Aug. 2, 1971: Apollo 15 takes one last ride

Falcon’s descent stage left on the moon.

***

            As soon as we’re awake, 1:37 a.m. EDT, we get the word we’ve dreaded.  Delays in yesterday’s second moonwalk totaling 1 hr. 40 min. have a domino effect today, squeezing our time against a hard stop — lunar liftoff firmly set in less than 12 hrs, at 1:11 p.m. EDT.  We’ll only have time for an EVA of 4-5 hours.  And receive news more dreaded, delivered by capcom Joe Allen, “We’re going to ask you to stop first at the ALSEP site and spend a few minutes recovering the successfully drilled core tube.”

            Figured that’d happen. A few minutes?  Who knows how long the damn thing will take, if we can get it out at all.  Probably means we’ll lose the stop at the North Complex.  Damn it, I’d really like to see if the features there are volcanic, young in lunar terms.

            Ol Joe gives us the bedside manner — says — “From here on out, it’s gravy all the way, and were just going to play it cool, take it easy and see some interesting geology.”

            No, damn it — we want it all.  Including the North Complex.  Even though everyone understands that on these long, complex lunar expeditions, you’re just not going to be able to do everything.

            We depressurize the cabin at 4:52 a.m. EDT and quickly descend the ladder.  “It’s good to be outside where you can stretch a little bit.”   But little time to stretch our sore hands and shoulders.  It’s gonna be a rush today, in more ways than one.  Quickly now, load up ol’ Rover.

            At 5:38 a.m. EDT, we walk and drive out to the drill site, by the ALSEP package, 300 ft. from the Lunar Module.  The battery-powered drill.  There the damn thing sits on it’s stalk-like stem.  I’m blunt as can be:  “It’s not worth doing.  We’re not going to get it out.”

            But now you insist, “We’re going to do this.  We’re going to get the drill out.”

            We stand on either side of the drill that’s standing on it’s stem elbow-height.  We brace the crook of our elbows under the two drill handles.   “One, two, three.”  Heave!” It moves a bit.  “But we have a long way to go.”  Again “One, two three.”  Again.  “Now we’re making a little progress.”  And again, both of us grunting from the strain. 

            Joe asks how far we’ve got it up.  “We’ve got it up about 3 ft.”

            We keep questioning Houston, “Are you guys that interested in this thing?”  Silence is the only reply.  We add, “We sure have a lot of time invested in this thing.”

            I’ve had enough of this — I can feel us lose our shot at the North Complex, just sitting out there waiting for us, and here we struggle.

            “Let’s try again.”

            Finally the damn thing reaches shoulder height.  “If we can put our shoulders under it . . . ”  And we do.   “One, two, three.  Ughhh.”  Hey- our suits we’re designed for this.  Nor were our shoulders.  I think I’ve strained mine.

            “One, two, three.”  The damn thing pops out, nearly lifts us off our feet.

            Damn, our troubles aren’t done.  We have to unscrew six lengths of core tube and a plate that steadied the stem against the surface.  And guess what? — they’re stubborn.   Nothing is coming apart and again we’re straining like hell, turning it this way and that, pulling and pushing.  And something’s wrong with that wrench-like vice.  “It’s not working.”  By God, it’s been installed backward, won’t grip the tube.   Frustrated, I ask how many hours they want us to work on this thing and add, “We’re an hour and 15 min. into it already,” meaning the EVA. “I just can’t get it broken apart. The wrenches just don’t work.” We make some progress — starting to get the base plate and sections apart, but damn, we’ve been at it a half hour.

            Leave it on the ground, Joe says.  “We might just be able to return it like that.”  

            “Good enough,” we reply.  We’d wasted a half hour here.  Kiss the North Complex good-bye.  I bet there won’t be time to explore it.

            Finally we can get on our way, full speed for west to a section of the rille we call “the terrace.”  Look out — a big depression.  Gotta drive around it.  Press on. “Look at that rock!  . . . It made that crater there.”  But all we can do is look and press on.

            Another depression. This time we drive through it. “It’s pretty rough out here.” Man, sure would like to drive straight to the rille, but it’s tougher driving here that what we experienced before, large old rimless craters, eroded into depressions and dunes.  “Holy cow!”  

