'To Become More Diverse': Choosing the Apollo 13 Landing Site, 50 Years On (Part 1)

Apollo 13’s Latin motto of “Ex Luna, Scientia” (“From the Moon, Knowledge”) highlighted this mission as a voyage of exploration and scientific endeavor. Image Credit: NASA

Had the cruelty of fate not intervened, 14 sons of Earth—not 12—would have taken the sweeping descent down to the surface of the Moon and left their bootprints in primordial lunar soil. In April 1970, Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell, Command Module Pilot (CMP) Jack Swigert and Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) Fred Haise came within a hair’s breadth of disaster, some 240,000 miles (370,000 km) from home, when an explosion occurred in their Command and Service Module (CSM) Odyssey. Through an amazing combination of human spirit, ingenuity and heroism, both in space and on Earth (and against all odds), the three astronauts returned safely home.

If near-tragedy had not so radically altered Apollo 13, Lovell and Haise would have performed two Extravehicular Activities (EVAS) at a place on the Moon called Fra Mauro, the first hilly, upland site ever explored by humans. Fifty years ago this month, NASA formally announced the selection of Fra Mauro as the destination for the ill-fated flight.

Jim Lovell (left) and Fred Haise examine a rock specimen during geological training in the Quitman Mountains of far-western Texas. This picture was taken in February 1969, whilst they were training as part of the Apollo 11 backup crew. Photo Credit: NASA

“The decision is based on a review of the photographs taken of the Fra Mauro area and successful demonstration of pinpoint landing techniques by the Apollo 12 mission,” NASA noted in a news release, dated 10 December 1969. “NASA is continuing to assess the effects of lunar dust on visibility during the final portion of the landing phase, as reported by the Apollo 12 crew.”

“It was driven by confidence in the LM capability and steerage,” Haise told the NASA Oral History Project of the site selection, “but also, if you’re going to properly sample the Moon…you had to become more diverse in…where you went to get a proper sampling.”

And Fra Mauro was nothing if not diverse.

Ed Mitchell works with the Mobile Equipment Transporter (MET), surrounded by the barren desolation of the Fra Mauro landing site. In February 1971, the Apollo 14 mission visited the site denied to the ill-fated Apollo 13. Photo Credit: NASA

The site was named in honor of the 15th-century Venetian cartographer-monk Fra Mauro, who created one of the earliest (and relatively accurate) maps of the Old World. His lunar namesake differed markedly from the relatively flat, open plains (or mare) explored by the Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 astronauts and was considerably more rugged, resembling a low “island” in the Moon’s Ocean of Storms. In the late 1960s, many geologists suspected that the lunar highlands had remained virtually unchanged, geochemically and morphologically, since the Moon formed, around 4.5 billion years ago. By exploring into the older and more heavily cratered lunar highlands, it was hoped that Lovell and Haise would identify some of the oldest rocks on the surface.

Fra Mauro had been extensively photographed from lunar orbit by the Apollo 12 crew in November 1969, and samples returned from the Sea of Tranquility and the Ocean of Storms differed markedly in composition from “ordinary” mare materials, to such an extent that they were believed to have been violently ejected over long distances by vast impacts in the lunar highlands. One obvious example of such an impact was the object which created the 750-mile-wide (1,200 km) Imbrium basin, whose southern rim lay 300 miles (480 km) to the north of Apollo 13’s selected landing site at Fra Mauro. In fact, much of Fra Mauro was thought to be composed of ejecta from this ancient cataclysm. By sampling these foothills, Lovell and Haise might shed significant new light on the composition of the pre-Imbrium lunar crust and help to establish an absolute date for when the impact took place.

