Forty-three years ago this week, the sixth team of Apollo lunar explorers—and only the third to accomplish a landing on the Moon’s dusty surface—headed back to Earth after a mission which restored confidence in America’s space program after the near-disastrous Apollo 13. Astronauts Al Shepard, Stu Roosa, and Ed Mitchell brought a scientific yield back home which illustrated that the Moon was a far more complex celestial body than previously believed. The mission of Apollo 14 itself was extraordinarily complex, but as well as being a technical story, it was also a very human story of one man’s battle against almost impossible odds to regain flight status, a story which carried more than its fair share of highs and lows … and the story of the Moon’s first golfer.
The Apollo 14 crew did not share the same camaraderie as Pete Conrad’s Apollo 12 team, but a few episodes of note during their 19 months of training have been highlighted by Neal Thompson, in his biography of Shepard, Light This Candle. One geological training expedition took Shepard and Mitchell and their backups, Gene Cernan and Joe Engle, to a remote part of Bavaria, in the southeastern corner of Germany. Each evening, the men threw back huge tankards of beer and on one occasion they drunkenly climbed an old bell tower, just outside Munich, then had to pound on the doors of their dormitory which the proprietor had locked at 10 p.m. On another training expedition in southern Arizona, Cernan arranged to cross the border into Mexico to visit a friend’s restaurant for dinner. When they arrived, they were shown into a motel room and on a dresser stood four bottles of scotch and four room keys. Expecting dinner, the astronauts were shocked when four Mexican woman entered the room, each hopeful of sex with an astronaut that night.
“For the next 45 minutes,” wrote Neal Thompson, “in a mélange of tortured Spanish Spanish and charades, the spacemen tried to explain why they couldn’t stay. They each tried what little Spanish they knew: el presidente…no es possible…we can’t stay out late…we can’t drink…have to train for mission in the morning…going to Moon…la luna…During the ride back, the astronauts joked that they didn’t even get dinner.” Nor did any of them get chance to surreptitiously grab the bottles of scotch. …
For Al Shepard, who had overcome an inner-ear condition known as Ménière’s Disease and whose career had seesawed from being America’s first man in space, to grounded and unable to even fly jets, to chief of the astronaut corps, to experimental medical procedure, to recovery and back onto flight status, the period from 1961 to 1971 had been a frustrating, though remarkable, decade. On Apollo 14, he would become the only member of the Original Seven Mercury astronauts to set foot on the Moon, and he trained feverishly for the opportunity. He flew the unforgiving Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV) more times than Gene Cernan could remember, taught himself to fly helicopters, and sweated every detail of the mission he was about to undertake. His crewmate Stu Roosa, the command module pilot, would remain in lunar orbit, whilst Shepard and lunar module pilot Ed Mitchell descended to the Moon’s Fra Mauro foothills for two days of exploration.
Launch day, 31 January 1971, dawned cloudy and dreary at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. A persistent drizzle turned into a Sunday afternoon downpour, and the 3:23 p.m. EST launch was postponed by 40 minutes in the hope it would subside. The “window” for that day actually extended until 7:12 p.m., after which Apollo 14 would have to be postponed to 1 March. From within the command module, which they had named “Kitty Hawk” in honour of the location in North Carolina from where the Wright Brothers conducted the first sustained and controlled heavier-than-air flight in 1903. Shepard, Roosa, and Mitchell felt supremely confident that they could not suffer the massive electrical and other systems failures which had befallen Apollo 13. A third oxygen tank, isolated from the others, was included aboard their service module, together with a spare 400-amp battery, capable of supplying them with enough electrical power to handle all of their needs from any point in the mission.
All three men were keenly aware of President Richard Nixon’s stance on manned spaceflight; the axe on Apollos 18 and 19 had fallen barely four months earlier, and there were noises to cancel Apollos 16 and 17, too. Congress had slashed NASA’s budget to its lowest level in a decade, and for an apathetic public Apollo 14 encompassed far more than “just” going to the Moon: The crew had to restore a dimming sense of national pride and restore confidence in the program.