            Look at this debris-filled crater — Spur Crater, back a bit from the rille.  That’s unique, a rubble of small rocks carpeting its interior, the crater and its debris field are about 65 ft. across.  We’re gonna stop — call this Station 9.  First, give Houston a detailed geologic description: “The rim is very, very soft. My boots sink in a good 4 in.   . . . The whole center of the crater full of debris, angular, glass in the center.  It’s about . . .  4-5 meters deep.  . . .A slightly raised rim.  I don’t see any rays.”

            Get out the tongs — it’s sampling time.  Look at this rock, “It’s covered with dirt, but it looks just like a big piece of glass.”  

            Joe says, “We suggest when you finish this, you move closer to the rille.”   Always hurrying us! 

            Hurry, hurry. After 18 min., “OK, we’re on our way.”

            After just a 2 min. ride, we reach the edge.  It’s 7 a.m. EST — we’re closing in on six hours until liftoff time.

            Look at that — debris, mostly large angular fragments, all the way to the floor of the rille. “It seems uniformly distributed all the way to the floor.”  

            Can see one — no, two layers of rock outcrops in opposite wall.  One is about a tenth of the way down.  “It’s somewhat irregular but appears to be a continuous layer. The other, a solid layer four-tenths of the way down.  “Very large boulders with fractures in them.”  

            “I see no difference in color.”  Gray. Maybe a different tone to the gray further down.  What a sight; what a place!

              And look at that — downslope on this side — that boulder looks like bedrock.

            “There are some good blocks down there.”

            “We ought to move downslope.”  This is the work we like, field geology.  We test the slope, ambling over the rille lip.  “Good solid firm ground here.  Let’s see how it is going back up.”

            “Yeah, no problem coming back up.”  As easy as you please.

            I take detailed photos of the rille structures through a 500 mm telephoto lens, while you start the sampling on your own.   “That’s a big rock over there.  Get a picture.” 

            My eyes raise to look, I trip spin around and fall, sprawl out.  No problem.  No problem to push ourselves back up in low gravity.  Embarrassing, but no problem.  You help me up, pick up my camera for me, and note, “The lens is decently clean.”

            We resume taking samples. “A fine-grained crystalline rock. It’s a beauty.  It came from this boulder over here.”

            Look at those boulders downslope.  Bedrock? Maybe.  

            Joe tells us we only have about 15 min. more here. We ask, “Are we going to have time to sample bedrock here?”   Come on, come on — let us at it.

            Houston thinks a moment. “If you think you can reach true bedrock, then we’re willing to give up the mare sampling.” 

            It’s a deal!  We move downslope — hopping as we traverse the move down sideway, to where the prize samples are.  “Ease on down to this outcropping.”  No problem — the degree of the slope is less than when we were up on the mountain.  But Houston is concerned, to the TV, we’re disappearing over the lip.  Joe asks, “How far from the edge of the rille are you?”

            Ha — don’t tell. We’re actually over the rim, on the side of the rille.  Obfuscate, casually say, “Can’t tell — can’t see the lip.”   Which is true — it’s just a gradual slope.

            Joe says, “It looks like you’re on the edge of a precipice.”

            “Gosh, no — it slopes right down.”

            We descend lower. “This looks like bedrock to me.”  Boulder all along the lip.  Let’s get to it — sample time.  “It’s just a mass of big boulders along the terrace.”

            “When you finish this, we’d like you to move back toward the Rover,” Joe says.  I bet he does!

            We hop and scuffle through the rocks, heading back up.  No time for more samples.  Houston wants a rake sample and and a core.  The core goes in nicely, hit with the side of a hammer.

            And Houston wants two 6-in. boulders.  Gotcha — I bend to my knees to pick up a small boulder, a bit larger than they’d asked for.

            Time to move out. We’ve spent nearly an hour here. One more station to probe along the terrace, just a 12 min. stop, much flatter here, can’t even see the rille. The surface rock strewn, but we don’t have time to do much more than take photographs. 

            “Much as we hate to, we’re going to have to get you headed back east.”    No more stops, definitely no North Complex.  Damn!  “We’d like you to go straight to the drill site.”  Of course — back to the core tubes that have cost us so much. We follow our tracks back — back to the dame core tube.

