Hindsight is that “knew-it-all-along” mindset that we humans use on an almost daily basis and virtually all of us have seen events—from historical battles, accidents, and disasters to judicial trials and medical operations—as having been inevitable, after their occurrence. However, in the summer of 1970, one event occurred for which foresight, as well as hindsight, was deployed on several fronts, but whose outcome led to one of the greatest regrets of a generation of explorers. NASA originally envisaged a series of 10 piloted lunar landings between 1969 and 1974, with astronauts from Apollos 11 through 20 touching down on the Moon and conducting multiple excursions on foot and some benefiting from a battery-powered Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV). Had all of those missions occurred as intended, up to 24 Moonwalks lasting over 125 hours might have been accomplished by 20 human explorers, with as much as 500 cumulative hours spent on the surface of our closest celestial neighbor. Instead, with the events of 1970, three of those landing missions were canceled, and when throwing the near-disaster of Apollo 13 into the mix, humanity was left with a present total of 14 Moonwalks lasting 80.5 hours, accomplished by 12 human explorers, and about 309 cumulative hours on the lunar surface. Although enormously successful, the Apollo missions which did take place bring us inevitably to the lost landings and the lost Moonwalks and raise the spectre of the question: What might have been?
As described in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, budget cuts in the spring and summer of 1970 forced then-NASA Administrator Tom Paine to cancel Apollos 15 and 19 from the manifest. These flights were, respectively, the last of the so-called “H”-series and “J”-series of lunar landing missions. The former involved a short-duration Lunar Module (LM), with a stay time on the Moon of no more than 33 hours and two EVAs of approximately four hours’ duration apiece, whilst the latter encompassed a trio of EVAs—each running for five to seven hours—and up to 78 hours on the surface, with the J-series crews assisted in their exploration by the 400-pound (180-kg) Boeing/General Motors-built LRV. Additionally, the J-series Command and Service Module (CSM) would benefit from an enhanced Scientific Instrument Module Bay (SIMBay) of equipment for enhanced geophysical and other observations from lunar orbit. Baselined for mission durations of around 12 days, the J-series missions would mark a 20 percent duration hike over their earlier, H-series counterparts. Before the cancellations, NASA envisaged four H-series missions (Apollos 12 through 15) and four J-series missions (Apollos 16 through 19), but after the tumultuous events of the summer of 1970 the manifest changed and the remaining flights were redesignated. Apollo 14 became the last H-series mission and the newly renumbered Apollos 15, 16, and 17 formed the new J-series. Thus, the two “lost” missions would be popularly (but incorrectly) remembered as Apollos 18 and 19.
As backup Commander of Apollo 13, veteran astronaut 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 Commander Dave Scott, Command Module Pilot (CMP) Al Worden, and Lunar Module (LMP) 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-northeast 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 the summer and fall of 1969, efforts to determine the most scientifically valuable sites for the final lunar landing missions entered high gear. With Apollo 13 originally targeted from the Fra Mauro foothills in March 1970, the Apollo 14 crew would have headed for Littrow in July and that of Apollo 15 in October to Censorinus, a tiny impact crater, surrounded by hummocky terrain, to the southeast of the Sea of Tranquility. An alternate suggestion for Apollo 15 might have been the highland crater chain of Davy Rille, in the northeastern quadrant of Mare Nubium, whose impact basins were thought to have been formed by explosive eruptions which ejected material from over 60 miles (96 km) beneath the lunar surface. Unfortunately, limited photographic coverage from earlier missions made Davy Rille inadequate for site certification and detailed mission planning. “It does not appear likely,” concluded a NASA release of 1 October 1970, “that adequate photography of Davy will be obtained on Apollo 14 or 15.”
With regards to the original J-series missions—scheduled to begin with Apollo 16 in March 1971—far more diverse landing locations were under consideration. High on the list was Descartes, which looked to offer geologists a chance to sample “typical” terrain from the Moon’s central highlands, rather than from their periphery. Many lunar scientists believed that the many fissures, grooves, and hills of such regions had been formed through ancient volcanic activity and had thus remained virtually unchanged, geochemically, since early in the Moon’s evolutionary history. “Samples from the Descartes site,” read a NASA news release, “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.” In October 1969, less than three months prior to the cancellation of Apollo 20 and also ahead of the near-disaster of Apollo 13, planners anticipated the J-series to continue with a visit to the Marius Hills—an intriguing complex of domes and cones, extensively photographed by the unmanned Lunar Orbiters and situated near the center of the Ocean of Storms—on Apollo 17 in July 1971, followed by the large crater Copernicus, with its 3,000-foot (900-meter) central peak, on Apollo 18 in February 1972, then the Hadley-Apennine highland site on Apollo 19 in July 1972, and, lastly, the vast southern crater of Tycho on Apollo 20 in February 1973. Other potential destinations, including Hyginus Rille and Schroeter’s Valley, also entered the mix as possibilities.
