In 2011, Hollywood had us believe that the crew of Apollo 18 fell victim to spider-like aliens and a sinister conspiracy, spearheaded by the Department of Defense, to eliminate the chance of extraterrestrial contamination. The reality is quite different: for the three men who might have flown the real Apollo 18 are alive and well to this day…and one of them did get to walk on the lunar surface. Further, the astronauts tentatively assigned to Apollo 19 are also still with us. More than four decades ago, in September 1970, NASA executed one of the most controversial – and perhaps misguided – decisions in its history, by cancelling the last two piloted voyages to the Moon. In doing so, the agency and a short-sighted Washington administration condemned humanity to at least two generations in which exploration beyond Earth orbit was only possible with robotic craft.
It was a lost opportunity whose echoes resonate to this very day.
Early in July of that year, the Washington Post published a disturbing article. Three months after the near-disaster of Apollo 13, it was already clear that only a few more lunar missions lay ahead; bumper stickers appeared in Florida, bearing the legend ‘Apollo 14: One Giant Leap for Unemployment’. The Post’s article, however, revealed publicly for the first time that as many as four missions might face the budgetary axe, as the Republican government of Richard Nixon, keen to seek a timely exit from Vietnam and resolve lingering social issues at home, repeatedly slashed the space budget. His hands thus tied, George Low – former manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, who had taken over as Acting Administrator of NASA after the resignation of Tom Paine – formally announced the cancellation of Apollos 15 and 19.
These flights belonged, respectively, to the so-called ‘H-series’ and ‘J-series’ of lunar missions. The former involved a stay time of no more than 33 hours on the lunar surface and two EVAs, whilst the latter involved up to 70 hours on the surface, three EVAs, a battery-powered Rover to enhance the range of exploration and a bay of scientific equipment in the Apollo service module for geophysical and other studies from orbit. Baselined to last around 12 days, the J-series missions marked a 20-percent duration hike over their H-series counterparts. Before the cancellation, NASA envisaged four H-series missions (Apollos 12-15) and four J-series missions (Apollos 16-19). After September 1970, the manifests changed and the remaining missions were renumbered. Apollo 14 would be the last H-series mission and the newly-renumbered Apollo 15, 16 and 17 would form the J-series flights. Thus, the two ‘lost’ missions would be forever remembered as Apollos 18 and 19.
The astronauts to support these missions were already in place…at least, that is, in their backup capacity for other flights. Deke Slayton, head of Flight Crew Operations in Houston, Texas, had exercised a three-mission rotation system during Project Apollo, whereby a backup team for a given flight would move into the prime crew slot three flights later. Thus, the Apollo 15 backup team – Commander Dick Gordon, Command Module Pilot Vance Brand and Lunar Module Pilot Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt – could have anticipated a subsequent assignment to Apollo 18. By following this logic, the Apollo 16 backups, Commander Fred Haise, Command Module Pilot Bill Pogue and Lunar Module Pilot Gerry Carr, would have been tentatively pointed towards the Apollo 19 mission.
In that hot, violent summer of 1970 – a summer haunted by Richard Nixon’s controversial incursion into Cambodia, despite pledges to withdraw troops, and the resultant student protests, most notably at Kent State University in Ohio – the astronauts for these two would-be lunar missions trained feverishly for flights which they knew might never come to pass. When the truth finally reached them, it was devastating. “We had lost our opportunity to go to the Moon,” Carr told the NASA oral historian. “We moped around for quite a few weeks.” From Bill Pogue’s perspective, he knew that “it looked pretty bad in Washington” and recalled that his crew was on a training expedition in Arizona when they heard the news. They were staying in a motel in Flagstaff. One morning, Fred Haise brought him a newspaper, emblazoned with the front-page banner headline: Apollos 18 and 19 Cancelled. “That’s how we found out about it,” remembered Pogue, grimly.
The cancellations came about through a series of meetings in August 1970, organised by Tom Paine and George Low, which included representatives of NASA’s Lunar and Planetary Sciences Board and the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences. In such a dire budgetary situation, there were few ‘good’ options. One called for the execution of four of the six remaining Apollo missions, at six-monthly intervals, from January 1971, before taking a break to conduct three lengthy Skylab flights in 1972-73, then staging the last two lunar voyages in 1974. The second option was to cancel Apollos 18 and 19 and make their Saturn V launch vehicles “available for possible future uses”. One such ‘use’, NASA revealed, might be to insert a large space station into orbit at some indeterminate time in the future.