Fred Haise practices carrying the panniers of the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) during pre-flight training in January 1970. Photo Credit: NASA

Of central importance in the so-called Fra Mauro Formation was Cone Crater, a yawning bowl, spanning 1,000 feet (300 meters), whose impact was believed to have dug deeply into a ridge of Imbrium ejecta. Imagery from NASA’s unmanned Lunar Orbiters had shown its rim to be littered with boulders drawn from deep within the blanket of Imbrium material, and Cone was one of Apollo 13’s key sampling locations. “By strategically sampling up toward the crater, you would be sampling material that at the…outside ray of the crater would be the deepest material,” Haise explained to the NASA Oral History Project. “If it’s due to an impact facet, it “inverts”—it’s an inverted flap—so if you’re sampling up a ray, the farther-out stuff is the deepest stuff within the crater. And as you get up near the edge of the crater, you’re sampling literally at the surface.”

Reaching Fra Mauro and Cone Crater involved a novel propellant-conservation plan. Previous Apollo missions had entered near-circular orbits at an altitude of about 70 miles (110 km), after which the LM undocked from the Command and Service Module (CSM), nicknamed “Odyssey”, to commence its Powered Descent to the surface. However, on Apollo 13, the spacecraft would enter an elliptical orbit, with a high point of 70 miles (110 km) and a low point of only 9.3 miles (15 km). The result was that LM Aquarius would be effectively relieved of the need to perform a Descent Orbit Insertion (DOI) maneuver, thereby providing Lovell with an extra 15 seconds of hovering time in order to select an appropriate landing spot. During his approach, he would clear the 1,000-feet-wide (300-meter) ridge, into which Cone was embedded, and find a safe patch, somewhere between two groups of craters, nicknamed “Doublet” and “Triplet”.

The Apollo 13 crew is pictured during training in January 1970. From left to right are Commander Jim Lovell, CMP Ken Mattingly and LMP Fred Haise. Two days before launch, Mattingly was dropped from the mission and replaced by his backup, Jack Swigert. Photo Credit: NASA

Had the crippling explosion in one of two oxygen tanks aboard Apollo 13 on the evening of 13 April 1970 not occurred, and had the mission proceeded as intended, the crew would have entered lunar orbit at 7:38 p.m. EDT on 14 April 1970, about 77.5 hours after launch. Almost a full day later, at 5:29 p.m. EDT on the 15th, during Apollo 13’s 12th orbit of the Moon, Lovell and Haise would have undocked LM Aquarius from CSM Odyssey, leaving Swigert alone in orbit. “A radially-downward Service Module Reaction Control System (RCS) burn of 1 fps (0.3 meters/sec),” it was noted in the Apollo 13 Press Kit, “will place the CSM on an equiperiod orbit with a maximum separation of 2.5 nautical miles (4.6 km).” About an hour later, Swigert would have executed a Circularization Burn to establish Odyssey into an orbit of 52 x 62 nautical miles (96.3 km x 114.8 km). Due to perturbations of the lunar gravitational potential, this orbit was expected to virtually circularize by the time of rendezvous with Aquarius’ returning ascent stage, almost two days hence.

In the meantime, Lovell and Haise would have commenced their Powered Descent during the 14th orbit, braking the LM out of the descent orbit by means of the Descent Engine. “Spacecraft attitude will be windows-up from the Powered Descent Initiation to the end of the braking phase,” it was explained, “so that the LM landing radar data can be integrated continually by the LM guidance computer and better communications can be maintained.” About 7,400 feet (2,250 meters) above the Moon, the braking phase would end and Aquarius would be rotated toward an “upright”, windows-forward, attitude, thereby permitting the crew a view of the landing site.

Progressing through the upper (“High Gate”) and lower (“Low Gate”) stages of the approach, Aquarius would initiate a final vertical descent at an altitude of about 100 feet (30 meters), by which point all forward velocity would have been nulled out. According to the Apollo 13 Press Kit, touchdown at Fra Mauro was intended to occur at 9:55 p.m. EDT on 15 April, about 103 hours and 42 minutes after departing Earth. The predicted landing spot was situated 30 miles (48 km) north of the Fra Mauro crater.

The second part of this article will appear next weekend.

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