmarks, or dead reckoning, or what. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 1:34
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Oh, got it! Per commentary at 121:00:34, after Collins was unable to get a visual on the LM over several passes, they used the rendezvous radar on the LM to pinpoint the CSM's relative direction, and worked backwards from that info and the CSM track to find the LM! hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a11/a11.launch.html $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 1, 2016 at 14:24

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.