Another lunar mission, Apollo 20, had been formally cancelled in January 1970, to allow its Saturn V to be used to orbit Skylab. No one could have guessed at this point that the mammoth Saturn – the only vehicle ever to have propelled humans beyond Earth orbit and, to this day, the largest and most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status – would end its days with a whimper…as a museum exhibit.
Yet the cancellation enabled NASA to bitterly cut its Apollo budget by the required $42.1 million to a total of $914.4 million and thus fit snugly into the $3.27 billion allocation for Fiscal Year 1971. Chris Kraft – then-deputy head of the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), later the Johnson Space Center – wrote in his memoir Flight that everyone at NASA would have fought much harder to keep Apollos 18 and 19 if they had known that humanity would be waiting for half a century before the chance of more boots on the Moon. “None of us,” Kraft reflected, “thought that America would turn into a nation of quitters and lose its will to lead an outward-bound manned exploration of our Solar System. That just wasn’t possible.”
In hindsight, Kraft felt that MSC Director Bob Gilruth, who feared another Apollo 13-like failure, would have supported the final two missions, had he known that low-Earth orbit would be the only domain for astronauts for at least the next five decades. In his autobiography, Failure is Not an Option, veteran flight director Gene Kranz was similarly disgusted. “It was as if Congress was ripping our heart out,” he noted, “gutting the programme we had fought so hard to build.”
Nevertheless, the J-series was eagerly awaited, for its upgraded lunar module and space suits could facilitate EVAs lasting up to seven hours apiece. As backup Commander of Apollo 13, John Young must have been disappointed that by rotating into the Apollo 16 prime crew, he would no longer be leading the first of this ambitious series of missions…but the second. The ‘new’ Apollo 15, which had now gained J-status, would carry astronauts Dave Scott, Al Worden and Jim Irwin on a mission which would rewrite the textbooks on lunar geology and, even today, continues to stand as one of the most remarkable voyages of exploration in human history.
The cancellations of Apollos 18 and 19 changed the situation significantly, not least in terms of where the final few missions would land. Two touchdowns on relatively flat plains of lunar mare (‘seas’) had been performed by the crews of Apollo 11 and 12 and the astronauts of Apollo 13 were directed toward a hilly region, known as Fra Mauro, where it was hoped that ejected material from the massive Imbrium impact crater could be directly sampled, thus yielding the first accurate estimate of the age of this ancient feature. The near-loss of Jim Lovell’s mission left the importance of Fra Mauro undiminished and it eventually became the destination for Al Shepard’s Apollo 14 team…and this, in turn, meant that the original Apollo 14 destination of the Littrow crater – a yawning bowl, heavily eroded, to the north-north-east of the Taurus-Littrow region, later visited by the Apollo 17 crew – was removed from consideration. This opened up the question of considering where to send the three J-series missions…and the lunar mountains exerted an attractive pull.
In September 1970 a conference in Houston on the structure, composition and history of the lunar surface considered a number of options for the final landings. These included Descartes in the central highlands, which was deemed to be volcanic in nature, together with the very prominent crater Tycho in the south, the crater chain Davy Rille in the north-eastern corner of Mare Nubium, the low domes of the Marius Hills and finally the 3,000-foot-tall central peak complex of the large crater Copernicus.
Descartes, firstly, looked as if it would offer geologists a chance to sample ‘typical’ terrain from the central highlands, rather than around their periphery, and many believed that the many fissures, grooves and hills of such regions had been formed through ancient volcanic activity and remained essentially unchanged since shortly after the Moon’s formation. “Samples from the Descartes site,” read a NASA press release, issued on 1 October 1970, “would be important in determining whether or not highlands were formed by a very early differentiation of the Moon or whether they represent a primitive, undifferentiated planetary surface.”
