The Flight that Saved Apollo Science

Fifty years ago this month, Apollo 15, the first of the big science missions landed on the Moon, took amazing images on the lunar surface, did a record four EVAs (Extra-vehicular Activities, although only three were actual moonwalks, with Commander Dave Scott doing a stand-up EVA to survey the lunar surface around the landing site from the Lunar Module hatch before stepping out), drove almost 18km on the lunar surface with the Lunar Rover, studied the stunning valley that was the Hadley Rille and brought back 77kg of moonrock, which was almost as much as Apollos 11, 12 & 14 combined. Even better for NASA publicity, the TV images were processed in Hollywood to clean and sharpen them before being transmitted, leading to high-quality TV pictures being seen by the public and by the scientists working on the mission.

Less well known is that Apollo 15 could easily have been the last Apollo mission or, even, not happened at all and that Skylab and even the Space Shuttle could have been cancelled with it.

In August 1971, President Richard Nixon proposed that Apollos 16 and 17 be cancelled in addition to the already cancelled Apollos 18, 19 and 20. In reply, Casper Weinberger responded sharply in a memo entitled “The Future of NASA”. He noted that 72% of the US budget was uncontrollable items (welfare, national debt, unemployment, medicare, etc), things that the government could not stop paying, while the 1.4% of the national budget that went to NASA in 1972 (already way down on the 3.8% that NASA received in 1964 and 1965[1]), all came out of that remaining 28% that was voluntary and could be controlled by cutbacks.

“In short, we cut it [the NASA budget] because it is cuttable, not because it is doing a bad job… We do need to reduce the budget, in my opinion, but we should not make all our reduction decisions on the basis of what is reducible, rather than on the merits of individual programs.”

Weinberger’s conclusion was:

Present tentative plans call for major reductions or change in NASA, by eliminating the last two Apollo flights (16 and 17), and eliminating or sharply reducing… Skylab and Space Shuttle. I believe that would be a mistake.

Recent Apollo flights have been very successful from all points of view. Announcement now… that we were cancelling Apollo 16 and 17… would have a very bad effect coming so soon after Apollo 15’s triumph.

Let’s go back to the start of 1971. 1968 had been pretty bad. 1971 was proving little or no better. The costs of the Vietnam war were spiralling. Opposition to the war was spiralling. The body count was increasing.

After the success of Apollo 11, Al Bean had burnt out the camera of Apollo 12. Instead of colour TV images of the astronauts walking round Surveyor crater to visit the Surveyor 3 probe, after the first half hour of the first moonwalk the networks were reduced to using puppet shows of astronauts moonwalking to supplement the radio messages from the surface. Then, Apollo 13 suffered the near-fatal explosion of its oxygen tank: no pictures of the lunar surface from that mission either and a long delay before the Apollo 14 mission could try again to get to Apollo 13’s planned landing in the Fra Mauro hills. The Apollo programme was no longer quite such a symbol of national pride and a distraction from other problems: America had been there, done that and people questioned increasingly why more money should be spent on space when America had some many problems back at home.

After Apollo 11’s highly experienced crew, Apollo 12 had started the process of giving rookie astronauts a chance to go to the Moon on their first spaceflight. It made good on a promise that moonflights would be shared around and not just go to veteran astronauts. Apollo 14 though had already courted massive controversy by taking this policy to a new extreme.

With the original Mercury 7 astronauts retired from NASA, inactive like Deke Slayton, or in disgrace, Deke’s deputy, the Head of the Astronaut Office, Alan Shepherd had a chance to make a dramatic comeback to flight status after a new operation was developed that allowed his chronic ear problems to be corrected and thus restore his sense of balance. Having lost the chance to fly on Gemini 3, the operation, early in 1969, came just in time to allow him to be assigned to Apollo 13 on August 6th 1969. Two rookies were picked to fly with him. And, of course, early in 1970, Apollo 13 and Apollo 14 were switched to give Alan Shepherd and his crew more time to train.

Alan Shepherd had made a single, 15-minute, sub-orbital hop in Mercury. He was a legend as the first American in space, but had not even orbited the Earth and had been inactive for seven years. As his crew, he had Ed Mitchell, who would have the dead-end Lunar Module Pilot position[2] – this was his first and last flight, although he acted as back-up Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 16 – and another rookie, Stuart Roosa, as Command Module Pilot. Roosa should have gone on to Command Apollo 18, had it not be cancelled. Like Ed Mitchell and Alan Shepherd, Stuart Roosa never flew again, although he was backup Command Module Pilot on both Apollo 16 and 17.

