After the successful lunar landing of Apollo 11 on July 20, 1969, there were many who questioned the need for further Apollo expeditions to the moon. After all, America had won the space race with the Soviets, so why were additional flights necessary? In early 1970, the last three missions, Apollos 18-20, had been canceled, and after the near loss of Apollo 13, many NASA critics wanted to cancel the rest as well.
Apollo 14 astronauts Alan B. Shepard, Edgar Mitchell and Stuart Roosa realized their mission had to succeed, because another failure could very well result in the end of Apollo. This was Shepard’s second flight – on May 5, 1961, he became the first American in space when he piloted his Mercury spacecraft Freedom-7 on a 15-minute suborbital flight. Apollo 14 was the first flight for both Mitchell and Roosa. NASA targeted Apollo 14 to the Fra Mauro region, the area that was to have been explored by Apollo 13. Shepard and Mitchell would make the descent to the moon’s surface while Roosa remained in lunar orbit in the Command Module (CM).
Shepard, Mitchell and Roosa began their flight on January 31, 1971. The launch was delayed for 40 minutes because of thunderstorms in the immediate area. After lightning struck Apollo 12 just after launch and almost forced a mission abort, NASA’s launch rules were very strict about not launching during inclement weather. The flight was held for 40 minutes waiting for the weather, the first time this had ever happened on an Apollo mission.
Finally, the rain stopped, the clouds cleared, and the Saturn booster roared to life at 4:03 PM EST. The launch went smoothly and the three astronauts were orbiting the earth less than twelve minutes after liftoff. During that twelve minutes, the Saturn V had discarded two stages and shed more than 6.1 million pounds of weight, most of that being propellants. Two and a half hours after blastoff, the crew fired the third stage engine to leave earth orbit and begin translunar flight.
Everything proceeded normally until it was time to extract the Lunar Module (LM) Antares from the S-IVB stage. When Roosa maneuvered the docking probe on the CM Kitty Hawk into the receptacle on top of Antares, the docking latches did not engage. Without a “hard dock,” the astronauts could not board the lander. Roosa tried again… and again… five times in all. Maneuvering fuel for the Kitty Hawk and its attached Service Module was at the critical point, with only enough propellant for one more docking attempt.
Mission Control suggested that Roosa close slowly then fire the thrusters just before docking to give the latches a hard jolt. The maneuver worked and Kitty Hawk docked with Antares. Concern lingered, however, because the craft would have to dock again, when Shepard and Mitchell rejoined Roosa after their moon landing. If they had trouble docking the second time, the pair would have to leave Antares via the front hatch and perform an extravehicular activity to board Kitty Hawk. The astronauts carefully examined the docking mechanism and could not find anything wrong. One possible explanation for the balky latches was that moisture from the storms had found its way into the docking mechanism and frozen. Since this could not happen again, they received a go ahead for the landing.
Apollo 14 fell into a quiet routine. So quiet, in fact, that Mission Control sometimes started talking “…to see if you all were still around.” During the initial examination of Antares, Shepard and Mitchell discovered another potential problem that could prevent the landing. One of the two batteries in the ascent stage showed a voltage that was three-tenths of a volt below normal. Just one battery was needed for the mission; the second was a backup. But, mission rules dictated that the LM have two fully functioning batteries, and the flight controllers feared the low voltage indicated a power leakage might have developed in Antares’ complex circuitry.
If this were true, Shepard and Mitchell could be stranded on the moon. When Mitchell boarded the LM the next morning, he found the voltage reading had not changed. This indicated there was no power drain and they were again cleared to continue the mission as planned.
To give the astronauts the best approach into Fra Mauro, the Kitty Hawk and Antares swooped to within 7 miles of the moon’s highest mountain peaks before the lander undocked. Once they undocked, Shepard and Mitchell were to fly Antares solo for two and a half hours before beginning powered descent.
