Apollo 16’s first moonwalk: “Something’s happened here.”

Fifty years ago, April 21: Apollo 16’s John Young and Charlie Duke get down and dirty on their first moonwalk.

***

Charlie, it was going so well, right on the timeline.  We’re coming up on two-and-a-half hours into our first walk on the battered highlands of the moon, about 300 or so feet from the LM, setting up the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package (ALSEP) suite of instruments that will return data for at least a year after we leave.  You’re drilling the deep holes for the heat-flow experiment, and I’m turning from the central station where I’ve put a package for one of the seismic experiments.  I turn to my right and head out, amid a nest of ribbon-like connectors for the experiments.  I don’t feel it at first.  Certainly can’t see it.  With the helmet, I can’t see anything within three inches of my feet.  Then I stumble, feel something tug on my left foot.  I turn left to see — and feel something breaks free.  I take a hop backwards.  And stop.

“Hey, Charlie.”

“What?”

“Something’s happened here.”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know.”  Then I do.  “Here’s a line that’s pulled loose.” 

“Uh-oh.”

“What is that?  What line is it?”  I bend down on my knees to see — and pick up the loose end of a cable.

“That’s the heat flow.  You’ve pulled it off.”

“I don’t know how it happened.”  I rock my body, and with the help of the suit pressure pop up to a standing position.  “Pulled loose from there?”  There being the Central Station that transmits all the data to Earth.

“Yeah.”

“God Almighty.”

“Well, I’m wasting my time.”  You stop drilling.   I can hear the disappointment.  This is a catastrophe, no doubt about it.  The heat flow, measuring how much heat is coming from the moon’s interior, is a major experiment.  It was tried on Apollo 15, but they had trouble with their drill, didn’t get the temperature-registering probes as deep in the drill holes as they wanted.  Their experiment registered a high heat loss from the interior of the moon than predicted.  So everyone want to get this one right to check those findings.

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t even know,”  I can’t say it enough.  “I didn’t even know it.”

Capcom Tony England asks, “Did the wire or the connector come off?”

“It’s broken right at the connector.”  And I mean torn.  How are we going to fix that?   “I’m sorry Charlie.  God damn.”

*

The morning had been going so well, right from wake up.  It’s April 21, 1972, and after a good sleep, we’re more than ready.  We’re told, that because we’d powered down the LM more than normal, consumables were looking good to extend our stay by three orbits, allowing a third moonwalk at the end, although it’ll be about 5 hrs. instead of 7 hrs. long, but we’ll be able to explore North Ray Crater.  That in the future — we’re John Young and Charlie Duke, and it’s time make our first moonwalk.

The cabin is depressurized, hatch open.  Ol’ Charlie, you are eager, calling “OK, Houston, are we ready to get out?  We’re ready to get out.”

Tony England says, “OK, let’s go.

“OK, why don’t you go out, John?”

Now that we’re all set It takes me about a minute to back, on hands and  knees to the little “porch” at the top of the ladder.  “My golly, what a view!”  Boulders everywhere.

Charlie hurries me up.  “Hey, John, hurry up!”

“I’m hurrying!”

It’s just before noon, Eastern Standard Time, on Earth.  Standing in the footpad, here I come, stepping off with my left foot while holding the ladder.  “There you are, mysterious and unknown Descartes highland plains.  Apollo 16 is gonna change your image.”  Mark the time — 119 hrs. 4 min. 5 sec. into the flight.  “I’m sure glad they got ol’ Brer Rabbit, here, back in the briar patch where he belongs.”

“Oh, is this ever neat, Charlie!”

“OK, I’m out.  Almost.”

Wait until you sees what we passed over landing.  Looking behind the LM, I see we’re just beyond the shallow, 16-ft. diameter crater.  If we’d landed a few feet back, we’d be on it’s 30-degree slope — had to abort, if we didn’t tipped over first.  “Yeah.  You’re not going to believe this.”

