50 years ago: Apollo 14 — Lost on Cone Crater

Al Shepard and the MET pull cart

*

            With a call to Houston two hours before our scheduled wake-up time, we begin our second — and final — day on the moon shortly after 1 a.m. (EST).  Early because we’re eager for our second moonwalk and the climb up Cone Crater?  You bet. But the plain fact is we weren’t sleeping anyway.  The our Lunar Module home, Antares, makes a noisy, uncomfortable bedroom.  Especially since, on such a short lunar stay of just 33.5 hours, we have to sleep in our spacesuits.  And there’s the damn 8 degrees tilt of the LM, with one foot in a small crater.  It feels like Antares is leaning over, about to slide down the slope.  We know that’s not true, but our senses fool us. “Are you awake?  Is the damn thing tipping over?”  We can’t resist the urge to get up and look, still whispering to ourselves as if our voices will cause the thing to collapse. Then we laugh, “Why are we whispering?

            May as well get on with the moonwalk — and leave more time at the end, since lunar liftoff is set for just four hours after the time we’re scheduled to end the walk.  So we begin the walk with hatch opening at 3:20 a.m, two hours earlier than planned.

            “It’s nice to be out in the sunny day again.”

            Al Shepard adds, “Yeah, it’s a beautiful day here in Fra Mauro Base.”

            We tease him, “Beautiful day for a game of golf.”  And then begin the work preparing for the long trek up to Cone Crater, loading our two-wheeled pull cart, the Modularized Equipment Transporter (MET), with tools, sample bags, cameras and film magazines.

            And as we head out for our first geological stop, “Point A,” Capcom Fred Haise, tells us we’re already 2 min. behind the timeline — everything is timed that closely.  “Head on out,” Shepard urges.

            We aim for ‘A,’ which appears in line with Cone Crater rising in the background. The hummocky territory of Fra Mauro appears to swallow craters in depressions — and these craters form our mileposts on the way up Cone Crater.  Already we are experiencing trouble determining where we are. “Look, Al, I’ve spotted it. See the crater almost directly up-sun from us, in the valley?  Right in the middle valley?”  Mitchell carries the map, serves as our navigator.

            “Right.”

            “That’s Weird.” Weird crater– oddly shaped with lobes, as it is actually three overlapping craters.  “And if we head to the north of that, we’re in business.”

            “OK, that means that Point A is, in fact down in the valley.”

            “Probably ‘A’ right here, is it not?”  We take samples and readings with a portable magnetometer.  In fact, after the mission we will discover we are actually far short of “Point A.”  Distances on the moon are deceiving.  We search for our second stop, “Point B,” further up the hill, up and down the undulating surface, losing time trying to locate the precise point designated by geologists.  After the mission, we will decide that it would have been better to use our judgment in picking interesting sites to sample instead of wasting time trying to locate a specific spot.

            “The MET tracks make a very smooth pattern in the surface, reminiscent of driving a tractor through a plowed field . . . probably, oh, a quarter of an inch deep, no more.”

            We ask Shepard, “Think you found ‘B’?  . . . It’s this big crater over here, isn’t it?”

            “It’s way up the hill . . . I think it’s up the hill.”

            Again we have trouble determining where a specific point is.  Is this little crater the one halfway between points ‘A’ and ‘B’? Shouldn’t we be able to spot a little chain of craters to the south?  

            Shepard says, “That’s probably Weird right up there.  We’re probably about even with Weird right now, although you can’t see it on the ridge.

            “That’s Weird, that big one right over there, Al.”

            “Yeah.  That’s what I say.  I think ‘B’ is that deep crater right directly ahead of us, Ed.”

            Later it will be determined we are again only halfway to where we think we are, only about a third of the way up the hill when we think we’re halfway up.

            “Let’s go on ahead.”

            Capcom Fred Haise says, “Yeah, I don’t think you have to worry too much about the exact position of Point B.  If it appears you’re getting close to the general area . . . that should be good enough.”

            “. . . OK, I think we’re very close to it.”

            We choose our Point B and only expend five minutes, picking up one rock.  “OK, the next stop is the top of Cone.  With a cry of, “To the top of Cone crater,” we set off.

            Shepard pulls the MET, and says, “We’ll have to go almost to the east here, and then on up by Flank.”  Flank is a prominent crater high up on the ridge we will follow to the the rim of Cone.

            “The ridge of Cone Crater to the north is very apparent, as we expected that it would be.  It stretches off into the distance and meets with the far horizon.”

            “. . . Climb’s fairly gentle at this point but it’s definitely uphill.”

            After climbing a bit, we take a little rest, and head for Flank Crater.  Or rather, where we think Flank is, taking turns pulling the MET.