With Apollo 20 having subsequently fallen to the budgetary ax, followed by the cancellations of Apollos 15 and 19, the remaining missions were renumbered and rescoped. Although Tycho promised to turn up primordial material from 7 miles (11 km) beneath the highlands, its drawbacks were twofold: firstly, it would be the most difficult terrain yet negotiated by an Apollo landing crew and secondly, simply reaching a destination so far south 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.
With the “new” Apollo 15 now redesignated as the first J-series mission, the Site Selection Board in September 1970 proposed Marius Hills and Hadley-Apennine as possible landing locations. The debate between the two was largely deadlocked and was eventually broken by Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott. 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 (900 meters)—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 Tranquility 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 the LM. Moreover, the relatively gentle topography of the area would more than likely allow the astronauts to drive the LRV 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. Although he felt that he could land at either site, Scott’s decision tipped the balance and Apollo 15 was manifested for Hadley-Apennine. Descartes remained as the primary location for Apollo 16 and the final mission, Apollo 17, remained unannounced, although the Marius Hills, Copernicus, and Littrow remained leading possibilities.
As exuberant as Scott and his crew must have been, their backups—Commander Dick Gordon, CMP Vance Brand, and LMP Jack Schmitt—were dealt a hammer blow in September 1970, when their mission, Apollo 18, was scrubbed from the books. Meanwhile, John Young and his team of CMP Ken Mattingly and LMP Charlie Duke seemed firmly pointed toward Apollo 16, and the crew of the final mission were not expected to be announced for several more months, though the Apollo 14 backup team of Commander Gene Cernan, CMP Ron Evans, and LMP 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 ax—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 acquiesced that Engle was not as knowledgeable about the LM’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 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 Apollo 14 Commander Al Shepard and Slayton, head of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate, to discuss a concern about Apollo 14 LMP 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 fulfill 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 three-flight crew rotation process offers us an easy roadmap. Commander Dick Gordon, CMP Vance Brand, and LMP Jack Schmitt would have been aboard Apollo 18 and Commander Fred Haise, CMP Bill Pogue, and LMP Gerry Carr may have cycled from an initial backup assignment on Apollo 16 to fly Apollo 19. However, as noted in yesterday’s AmericaSpace article—and mentioned by Pogue in his NASA oral history—their assignment was to a “phantom” backup crew, unofficial in the summer of 1970. In fact, not until 3 March 1971 were the formal Apollo 16 prime and backup crew announcements made. By that time, Apollos 18 and 19 had long since been canceled, with Pogue and Carr having moved over to the Skylab program and Haise electing to remain as Apollo 16 backup Commander. Yet as late as August 1971, even after the triumph of Apollo 15, President Richard M. Nixon proposed the cancelation 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 glamorization 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 LRVs, performing three EVAs and potentially making astounding discoveries which might have unlocked more of the Moon’s mysteries. In orbit, aboard their SIMBay-laden CSMs, Brand and Pogue would have operated complex arrays of scientific instrumentation to study our closest celestial neighbor 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 for generations of children and would-be astronauts. Former Johnson Space Center (JSC) Director Chris Kraft, in his autobiography Flight, could never have foreseen that a nation which had so boldly committed itself to American boots on the Moon would transform into “a nation of quitters.” Nor could veteran flight director Gene Kranz imagine or understand the rationale for having the hearts of himself and his team torn out by Congressional demand.
Foresight may have been in action in the spring and summer of 1970, but it was ultimately to no avail, leaving us with the mindset of hindsight, which now speaks louder than ever that the premature end of Apollo was woefully premature. “History will not be kind to us,” said Apollo 14 CMP Stu Roosa, quoted by Chaikin in A Man on the Moon, “because we were stupid!” The bootprints of 12 intrepid explorers lie untouched for decades on the lunar surface. The U.S. flags, undoubtedly long-since whitened by the harsh and unrelenting lunar sunlight, may still stand, or may have toppled. Perhaps the photograph of his family, left on the soil of Descartes by Apollo 16 LMP Charlie Duke, or the initials of his daughter, Tracy, etched by Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan, are still there. Returning to the Moon carries profound importance, and is a critical first step as we seek to once more achieve exploration Beyond Low-Earth Orbit (BLEO). Our generation holds both the keys and the responsibility to do so and our future requires nothing less.
This is part of a series of history articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus on the 50th anniversary of Gemini V, the longest U.S. manned space mission of its time, a mission which eliminated the Soviet lead in space exploration and formed a cornerstone in our journey to reach the Moon.