Apollo 17, EVA #1: The first of the last moonwalks

Fifty years ago: A few of Challenger from behind it, with South Massif looming in the distance.

***

The sun burns low in the lunar sky, casting long shadows.  Everything awaits us.  Four hours after landing, we’ve finally reached the last item on the pre-EVA checklist.  “Well, the next thing it says is that Gene gets out.”

That’s me.

You joke, “I don’t see that.”

I inch out backwards, on hands and knees, bending low, adjusting so our backpack misses the lip of the opening.  Like a breech birth.

I’m on the porch.  Looking over the side at the folded Rover.  “The Rover looks in good shape.”  Can’t say how important that is.

Down the nine rungs of the ladder.  As if by magic past a little handwritten note someone left, “Godspeed, Apollo 17.”    

“I’m on the footpad.  And, Houston, as I step off at the surface of Taurus-Littrow, we’d like to dedicate the first step of Apollo 17 to all those who made it possible.”

Step off with my left foot, still holding the ladder.  Check my balance.  And walk, tentatively at first, on the moon.  “Jack, I’m out here.  Oh, my golly!  Unbelievable!  Unbelievable, but is it bright in the sun.”   

Step out of the deep, long shadow of the LM into lunar sunshine.  “The LM looks beautiful.”  Doesn’t it, though — hunched on it’s four legs, a giant insect with bright triangular eyes.  Pitched back a bit.  Hey, we landing in a very shallow depression, an old crater like a dinner plate, not much more than the span of our landing gear.  Look around, there’s really no where you could land without nicking a small crater.

Look up, at those mountains.  We belong here.  That’s how it feels.  Oh, look at that — do we have boulder tracks coming down the pinned-back ears of North Massif mountain.  “There’s a couple I know we can get to” — about 20-30 feet from the break at the base of the mountain.  Next to the mountain, the hummocky overlapping domes of the Sculptured Hills.    Their texture “is like the wrinkled skin of an old, old, 100-year-old man.”  Don’t see any boulders on them.  This low light angle brings out all the detail.

Here you come, Dr. Rock.  You’re on the porch and says, “Hatch is closed, barely.”

“Hey, Jack, don’t lock it.”  An old joke dating back to Apollo 11.  “You lose the key, and we’re in trouble.”

Coming down, you say, “Hey, who’s been tracking up my lunar surface?”  You step off with your left foot — and slip on sloping side of a little boulder, your left leg going out from under you.  Luckily, you’re’ still holding the ladder.  Lucky we’ve yet to set up the TV camera!

“OK.  Just walk around for one second.”  And a bit later, I caution, “Don’t move too fast.  Boy, your feet look like you just –“

“–Walked on the moon, huh?  Well, I tell you, Gene, I think the next generation ought to accept this as a challenge.  Let’s see them leave footsteps like these someday.”

Here’s the plan:  Spend the first five hours of the moonwalk setting up our campsite and deploying the ALSEP (Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package), a suite of experiments we’ll leave behind to transmit data for years.   That should leave 2 hrs. for our first geological traverse, a drive of a mile to a 2,100-ft wide crater called Emory, where we hope to sample the subfloor of the valley, the dark material that appears volcanic in origin.  We really want to get to Emory.  But both of us know how easy it is to fall behind the timeline with the ALSEP deployment.

“You ready?” you call, less than 20 min. into the spacewalk.  You’re back up on the porch set to pull a lanyard that will start the deployment of the Rover.   

“Go” The rear section swings down.  “. . . She’s open.”  Open but but not fully unfolded, a long way from fully deployed.  “At least no let any air out the tires,” we joke.  The tires do not have to inflate — they are woven out of something like piano wire. 

*

The deployment of the Rover proceeds perfectly, right on the timeline, and takes only 15 min.  I take it for a short test drive around the LM before outfitting it.  “There’s life in this here baby.  Beautiful.”  The four-wheel steering is operating.  We’re off to a perfect start, right on the timeline, and the timeline is everything.  It’s relentless.  “OK, get to work.”

*

Soon, inevitably, we start to fall behind, outfitting our Rover like a pack mule with a geology pallet, instruments, all our tools.  “You know, you just got to take it easy until you learn to work in one-sixth g,” I observe.

You say, “Well, I haven’t learned to pick up rocks, which is a very embarrassing thing for a geologist.”

“Yeah, I look like an elephant stumbling around here.”