Before they could do that, however, they had to wait for the forces of nature to take their course. Thankfully, the storm lashed the launch pad only briefly and then headed out to sea, and the countdown resumed and proceeded without further incident. The access arm to the command module’s hatch was swung away, and the call of “Initiate firing command” signified the transition of the remainder of the countdown to the computers. With 50 seconds to go, the Saturn V rocket transferred its systems onto full internal power; and from the astronauts’ perspective, they could both hear and feel the behemoth coming to life, far below them. “He felt the first distant whispers of Saturn V flexing its sinews,” Shepard later wrote in third-person narrative of the experience in his memoir, Moon Shot, “the rush of thousands of gallons of propellants hurtling downward through their lines, turbopumps spinning … He had the wild thought that the giant rocket was ten inches shorter than before fuelling. How could they get to the Moon with a booster that had shrunk? The fuel, of course. Millions of pounds of cold fuel contracting the rocket, bending metal …”
Nine seconds before launch, the Ignition Sequence Start command was given and kerosene and liquid oxygen poured into the combustion chambers of the Saturn’s five F-1 first-stage engines. Louise Shepard was bracing herself with her friend, Dorel Abbot, against a hurricane fence, three miles (five km) from Pad 39A, and her recollection of those final seconds was of little more than a steadily increasing brightness of flame. The sound would not reach the assembled VIPs for 15 long seconds. “The Saturn V roared and screamed,” wrote Shepard, “anchored to its launch pad by huge, hold-down arms chaining it to Earth until computers judged the giant was howling with full energy.” That energy was unleashed at 4:03 p.m. EST, when countdown clocks in Mission Control touched zero and Apollo 14 headed firstly for Earth orbit and later the Moon.
As they left Earth, Shepard, Roosa, and Mitchell heard little more than distant, muted thunder, followed by a very gentle, almost jerky, motion as they gently rose from Pad 39A. The spectators saw something quite different: a terrifying, shrieking cataclysm of fire and thunder which sent flocks of birds fleeing in all directions and which pummeled chests and the soles of feet with intense shockwaves. Nor was the impact only felt at KSC. Nearly 1,250 miles (2,000 km) to the north, at Palisades Park, N.J., the roar of the Saturn shook atmospheric instruments at the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory. …
The smooth ride gave way to a somewhat bumpier one when the first stage was jettisoned and the J-2 engines of the Saturn’s S-II second stage ignited. “Without constant acceleration and with the sudden cut-off of stage one,” wrote Shepard, “the three men jerked forward in their seats. The accordion stretched out and then compressed again; the fuels sloshed and the astronauts felt a series of bumps, just like a train wreck.” Next came the jettisoning of the escape tower, which uncovered the command module’s windows, but through which they could see virtually nothing, save the profound blackness of space. Thirteen minutes after leaving Florida, and with the S-II and the first burn of the restartable S-IVB third stage finally behind them, Shepard, Roosa, and Mitchell were in orbit.
“That alone,” exulted Shepard, “was almost worth the entire trip!”
Thus far, Apollo 14 seemed charmed and the crew was given the customary go-ahead for Translunar Injection (TLI), the second burn of the S-IVB which would propel them toward the Moon. “There was no sensation of movement,” wrote Shepard, “only the delicious freedom of floating without weight.” Next on the agenda was a time-honored task assigned to the command module pilot: for Roosa was now to apply 19 months of training to the intricate transposition and docking maneuver to extract the lunar module (named “Antares,” after the brightest star in the constellation Scorpio) from the top of the spent S-IVB.
With pinpoint precision, Roosa guided Kitty Hawk’s docking probe into the cone atop the roof of Antares’ ascent stage, and all three men waited for three capture latches to signify a soft docking, after which they would retract the docking probe and pull the spacecraft together in a metallic embrace. The soft dock, however, never came. Perplexed, Roosa pulled away, informed Mission Control in Houston, Texas, then tried a second time. Again, there was no success. In Mission Control, there was similar confusion: for the mechanical latches needed no electrical power to operate, no pneumatic pressure or drive—they were supposed to click into place and lock. Huddled around a console, flight controllers and managers speculated that maybe a piece of debris, or even dirt, could be lodged inside the mechanism. Their consensus was that Roosa should try again.
