I'd like to ask if anyone can, in layman's terms, describe the procedure by which the Apollo 11 astronauts were able to get back to their ship?

I ask because the most accessible literature on this subject is exceptionally detailed; what seems lacking is a (relatively) plain-text explanation of how the astronauts got off the moon, and back on their ship to return to earth.

I understand the process of returning to their space-craft was multi-stage, and that it involved a craft known as the "Command/Service Module."

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    $\begingroup$ There is a free computer program called Orbiter that (with the help of third-party mods) allows you to actually simulate the Apollo 11 mission. It's probably pretty difficult for a newbie, though... for a gentler (and more fun) introduction to simulated space travel, I highly recommend the game Kerbal Space Program, which allows for a cruder simulation of the Apollo 11 mission that nonetheless gets the basic idea across. $\endgroup$ – Kef Schecter Sep 11 '17 at 4:10

The Apollo spacecraft consists of three major parts:

  1. The Command Module (CM), a conical module where the three crew members live during launch from Earth and travel to and from the moon, and which re-enters Earth's atmosphere alone at the end of the trip;

  2. The Service Module (SM), a cylindrical section containing fuel, power, life support, communications, a big rocket engine, and other components;

  3. The Lunar Module (LM), a "spidery-looking" craft which lands on the moon carrying two of the crew members. The LM in turn is made up of a lower section called the descent stage and an upper section, the ascent stage. Both stages land on the moon, and only the ascent stage returns.

The Command and Service Modules remain mated for all but the very last minutes of the mission, so the combination is referred to as the Command/Service Module or CSM.

Diagram showing scale and capacity of the separate Apollo modules with the astronauts each carries

During launch (which I won't detail) the LM is tucked behind the CSM under a conical fairing attached to the Saturn V 3rd stage (the S-IVB). The S-IVB is the part that propels the spacecraft out of low Earth orbit and on its way to the moon.

Schematic of CSM, LM, and S-IVB configuration in LEO

The fairing opens up and the CSM detaches, turns around, and docks to the LM. The front of the CM has a hatch that mates with a hatch on the top of the LM. After docking, the CSM pulls the LM away from the S-IVB. This sequence is called the transposition, docking, and extraction maneuver.

Transposition-docking-extraction maneuver

The S-IVB and spacecraft then go their separate ways and the docked CSM/LM coasts to the moon, over a flight of about 3 days. During the flight to and from the moon, the spacecraft would be rotating about its long axis to maintain even heating from sunlight (this is the PTC, "passive thermal control" mode, sometimes known as the "barbecue roll.").

Photo of lego model of docked CSM and LM

Once the spacecraft reaches the moon, the large engine on the Service Module is used to enter a circular orbit around the moon. The commander and LM pilot enter the LM, undock, and use the engine on the descent stage to reach the surface of the moon. The CM pilot remains in orbit around the moon.

Diagram showing angle, thrust, and altitude at various points before touchdown

The LM stays on the lunar surface for between one and three days, with the commander and LMP generally doing one EVA per day, while the CSM in orbit overhead circles the moon every 2 hours. At the end of the stay, they discard unnecessary equipment (like the big life-support backpacks). To return, the LM ascent stage lifts off, using the descent stage as a launch pad, and arcs into orbit around the moon.

Video from prepositioned camera as ascent stage lifts off

Once in lunar orbit, the ascent stage meets up with the CSM (discussed a bit here), and docks again, and the crew return to the Command Module.

Schematic of docked CSM and LM

The LM ascent stage is discarded, and the CSM fires the big engine again to return to Earth.

The back side of the Command Module sports a thick heat shield; detaching from the Service Module, the CM turns blunt-end-first and hits Earth's atmosphere, using the resistance of the atmosphere to slow down.

Artist's rendition of reentry

And finally deploys parachutes to slow down for a safe splash-down in the ocean.

Picture from above of two out of three parachutes and the capsule at the moment of splashdown

This is of course a rather loose overview of a very complex process! Several Q/As here go into various aspects in more detail, so you might enjoy perusing them.

  • $\begingroup$ Here's an explanation for the LM ascent footage : io9.gizmodo.com/… $\endgroup$ – Eric Duminil Sep 10 '17 at 11:47
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    $\begingroup$ Upvoted for the Lego LM/CSM. $\endgroup$ – DylanSp Nov 27 '17 at 14:48

Oh man, I wanted to asnwer this but someone got to it first, and look at all those pictures! Here's the short answer:

So Neil and Buzz are on the surface, and the CSM is the "return pod" in orbit above the moon. The lunar lander could never make it back home on its own. So they launch the lander off the surface of the moon, but just the top half. The bottom is empty and useless, it's just the bare essentials. The top half has enough fuel to get into orbit, no more. Once it's in the same orbit as the CSM with Michael, they physically connect tips, the pointy end of the rocket shaped craft fitting into the concave top of the lander, and snap together like a seatbelt. They open the docking hatch, a small door on top. Neil, Buzz and a whole bunch of moon rocks go into the silver CSM, and they disconnect from the lander. The CSM rockets home and the lander is left to sit.

  • $\begingroup$ Sometimes a nice very short description has its advantages too. $\endgroup$ – Mark Foskey Nov 29 '17 at 18:52
  • $\begingroup$ You should have used the words lunar module, descent stage and ascent stage. Being in the same orbit is not enough, the distance should be small to enable rendezvous and docking. Very short could be too short. $\endgroup$ – Uwe Jan 15 '18 at 10:05

protected by Hobbes Jan 15 '18 at 11:09

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