Apollo 15: The collapsed parachute

Apollo 15 falls towards splashdown on August 7, 1971

*****

            It can happen in the first minute or, just when you think you’ve got it made, in the last minute. Disaster can.  Death can.  That’s why the team at Mission Control never, never light their victory cigars until the crew is on the deck of the recovery ship.

            It’s August 7, 1971; we’ve made it through:  Through the three-day transit to the moon, insertion into lunar orbit.  Through the landing in the Apennine Mountains, three days exploring the surface.  Through a total of six days in lunar orbit, mapping a fifth of its surface.  Through the three-day return trip.  At entry, hitting the keyhole through the fires of atmosphere, into communications blackout.   And less than 4 min., exiting blackout, calling “Everybody’s in good shape.”  We tell each other, “One hundred miles to go.”

            Then deployment of the two small drogue parachutes at 23,300 ft. altitude over the Pacific. “Good drogue.”  They slow us down to 125 mph.

            A minute after they deploy, at 10,000 ft., the three big main parachutes blossomed.  “The mains are out.”  Everything perfectly on track for splashdown within 10 mi. of the prime recovery carrier, USS Okinawa, 328 mi. north of Hawaii.  We see three good chutes.  At 8,000 ft., we dump the remainder of our thruster propellant.

            And now it happens. A cloud of red hypergolic fuel obscures our view through the window.  When it clears, we see a startling sight:   One of the chute collapses into an ugly streamer.  OK, we can land on two chute, the third one basically an insurance policy. However, that streaming chute could tangle with the others.  Then we’d in big trouble.

            The other two seem to be holding.  We couldn’t be sure at the time, but the cloud of the corrosive thruster fuel we’ve jettison stayed with us, since winds were very light, and shredded holes in the one parachute, perhaps even snapping riser lines.  And worse, holes appear in a second chute — small holes.  They don’t seem to be growing.  

            It’s holding; it’s holding. 

            The recovery helicopters have us in sight.  Do they ever. We come through a cloud and almost hit one.

            Too many voices on the radio.  One helicopter calls, alarmed, “You have a streaming chute.  Stand by for a hard impact.”  Like we don’t know. 

            We’ll hit the water at 22 mph, rather than the 19 mph that three chutes provide.  At 4:46 p.m. EDT, after a flight of 295 hr. 11 min. 53 sec., we slam into the water, a huge whack and splash.  And settle, amazing in what’s called “stable one,” with the apex of the cone upright.    

            And 34 min., later, we step from the recovery helicopter onto the carrier deck.  We make one last first for the Apollo program:   Having decided that there are no “moon germs,” NASA has eliminated the quarantine for returning crews.  We stand in the open wearing flight coveralls and breath the sea air.  As if nothing untoward nearly had happened.  

*

            What a mission, and to think Apollo 15 actually formed a developmental flight, testing an Apollo system stretched to the maximum — a 12-day expedition, nearly 67 hrs. on the surface, the first Lunar Roving Vehicle, three moon “walks” (rides) lasting a total of 18.4 hrs., covering 17.4 miles, venturing 3.7 mi. from the lunar lander.  And returning 170.4 lbs. of samples, compared to 93.2 lbs. for Apollo 14.   A mission that explored both the lunar highlands and the mare plains, that rode across ancient lava flows that once lapped against the Apennine mountains.  A mission that collected rocks from deeper layers than Apollo 14, including samples very close to, if not, bedrock.

            And a mission that caused a few voices to call for the two cancelled Apollo missions, hardware already built, to be reinstated.  Alas, only a few voices.  Not enough.

*

“We went to the moon as trained observers in order to gather data, not only with our instruments on board, but also with our minds.  And I’d like to quote a statement from Plutarch which I think expresses our feelings since we’ve come back:  ‘The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lighted.'”

— Dave Scott, Apollo 15 commander

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