Roosa did try again … and again, and again. No fewer than five attempts were made to “soft dock” with Antares, all of which proved fruitless. More worryingly, every time he maneuvered Kitty Hawk toward the lander, he was consuming more and more of the precious fuel which would be needed later in the mission. Shepard was becoming increasingly irritated, reporting “No joy” after each attempt. At length, he offered to depressurize the command module’s cabin, open the apex hatch, and withdraw the probe into the cabin to determine what was afoot. When Roosa had moved Kitty Hawk up to Antares with the tunnel open, Shepard would then have poked out his suited arms to align the two spacecraft for hard docking. Mission Control turned him down flat, declaring that such an exercise was too risky.
Instead, they advocated having Roosa come in harder and faster, ramming the probe into the docking cone and hopefully allowing the capture latches to “telescope” into position from the impact. Backup crewman Gene Cernan also advised them to push the retract switch a split-second before the two craft touched, thereby using the probe only to align the two collars. “That would drive Kitty Hawk hard up against Antares,” wrote Shepard, “and hold it there long enough to engage the 12 latches of the docking rings directly. If the smaller latches, which normally made the first connection, were faulty, then they could be bypassed and a hard dock achieved.” Aware of the dwindling supplies of propellant, Roosa asked for a fuel status reading from Mission Control and was advised to make one more docking attempt before that was “re-evaluated.” From his seat, Shepard had by this point had enough of gentle efforts to capture the lander and conserve fuel. It was time to push the throttle full forward. Turning to his command module pilot, he told Roosa: “Just forget about conserving fuel. This time, juice it!”
Minutes later, as some cautious managers in Mission Control continued to debate whether or not to cancel the flight, Roosa juiced it and the two craft came together. A welcoming cacaphony of clacks sounded through Kitty Hawk’s cabin, and when Shepard announced success, applause broke out in Houston. However, they were still not out of the woods. It would later be determined that dust or debris had indeed prevented a soft docking, but the fear remained that a similar problem could arise as Shepard and Mitchell rose from the Moon to redock in a few days’ time. Until the problem could be properly understood, and assurances received that disaster would not befall Apollo 14 in lunar orbit, the landing remained in question. The new head of Flight Operations, Sigurd Sjoberg, who had replaced Chris Kraft the previous year, told his troops that he wanted to be sure “that this thing is indeed satisfactory for docking, again, before we commit to the Moon landing.”
By now, the astronauts had been awake for 19 hours and were directed to get some sleep. That did not, however, inhibit Mitchell from conducting an unusual task during what he already expected would be his one and only spaceflight. For some time, he had been fascinated by the mysteries of extrasensory perception (ESP)—for which he felt neither religion or science provided a satisfactory explanation—and a few weeks before launch, he and some acquaintances had agreed to perform an experiment. Forty-five minutes into each sleep period, during the flight to and from the Moon, he would attempt to transmit thoughts from space. He started on the very first night. From within his sleeping bag, and by the glimmer of a flashlight, Mitchell pulled out a clipboard on which were written a series of random numbers, each one designating a typical ESP symbol.
“Mitchell chose a number,” wrote Andrew Chaikin in his book A Man on the Moon, “and then, with intense concentration, imagined the corresponding symbol for several seconds. He repeated the process several times, with different numbers, knowing that on Earth, four men were sitting in silence, trying to see the pictures in their minds.” In fact, Stu Roosa saw Mitchell’s flashlight during the first night’s sleep period and did not think to ask him about it the following morning. Not until after the mission, whilst reading the newspaper, would Shepard learn of Mitchell’s experiment.
With the exception of the lingering worry about the docking mechanism, the remainder of Apollo 14’s cruise to the Moon was uneventful. As it drew closer, the astronauts began to discern traces of greys and browns—totally different to the bright object that they had known for all of their lives. Eighty-two hours after launch, Roosa fired the big Service Propulsion System (SPS) engine to drop them into an elliptical orbit with a low point of just nine miles (15 km) above the surface. This maneuver essentially eliminated the need for Antares to perform the early stages of descent and represented a refinement of mission techniques since Apollo 12. The propellant savings would give Shepard additional time to hover to find a suitable landing spot in the hummocky Fra Mauro.
