50 years ago: Splash!

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It’s splash day, November 24, 1969, and we’re about four hours from Entry Interface where the Earth’s atmosphere begins to pull us in.  And still Apollo 12 provides us with one final spectacular.  We pass into the shadow of the earth, as the nightside of the planet eclipses perfectly the sun.  We become the first people to see a solar eclipse by the earth.

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We see a diamond ring of white light surrounding the black earth, and the circle bursts with rays of color, streams of pink and blues. “The most spectacular sight of the whole flight,” we exclaim.  And it’s gets better — as our eyes adapt to the dark, we see clouds on the dark earth, sparks of lightning.  And shorelines become visible, India and beyond.

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From the storms of Florida, to the moon’s Ocean of Storms, we return to the South Pacific Ocean, toward our splash point 400 miles southeast of Pago Pago. With skirt yet another weather storm, coming down in 24-mph winds, ocean swells of 11 feet.   We splash down at 3:58 p.m. EST after a flight of 10 days, 4 hrs., 36 min. 12 sec.   We splash hard, pancaking into a ten-foot swell.  “Man, what an impact.”  A window-mounted camera lets loose and strikes Al Bean in the head, knocking him out a few seconds and giving him a gash that requires six stitches to close.  Still, we’re all smiles.

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We return with 75 lbs. of moon rock — compared to the 46 lbs. collected on Apollo 11.  We’ve collected so much that in addition to filling the two rock boxes, we had to stuff 15 lbs. of samples in teflon bags.  Plus, of course, the pieces of the Surveyor probe.  We’ve opened up the lunar frontier, just the beginning of a lunar age. 

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Eight more flights are planned through 1972, presently scheduled at four-month intervals, each building on the previous flight just as we’ve built on Apollo 11.  The next flight will land in a rough highland region, the Fra Mauro formation and climb the flanks of Cone crater.  They will stay on the moon two hours longer than us, with two moonwalks of four to five hours each.    

            — Apollo 14, in July 1970 will land in the area of Censorinus crater.

            — Apollo 15, in November 1970, will explore the Littrow area of suspected volcanism.

            — Apollo 16, in March 1971, the first of the extended “J series” missions, visits the crater Copernicus and stay for three days.

            — Apollo 17, in late 1971, carries the first lunar rover, and spend three days at the crater Tycho.

            — Apollo 18, in early 1972, spends three days in the Marius Hills, an area of geologic domes suspected of being of volcanic origin.

            — Apollo 19, in mid or late 1972, visits Schroeter’s Valley, where some astronomers had observed red flashes, near the crater Aristarchus.

            — Apollo 20, in late 1972 or early 1973 explores the canyon-like Hyginus Rille for possible material from the moon’s core.  

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That’s the plan.  Even though public interest dropped off for our Apollo 12, what in the next few years can eclipse the expanding exploration of the moon?

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