America’s spirit is defined by the people of our nation and their ability to push the limits to discover the greatness we can achieve.
Witness this week in American space history when another Moon triumph 47 years ago contrasts against the horrible disaster of Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003.
Time heals all wounds it seems, but some things are never forgotten. Like the 17 lives lost in NASA’s darkest week of space mishaps. By coincidence, the three space disasters happened over seven days separated by 36 years: Jan. 27, 1967 Apollo 1 capsule fire on rehearsal pad; Jan. 28, 1986, Space Shuttle Challenger launch explosion; and Feb. 1, 2003, Shuttle Columbia reentry destruction over Texas.
The Space Shuttle program rose above the ashes to continue manned space exploration and finish construction of the orbiting International Space Station, continuously occupied since 1999. And the three astronauts lost in the Apollo 1 fire led to a safer spacecraft that led to America winning the Moon Race against Cold War foe Russia.
There has always been the “return to flight” mission after America’s space disasters. It was Apollo 7 that flew the first three men around the Earth for 10 days, the three astronauts proving the 1,000-plus changes on the Apollo Command Module were perfect. And Shuttle Discovery flew the first mission after Challenger as well as the next mission after Columbia, each mission an important demonstration of NASA’s ability to overcome tragedy and return to flight with major safety improvements.
And forty-seven years ago, an American space hero and two astronaut rookies made the third Moon landing, restoring confidence in the Apollo program after the near-death accident of the Apollo 13 moon voyage nine months before.
Apollo 14 was commanded by original Mercury Seven astronaut Alan Shepard, who’s space experience was that May 1961, 15-minute, sub-orbital flight as America’s first spaceman. Rookie Stu Roosa was to take care of the mothership Kitty Hawk while Shepard walked on the Moon with rookie Edgar Mitchell. All three astronauts are deceased.
Shepard was grounded by an inner ear balance problem after his Mercury flight. He became assistant to original Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton, grounded by a heart murmur, and the chief of astronauts. They chose the crews for Gemini and Apollo.
Shepard had his hearing problem surgically fixed and put his crew together for the Apollo 13 third manned mission to the Fra Mauro highlands of the Moon. But needing more training, Shepard switched with Jim Lovell’s original Apollo 14 crew of Ken Mattingly and Fred Haise.
And then the drama of the Apollo 13 spacecraft becoming crippled by an oxygen tank explosion on the way to the Moon. The three astronauts—Lovell, Haise and Jack Swigert who replaced Mattingly (exposed to measles)—were lucky to get back alive. The teamwork to conserve spacecraft energy and live in the Lunar Module for 4 days was truly NASA’s finest hour, accurately portrayed in the Hollywood movie “Apollo 13.”
The close call coined the phrase “Failure is Not an Option,” and the return to flight after the Apollo 13 was met with public apathy and cries to shut down the always dangerous Moon landing.
NASA was the victim of several unfortunate circumstances after the amazing mission of Apollo 11. That first moon landing on July 20, 1969 fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to America to reach the Moon by the end of the decade.
Then NASA doubled down on that presidential pledge when Apollo 12 landed Nov. 19, 1969 next to an unmanned Surveyor spacecraft landed in April 1967. But while the world was mesmerized watching the Apollo 11 moonwalkers during 2 hours of live black and white television, the Apollo 12 color camera failed and there was no live video.
While carrying the video camera on a tripod the 100-foot distance of the transmission cable, the lens cap fell off and the Sun’s brightness fried the electronics. Instead of seeing the astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean taking off parts of the Surveyor spacecraft, all NASA had was the audio feed to give the three television networks—ABC, CBS and NBC. And it was boring.
Then came the Apollo 13 mission accident two days after launch on April 11, 1970. The three astronauts used the Lunar Module as a life raft and simply flung around the Moon to use its gravity to slingshot back to Earth for three days. From April 13 to 17, it was a true life and death drama.
The Apollo 13 investigation showed an oxygen tank dropped during installation created an electrical short, exploding on the way to the Moon. Nine months later, Apollo 14 was ready to blast off on Jan. 31, 1971—destination, Fra Mauro.
The Moon voyage was uneventful, and with Roosa orbiting the Moon in Kitty Hawk, Shepard and Mitchell landed their moon ship Antares right on target, the most accurate of all six moon landings.
With their equipment on a two-wheel rickshaw, Shepard and Mitchell safely deployed the TV camera, the American flag and began their work. It was the first live television from the Moon in one year, nine months, and Americans just weren’t that interested.
The Fra Mauro area was deeper in lunar soil than predicted, making walking in it like a four to six-inch snowfall. During two moonwalks lasting four and a half hours each, the astronauts found it physically challenging. And trying to find the rim of Cone Crater to look inside of it proved a challenge in orientation on the Moon, and they abandoned the excursion just 20 feet from the edge.
And then there was Edgar Mitchell trying extrasensory perception experiments (ESP) on the Moon—without the knowledge of NASA or commander Shepard. Mitchell returned from the Mon and formed the Noetic Institute to study paranormal activity from ghosts to UFOs.
Shepard has his own lunar antics. An avid golfer, he rigged a six-iron to a tool handle and whacked two Titleist golf balls before boarding his moon ship for rendezvous with Kitty Hawk and the trip home.
That “return to flight” by Apollo 14 gave NASA the confidence to continue with the more complex missions. Camping on the Moon for three days and using a Lunar Rover to drive up to seven miles each excursion, Apollos 15, 16 and 17 proved man’s ability to explore an alien world. Something a human hasn’t done in 46 years!