Here you come down come the ladder.  “Hot dog!  This is great!”  And in 40 sec., you’re ready to step off.  “Fantastic!  Oh, that first foot on the lunar surface is super, Tony!”

You see the crater right behind us and exclaim, “Look at the hole we just missed!”

No time to waste, even with a moonwalk that is planned to last seven hours.  Not 10 min. after you step on the surface, I say, “OK, Charlie,  I’m going to off-load the LRV.”   That the Lunar Roving Vehicle — or just plain Rover.  The same as the one that flew back on Apollo 15.

Except our deployment — pulling on lanyard which nudge it into unfolding, the three sections of the chassis.  “OK, here we come”  She lowers out from the side of the LM, wheels pop into place.  “It’s released, Houston.”  A few locking pins don’t engage, but we get them.  Ease the ol’ machine onto the ground.  We pick it up and turn it around, and I tell Houston, “I’m starting the LRV checkout.”  It’s only taken about 18 – 19 min. to deploy it.

I take it solo for a short test drive, around the LM.  “Look at it go, would you, Charlie.  Ah, this is going to be some kind of a different ride.”  But something is wrong here.  “The wheels are skidding, Charlie.”

“OK, your rear steering is off.”

On Apollo 15, the front steering hadn’t worked at first.  “I”m gonna park it anyway.  We can’t troubleshoot it now.”  It may be a matter of letting everything warm up — Apollo 15’s rear steering came on as if by magic.  I park in front of our work bench at the side of the LM. 

We’re just an hour into the moonwalk, and within the next half hour, I’ve set up the first astronomical observatory on the moon, a big camera on a tripod, placed in the shadow of the LM.  It will take photos in the ultraviolet of hydrogen concentrations around stars clusters and galaxies.  Leveling it is no problem.  But every time I change the azimuth setting for a new set of targets, which is done now and then when we’re at the LM, it knocks the thing off level.  And worse, a couple times, the coordinates they have me set leave it pointing at the LM.  So I have to change settings again, wasting time.  And time is everything. 

As I do that, Charlie installs the TV system on the Rover.  Our first TV pictures come an hour into the EVA, as we’ve not been able to send a signal using the LM, as its steerable S-band antenna is out of commission. We load up the Rover with all we’ll need.  “Look at this, Charlie.”  I’m carrying a tool pallet over my shoulder.  We’re already confident of our mobility.  And I bend low to check to see if I can pick up a rock.  We’ve practiced gathering samples with no help, usually a two-person job. 

I set assemble the good ol’ flag that will “wave” on a wire frame.  “We really should set the flag up on a hill, Charlie, but there just ain’t one.”  Not within easy walking distance.  “I’ll put it right here by a big rock.”

And it’s time for our tourist photos.  You lope out a distance and frame a photo.  “Hey, John, this is perfect, with the LM, and the Rover, and you and Stone Mountain, and the old flag.  Come out here and give me a salute, a big Navy salute.”

I leap up, more than a foot off the ground as I salute.  I do it again, and then we switch positions.  As I photography you, Houston calls that it’s a good moment for some news:  “The House just passed the space budget yesterday, 277 to 60, which includes the vote for the Shuttle.”  That means the Shuttle program proposed by President Nixon in January will go forward.

“The country needs that Shuttle mighty bad,” I reply for us,  “You’ll see.”

And you begin offloading the ALSEP from the rear of the LM, and fuel the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) that will provide power for it.  You place the packages on the ends of a pole, like a barbell, and head off to scout a site for the ALSEP.  As you skip away, one pack falls off, the one with the RTG.  “Uh-oh.”  It rolls into a small crater.  You get down and dusty, putting it back on.  No damage.  Off you go to the southwest.

And I follow in the Rover.  We’re on the timeline as advertised, and hey — that rear steering is now working.  And just 21 minutes after offloading the ALSEP, you’ve got our spot.  It’s a blocky area, but small blocks and rocks riddle our landing site.  You tell Capcom Tony England, “It’s up on top of a dome, and it’s fairly flat . . . There’s just not any flat places here, Tony. . . . This is the flattest I can find.”