We also install the TV camera at the front of the Rover that will be controlled by the ground.  To save weight, the tripod and cable needed to show the start of the moonwalk had been deleted.  We tell Capcom Bob Parker, “OK, here we go.  . . . I’ve got the TV camera in my hand.”

I look up at the half Earth, closer to the horizon than on previous missions as we are farther east than any previous landing site.  “Oh, man, Jack, just stop. You owe yourself 30 seconds to look up over the South Massif and look at Earth!”

“What?  The Earth!”

“Just look up there.”

“Ah!  you seen one Earth, you’ve seen them all.” 

*

When we finally connect the TV, and Houston begins panning around our campsite, you joke, “Hey, it moves!  It’s alive!”

We joke to Houston, “I guess you believe we’re here now!”

Yes, seeing is believing, and now that we have TV, we set up the flag, it’s the one that had been displayed in mission control for every flight since Apollo 11.  “And we proudly deploy it on the Moon, to stay for as long s it an, in honor of all those people who have worked so hard to put us here and put every other crew here . . . “

We take pictures of each other with the flag, trying for something different, even a bit artsy. You hold the corner of the flag as I bend low, moves close to capture the Earth in the frame.

And then we get back to work.

*

You sing, “We’re off to see the wizard,” as you bound away with the two boxy ALSEP pallets held on a pole like a barbell.  It’s heavy even on the moon, bundles of experiments to be unboxed, unfurled, strung out 300 ft. east of the LM.  You hold the barbell low, the pallets flexing on the ends of the thin pole as you treads through the deep dust.

Remaining at the LEM, I load the last items before driving to the ALSEP site, my hammer in a leg pocket, the handle sticking up . . . and out at a 45-degree angle.  But I’m focused on the work, on the timeline, not yet fluid in my movements.  We’re already about 10 min. behind schedule.

Shuffling around the rear of the rover, I feel something pull.  Realize too late to stop, as something gives way.  “Oh! There goes a fender.”   I’ve knocked off the fender extension (they come in two sections) of the left rear wheel.  We need that fender, we know from the experience of past missions.  Both rovers on Apollos 15 and 16 lost pieces of their fenders.  On Sixteen, without that fender, the wheels kicked up huge rooster tails of dust that showered John Young and Charles Duke and forced them to lose time at each stop dusting everything off.

You set the ALSEP barbell down, take’s a brief breather.  I ask, “Is the gray tape under your seat?

I’m gonna try to tape this thing in place using ordinary gray duct tape. I’m able to tear off strips with his hands.  “Not  bad for EVA gloves.”

You disappear into a depression, emerges again.  Even as you’re looking for a good spot for the ALSEP, you’re starting to piece together the geology of the area in your mind, saying you don’t see layering in any of the craters.  You find a site for the experiments near a 10-ft. tall highly eroded and fractured boulder.  “This is it.”

We’re still taping the fender in place, mumbling, “Didn’t expect to be doing this.”

One more piece — we’ll see if this thing holds.  I damn near lost another 10 min. with the repair job.  I rapidly read down a checklist of items loaded on the Rover.  And head out.

*

***  THE ALSEP SITE ***

When I arrive at the site, you are already setting up the central station, which serves as the power distribution and communications center for the experiments.  We will connect five experiments to it by ribbon cables:  The Lunar Seismic Profiling Experiment, for which you will string out several geophones in a Y pattern near Geophone Rock, will “listen” for seismic waves from the moon.  The Lunar Ejecta and Meteorite Experiment, which will measure the speed, direction and mass of micrometeorites striking the moon.  The Lunar Atmospheric Composition Experiment, will measure the composition and density of the whisper-thin lunar atmosphere.  The Lunar Surface Gravimeter, an extremely sensitive instruments will seek to measure vibrations caused by gravity waves interacting with the Earth-moon system.  And, the Heat Flow Experiment, the one that will take up my time, will measure the flow of heat from the moon’s interior.  This experiment failed on Apollo 16 when John Young tripped on its ribbon cable, pulling it from the central station.  This is the last chance for an experiment with an unlucky past.  It was carried on Apollo 13, and so never to reach the moon.  On Apollo 15, they had trouble with the battery-powered drill, carried for the first time, and failed to drill the probe holes to the desired depths.  I must drill two holes for the probes, 30 ft. apart and 8 ft. deep.  