While preparing for the final descent burn, the astronauts noticed Antares’ abort system sent a signal to the computer that would abort the landing shortly after the descent engine began firing. The problem was traced to a faulty switch. Mission Control in Houston and the computer’s designers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, worked feverishly to find a solution. They did, but it required that Mitchell punch in a long string of numbers into the computer keyboard four minutes before engine ignition. He succeeded, and they began their descent to Fra Mauro. Twenty-six seconds after ignition, Shepard took manual control of the engine throttle while Mitchell entered three more sets of instructions into the computer. That solved the problem.
Then, as Antares flew closer and closer to the moon, the landing radar, which controls the descent rate, failed to lock in on the surface. Without the critical radar data, the landing would have to be aborted. Shepard and Mitchell were determined to complete the landing, but without the radar data, they would have no choice but to abort. They continued the descent, but each knew the point at which the landing would have to be aborted was rapidly approaching. Suddenly, only 22,713 feet above the moon, the radar sprang to life! “Whew, that was close” reported Mitchell. The rest of the descent couldn’t have been better. Antares landed on a slight slope just 87 feet from the target point.
When Shepard stepped off Antares’ foot pad and onto the moon, he said: “It’s been a long way, but we’re here.” At last, one of the original group of seven astronauts was on the moon. Mitchell soon joined him for the first of two moon walks, or extravehicular activities (EVAs). During the first EVA, they set up the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) and collected 44 pounds of lunar rocks and soil. One of the more time consuming ALSEP experiments required Mitchell to use a device called the “thumper.” After unrolling a set of geophones, he walked along the line and set off a series of small explosive charges along the surface. Measurements from the geophones would reveal details of the lunar crust. The astronauts left behind a device that fired more powerful charges across the lunar landscape after their departure as part of the same experiment.
Very early the next morning, Shepard and Mitchell climbed down Antares’ ladder for their second EVA. This time, their goal was the rim of Cone Crater, about two-thirds of a mile away. To make their traverse easier, they pulled a two-wheeled cart behind them. Called the Modularized Equipment Transporter, or MET, it carried their geological hand tools, sample bags, and a portable magnetometer to measure the Moon’s magnetic field along the way. Shepard and Mitchell soon found a major shortcoming with the MET: tools kept falling off of it. They wound up walking in a file, so one of them could pick up items that dropped off the cart. The going was rough, and the traverse took longer than expected. The astronauts also found the lunar terrain to be very deceptive.
A couple of times they thought they were climbing up the rim of Cone, only to find another crater rim beyond it. Mitchell commented: “You can sure be deceived by slopes here. The sun angle is very deceiving.” When they reached the top of a ridge they thought was Cone, he reported: “Oh boy, we got fooled on that one.” Shepard indicated they were not absolutely sure of their location among the craters and car-size boulders. Scientists at Mission Control decided they were close enough to Cone Crater to gather material that had been ejected when it was formed, so the astronauts were told to stop trying to reach the rim. Instead, they concentrated on collecting documented samples and began their trek back to Antares. During the second EVA, they collected 50 pounds of lunar material, bringing the total gathered to 95 pounds.
Before climbing back into the LM, Shepard reached into his pocket and produced two golf balls. An avid golfer, Shepard had a special golf club head that fit the contingency sampler handle. The bulky space suit kept him from using both hands to grip the improvised club, but he managed a one handed swing. “Miles and miles…” he said, describing his drive in the one-sixth gravity of the Moon. Actually, he revealed that the first ball traveled about 200 yards; the second went about twice that distance.
Later that day, Antares rocketed off of the moon to rejoin Kitty Hawk. The docking latches worked the first time. With the two moon walkers and the lunar samples safely aboard the CM, Kitty Hawk blasted out of lunar orbit for the three-day trip home. While in transit to the Earth, the crew performed materials processing experiments in the Command Module. They separated organic materials using weak electric charges; observed heat flow and convection through liquids and gases; observed the behavior of liquids in zero gravity; and cast composite materials. It was hoped that results from these experiments would lead to techniques for manufacturing products in space. When Kitty Hawk splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on February 9, 1971, Apollo 14 was hailed as an unqualified success that helped pave the way for the three remaining Apollo expeditions to the moon.