By this time, experiments on Earth had satisfied mission controllers that the astronauts could repeat their “juice-it” maneuver to bring Kitty Hawk and Antares together if a similar problem arose in lunar orbit. The landing was officially back on the schedule. On their 12th circuit of the Moon, early on 5 February 1971, the lunar module undocked and began its descent. “I have Cone Crater, Triplet and Doublet!” Shepard radioed excitedly as the main surface targets came into view. The target point was close to Doublet. Despite their inherent knowledge of the landing site from months spent studying Lunar Orbiter photographs, the view was profound. Shepard called it a “wild place” and Mitchell considered it to be “the most stark and desolate-looking piece of country I’ve ever seen.”
Apollo 14 was not out of the woods yet. In the center of Antares’ control panel was a red circular push button labelled “Abort.” Its purpose did not require a huge amount of explanation, except that pressing it would set in motion a chain of events to terminate the lunar landing, activating the ascent engine and boosting Shepard and Mitchell back up toward Roosa and Kitty Hawk. “The switch,” wrote Gene Kranz, one of the mission’s four flight directors, “had electrical contacts to issue signals to the LM engines, computer and abort electronics. When the abort switch for Apollo 14’s LM had been manufactured, a small piece of metal had been left in the switch. Now, in zero gravity, and with both crew and ground oblivious, this piece of metal was floating among the contacts of the switch, randomly making intermittent connections.”
Since the drama of Apollo 13, more than $15 million-worth of modifications had been incorporated into the Mission Operations Control Room, one of which included changes to help a controller to rapidly identify any change in status in critical spacecraft systems. From his chair as Antares’ control engineer for descent and landing, Dick Thorson glanced at his monitor and noticed a red light blink on; it seemed to imply that either Shepard or Mitchell had pushed the Abort button. Thorson was perplexed. Why would they do that? They had yet to begin their Powered Descent. Maybe there had been a telemetry patching error to the light panel on his console; a quick check, however, confirmed that everything was as it should be. As the engineer’s eyes widened, it became clear that, if this was for real, it signalled bad news for the landing at Fra Mauro. In the back room, two of Thorson’s colleagues, Hal Loden and Bob Carlton, also noticed the problem and suggested that one of the astronauts should tap the panel on which the Abort switch was located, in an effort to resolve the indication.
“Gerry,” Thorson called up Flight Director Gerry Griffin on the intercom loop, “I’m seeing an abort indication in the lunar module. Have the crew verify that the button is not depressed.”
Capcom Fred Haise duly passed the request up to Antares, and Mitchell tapped the panel with a flashlight. The abort light blinked off, then came back on again a few minutes later. “What’s wrong with this ship?” Shepard wondered. They were barely 90 minutes away from the initiation of Powered Descent, and the landing was temporarily waved off until a solution could be found. “Thorson’s dilemma was a thorny one,” explained Kranz in his autobiography, Failure Is Not An Option. “To land, we needed to bypass the switch, but if we had problems during landing, we needed the switch to abort. It was a hell of a risk-gain trade.” Thorson’s team identified a software “patch” for Antares’ computer, which would lock out both the Abort and Abort Stage switches, allowing the mission to continue. However, in an emergency, should Shepard and Mitchell need to perform an abort close to the surface, they would need to use the keyboard to manually initiate the abort program. Gerry Griffin was willing to accept the risk, confident that Shepard would probably do the same. He rescheduled the landing attempt for two hours’ time, on the next pass.
Key to this effort was the Draper Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which had developed the guidance and navigation systems for the Apollo spacecraft. Their engineers now shifted into high gear to wring out the software patch and make it work. Within the hour, a procedure had been devised, whereby the Abort switch could be bypassed when the descent engine was ignited and then re-enabled immediately thereafter. Amidst ratty communications with Antares, Haise radioed up instructions to Mitchell. First, the astronauts would start the descent engine at low power, using the acceleration to move the contaminating metal—probably a bit of solder—away from the switch contacts. As soon as Shepard fired the engine, Mitchell would input a string of 16 commands to enable steering and guidance, then another string of 16 more commands to disable the Abort program, then another 14 commands to lock into the landing radar and the descent software.
