50 Years ago: Returning to the moon

Apollo 14 lifts off on January 31, 1971

            There’s an old truth in aviation and space circles:  If someone dies in an accident, the delay afterwards is much longer than if no one does. And that’s the case following the Apollo 13 accident, which was about as severe as they come.  It’s less than 10 months later — January 31, 1971 — and were ready to go with Apollo 14 to the moon, with the same same target as Apollo 13, the highlands of Fra Mauro.

            Not that many changes have not been made to the hardware. Flammable insulation has been removed from the oxygen tanks and wiring encased in metal conduits.  The fans used to stir the cryogenic oxygen have been eliminated, as data shows the spacecraft motions are enough to keep the supply evenly mixed.  A short in the thermostatic switches for the tank heaters caused the fire that blew open an oxygen tank on Apollo 13.  Those switches have been eliminated — we, the crew, will operate the heaters manually. A third oxygen tank isolated far from the primary ones has been added.  As has a 400-amp battery with enough power to take us home from lunar orbit. Our spacecraft is now much more robust, we like to say.

            And our countdown, started on January 25, has proceeded smoothly, our only worry, the weather, a cold front rapidly approaching from he northwest, moving in at 22 mph.  The skies had been clear as we suited up for a 3:23 p.m. (EST) launch, the front more than 50 miles away.  

            We’re strapped in and ready to go, crunched shoulder to shoulder.  By T – 27 min., the front isn 37 miles away, dark clouds on the horizon. Under the stricter weather rules instituted after Apollo 12’s lightning strike, no cumulous clouds can be over the site at liftoff.  Launch Control says a decision whether or not to hold the count will be made at the T -10 min. mark.  We have a window of nearly four hours to launch today — the front should have swept through within that time.  If we can’t go today, the earth and moon will not be in alignment again until March 1.

            Clouds move in.  We are advised we will hold at the T – 8 min. point.  Clouds ahead the front are now overhead.  The count actually halts at T – 8 min. 2 sec.  The front is still 14-15 mi. to the northwest and should clear the area by 4:30 p.m.  We can stand here one hour without recycling in the count to an early point.   We have clouds at 18,000 ft.  And light rain.

            An aircraft surveying the cloud tops spots improving conditions.  Clouds clearing a bit, clearing enough here ahead of the front.

            We’re go to resume the count at 3:55 p.m. for a 4:03 p.m. launch, a delay of just 40 minutes from our original time.

            Mark! — we have resumed the count.  We are go. Launch control calls, “Godspeed.”

            “Thank you very much,” we reply, “We’ll give it a good ride.”

            Twelve . . . 11 . . . 10 . . . 9 . . . 8 . . . Ignition sequence start.  We feel and hear the rumble far below us as the five first-stage engines build more than 7.5 million pounds of thrust.  We’re riding the heaviest Saturn V to date.

            Liftoff.   The launch tower slides by in less than ten seconds.  The tower is clear; Houston is now controlling.  At one minute, they report, “Everything looks good here on the ground.”

            Everything thing continues to look good, through the first-stage ride, lasting 2 min. 43.5 sec., the jolt of separation, and ignition of the five J-2 engines of the second stage.

            “Good thrust on all five,” Houston reports.   The second stage, with an improved dampening system to reduce the vibrations that caused the early shutdown of the center engine on Apollo 13, continues perfectly — shutdown on time, 9 min. 16 sec. after launch.  And the single J-2 engine of the third stage takes over.  “Good thrust,” we report.   

            And we reach earth orbit after a ride of 11 min. 43 sec.  “Good job, good show,” radios our commander, Alan Shepard, the “old man” of the space program at age 47, returned to flight status after being grounded in 1963 by an inner-ear problem.  Just in making orbit, he’d nearly matched the 15-minute duration of historic Mercury suborbital flight, the first American in space on May 5, 1961.

            It’s no time for reflection, as we checkout our command ship for two orbits, and await the call from Houston:  “You are go for TLI.”   Go for Translunar Injection, go to restart the third stage to send us out of Earth orbit. To the moon.