We laugh, this place is full of holes.  It’s craters on top of craters on top of craters.  What a battered landscape — like nothing seen before.  “Tony, this is just an indescribable experience.  I’ll tell you.”

“I bet it is, Charlie.  Hey, what’s the difference between a hole and a crater?”

“Beats me.”  And just 6 min. after we arrive, you’re ready to drill the first hole for the heat flow.  “Are you guys ready?  Here we go.  Mark.  Hey, that beauty is going right in.”  The flutes of the drill bit have been redesign so they don’t clog, a problem that occurred on Apollo 15.

Each core segment is about 3-ft. long, and you remove the battery-powered drill will a wrench to screw on the next stem segment.  Look at you — dancing around the stem segment already set, bending low and pulling off the wrench.  Damn near falling down.  You joke, “I’m going out for the ballet when I get back.  You learn another line of work up here!.”

But our joking mood is about to end as I head from the ALSEP’s central station over to where I’m preparing our seismic experiments.  In just one step . . .

The way those ribbon cables loop and ride up off the surface, I can’t help it.  Hey, Houston, isn’t there some way we can fix this cable?   Oh, they’ll look into it — but it’s clear from their voices it ain’t likely. 

Our ALSEP has four experiments.  Well, it had four.  With the heat flow gone, that leaves the tri-axis magnetometer, measuring magnetic fields, and two seismic experiments, the passive seismometer, flown on all past landings, and an active seismic experiment previously flown on Apollo 14.  

Immediately, your voice awash in disappointment, you say, “OK, Tony, starting of the deep drill.”   That’s a deep core sample you were scheduled to drill after the heat flow.  

When done, we don’t have to struggle to pull it out, as they did on Apollo 15.  We have something like a car jack, pulls it right up — all 7.5 ft. of it.

While you do that I work the active seismic experiment, and lay out a line of three geophones, 10, 150, and 300 ft. from the central station, to pick up the vibrations we generate.  That’s my job, firing a “thumper,” charges — they look something like shotgun shells, 19 of them, at 15-ft. distances.  The staff-like thumper puts vibrations into the surface that are read by the geophones, revealing details of the subsurface.

On Apollo 14, they had problems with charges that misfired.  We have one misfire — but all-in-all it goes smoothly.  Fire, count a few seconds for the vibrations to dampen out, and move on.  Alas, that means you have to stand still, too, so as not to induce any stray vibrations.  A good break for you, Charlie, now that you’re drilling is done.  “OK, Charlie, are you ready to stand still?”

“Four, three, two, one — fire.”  The cylindrical base of the thumper jumps and dirt flies.  Getting me dirty!

You stand by the central station, taking a series of photos between thumper shots.   What a view.  To the south about 5 mi. away, Stone Mountain, a rounded loaf of a mountain we believe is a volcanic flow.  We’ll explore it on our second EVA.   And to the southeast, the bright circle of South Ray Crater, with brilliant rays of alternating white and black streaks.  It’s 7 mi. away.  We’ll sample its rays tomorrow.  And 5 mi. to the north, Smoky Mountain.  We’ll explore North Ray Crater at its flank on our third and final EVA.

“Boy, Charlie . . . Smoky and Stone Mountain look like they’re 10 ft. away from us.”  Like we could just run right over to them.

While you wait for a thumper shot, Houston has you look at the broken heat-flow cable one more time.  Ah, but lookin’ at it won’t fix it.   

The Active Seismic Experiment also includes a mortar launcher that I set up — the mortars to be fired after we leave to give ol’ Descartes/Cayley a big shake.  I jog out to photograph its position, kicking up a tail of dust.  Golly, this place is dusty.

As I photograph the mortar, you have time to gather a quick sample.  “Ah, my first rock!”  Ha — you fall down going after it.  We’re good at falling down and kneeling down to pick things up.  No wonder we’re so dirty.  