Take a moment for a breath.  “OK, we’re ready to go to work.”   I lay out the lines to the proper distances, and set up our drilling equipment, bore tubes leaning on a tripod, ready for use.  Three tubes are needed to reach depth.  While I do that, you work activating the central station and then dash back and forth setting out the other experiments, careful not to snag the growing snake nest of cables.

We’re about 20 min. behind the timeline as I start drilling, the drill on top of the first tube stands about to my head.  To Houston, I appear to lean hard against it.  Capcom Bob Parker cautions me not to.  Actually, it’s simply the way you have to stand, slightly forward to balance the backpack.

I can feel the vibrations through our hands, feel it as the drill punches through what feel like rock fragments, cuts through a soft section, then hits something tough again.  Three bore tubes to a hole, two heat flow holes.  There’s hole number one.  My hands are already aching, fighting the suit pressure.  When the drill hits something hard, it kicks, not up, but rotates back against my hands.   Still, I’d say it goes pretty smoothly drilling both holes to the required depth.   Now I have to push the sensor lines down the holes with something like a ramrod.

I have one more hole to drill, for a deep core sample, 10-ft.  I move to a new site for it, in a depression behind a rock that shields it from the radioactive power generator for the ALSEP.  That’s because after we’ve extracted the core sample, we’re going to place a device to measure neutrons from cosmic rays that interact with the lunar soil, and don’t want the readings contaminated by neutrons from the ALSEP power generator.  

Meanwhile, you are having your own trouble leveling some of the experiments.  Then you work deploying geophones.  Each sensor box connected by a ribbon cable to the central station.  Back and forth you dash, leaping small craters in a long skip step.  You ask Houston how far behind the timeline we are.  They say 20-25 min.

“OK,” you reply, the disappointment etched in your voice.  You ask about “consumables” — how much oxygen and cooling water we’re using.  Oxygen is time.  Huffing over stubborn equipment, we’re chewing up oxygen faster than anticipated.  Low oxygen supplies threaten to shorten the walk.  

“A geologist’s paradise, if I ever saw one,” you said as we lowered the Rover.  But we’re losing time in a double whammy — the ALSEP taking longer than planned and a shortened moonwalk, time that can only be carved from the 1-mi. traverse we’re to make to explore Emory Crater with it’s promise of boulders lifted from the subfloor.

I’m just about ready to attach the final core segment.  “Oh, boy; Oh boy.”  I straighten and rest my hands a moment, which give a chance to look around our valley of Taurus Littrow.  Can we really explore it all?

On to the last drilling.  It’s going in good, but I need to stop to rest our hands again.  Then I finish, bending low as the drill head goes down to ground level.  Damn near on my hands and knees, I use a wrench to remove the drill.   Hard work — eating more oxygen.

OK, let’s get this long core tube extracted so we can move on.  To do that, I use a jack-like device, a treadle with a lever.  I pump the handle.  “Oh, man.”  I bend at the knees and pump harder, bending to my knees at the end, driving the lever.  I’m only lifting the core tube an inch or two per stroke.  My legs rise off the ground as I pump.  I’m damn near on all fours wrestling with the thing.  “We’ve got a lot of jacking to do.”

“Come on, baby.  I’m going to get this thing out, now that I got it.”  On my knees, really leaning into the jack lever.  Finally, I have to stand and rest.  You, finished with your tasks, about to do some sampling while waiting for me, but come over to help.  The treadle is sinking in the soft dirt rather than pulling the core out.  I stand on it to steady it while you take a turn at the lever.  You fly off the ground pushing on it.  And again.  And lose your balance, windmilling off to the side in a fall.

We switch positions.  Finally it starts to come up.  “We’re getting it now.”   Finally.  It’s costs us another 20 min. on that relentless timeline.  You go off to grab a few quick samples.

I break the core tubes into three sections, satisfied at least we completed the ALSEP deployment.  Of course you are not so happy, especially as the word comes that, 40 min. behind schedule, we don’t have time to drive all the way to Emory.  We’re to drive about a half mile to a crater called Steno, less than a mile away on the original route.  We’ll only have a half hour for the stop.

You run, big strides back to the LM to ready and experiment, the SEP, Surface Electrical Properties, we’ll drop off en route.  Later we will set out long antennas on the ground.  They’ll receive radio signal from a transmitter on the Rover, profiling the subsurface as we make our long traverses.  Any disappointment is set aside as you gallop to the LM, breaking into song, “I was strolling on the moon one day.”

