Early lunar module model, in wood, 1960s
Early lunar module model, in wood, early 1960s.Yale Joel—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Early lunar module model, in wood, 1960s
Lunar Module model, 1969
Sketch made by Dr. John C. Houbolt in 1961 for a lunar module, later adopted by NASA for Apollo 9.
Sketch made by Dr. John C. Houbolt in 1961 shows a modular concept much like the one that was ultimately adopted by NASA for the Lunar Excursion Module.
A sketch by Dr. John C. Houbolt suggesting a design for a moon landing craft designated the "Lunar Schooner," in 1961
A full-scale model of the Lunar Excursion Module, 1969.
An astronaut descends the lunar module ladder during an enactment of a moon landing during a training exercise, 1967.
Apollo 9 and the lunar module, 1969
Apollo 9, March 1969. On the fourth day of the mission, astronaut David Scott stood in the open hatch of the command module and scanned the blue earth below.
Apollo 9, Gumdrop and Spider
Apollo 9 lunar module, March 1969
Apollo 10 command module
Apollo 11, Buzz Aldrin, lunar module, 1969
With the Earth visible in the distance above the moon's bleak horizon, Apollo 11's lunar module ascends toward the command module (piloted by astronaut Michael Collins while Armstrong and Aldrin were on the lunar surface).
Early lunar module model, in wood, early 1960s.
Yale Joel—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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The Amazing Lunar Module: From Early Models to the Moon

Feb 13, 2014

Artists and engineers share this bond: their visions are often first embodied in rough, rudimentary form. Whether it's a sculptor working in clay or an industrial designer using three-dimensional software, modeling is not just part of the creative process: to a large degree, it is the creative process.

For NASA's engineers, finding ways to model the remarkable craft that would not only land astronauts on the moon, but would allow them to lift off from the lunar surface, rendezvous and link up with an orbiting vessel and return safely to Earth and their families — well, tackling that sort of challenge is the reason so many of the best and brightest join NASA in the first place.

LIFE magazine, March 14, 1969Apollo 9 and the Lunar Module, 1969 

Here, LIFE.com offers a series of images celebrating the various Lunar Excursion Modules -- scale-model and life-size -- that NASA built through the years; the men who flew them; and the brilliant, daring minds that envisioned the extraordinary spacecraft in the first place.

First deployed during Apollo 9's 10-day mission in March 1969, roughly 100 miles above the earth, and tested again a few months later less than 10 miles above the lunar surface during Apollo 10's "dry run" for the July 1969 moon landing, the various versions of the lunar module that NASA designed and produced represent, in microcosm, pretty much everything technological that got people excited about the American space program in the 1960s.

After all, behind the craft's mind-bendingly complex and rigorous development is an audaciously straightforward idea — enter moon's orbit; separate from command module; land on moon; lift off from moon; reconnect with command module; come home — that would take years of effort (and not a few mistakes) to finally put into triumphant, era-defining practice.

In July 1969, when Apollo 11's rendition of the LEM, Eagle, touched down on a vast lunar plain — named Mare Tranquillitatis, or the Sea of Tranquility, centuries before by two Italian astronomers — Neil Armstrong radioed a simple, momentous phrase to Mission Control a quarter-million miles away in Houston.

"The Eagle has landed," he said, cementing the lunar module's central role in one of humanity's greatest dramas.

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