So, Apollo 14, which simply had to work after the problems of Apollos 12 and 13, had a crew with a grand total of just 15 minutes flight experience and that, ten years before. Not a few people suspected that Alan Shepherd had deliberately picked an inexperienced crew to avoid being overshadowed by a more experienced subordinate and, as a result, was not ready to fly when he should have been.

In fact, the make-up of the Apollo 14 crew reflected more that Deke Slayton had been painted into a corner by crew rotation.

In theory, the Apollo 13 crew should have been the back-up crew to Apollo 10: Gordon Cooper (Commander), Donn Eisele (Command Module Pilot) and Ed Mitchell (Lunar Module Pilot). They had trained for the flight to the Moon. They were familiar with the Lunar Module and the lunar landing. Only Ed Mitchell, though, was considered apt to fly on Apollo 13, something that official NASA histories skated-over carefully.

Gordon Cooper had had a number of scrapes with management since his Mercury flight and was considered to be too relaxed about training. Although nothing was set down in writing, Deke Slayton was not prepared to allow him to fly and, less still, to command a lunar mission. He had only been back-up on Apollo 10 due to the lack of available experienced astronauts.

Don Eisele (pronounced “Eyes-lee”) was doubly in disgrace with management. He had flown in Apollo 7 in which Wally Schirra had led a near-mutiny in space. As an inexperienced, rookie astronaut, he might have got away with it despite Flight Director, Chris Kraft’s declaration when Apollo 7 landed that “he was going to put an end to this nonsense” (by grounding the culprits), had he not added to this a very passionate affair with the nurse who looked after the crew, an affair that was quite dramatically portrayed in the Tom Hanks series “From the Earth to the Moon”.  What was not portrayed in the Tom Hanks series was the messy divorce that followed and that was, undoubtedly, the final straw for NASA management.

So, Deke Slayton was left looking for two new crew members and Alan Shepherd, who was admittedly very keen to fill the empty slot, fitted the bill. Meanwhile, Stuart Roosa had come to attention working on the Support Crew for Apollo 9. The support crew was a group of astronauts assigned to support the mission and free-up the back-up crew for more important work. They did a lot of the tedious and unglamorous, but absolutely vital boot work on the simulators during a flight, helping prepare checklists and the like. So, Stuart Roosa was nowhere near as unqualified for the mission as the detractors had suggested, having worked extensively in the mission simulators.

This was the background to Apollo 14: a mission that had to work or it would almost certainly be the last to land on the Moon.

With public interest flagging, the mission came close to failing within hours of leaving Earth orbit. On five previous missions that so-called transposition and docking manoeuvre, in which the Command and Service Module separated from the spent 3rd Stage of the Saturn V, turned round and pulled out the Lunar Module, had been carried out without problems. Stuart Roosa had declared his intention to refine the manoeuvre to a whole new level by using less fuel than any previous Command Module Pilot to execute the operation.

The Transposition and Docking Manoeuvre as illustrated in the Apollo 14 Saturn V Flight Manual that was the basic astronaut training manual.

Two hours thirty-four minutes and twenty-five seconds after launch, the Saturn IVb engine cut-out and the crew were on their way to the Moon. Twenty-seven and a half minutes later, came the announcement from Roosa:

003:01:57 Roosa (onboard): Let’s set a record, shall…

The manoeuvre started and, almost exactly twelve minutes later, Ed Mitchell announced docking. He was wrong.

A still from the on-board movie camera showing Stuart Roosa’s first docking attempt.

What should have happened, as the docking probe pushed into the Lunar Module, was that first, three capture latches would seal to bind the two craft together in what was called “soft dock”. They would then retract, pull the two vehicles into a tight embrace and pass to “hard dock” with twelve docking latches triggering to give a rigid fit when the docking rings of the two craft met. What actually happened was… nothing. The probe slipped in perfectly, but the latches did not close. When Stuart Roosa realised that soft dock had not occurred he nudged the Command and Service Module forward twice more. Still no capture: each time the docking probe slipped back out as the capsules rebounded.

He backed off and tried again. Another failure. After checking that all the switches in the Command Module were set correctly, Roosa was advised to try again and, this time, to keep pushing the probe in for three seconds. Roosa did so, counted slowly to four and cut the thrusters. Still no luck. Alan Shepherd, knowing that the Moon landing was in real danger, suggested a spacewalk to remove the docking probe and to try to fix it. After nearly two hours of frustration, Mission Control though had one, last trick to try before considering desperate alternatives: by-pass the soft dock, push the two spacecraft together manually with the thrusters and trigger the hard dock mechanism. For three, heart-stopping seconds, it seemed that this too had failed, before the ripple-fire sound of the docking latches closing was heard and Ed Mitchell reported a hard dock[3].

