When ranking the six Moon landings by our great nation more than 45 years ago, Apollo 14 ranks probably at the bottom for interest and discovery.
The Apollo 14 mission unfolded this week of February in 1971, a return to flight after the near disaster of the aborted Apollo 13 Moon mission, featuring the only original Mercury astronaut to walk on the Moon.
But despite NASA’s successful third lunar voyage, Apollo 14 is infamously known for three things: the astronauts got lost walking around, one smacked a Titleist golf ball a few hundred yards and the other conducted secret, mind telepathy experiments to Earth from the surface of the Moon.
The astronauts of that daring lunar voyager are all deceased in early 2017: Commander Alan Shepard, Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell and Command Module Pilot Stuart Roosa.
What also was perplexing about Apollo 14 was the utter apathy that earthlings had, paying little attention to another ho-hum adventure to the Moon just 10 months after the near-death experience of getting Apollo 13 back safely.
The world was riveted to the three-day, Apollo 13 rescue odyssey when three Americans were endangered in a crippled spaceship after an oxygen tank exploded 100,000 miles away on their way to the Moon.
The miracle rescue of Apollo 13 in April 1970 involved using the lunar lander as a life-boat, and summoned the collective genius of all of NASA’s best people. With “failure is not an option” attitude—and a lot of luck—the three astronauts and their crippled spaceship made it back alive in a drama accurately portrayed in a blockbuster, Hollywood movie.
Sent to redeem that failed mission to the lunar hills at a place called Fra Mauro, three astronauts were sent to the Moon with just 15-minutes of space experience between them.
How Alan Shepard maneuvered his 15-minute sub-orbital flight in May 1961 into a coveted seat as commander of a moonship is a subject worked over in books and documentaries. The long story short: Shepard put himself there as the powerful Chief of the Astronaut Office.
Shepard was grounded from flying status by Meniere’s disease, a balancing problem revealed after his historic, suborbital flight in the tiny, Mercury capsule. Also grounded among the original Mercury Seven astronauts was Deke Slayton, with a heart murmur.
Together, Slayton, as director of flight crew operations, and his assistant Shepard, chose all the flight crews and their backups through the two-man Gemini and three-man Apollo missions. They had a system: Prime crews were the back-up crew two or three missions before. That kept crews together to meld personalities, and let fate chose the desired missions—like that first moon landing.
AND, after successful surgeries to fix their medical restrictions, Shepard put himself on a Moon mission and Slayton on the 1975 historic Apollo docking with the Russian Soyuz spacecrafts.
Several Gemini astronauts were so wore out (or lost their desire) with their years of intense training that they turned down a Moon mission. Among those Mercury/Gemini heroes not taking a lunar voyage were Wally Schirra, Gordon Cooper and James McDivitt. In fact, 11 space rookies flew in Apollo spacecraft to orbit or land on the Moon.
So the astronauts chosen specifically for conquering the Moon had 15 rookies who eventually flew in an Apollo spacecraft. After running the astronaut office from 1963-69, American hero Alan Shepard decided he wanted to walk on the Moon. Yep, he had a pretty big ego. But as ruthless test pilots, the original Mercury 7 all had big heads.
Cleared to rocket off the Earth in a NASA spaceship, Shepard jumped the line and put himself in command of Apollo 13. But he quickly realized he needed more time to learn two complex spacecraft, the Command Module and Lunar Module. So he bumped himself back to Apollo 14, putting veteran Gemini and Apollo 8 moon orbiter James Lovell in charge of the near-tragic Apollo 13.
So it was on Jan. 31, 1971 that the incredible Saturn V moon rocket blasted off Earth for a three-day voyage to the Moon. Shepard and Mitchell landed on the Moon Feb. 5th in a Lunar Module called Antares with Roosa orbiting in the Command Module Kitty Hawk. Everything went well, and any problems weren’t of the astronauts themselves.
In fact, Shepard made the most accurate landing among the six Moon missions. At age 47, he is the oldest person to walk the Moon. But on the surface he and Mitchell discovered how difficult it was to work on the surface of an unknown world. Using a two-wheeled hand-cart full of tools, the moonwalkers pulled this “lunar rickshaw” around the fluffy soil of the Fra Mauro landing site, which was hoped to be a volcanic plain. It wasn’t. That was in the evidence of the 95 pounds of lunar rock and soil they brought back to Earth.
Instead the Antares had landed in a spot deep in churned up lunar soil. Called “regolith,” this ultra-fine grained moon dust is pulverized by micrometeorites constantly bombarding the atmosphere-free Moon. For at least two billion years, the once rocky surface has been churned and churned by impacts from debris all over the Solar System.
NASA had underestimated the thickness of the lunar regolith in Fra Mauro, and it was deep. More like a foot of snow deep in some places. That made the lunar rickshaw of tools hard to pull, and also got the moonwalkers tired as they struggled to lift their legs in the deep soil.
On their second and last 4 hour moonwalk to look inside of Cone Crater, they had to call off the trek as they were confused to their exact location and had to get back to their moonship. Later analysis revealed the astronauts were just 60 feet from the rim. This was confirmed by imagery from the still functioning Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. But it was possible they could have accidently slid inside the 1,000-foot-wide, deep crater and become stranded. So maybe their failure was a blessing in disguise.
And then there was the mind games that Mitchell played while orbiting the Moon and on the surface. Confessed completely in his interesting book “The Way of the Explorer: An Apollo Astronaut’s Journey through the Material and Mystical Worlds.”
Mitchell admits to trying ESP thought experiments with participants on Earth during his lunar voyage. He said the results were inclusive, it’s doubtful any real effort was possible as those on Earth had only a vague idea of what Mitchell was doing at any specific time.
Mitchell went on to explore the psychic world, UFOs and alien encounters with his Noetic Institute, still a player on the world scene of unexplained consciousness. He died in 2016, a staunch supporter of extraterrestrials and all things psychic.
Apollo 14’s most repeated bit of space lore involves Shepard’s passion for golf. During the final sweep of their lunar campsite for their valuable gear, the bad-ass astronaut pulled out a custom-made Wilson six-iron head, attached it to a lunar rake handle and announced to a televised world his intent to blast a golf ball “for miles and miles”.
In living color, the earthlings saw a moon man swat one-handed at a couple Titleist golf balls stashed in Shepard’s personal gear bag. Each golf ball flew a few hundred yards in the low gravity and no atmosphere. The legend of astronaut Shepard was solidified in American history.
The Apollo 14 mission left NASA breathing easier about the upcoming three Moon missions that would involve longer, 3-day stays and a Lunar Rover.
And Shepard, Mitchell and Roosa secured their future lives as true Moon exploring pioneers.