Davy Rille, too, would have offered ancient highland material, with some craters which some geologists thought might have been formed by explosive eruptions which ejected material from over 60 miles below the surface, although limited photographic coverage rendered it inadequate for detailed mission planning. “It does not appear likely,” the NASA release concluded, “that adequate photography of Davy will be obtained on Apollo 14 or 15.” The collection of domes and cones known as Marius Hills had already been extensively documented by the Lunar Orbiters and, situated near the centre of the Ocean of Storms, would have been the most westerly Apollo landing site. On the other hand, the Marius Hills were thought to offer little hope of yielding any highland material. Tycho had been visited by the Surveyor 7 probe in January 1968. Considered one of the last major impacts in lunar history, it was hoped that Tycho would turn up primordial material from seven miles beneath the highlands…but its drawbacks were twofold: firstly, it would be the most difficult terrain yet negotiated by a landing crew and secondly, reaching it would demand a trajectory “far removed from the free-return path”. In recognition of Apollo 13’s troubles, it is unsurprising that Tycho was not selected. Lastly, the 60-mile-wide Copernicus, with its vast terraced walls, central peaks and brightly-rayed ejecta blankets, appeared to mark where an impact blasted a hole through the mare surface of the Ocean of Storms into the underlying highland material. The central peak of Tycho was beyond reach, but Copernicus, near the lunar equator, was attainable. A landing in Copernicus was expected to reveal clues about the differentiation of the Moon.
Marius Hills and another site, called Hadley, were eventually pinned down as candidates for the Apollo 15 mission. Unlike Marius, the Hadley region, which lay on the very edge of one of the Moon’s great mountain chains – the Apennines, whose peaks rose to heights of 3,000 feet – offered the chance to sample both Imbrium ejecta and the primordial lunar material thrust upwards by the enormous shock of the Imbrium impact. “The chunks of basalt from Tranquillity Base and the Ocean of Storms,” wrote Andrew Chaikin in his book A Man on the Moon, “had taken geologists back to the era of mare volcanism. The Apennines promised to open a window on an even earlier time, perhaps all the way back to the Moon’s birth.” The choice of Hadley was aided by the presence of lava plains as a ready-made landing strip for a lunar module. Moreover, the relatively gentle topography of the area would more than likely allow the astronauts to drive the Rover partway up the slopes of a mountain called Hadley Delta. Also within reach was the long, winding channel of Hadley Rille, which geologists suspected had once been a sinuous ‘river’ of lava.
As a target for the first J-mission, it was enticing.
Geologically, if Apollo 15 discovered a single fragment of primordial, almost unchanged lunar crust, it would make the entire Apollo effort worthwhile. Fittingly, it was Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott who was offered the final decision. Privately, he felt that he could land at either Marius or Hadley, but he favoured the latter, not just on the basis of its scientific promise, but because of its sheer grandeur. Scott felt that it was good for the human spirit to explore beautiful places.
As exuberant as Scott and his crew must have been, their backups – Dick Gordon, Vance Brand and Jack Schmitt – were dealt a hammer blow that month of September 1970, when their mission, Apollo 18, was scrubbed from the books. John Young and his team of Ken Mattingly and Charlie Duke seemed firmly pointed towards Apollo 16 and the crew of the final mission were not expected to be announced for several more months, though Apollo 14 backups Gene Cernan, Ron Evans and Joe Engle seemed to have the edge. Regardless, Gordon decided, he and his team would sweat it out, in the hope that Deke Slayton would break the rotation system and assign them instead. After all, surely the presence of Schmitt – a professional geologist – on his crew might make Slayton’s decision easier.
For his part, Cernan had the same future goal in mind. Yet there were mutterings, even in the astronaut offices, that Apollo 14 itself might be the last lunar landing; that Congress might pull the plug entirely on the project. If Apollo 17 survived the budgetary axe – and it was a big ‘if’ – there were no guarantees that Cernan, Evans and Engle would be aboard. Consequently, Cernan took it upon himself to ensure that his crew did the best backup job possible on Apollo 14.
In his autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon, Cernan noted that Engle was not as knowledgeable about the lunar module’s quirky systems as he would have liked. However, Engle was one of the most gifted pilots in the Astronaut Office, having flown the X-15 rocket-propelled aircraft before he was even selected by NASA, and Cernan felt that Engle’s deficiencies did not preclude them from forming an outstanding crew. None of them could ever have guessed that by the end of 1971 Engle would have lost his chance to walk on the Moon…and not through any fault of his own. It is ironic that, in December 1970, Cernan attended a meeting with Shepard and Slayton to discuss a concern about the Apollo 14 Lunar Module Pilot, Ed Mitchell.