Even now, the astronauts were not out of the woods. As the Lunar Landing attempt started, a faulty switch caused intermittent abort signals. These meant that either the computer could trigger an unnecessary abort or, even worse, in the event of a genuine abort being required there was a real danger that the astronauts would not be able to abort because the computer would believe that one was already taking place. Result: crash and death of crew. Apparently, a small piece of solder was shorting-out the switch and could not be shifted. The story of how software experts at MIT managed to get around the problem and save the landing is brilliantly related in Don Eyles’ book “Sunburst and Luminary”.

A still from TV images of Alan Shepherd walking on the Moon before Ed Mitchell had descended. These images were far superior in quality to anything previously received from the Moon.

Once on the Moon, Apollo 14 produced colour TV images far better than anything previously received from the lunar surface even if, all too often, the astronauts were out of view of the camera. A subject of some fascination was the use of a sort of high-tech shopping trolley that  the astronauts dragged with them to aid their work. Grandly called the Modularised Instrument Transporter, it carried tools and rock samples and helped their mobility, even if the ascent to the rim of the nearby Cone Crater, billed as the first lunar mountaineering expedition, proved to be too much for the 47-year-old Shepherd, whose heart rate was around 150 when the climb was aborted by an alarmed Mission Control.  Had the astronauts taken just a few more steps, they would have started to see over the rim of the crater and realise that they had arrived at this key geological station for lunar science. Cutting short the climb was an unfortunate error that was caused by difficulty in judging distances and in identifying landmarks and that, in turn, was caused by the totally inadequate surface maps that the astronauts were given.

A panoramic view of the view up to the rim of Cone Crater from last sample station. As they struggled up the slope in their bulky suits, the astronauts never realised that they were almost at the rim of the crater. With just a few more paces they would have seen over the crater wall and got their bearings.

After Cone Crater, the way that the moonwalk ended was pure theatre and captured both the public imagination and its attention in a way that no lunar surface activity had since Neil Armstrong’s first step. Shepherd had smuggled two golf balls and the head of a 6-iron club of a well-known brand on-board with him. Attaching the club-head to the contingency sample tool and swinging with one arm, he cried gleefully that he had hit the ball for “miles and miles”, although photography from orbit confirmed that the distances that the balls were hit were just 8 and 12 metres. It may not seem impressive, but the amazing thing is that he could hit the ball at all given the difficulties with the shot. Not to be outdone, Ed Mitchell then threw a tool handle like a javelin to emulate a lunar Olympics.

A view from the Lunar Module before lift-off showing a nearby crater containing Alan Shepherd’s second golf ball and, just beyond it, Ed Mitchell’s javelin throw. The large rock beyond the crater was termed Turtle Rock.

Not everyone was impressed by these antics. A camera magazine was left on the Moon, fortunately not one with critical data. A lot of the rocket samples were poorly documented (this was a problem with each of the early Moon landings and one that Ed Mitchell admitted freely in the post-flight technical de-briefing had bothered him). Very few samples or pictures were taken at Cone Crater. Some geologists felt that the crew had been sloppy in their job and that less fun and more attention to detailed sample collection and documentation would have been better. To be fair though, the geological training that the astronauts got was limited at best: it was not until Apollo 15 that real time and effort would be dedicated to it. Worse, the one member of the Apollo 14 crew who was enthusiastic about geology was the Command Module Pilot who never set foot on the surface. Before Apollo 15, science was little more than a “nice-to-have” in mission priorities.

However, the fact that Alan Shepherd’s golf shot is still remembered, discussed, debated and studied fifty years later shows that his gesture in pulling out what he called “a little white pellet that’s familiar to millions of Americans” was an inspired one and was the forerunner of the lunar surface show and tells done by each of the remaining crews. For a few days he got the American public interested in the Moon again, even if that brief revival of interest soon faded away. With their successful flight, he and his crew saved Apollo 15 and helped to save the final two heavy science missions. The success of Apollo 14, followed by the spectacular success of Apollo 15, allowed Casper Weinberger to keep the manned space programme alive when it would have been easy to kill it with the excuse of “mission accomplished”.


[1] There is a legend that Richard Nixon waited for Apollo 11 to land and then hit NASA with massive cutbacks in budget.  Actually, the NASA budget had already dropped, by 1969, to about half of the peak in 1966 when calculated as a fraction of the total government budget.

[2] The Command Module pilot would expect to command a lunar flight, six missions later. The Lunar Module pilot would not fly again in the Apollo programme.

[3] Alan Shepherd later suggested that he had the feeling that the three capture latches were already closed and locked before docking instead of being open so that they could close and grab the probe when docking happened.

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