Impossible not to be exuberant on the moon, despite the fatigue in our arms and hands, the relentless pressure of the timeline.  I join it:  “In the merry, merry month of . . .”

“May.”

“December.”

“No, May.”

“May . . . That’s right . . .”

Bob Parker chimes in with a bad, bad pun.  “Sorry about that, guys, but today may be December.”

*

*** Station 1 — NEAR STENO CRATER ***

“We’re on the move, Bob.”  Not for the first time in Apollo history, but for the last, we’re not quite sure where we are.  We’ve yet to train our minds to distinguish distances and crater sizes.  It’s hard with no familiar landmarks such as trees to use as gauges.

“That must be Emory over there.  See all the blocks on the walls?”

“. . . Way over there?”

“Yeah.”

“This is very easily Steno right over here.  Let’s see, we’re between the two big ones.  That would be . . .

“That would be Powell,” you say.

But Houston thinks we’re just passing a different crater, Trident, just about halfway to Steno.  We turn west — Steno should be 2,500 ft. away. 

Four minutes later, “I may be coming up on the edge of it.  I don’t know.  I’m on the right bearing.”  But that proves untrue, as we drive on, up a slight ridge.

Three minutes later, Capcom Bob calls, “We think you’re just about there . . .  You must be at the station or very close to it where you can see.  Over.”

You reply, “Well, it doesn’t look real familiar, Bob, as far as Steno’s concerned.”

Instead of wasting time searching, we decide to sample a field of blocks at a 65-ft-diameter crater about 10-12 ft. deep.

*

Only a half hour.  We only have a half hour here.  

“Get your hammer.  We’re going to need it.”

As my hands are stronger, I’m in charge of the hammer.  We select a tombstone-like boulder on the crater’s rim.  You describe it to Houston.  There’s a “parting plane”, an overlapping fracture.  “We’ll try to a sample along it.”
I bend low at the knee-high boulder on the rim’s slope and swing at it sidearm.  The damn rock is tough.  I bash it repeatedly.  Finally get a few chips we pick up with tongs.  We hammer a bigger sample from the other side of the fracture.  A fist-size chuck comes off.  “A whole big slab!”

I take a breather and look around.  The Lunar Module looks small against the mountains.  “Look at Challenger.  It makes you get a feel for how big this valley really is.”

Near us, clots of small boulders are strew all over the circular area around the little crater.  We spot another boulder that has an interesting contact between large and small vesicles, holes form by bubbling molten rock.  “That’s what I’m after!” you say.

Two boulders — that’s all we have time for.   Then we use a rake, bucket-shaped at the end, to gather a small rocks.  “We’d like you guys to driving in 10 minutes,” Bob says.

“Have we got time for a core?”  These would be core tubes hammered into the surface, a few feet in length.  “Negative,” Houston says, no time, no time, even though we’re gaining some time back as far as our oxygen supply, now that the tough work at the ALSEP site is behind us.

Still, a half hour, that’s all we have here.  We’ve sample what we can.

Ahh, if we’d only been able to get to big ol’ Emory crater.

*

“God, I hate this dust.”  

On the way back, swinging around Trident crater, we see the shadow of dust rising above us. The taped-one fender had given out, the wheel kicking a rooster tail that showers us with dust, a waterfall of dust.  We can barely see where the hell we’re driving.  We stop at the SEP site to deploy the four long antennas on the surface at a diagonal. 

“Aww — that fender.”  The fender extension is completely gone.  

Back at the LM for EVA close-out, which takes 40 min., we clean Rover surfaces covered in dirt, a time-consuming job.  We need 15 minutes just to dust each other off.  I mutter, “I got to make a fender tonight. Man, I hate dust.”

“I need a fender,” I tell Houston, “Figure something I can use to make a fender.”

*

We enter the LM early on the morning of Dec. 12 after We were out there 7 hr. 12 min.  It’s frustrating.  We covered about 550 yards on foot and and 1.5 mi. aboard the Rover., yet really didn’t probe that mysterious subfloor, only collected about twenty rocks weighing 29 lbs., all course basalts, not volcanic.  

Tomorrow.  With our second EVA, we’ll really start exploring.  On the grandest excursion of the Apollo program.  Tomorrow.

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