            “Take a break, get the map, and see if we can find out exactly where we are . . .”

            Antares is already far behind us.  “That old LM looks like it’s got a flat over there, the way it’s leaning.”

            We move on up the hill, and spotting a large crater, Shepard says, “We’re going by Flank on the way up.  We’re passing to the north side of it.” 

            Our heart rates are up to 120 beats per minute.  On the first walk, they stayed at the 70 – 80 range.  “The soil here is a bit firmer, I think, than we’ve been on before.”

            Capcom Fred Haise replies, “That should help you with the climb.”

            “It’s helps a little bit . . .  Al’s got the back of the MET.  We’re carrying it up.  I think it’s a bit easier.”

            Haise says, “There are two guys sitting next to me who kinda figured you’d probably end up carrying it.”   He means our backups, Gene Cernan and Joe Engle, who bet us we’d end up carrying the thing.

            Stubbornly we say, “It’s roll along here but we move faster carrying it.”

            Shepard says to stop and rest a minute.  He observes, “Boy, I’ll tell, we’re really going to get a panorama.  We’ve got a tremendous one here, Houston, already, and we’re not quite to the rim.”  Looking back down the ridge, to the bowl where Antares sits, the LM looks like a Matchbook toy.

            We set off for the rim . . . are deceived — it’s just another ridge.  “We’ haven’t reached the rim yet.”

            “We got fooled on that one.  I’m not sure that was Flank we were at a minute ago.”

            Mitchell recognizes where we are — that’s a “little shoulder running down from the Cone. That’s Flank over there.  We’re going to hit it [Flank] on the south side. We’ll have to move on around it.”

             We trek on, huffing and puffing, our heart rates increasing to 140 beats per minute.  “We’re going up a pretty steep slope here.”

            Houston has us take another rest.

            Shepard looks around. “That looks to be rim of Cone over there.  . . . Is it right there?”

            Mitchell says, “Our positions are now all in doubt . . .”

            Shepard says, “The rim is at least 30 min. away.  We’re approaching the edge of the boulder field here on the south flank.  . . . It seems to me we spent enough time on the traverse.”  He wants to do our sampling on these boulders.  “If we don’t, we won’t [have time] to get very many samples.” We’re pretty sure they’re ejecta from Cone, not so different from what we’d find at the rim, although the ones at the rim should be thrown from the deepest point.  He wants to use this as our turnaround point.

            Mitchell disagrees. “It’s too early to make that sort of judgment . . .  We’re not really in that boulder territory yet.”  We discuss the boulders, if they are Cone ejecta.  Mitchell says, “Let’s head righty for that boulder field at the top.  . . .Clear on up to the top . . .

            Shepard says, “No . . . I don’t think we’ll have time to go up there.”

            “Oh, let’s give it a whirl.  Gee whiz. We can’t stop without looking into Cone Crater.”

            “I think we’ll waste an awful lot of time traveling and not much documenting.”

            Capcom Fred Haise says, “. . .They’d like you to consider where you are the edge of Cone Crater.”

            Damn!  “We’re three-quarters there.”  Mitchell suggests ditching the MET and getting on up to the top — where the most interesting boulders should be.

            Shepard gives in. “OK, we’ll press on a little farther, Houston.  And keep your eye on the time.”

            Houston has some good words for us — we’ve been granted a 30-min. extension of the moonwalk. Onward!  “We’re approaching the edge of the rugged boulder field to the west rim.  . . .We’re pushing on in that direction.”

            We keep the MET with us. “We need those tools.”

            Shepard adds, “The MET’s not slowing us down, Houston.  It’s just a question of time.  We’ll get there.”

            We’re breathing hard again, huffing and puffing.  Shepard says, “OK, we’re now right in the middle of the boulder field on the west rim.  We haven’t quite reached the rim yet.”

            We take another rest, and push on for the rim.  We think. Houston asks, “Do you have the rim in sight at this time?”

            “. . . That is negative.”  What we think is the rim proves just another ridge.  Shepard says, “Well, what I don’t know . . . the rim is still way up here for m the looks of things.”

            Houston gives the final word:  “We’ve already eaten into our 30-min. extension, and we’re past that now.  I think we’d better proceed with the sampling.”  So this is as far as we go. Mitchell says, “All right. I’ll start sampling.”

            It’s frustration. And in the future will only become more frustrating.  If we’d gone on few feet more . . .   After the mission, we figure it out — if we’d only gone a few feet further, we would have seen it.  We were maybe 65 ft. from the rim.  Maybe less. So close . . . 