“He was fed up with Mitchell’s penchant for playing around with experiments in extrasensory perception,” Cernan wrote of Slayton’s worries, “even wanting to take some ESP tests along to the Moon. Ed just wouldn’t let it go and Deke said he was uncomfortable with the possibility that Mitchell’s full attention might not be on the mission.” Moreover, Mitchell had refused to take on ‘dead-end’ backup duties for Apollo 16 and an annoyed Slayton had given him a choice: he would either fulfil these important duties or he would lose his place on Apollo 14. Mitchell complied, but the doubts remained. In an exchange of opinions he would later regret, Cernan was asked for his input over whether to drop Mitchell from Shepard’s crew and replace him with Joe Engle. Both Shepard and Cernan felt that Mitchell was more than qualified, in terms of his knowledge about the lander’s systems. However, the very fact that Engle was not quite at the same level of proficiency led both Shepard and Cernan to stand by Mitchell. When Engle lost his chance to fly Apollo 17 later in 1971, Cernan lamented not fighting a little harder to get his former crewmate a seat on a landing mission.
Today, one of the main questions asked of those final, would-be lunar missions is who would have flown them. To an extent, this is an easy question to answer: for Deke Slayton’s crew rotation process offers us an easy roadmap. Dick Gordon, Vance Brand and Jack Schmitt would have been aboard Apollo 18 and Fred Haise, Bill Pogue and Gerry Carr aboard Apollo 19.
Of course, we know today that the programme continued through to Apollo 17 and that, as expected, the J-series missions proved to be remarkable in their spectacular accomplishment. Yet as late as August 1971, even after the triumph of Apollo 15, Richard Nixon proposed the cancellation of Apollos 16 and 17, a move only reversed by the intervention of Caspar Weinberger, deputy head of his Office of Management and Budget, who recommended their retention.
Aside from Hollywood’s glamorisation of a hypothetical Apollo 18, had the real mission flown – and Apollo 19, too – we can expect them to have been no less spectacular than the final few missions which actually took place. They would have seen Gordon and Schmitt and Haise and Carr bouncing across the lunar terrain in their own Rovers, performing three EVAs and potentially making astounding discoveries which might have unlocked more of the Moon’s mysteries. In orbit, aboard their command and service modules, Brand and Pogue would have operated complex arrays of scientific instrumentation to study our closest celestial neighbour in unprecedented detail. The discoveries of the Apollo landing missions which did fly – from Dave Scott’s identification of the ‘Genesis Rock’ on Apollo 15 to Jack Schmitt spotting orange soil on Apollo 17 – serve only to whet our appetites for what might have been.
It is one of the most damning indictments of numerous short-sighted administrations, whether Democrat or Republican and whether influenced by external influences or not, to have effectively cut us off from deep-space exploration for half a century and eliminated dreams of the Moon and Mars for two generations of children. Depressingly, the saga of the ongoing Obama-Romney battle for the White House incumbency in January 2013 illustrates a similar lack of real support for space exploration. To an extent, it is understandable – as in 1970 – that events on Earth took precedence over events on a barren celestial body, a quarter of a million miles away, and politicians have other pressing issues to address which not only affect their election chances, but also the very lives of their electorate.
Yet it must be wondered if our descendants will forgive us for having achieved, all those years ago, one of the greatest technical and scientific accomplishments in human history…and then stopped. Chris Kraft could never have foreseen that a nation which boldly committed itself to boots on the Moon would conceivably transform into “a nation of quitters”. Nor could Gene Kranz imagine having the hearts of himself and his team ripped out by Congressional demand. The arrival of Curiosity on the surface of Mars reminds us, if we need reminding, that NASA continues to be filled with the best and the brightest…and those minds and that talent will be needed to rise above politics and enable the explorations of the next generation.
Tomorrow’s article will focus on the cancelled ‘I-series’ of Apollo missions, which would have explored the Moon from orbit with some of the most advanced scientific equipment of their time.Missions » Apollo »