            Perhaps with the energy of frustration, I twist them apart with my already-fatigued, painful hands. Amazing.  “Well, Joe, I just decided it was time to take that drill [stem] apart, and I took it apart.”  They come apart, at least three of the six sections do.  Houston says that’s good enough — the long section will fit inside the cabin.

            And was it worth? When the core is examined on Earth, about 50 layers of lunar history are unpeeled, a very significant sampling. And the cause of all that misery? A design defect in the fluted joints of the drill stem.

            Driving home, “Look up at those mountains.  Aren’t they beautiful today, all sunlit.”   Golden slopes in that sunlight.

            Damn near Biblical. 

            Back at Falcon, we don’t stop — not us.  With 5 min. until we must begin our EVA closeout, we’re still working as hard as possible, take “grab” samples.   “At this high sun angle, it’s hot.”   Yes, the shadows are much shorter than when we arrived, the lunar day still in its morning but heating up.

            And we still have ceremonial duties to perform.  As planned, for the Post Office, we cancel a new stamp commemorating 10 years of human space travel.  “That’s pretty good — after 10 years, here we are spending three days on the moon.”

            And a little science demonstration for the folks back home.  I have here a rock hammer in one (tired) hand and a genuine Falcon feather in other.  When dropped, will they hit the ground at the same time?  They sure do.  “Mr. Galileo was correct.”

            After the Rover  is unloaded, we take it for its last brief drive. And, still talking of the outcroppings we see, I park the Rover at its final resting place 300 ft. east (behind) Falcon.  A spot where the Rover’s TV eye can watch us liftoff.  Although it won’t be able to track our ascent, as the tilt mechanism has given out.

            And perform one last ceremony that we don’t discuss until after the flight:  Edge a metal plate into the lunar soil inscribed with the names of the fourteen astronauts and cosmonauts who gave their lives for the exploration of space.  And by it, a small stylized figure, aluminum, representing a fallen astronaut. 

            We load our geologic treasure into the LM — and are told the long core section can be secured on the cabin floor.  After all its cost us, “We’re going to baby that core!”

            Joe feeds us a line from science fiction, Robert A. Heinlein, “It’s time to return to the cool, green hills of Earth.”

            “We’re ready . . . A fabulous place up here.”

            And so it ends, our final walk, after 4 hr. 50 min.  We rode the Rover 3.1 mi. today.  And here are our totals:  We’ve spent 18 hrs. 33 min. on our three moonwalks, walking or riding a distance of 17.3 mi., collecting 170 lbs. of samples.  We’ve achieved more than all previous Apollo landings combined.  

****

            Three-and-a-half hours after ending our last moonwalk, after living on the moon for 66 hrs. 55 min, it’s departure time.

            “You’re go for liftoff,” Houston says.

            “We’re ready to do some flying.”

            One minute to liftoff. “Engine arm to ascent.”

            Ignition. “Good liftoff.”  We’re instantly away amid a shower of mylar foil and waves of dust.  

            And the com channel is choked with music, “Off We Go into The Wild Blue Yonder.”   Al Worden.  We’d planned for the music — but not at liftoff.  And to be fair to Al, he thought it was only going over his loop, not the main channel.     

            Luckily, we don’t hit a problem require a clear comm.  “Good smooth ride.”  Within seconds, we pitch over , our Hadley site flowing under us.  ‘Oh, what a view of the rille.”  

            “Both guidance systems are good.”   Ol’ Falcon kinda wallows side to side as it adjusts to the changing weight of the fuel. “It almost sounds like the wind.”

            “Falcon, Houston.  You’re looking good at 3 min.”  And the same a minute later; the same all the way to orbit, a ride of 7 min.   Like Apollo 14, we make a one-orbit rendezvous with Al Worden and the command ship.  At 3:10 p.m., EDT, we dock.

            “Welcome home,” Al calls.

            Six hours after our return, we set Falcon loose, one last flight, this time on her own.  Into the lunar surface.  Houston calls, “I hope you let her go gently, Dave.  She was a good one.”

*

            We are astronauts Dave Scott and Jim Irwin  

            Finally falling into weightless sleep with

            Two more days of orbital science ahead of us.

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