            Yet we gain excellent samples where we are, being so close.  Shepard says, “We’re in the middle of a fairly large boulder field. It covers perhaps as much as a square mile . . . and I think certainly we’ll find that these samples [originate] pretty far down in Cone Crater.”

            We only have about 15 min. to take samples, then start heading downslope.  Looking ahead, “One of these boulders, Fredo, is broken open.  They’re all brown boulders on the outside, and the inner face that’s broken is white, and then another one that most of it is white.  They are right in the same area.  . . .That’s where we’re headed right now.”

            Shepard says, “That’s the order of the day.”  We only have 6 min. to sample these broken boulders.  And away we go, bounding along, the progress downhill much faster than uphill.   “We’re now out of the boulder field, Houston, and proceeding down the flank.” We’re heading for Weird Crater, about 10 min. away.  We grab a few samples as we go.  “This country is so rolling and undulating, Fred, with rises and dips everywhere, that you can be going by a fairly good-sized crater and not even recognize it.”  We skirt Weird Crater and head for a stop at the north crater of Triplet.  “OK, I think we’re seeing the rim of the Triplet series right ahead of us, aren’t we, Al?”

            Shepard says, “I would say so, yes.  We can say that’s the rim of the north [crater] right there.”

            “Yes.  It’s got boulders on it, and that’s the only thing big enough to have boulders.”

            We make a stop near the rim of the north crater, hammer in a triple core tube — and hit what feels like solid rock after one tube is down.  Finally find a spot where the tube drives deeper, not much.  We could pound on it all day and not get it down much more.   At the same time, Shepard digs a trench.   “OK, Houston; this is Al.  And bag 21 is kind of . . . a combination of the top two layers.  Second layer is a thin layer of small glassy-like pebbles. I was unable to separate them by the trench method, so I gave you a mix that’s in that bag . . .  And in bag 20, two-zero, will go a sample the bottom material mixed with some of the surface material that has fallen into it.” He re-digs the trench to get a cleaner separation of the layers.  

            Fred Haise calls, “OK, Ed and Al, w’re going to have to be departing Triplet here.”  We’ve spent about a half hour sampling. On the moonwalk, we’ve used so much oxygen that our half our extension is cut by 15 min.   But we linger, taking final sample’s from the rim of the crater for three minutes.  Haise calls, “. . .As soon as you wrap this one up, you’re going to have to press on back to the LM, or we’re going to be really tight on the close-out.”

            We’re about 10 minutes from the Antares.  “OK, let’s mush for the LM.”

            We grab a few last samples from a boulder field near near the LM, as Al Shepard dashes to the ALSEP to realign its antenna.  

            At Antares, we begin loading samples and cameras.  During a pause in the activity, Shepard assembles a different kind of “tool,” and within sight of the TV camera, says, “You might recognize what I have in my hand as the handle for the contingency sample return.  It just so happens to have a genuine six iron on the bottom of it.  In my left hand, I have a little white pellet that’s familiar to millions of Americans. I’ll drop it down.  Unfortunately, the suit is so stiff, I can’t do this with two hands, but I’m going to try a little sand trap shot.”

            Golfing on the moon! Shepard misses on his first swing.

            “You got more dirt than ball that time.”

            “. . .Here we go again.”  He swings — and the ball dribbles a few feet.

            Fred Haise jokes, “That looks like a slice to me, Al.”

            Shepard tries again. “Straight as a die,” he claims.  He drops a second ball — hits about the same distance, but says, “Miles and miles.”

            Lunar golfing has taken only one minute, but it is what will be remembered from the flight — and criticized:  We spend $400-million for a moon mission just to hit some golf balls?

            We finish out the closeout and say good-bye to the surface of the moon after a walk of 4 hrs. 22 min. during which we’ve traveled about two miles, gathering 49.16 lbs. of samples.  

            And 6 hrs. 10 min. later it’s time:  Liftoff, at 1:49 p.m. (EST) from the moon.  “Three . . . 2 . . . 1.  Zero.” We shoot straight up amid a spray of insulation from our descent-stage platform and rays of blowing dust causing the flag we’re leaving behind to flutter.

           We make a “direct ascent” rendezvous, taking one orbit rather than the two of previous missions. A quick rendezvous needs to be more precise than the longer route, but we’ve gained the confidence from past missions to do it. Less than two hours later, we come into sight of Stu Roosa and the command ship, station keeping 70 feet away.  He jokes, “It looks like you’ve lost some weight since I saw you!”

            Now comes docking, at 3:35 p.m.  Will the finicky docking probe work?  “Apollo 14, you are go for docking.”   Roosa moves in, calls, OK, we captured.  And we have hard dock.”   It’s a smooth one –we’re linked perfectly.

            The road home is open. 

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