Apol­lo 14: Des­ti­na­tion Fra Mau­ro - Third Moon land­ing

Alan Shepard removes a tool from the equipment transporter on the lunar surface
Alan Shep­ard re­moves a tool from the equip­ment trans­porter on the lu­nar sur­face
Image 1/2, Credit: NASA

Alan Shepard removes a tool from the equipment transporter on the lunar surface

Fol­low­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion in­to the Apol­lo 13 mishap, Apol­lo 14 de­part­ed for the Moon 10 months lat­er. For the first time, dif­fi­cult ter­rain was se­lect­ed for the land­ing. Al­though the radar failed dur­ing the ap­proach, Alan Shep­ard and Edgar Mitchell were able to make a pre­ci­sion land­ing with the Antares Lu­nar Mod­ule on 5 Febru­ary 1971. While ex­plor­ing Cone Crater, the as­tro­nauts made slow progress and lost their ori­en­ta­tion. Pulling the ve­hi­cle con­tain­ing the in­stru­ments - the 'lu­nar rick­shaw' - proved tir­ing. As they be­gan to run short of oxy­gen, they were forced to turn back, on­ly 17 me­tres from the crater rim. Mean­while, Stu­art Roosa pho­tographed the Moon from the Kit­ty Hawk Com­mand Mod­ule.
Edgar Mitchell with the map showing the route to Cone Crater
Edgar Mitchell with the map show­ing the route to Cone Crater
Image 2/2, Credit: NASA

Edgar Mitchell with the map showing the route to Cone Crater

The ac­tu­al ob­jec­tive of the ex­cur­sion on the Moon was to reach the edge of Cone Crater. How­ev­er, the as­tro­nauts of the Apol­lo 14 mis­sion, Alan Shep­ard and Edgar Mitchell, ex­pe­ri­enced ma­jor ori­en­ta­tion dif­fi­cul­ties, and climb­ing the rim of the crater proved more ar­du­ous than they had an­tic­i­pat­ed. They were ul­ti­mate­ly forced to turn back due to dwin­dling oxy­gen sup­plies. Nev­er­the­less, the two as­tro­nauts spent a to­tal of al­most nine-and-a-half hours out­side the lu­nar mod­ule – much more than the two pre­vi­ous mis­sions.

Crew and spacecraft

The Apollo 13 accident and the anxiety surrounding its return naturally caused an interruption to the timing of the Apollo program. However, once the fault had been found and the cause of the disaster identified, NASA decided towards the end of 1970 to continue the Apollo program as planned. The crew for the Apollo 14 mission had been selected more than a year previously and one could hardly have chosen a better commander than Alan Shepard following the incident with Apollo 13.

Shepard was an astronaut of the legendary ‘Mercury 7’, the first group of seven astronauts that formed the core of the Mercury program at the beginning of the 1960s. In 1961 he was the first American in space – even though it was ‘only’ a ballistic flight. (John Glenn was to be the first American to orbit Earth a year later). For Shepard, Apollo 14 fulfilled a dream because the passionate astronaut suffered from the Menière disease, an inner ear ailment, between 1964 and 1968 that made full pressure equalization in the ears difficult. This was why he could not be assigned for a considerable time for one of the Moon flights that NASA would have been happy to allocate. At the age 47, Shepard became the oldest man to walk on the lunar surface.

Edgar Mitchell was assigned as Lunar Module Pilot. Originally, James McDivitt, also one of the most experienced veterans (he was commander of Gemini IV and Apollo 9), had been earmarked for this position on the flight to the Moon, but McDivitt expressed severe criticism on the Apollo training program and fell out with those responsible at NASA. Stuart Roosa was Command Module Pilot. Like Mitchell, he had not yet been in space. Since Shepard with his first flight in 1961 had only ‘scratched’ the border of space (it was intended to be a ‘fast response’ to the USSR’s success with Juri Gagarin’s orbital flight in April of that same year), the somewhat malicious but slightly ironic claim made the rounds among the astronaut corps that this mission was the first in the Apollo program to have only rookie astronauts in its crew.

The Saturn V rocket with serial number SA-509 was prepared for this mission. The command module was given the name ‘Kitty Hawk’ after the place where the Wright brothers successfully performed the first engine-powered flight in 1903. The lunar module was named ‘Antares’, after a distinctive star in the constellation Scorpion.

Mission progress

For obvious reasons, Apollo 14 was made ready with particularly great care. On January 31, 1971, thick clouds threatened to develop into a thunderstorm at Cape Canaveral. Because of the experiences with Apollo 12, a countdown abort was considered briefly. But lift-off then took place at 16:03 local time. It took only a few seconds for the Saturn V to shoot through the clouds. After leaving Earth orbit, the lunar module had to be docked onto the front of the command module. This turned out to be more difficult on Apollo 14 than it had been on earlier missions. The astronauts needed almost two hours with the help of the spacecraft engines to complete the maneuver. This problem did not recur while docking the lunar module on returning from the Moon.

The target for Apollo 14 was the same as for Apollo 13 – a small plain in the midst of several chains of hills and troughs extending from north to south, the Fra Mauro formation. The scientists were still excited about studying this region. For the first time, the landing was not to be on a mare, one of the dark volcano planes on the near side of the Moon. (Because the rotation of the Moon is coupled with that of the Earth, the side of the Moon that it always shows to the Earth is known as the ‘near side’. Since the Moon requires just as long to rotate once about its own axis as it does to rotate once around the Earth, we on Earth only ever see this one side and never the ‘far side’.)

