Apollo 16: Reaching for the ring

April 25, 1972: Ken Mattingly floats above Apollo 16’s Service Module as Charlie Duke observes from the open hatch of the Command Module.


There he goes, floating out the open hatch of the cone-shaped Command Module, Caspar.  It’s T.K. “Ken” Mattingly’s moment in the mission’s spotlight.  We’re Apollo 16, 18 hrs. outbound from the moon.  It’s 3:33 p.m. (EST) on April 25, 1972.  He’s making history’s second walk in deep space.  His main task, to retrieve two big film cassettes from the Scientific Instrument Module (SIM) tucked in a open bay in the side of the cylindrical Service Module behind us.  The precious film drums contain the detailed photos he took from orbit while we were on the surface.  After setting up for 15 min., he’s ready to float back on his 50-ft. umbilical.  He turns and sees it, about 50,000 mi. away.  “Oh, man.  Man — the old Moon’s out there.”  A full moon hanging there in all its glory.  After days of peering down on it, operating a suite of SIM instruments, he knows it better than anyone.  “OK, going after the Pan Camera.”  That’s the panoramic camera.   Charlie, just about sitting on the open hatch assists, making sure T.K.’s umbilical doesn’t get tangled.  

T.K. vaults horizontal to the Service Module, walks himself along a series of handrails.  Actually, he’s walking backwards, you could say, swimming back feet first, the open SIM bay on his right.  He moves behind it, then forward, turning, hooking his feet into restraints inside it’s sill.  The Pan Camera is towards the bay’s rear.  After attaching a tether between it and himself, he unlocks the cassette by removing a pin.  Squeezes a handle and out it comes, as smooth as can be.  He swims back to the Command Module where Charlie helps him secure it.  The whole process takes less than 5 min.  And without pause, he goes back for the Mapping Camera, near the front of the SIM Bay.  As he does, he takes time to inspect the skin of the Service Module, which is blistered in spots from our control jets.   And notes the condition of the array of the scientific sensors he used in lunar orbit.  A couple of the instrument doors haven’t closed completely.  “Now I’ll put my feet in here, and we’ll take a look at the old mapper.”  He secures himself in the foot restraints and he dips into the SIM bay for the mapping cassette.  Has a bit of trouble hooking the tether to it, yet works fast, returns to the hatch in 5 min.

He rests a bit, and we prepare for the next part of the spacewalk:  the MEED.  That’s the Microbial Ecology Evaluation Device.  Bacteria will be exposed to direct sunshine for precisely 10 min. to study the radiation effects.  He will attach the box to the top of the pole clamped to the hatch.  The pole was first used so our TV camera could observe the early part of the spacewalk.  We need to maneuver into a position where it’ll catch the sun, and T.K. has to be securely inside for that.  As he comes in, he says, “And right now I’ve got the Earth peeking over the side of the fuselage, just a little crescent.”  That crescent Earth sure looks small from out here in deep space.

We reach the proper orientation, now 41 min. into the spacewalk.  “T.K.” heads out with the MEED,  guided by Charlie, who holds his feet to help stabilize him as he floats by the pole.   

As T.K. works,  Charlie sees something floating up out of the hatch.  A ring.  It’s T.K.’s wedding ring which he lost on the second day of the flight.  It chooses this moment to make its reappearance.  Charlie reaches for it and misses.   There it goes.

That’s T.K.’s luck.  First the malfunction with the big Service Propulsion System engine that delayed our landing.  Then Houston kept changing all the plans for the orbital observations he was primed to make, after they’d said they wouldn’t.  Those changes upon changes Make a ton of added work for him those three days we were on the surface.  He hardly had time to eat.  And to top it off, they cut a day off our stay in orbit cutting a day off his observations.  Houston was worried about that big engine.  Now, in lunar orbit, after joining back with T.K., we we’re suppose to use it to change the track of our orbit,  a plane change.  That would have allowed his cameras to explore a new strip of the moon.  Houston didn’t want to risk the maneuver, which shows how risky they thought allowing us to land had been.  No reason to stay in orbit once we lost the additional science.  Plus coming home a day early gave us an extra supplies should we have trouble getting out of lunar orbit.  We guess that was their reasoning.  We were all for staying that day, letting T.K. doing all the science he’d come there to do.   

But truth be told, we we’re nervous about that engine, too, as TEI time approached — that’s TransEarth Injection, the burn to send us home.  We were behind the moon when we lit it at 9:15 p.m. EST on the 24th.  Plenty nervous.  Ignition! — feel that baby kick.  OK, off we go on a burn of 2 min. 42 sec.  We start cheering that SPS engine along.  Come on, keep kicking.  OK, approaching cutoff.  Shutdown.  On time.  Perfect.  As we come around to the front side,  we give the good news to Houston, we’re pulling away like thunder.  And gain a great view of the Moon as it shrinks seemingly with each blink of an eye.

. . . But T.K. — his luck hasn’t improved.  There goes his wedding ring on a spacewalk of its own — into eternity.  It floats right at him, tumbling as it goes.  Hits him in the back of his helmet.  And instead of ricochetting into infinity, rebounds right back to the open hatch.  What are the odds?  Charlie grabs it.

“Guess what I caught floating out of the hatch?” he calls.  “A ring.”

T.K. says, “Oh, is that right?”

“Yeah, I think it’s yours.”  He laughs.  “In fact, it had already gone out and hit you and was coming back when I saw it.”

T.K. says, “Boy, how’s that for luck?”

But it’s back to work.  After an hour of deep space.e comes back in, and the hatch is closed, his ring safely inside.

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