It’s now about an hour-and-a-half since the mishap and 4 hrs. into the moonwalk.  It’s time to move out for our first, short geology traverse.  We’re actually 3 min. ahead of schedule.  Yes, we’re timed right down to the minute.

Our first excursion reverses the order of Apollo 15’s first EVA.  Because they were going some distance, they made their geology traverse first, while all their spacesuit”consumables” (oxygen, power, coolant water) were near the maximum, in case they had to make a long walk back.  Then they set up their ALSEP.  We’re only going a short distance, so have set up the ALSEP first.

We set out for our first “station,” atFlag Crater and the much smaller Plum Crater at its side.  We’ll pass Spook Crater, with a fresh (younger) crater at its side, Buster.  On the way back, we’ll sample Buster.  But right now, it’s hard seeing, looking right into the sun, and we have to go slow through this hummocky territory, small ridges that hide obstacles.   

“OK, we’re going generally west now.  We’re in another distinct boulder field.”  You give Houston a running commentary.  We’re not quite sure where we are, as our simple navigation system, based on landing point, odometer, and compass, is a bit off, as our landing point isn’t yet precisely calculated.  

Look at this place — we pass through boulder fields, small blocks and rocks.  We cross rays from South Ray Crater, and the rays have more rocks, ones thrown out by the crater.  Our view of South Ray, which is about 15,000 ft. across in a ring of its brilliant ejecta, is simply spectacular..

“Tony, we seem to be riding across a ridge top that trends east-west.”  All of the rocks look angular, showing a dark matrix with white in them, a type of non-volcanic rock called breccias made of a mix of fragments.

Where are we?  OK, we should be passing 500 ft. to the left of Spook’s rim.   Can’t see it . . .  Crest a rise and there it be!  And there’s Buster, about 300 ft. from it.  Look at the blocks on its rim — they appear of a kind created impacts — breccia.  The number of rocks decreases — indicating that we’ve passed off the ray of South Ray Crater.  We should be finding volcanically formed rocks of the Cayley formation — if it was, as we think, formed of a volcanic lava flow.

OK, here’s Spook  “We’re driving on, on.  I think we’re coming up on the rim of Buster, and we’ve got a real good boulder field around Buster.”  We navigate to the left beyond Buster and Spook.  “Just keep going west,” you say.

Is that Plum?  “Yeah!”  Na, that’s not Plum.  We’ve gone too far to the south, push on.  There it is.  “OK, that’s got to be it, John.”  Meaning Flag.  “But I don’t see Plum.”

“There it is, Charlie.”  We’re on the rim of Plum, a narrow “causeway” between it and the much larger Flag.   Darn! — the drive has taken 24 min. rather than the planned 11.  

Capcom Tony England asks, “Are you still in the ray material there at Plum?”

“No.”

“Good,” Tony says, “We don’t want to be.”   We want to sample pure Cayley formation.

Flag’s rim, surprisingly is free of blocks, although its walls are peppered with 30-ft. craters.  We’re after blocks that were tossed up from the bedrock — which we hope was a volcanic lava flow.  Plum is only a tenth the size of Flag.  But will you look how deep that is?  Can’t even see the bottom.  But we see a “bench” — meaning a ring where the impact punched through bedrock about 10 ft. down its walls.  That’s a good sign, although it could be compressed soil rather than bedrock. 

We dismount.  “Here we go.”   

We begin sampling, “It’s really soft here on the rim.”  Wow, there are several small craters on the slope of the rim.  We begin with a rake sample — which sifts the soil for small rocks.  And we’re finding angular rocks, not the rounded ones we hoped for, rocks with sharp angles probably coming from impacts, while rounded ones likely from the interior.  We’re just not finding volcanic rocks.  Breccia, breccia, breccia.  

One person works the scoop or tongs as the other readying the sample bags, which look like plastic food bags.  We sample radially, working away from the rim to gather material thrown out from different depths.   Look at you — flipping a rock on the scoop and when it begins to fall off, batting it up.  Aww — it fell. 