            . . . We’re now really on our way, three hours after launch.  Already 7,000 miles from the earth.  It’s showtime — Transposition and Docking.  We pull our command ship, Kitty Hawk, free of the third stage, slowly turn around to face our Lunar Module, Antares, named for a bright star we’ll see as we descend to the moon, housed atop the third stage.   Slowly now, we close towards it.  True to our pilot’s blood, we want a record — to use the least amount of fuel of any flight in docking with the Lunar Module and pulling it free.  The three-pronged docking probe extends from the tip of our cone-shaped Command Module — closing dead-one to the funnel-shaped drogue top-center on Antares.

            Slow she goes, but true. The probe eases to the center of the funnel, three latches ready to snap into the bulls-eye hole at the drogue’s cone in what is called “soft dock.”  In she goes.  “You’ve got your record!”

            Then we’re puzzled a moment, as we rebound out of drogue.  The three latches failed to engage.

“No Joy,” we report to Houston.  Maybe we came in too gently.  We try again, a bit faster.   . . . and again bounce off.  There goes any fuel record — but now we don’t care.  Our concern is for the mission.  Obviously, if we can’t link with the lander, we will not land on the moon. 

            “We did it twice. It looks like we’re closing fast enough. I’m going to back off now and try again,” Stu Roosa, doing the piloting, tells Houston.

            We try again — again “no joy.”

            We back off while Houston studies the problem.  Stu tells Houston, “I’m nice and comfortable.  I’m just going to drift around and not use any more fuel than I have to.”

            Houston has us check circuit breakers, a list of checks such as: “Go to panel 9 — check the EPS group circuit breaker.”   More than an hour has transpired since we first attempted docking.  The third stage has a limited life of about six hours in which it will be stable, before it will begin venting fuel.

            “Fourteen, Houston. We’re about out of ideas here. Suggest you verify switchback and retract, and then give it another try at docking.”   That’s bad when Houston is out of ideas.

            “OK.  . . .Trying to come back in now.”

            “Fourteen, Houston — we suggest that at initial contact, you hold plus-X three seconds.” Plus-X is forward thrust.

            “We tried it before — not quite three seconds.”

            In we go, hard and long. Alas, Stu has to report, “OK, I hit it pretty good and held four seconds on contact, and we did not latch.”

            We are not in personal danger — but a larger danger looms, to the entire space program. After Apollo 13, we need a successful flight.  In the wake of the near-disaster, two moon missions were eliminated and budgets cut to their lowest level in a decade.  If we fail to land on the moon, the Apollo program could be terminated.

            Which leads us to some desperate thoughts:   We could depressurize the cabin, open the access to the docking probe, inspect it. Even go outside and inspect the Lunar Module’s drogue.  Or even remove the docking probe and reach through the nose and pull the ships together by hand.  The probe only makes the loose “soft dock.”  It then retracts and twelve latches around the rim of the tunnel engage firmly for a tight seal, called “hard dock.”

            But we know Houston likely will not OK such desperate measures.  

            We’ve been struggling with the problem for an hour and a half.  Fuel is becoming a concern — we only have margins for one or perhaps two more tries.  Houston comes back to us:  “We have one more idea down here.”

            The idea involves bypassing soft dock and going directly to hard dock.  Stu is drive the probe into the drogue, keep firing the “Plus-X” jets as Shepard retracts the probe and engages the twelve hard-dock latches rimming the connecting tunnel.

            “Here we go.”

            “Juice it,” Shepard urges.

            Roosa calls, “Retract.”  Shepard does and reports, “Nothing happened.”  Four silent seconds go by.  Then we hear the latches bang shut.  

            “We’ve got hard dock,” Shepard tells Houston.  Down there, they cheer.  

            Houston asks, “Can you give us a quantitative feel for what it sounded like when those docking latches did go?  Did you get a sort of ripple bang?”  That’s the signature sound when the latches lock.

            “Yeah . . . It was a ripple bang,” Shepard replies.  “I’m quite convinced we got quite a few” of the latches to engage.

            “That sounds pretty familiar  I wouldn’t be surprised if you got them all.”

            “It was a good hard dock.”

            Still, will Houston trust the docking system for the landing?  We have time, three days outbound to answer that question.   For now, a long first day is over.  It will not be the last.

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