Landing in this hilly region would reveal a landscape with far more variety, and in particular it would be possible to collect quite different rock samples. Insertion into lunar orbit on February 4 took place without any problems. Shepard and Mitchell boarded ‘Antares’ on February 5, undocked at 5:50 CET and approached the landing site. As hoped for, they identified on approach the Cone crater that was to be studied later at close range, and the flat ground designated as landing site about one kilometer to the west. At 10:18:11 CET, Shepard landed the lunar module safely although it was on a slight slope. This did not represent a hazard, but the tilt did cause the two astronauts to frequently bump into each other while trying to sleep and, because of the Moon’s low gravity, they sometimes had the feeling that ‘Antares’ would tip over.

On the Moon

After looking through the windows and describing the view, Shepard and Mitchell were anxious to get outside. Alan Shepard made it clear that the landscape was indeed quite different than from that found by Apollo 11 and 12 when he said he wanted “to go out and play in the snow”. Of course, there is no snow on the Moon, but in the light of the low-lying sun the gentle hills of Fra Mauro appeared to be covered by powder making the light grey look rather like snow.

At 15:45 CET, the commander was standing on the Moon and Mitchell followed four minutes later. The extravehicular activities (EVAs) were by now routine. This time, the television camera lens was protected against the glaring sunlight by a cover. After setting up and activating the camera, Mission Control in Houston and viewers all over the world could watch Shepard and Mitchell deploying and commencing operation of ALSEP, the ‘Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package’. Transmission was in color, something of a novelty in 1971. Some of the detonators, small explosive charges designed for the seismic experiments, did not fire but most of the measurements of the moonquake waves triggered off by the detonations could be made as planned. Good results were obtained on the first day. Mission Control and scientists were highly satisfied.

The second EVA was awaited with some excitement after a much too short sleep period. A small cart (the astronauts disrespectfully referred to it as the ‘rickshaw’) was designed specifically for Apollo 14 in order to be able to take along tools on the excursions and to collect a greater number of samples. Shepard and Mitchell took this cart with them on their one-kilometer walk to Cone Crater at the edge of which they hoped to find rocks ejected from deep below that could give information on the Moon underground, the original crust of the satellite.

However, the hilly ground made orientation much more difficult for the astronauts than from a bird’s eye view, and they were also less experienced in geological terms than later crews. The route was extremely arduous and both had high pulse rates. Following instructions from Houston, the excursion was halted just before reaching the edge of the crater and the astronauts had to return frustrated to the lunar module. No-one wanted to be involved in an incalculable risk! For Moon geologists a bitter blow because a third excursion had not been planned.

Results

The two astronauts spent in total nearly nine-and-a-half hours outside of the lunar module, much more than the two previous missions. Not least thanks to the ‘rickshaw’ they covered the longest route of all Apollo missions on foot. With Shepard’s words “actually, it’s fantastic up here, we would have liked to have done much more”, the return to the command module was prepared. On February 6 at 19:48 CET Antares lifted off from the lunar surface and rejoined ‘Kitty Hawk’ in which Stuart Roosa over the past 40 hours in orbit had also been carrying out physics experiments and above all taking photos of unknown regions of the Moon.

Apollo 14 returned to Earth without any problems and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on February 9, 1971, at 22:05 CET just one kilometer away from the calculated target. It was the most accurate return of all Apollo landings. As with the previous missions, the astronauts had to wear protective garment on being recovered and then endure a 16-day quarantine period. Since no germs or viruses had been found even after the third lunar landing, NASA abandoned this procedure for the missions that followed.

The crew brought 42.8 kilograms of samples back to Earth, the greatest quantity so far. In scientific terms, it was the most successful of all Apollo missions up to that time. For instance, the creation of the thousand-kilometer wide valley of the Mare Imbrium, the clearest, circular, dark volcano plain that can be seen with the naked eye on the near side of the Moon was dated. It was caused by the impact of an asteroid with a size of one-hundred kilometers 3.8 billion years ago. The investigations also confirmed that the eruption of material due to the impact not only formed the Fra Mauro region but also covered gigantic areas of the lunar surface. This was a catastrophe of global dimensions.

The geologists recognized that changes to the celestial bodies in the solar system took place not just from the inside of the planets and moons, by volcanism, but that impacts represented a fundamental process for changes in the solar system. In spite of the lost opportunity at Cone Crater, everyone was satisfied. NASA because after Apollo 13 they were again sailing in calm waters, the scientists with the new samples and measurements; and people were in high spirits concerning the forthcoming Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions.

The texts presented here were created by the DLR Institute of Planetary Research and space expert Gerhard Daum for the exhibition ‘Apollo and Beyond’ at the Technik Museum Speyer. Among other things, the history of the Apollo programme is showcased in detail using both text and images. In addition, full-scale models of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module ‘Eagle’, the Apollo 15 Lunar Roving Vehicle and an Apollo space suit for visiting the Moon’s surface, as well as a 3.4-billion-year-old rock collected from the Apollo 15 landing site can be seen in a lunar landscape.

Contact
  • Ulrich Köhler
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)
    In­sti­tute of Plan­e­tary Re­search
    Rutherfordstraße 2
    12489 Berlin
    Contact
  • Elke Heinemann
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)

    Com­mu­ni­ca­tions and Me­dia Re­la­tions
    Telephone: +49 2203 601-2867
    Linder Höhe
    51147 Cologne
    Contact
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