47th Anniversary of the Apollo 14 Lunar Landing
More than 230,000 miles from home, a lunar module gently touches down on the surface of the moon. Outside, temperatures can range from 387 below zero to 253 F. Men who have been among the privileged few to set foot on its rocky surface talk about the stillness, the hush, the isolation, the vastness, the velvety blackness, the jaw-dropping rise of the milky blue marble known as Earth. The moon, they say, is unforgettable.
Rear Adm. Alan B. Shepard Jr., commander of the Apollo 14 mission, takes his first steps out of the lunar module, Feb. 5, 1971, and becomes the fifth man to join this club and walk on the moon, to set foot on its dusty, gray surface, followed by Capt. Edgar D. Mitchell, lunar module pilot.
"If somebody'd said before the flight, 'Are you going to get carried away looking at the Earth from the moon?' I would have said, 'No, no way,'" said Shepard in a NASA oral history. "But yet, when I first looked back at the Earth, standing on the moon, I cried."
The Apollo missions were the national effort, set forth by President John F. Kennedy, to put a man on the moon and achieve pre-eminence in space for the United States. They enabled Astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first of 12 humans to walk on the lunar surface, to speak the famous words, "The eagle has landed. ...That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind." Since that first immortal step, July 20, 1969, 24 humans have visited the moon.
Less than two years later, Jan. 31, 1971, the crew of Apollo 14 launched on man's third lunar-landing mission, which included Shepard and Mitchell, both former Navy test pilots, and Air Force Col. Stuart A. Roosa, a former experimental test pilot and pilot of the command module.
Apollo 14 was actually Shepard's second journey into space. He had previously flown in the Freedom 7 spacecraft, May 5, 1961, reaching an altitude of 116 miles in a cramped Mercury capsule. He passed the 100-kilometer or approximately 62-mile threshold, thus becoming the first American in space. Reaching the moon remained his dream, however.
"The [Apollo 14] flight had gone extremely well," said Shepard. "We'd had one or two docking problems earlier, a problem with something floating around in the abort switch, which closed as if we were pushing the abort switch closed. All of these were taken care of."
On Feb. 5, the lunar module made the most precise landing to date at approximately 85 feet from the targeted landing point.
"We came on down, made a very, very soft landing," said Shepard. "As a matter of fact, soft enough so that even though we'd landed in a slight crater, the uphill leg didn't crush like it was supposed to."
Roosa remained in the command module to conduct orbital science and research activities, such as photographing the Descartes area, which was the landing site planned for the April 1972 Apollo 16 mission. Shepard and Mitchell made two trips to the surface, collecting samples and investigating the area. During the mission, Shepard set a new record for distance traveled on the lunar surface: approximately 9,000 feet.
During the two traverses, they collected 94 pounds of rocks and soil to be returned to Earth. These samples were scheduled for study and analysis by more than 180 scientific teams in the U.S., as well as 14 other countries.
The goals of these studies were both to improve scientific knowledge about the properties of lunar soil, and to increase the engineering knowledge needed to plan and perform future lunar surface activities. In fact, according to the Lunar and Planetary Institute, knowledge gained from Apollo 14 and other missions could lead to using lunar recourses such as hydrogen and oxygen as fuel for voyages to Mars and beyond.
Before re-entering the lunar module for the last time, Shepard dropped a golf ball and, with a one-arm swing, drove it more than 1,100 feet, making him the only man to hit a golf ball on the moon. Due to the lack of gravity and atmosphere, the ball traveled six times as far as normal without curving. "What a neat place to whack a golf ball," he said.
Now, after 33 1/2 hours, Shepard and Mitchell rendezvoused with Roosa in the command module; they were finally going home.
"Suddenly, from behind the rim of the moon, in long, slow-motion moments of immense majesty, there emerges a sparkling blue and white jewel, a light, delicate, sky-blue sphere laced with slowly swirling veils of white, rising gradually like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery," said Mitchell, according to the International Space Hall of Fame. "It takes more than a moment to fully realize this is Earth ... home."
The trip back home took about three days and gave the crew time to meditate on the experience that just a handful of people have ever had.
"What I experienced during that three-day trip home was nothing short of an overwhelming sense of universal connectedness," Mitchell remembered. "I actually felt what has been described as an ecstasy of unity."
On Feb. 9, the command module safely splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, just one nautical mile off its target, about 765 nautical miles south of Samoa, and was recovered by the amphibious assault ship (helicopter) USS New Orleans
Later, upon being asked if being a naval aviator had prepared him for spaceflight, Shepard, who served in World War II, said, "It's a lot harder to land a jet on an aircraft carrier than it is to land an LM [lunar module] on the moon. That's a piece of cake, that moon deal!"
Editor's note: Roosa died Dec. 12, 1994, followed by Shepard, July 21, 1998 and, more recently, Mitchell, Feb. 4, 2016, the eve of the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 14 landing. The Apollo program ended when Capt. Eugene "Gene" Cernan took the final Apollo flight - 17 - thus becoming the last man to walk on the moon. For more information about Apollo 17, read "Goodbye to a Legend" in All Hands.
Sources: www.nasa.gov, www.nmspacemuseum.org, www.c-span.org, www.lpi.usra.edu