You notice something.  “Now, John, look at that footprint.  Look underneath that regolith [lunar soil].  Where you kicked that up a centimeter or so, under it is white, absolutely white.”  Indeed it is — white soil under the gray top layer.  We gotta sample this.

So much to do.  Look at that buried rock on the other side of the crater, a block about 5-ft. long and half buried.  We gotta sample that — it’s probably kick up from the deepest part of the crater.  Here we go.  And I’ve got my hammer out.

“He’s got the hammer out.  I knew he couldn’t resist!”  

OK, just like I’ve practiced, stand to the rock’s side where I can reach it with my right arm, bend at the knees, and give it a blow.  Kinda missed the first time.  Another.  And big chuck comes off.

Darn — “It’s a breccia.”

We’ve just got 9 min. left here.  Lope on back around the crater.  Capcom Tony England calls, “There’s a rock that has white on the top, and we’d like you to pick it up as a grab sample.”

“That one?”  They’ve been eying it, there on the near rim of the crater, with the TV.  But I bet the TV doesn’t show how big it is.

I say, “You sure you want a rock that big, Houston?”

“Yeah, go ahead and get it.”

I say, “That’s 20 lb. of rock right there.”  Actually, it’ll turn out to be nearly 26 lbs., the larger moonrock ever collected.

OK, Charlie go get it.   You come to it, back to the crater and tell Houston, “If I fall into Plum Crater getting this rock, Muelhberger has had it.”  That’s geologist Bill Muelhberger, our geology team leader.   The only way you can pick it up is to kneel by it, with it against your knee, and  roll it up my leg — as you stand without dropping it.  You got it! — cradling it in your arm, and off you go for the Rover.   Big Muley, that’s what we call it, named after Muelhberger.

Now on to Buster, which is 150-ft. in diameter.  Shucks — Houston is telling us we’ll only have 20 min. here, half the time planned.  That’s because somebody’s spacesuit (Charlie!) is using up coolant water at a faster than expected rate. 

Driving east is easier, and we go full speed, park along side Spook.  Only have time to take a couple samples.  You take them the raised rim of Buster.  Looking down from the rim, “Wowee!  This is some sight, looking down into this beauty.”  The bottom is strewn with 16-ft. blocks.  “Ninety percent of the bottom is covered with blocks.”  And small rocks everywhere at your feet.

Usually sampling is a two-person job, but we’ve practiced solo sampling.  You take my big sample return container, usually strapped to the side of my backpack, and set it on the ground by your work area there up on the crater rim — makes it easy for you to bag and store samples.

Meanwhile, I’ve got to work a portable magnetometer — it’s on a tripod, with a 65-ft. cable to distance it from any magnetic interference from the Rover.  The line is on a reel — I have a struggle getting it out.  But we get there, and Houston relaxes the limits a bit on the coolant water.  We get 27 minutes here.

Tony England warns, “We’ll be leaving as soon as John finishes.”

I pack up the magnetometer.  When it comes to reeling in its line, I jog up to the reel laying on the ground, bend and pick it up need as can be, bending low, without a pause, and cranking the reel, just like a fishing line.  No time at all.

It’s back to the ALSEP site to pick up the deep core, and have a little fun.  Engineers want a film of the Rover in action.  It’s Grand Prix time.   I drive as you film me. 

I get her up to 10 kph, as fast as she’ll go.  Bouncing through small craters.

You give commentary to Houston:  “He’s got about two wheels on the ground.  There’s a big rooster tail out of all four wheels.  And as he turns, he skids.  The back end breaks loose just like on snow.”

OK, it’s time to wrap up the moonwalk.  Back to the LM.  Picking up the Big Muley off the Rover floor, looking it over, you say “It doesn’t feel like work, it’s so fun.”

Our moonwalk ends just before 7 p.m., Eastern time. — after a record time of 7 hrs. 11 min.  And we’re just getting started, still looking for those volcanic rocks.

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