50 years ago: Destination Museum not Moon

The Apollo 18 lunar module — a museum piece at the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island.

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            Gone.  After a summer of rumors, proposals, alternate plans.

            Gone.  After another round of budget cuts.

            Gone.  The final two Apollo flights were canceled on this day fifty years ago.  To save just $42.1 million in the 1970 budget, NASA eliminated Apollos 18 and 19, scheduled to fly in 1974.   Canceled, the promise the two flights that, with long preparation periods as Skylab flew in 1973, would have brought the richest scientific return of the program. 

            Gone as of September 2, 1970.  Gone, even though in reality, the original Apollo 15 mission using the last of the shorter- duration “H series” spacecraft, was axed, along with one of the expanded “J series” missions.  The Apollo 15 crew — Dave Scott, Al Worden, and Jim Irwin — were the only people who benefited, becoming the first to spend three days on the lunar surface and drive the Lunar Rover. 

            The hardware for the flights had already been built.  The two Saturn Vs that would have launched them were “mothballed” with hopes — very faint — that they would be used to launch a space station.  They are now museum pieces, as are other pieces of the lost missions.

            With the Congressional budget cuts, which reduced Richard Nixon’s $3.333 billion budget for NASA by $142.2 million, about 700 NASA and 2,300 contractor jobs were cut.  At NASA’s peak, about 600,000 contractor personal work on various space-agency projects.  By the end of 1970, that number would be down to 142,000.

            Lost, too, were the opportunities for two crews to experience the moon.  Apollo 18 would have been flown by Dick Gordon as commander, reaching the lunar surface he only saw from orbit on Apollo 12.  His Command Module pilot, Vance Brand, was thrown in limbo, until the Apollo-Soyuz project allowed him to fly in earth orbit in 1975. However, Apollo 18’s Lunar Module Pilot, Harrison “Jack” Schmitt would explore the moon.  Because of pressure to send at least one scientist to the moon, NASA switched geologist Schmitt to Apollo 17.  Of course that meant the original Apollo 17 pilot, Joe Engle lost his chance to fly to the moon.  He would have to wait until the Space Shuttle to fly.  The Apollo 19 commander, Fred Haise, lost his chance at the moon for the second time.  He’d been Lunar Module Pilot on the ill-fated Apollo 13.   His Command Module Pilot, Bill Pogue, and Lunar Module Pilot, Jerry Carr, both transferred to Skylab and flew on the final flight to the space station, 1973-74.

            Two flights gone, but it could have been worse.  With the Apollo 13 near disaster causing cold feet by President Nixon and within NASA itself, Apollos 16 and 17 at times had been in danger of cancelation.  So September 2, 1970, also represents the day Apollo’s bleeding finally stopped.

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