“This entire sequence,” wrote Kranz, “would occur as the crew was descending to the Moon. The mission now rested on an emergency patch to the flight software that was less than two hours old, had been simulated only once and was being performed by a crew that had never practiced it.” Nevertheless, when the engine lit, Kranz was astounded that Shepard had lost nothing of his sharpness and marvelous calmness as the instructions were entered into Antares’ computer. As the engine climbed steadily toward 10 percent thrust, Thorson monitored his display and saw no evidence that the Abort switch had been activated. So far, the mission was back on track.
“Thank you, Houston,” radioed Shepard. “Nice job down there!”
In his biography of Shepard, Neal Thompson related the singular contribution of one young MIT programmer, Don Eyles, who had helped to design Antares’ software. Eyles recalled being shocked from sleep as an Air Force car screeched to a halt outside his apartment at two in the morning and a uniformed officer hammered on his door. He was told that he had 90 minutes to come up with a solution for Apollo 14’s problems. Eyles threw a jacket over his pyjamas and was driven to his nearby lab to create, virtually from scratch, a substitute program to eliminate Antares’ faulty abort signal.
A few minutes into the powered descent, another problem reared its head. Both astronauts were now feeling positively snakebitten. This time, it was the landing radar—the device upon which Shepard and Mitchell would depend to feed them accurate altitude and rate of descent data as they headed for Fra Mauro. The trajectory data from Mission Control could include errors as great as 0.6 miles (1 km), making the radar indispensable. Guidance Officer Will Presley began to wonder why the radar had not locked-on. At first, he advised Griffin to continue the descent, but knew that he would need to call an abort if the radar did not kick in within the next 60 seconds.
From aboard the lander, Mitchell was irritated by the long delay in the radar acquiring the surface. “C’mon, radar,” he repeated quietly to himself. At length, Dick Thorson, upon whose shoulders fell the responsibility for the radar, suggested cycling its circuit breaker. When Fred Haise passed up the request, Antares was less than 4.3 miles (seven km) above the surface—if the radar did not come on by 1.8 miles (three km) or so, flight rules demanded that the landing be aborted—and Mitchell could scarcely hide the urgency in his tone: “Come on!”
Shepard plucked out the circuit breaker, cutting its power, then jammed it back into place. “Hell, it works with my toaster,” Mitchell quipped. Thankfully, this did the trick and a stream of radar data began flowing into the computer. By the time they reached an altitude of a couple of thousand metres, they could see Cone Crater off to the right, embedded in the crest of a ridge. They passed low over the ridge, heading for their target near Doublet.
“Fat as a goose!” Shepard exulted as he guided Antares toward a perfect touchdown, 174 feet (53 meters) from the intended spot; closer to target than Neil Armstrong or even Pete Conrad had achieved. The Lunar Contact light glimmered blue at 4:17 a.m. EST on 5 February 1971. It was the third time humans had made landfall on an alien body, and Shepard and Mitchell were electrified: primed and ready to begin the expansive program of exploration at Fra Mauro which had been cruelly denied to Apollo 13.
The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.
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For those of us lucky to be alive during the Apollo moon missions, the pictures and events become more incredible and awe-inspiring as the years pass by. To think that human beings accomplished such feats is astounding, especially with the technology then available. I read the many books, see the pictures from the Moon’s surface and never lose the sense of wonderment.
Agreed tom and these articials are great reading these guys really flew by the seat of there pants .
Great History series Ben. The photographs are as magnificent as the narrative itself!
Your exemplary writing style, your wonderful talent, makes us feel as though we were actually there as these enormous steps in human space exploration were taken. To say that reading your works (and those of our friend Leonidas) is an unending source of information, inspiration, and enjoyment would be to damn by faint praise. By so artfully painting pictures of these monumental events for those who were not present to experience them first-hand, you touch the future by preserving and passing on this priceless heritage to a generation not yet born.
Love the piece, but I am confused about one thing. What did cutting the power to a circuit board do to help recover RADAR functionality?
He turned it off and on again.
First rule of engineering: If it doesn’t work, jiggle the wire.