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Apollo 14's narrow escape (part one)
by Andrew Chaikin, author A Man On The Moon

February 1, 2001


The adage, To the stars through difficulties, was never more true than it was for Alan Shepard.

After gaining fame and glory as America's first man in space in 1961, Shepard was grounded by an inner ear disorder in 1963. The ailment kept him on the sidelines while his fellow astronauts made history in the Gemini and Apollo programs. Even though Shepard attained power and wealth -- besides serving as the chief astronaut, Shepard amassed a small fortune from a variety of business ventures -- he wanted nothing more than to prove himself by making another space mission. Not until 1969, after undergoing risky surgery to correct his ear problem, did Shepard win clearance from NASA doctors to fly in space again. Decades before his Mercury colleague John Glenn became the oldest person to fly in space at age 77, Alan Shepard, now in his mid 40s, was considered the grand old man of spaceflight.

But at NASA Headquarters, some managers felt Shepard had been out of the training game too long and needed some time to catch up. So when Shepard's name was submitted as commander of Apollo 13, it was rejected -- and Shepard was assigned to the next mission instead. That turned out to be a narrow escape. Jim Lovell and his crew almost lost their lives when an explosion crippled Apollo 13 on the way to the Moon, and Shepard -- along with hundreds of others in Houston -- worked to bring them home. When it came time for Apollo14 to fly in early 1971, Shepard and his crew mates, rookies Stu Roosa and Ed Mitchell, were acutely aware that they could not afford to fail; for NASA to recover from Apollo 13's brush with disaster, Apollo 14 would have to be successful.

On January 31, 1971, Shepard, Roosa and Mitchell rode their giant Saturn 5 booster into orbit and on a course for the Moon. But their mission almost ended before it could begin: A few hours after launch, when Roosa tried to link the command module Kitty Hawk with the lunar module Antares, the craft's docking mechanism did not function properly. For many long minutes, the astronauts waited while Mission Control studied the problem. Shepard, determined to continue, even thought about opening Kitty Hawk's hatch, grabbing Antares' docking cone, and pulling the two ships together manually. But that turned out not to be necessary. A new procedure from Houston saved the mission, and the joined spacecraft headed toward their rendezvous with the Moon.

Meanwhile, on Earth, scientists waited eagerly for the astronauts to reach their goal. Apollo 14 would feature a landing in the Moon's Fra Mauro highlands, where geologists suspected Shepard and Mitchell would collect the oldest rocks yet found on the Moon. The astronauts would make two Moonwalks, including, for the first time, a climb up the side of a large hill, called Cone Crater. Remaining in lunar orbit, Stu Roosa would observe the moonscape passing below him and take high-resolution photographs for the benefit of earthbound geologists. All told, Shepard and his crew would attempt to carry out the exploration that Lovell's team had been denied.

In the early morning hours of February 5, Houston time, Shepard and Mitchell were at the controls of their lunar module Antares, heading for Fra Mauro, when they were hit with another crisis. This time, there was a malfunction in one of the control switches for the lander's engine: It was sending an errant abort signal to Antares' computer. Unless the astronauts could find a way to work around the rogue signal, the computer would automatically abort the landing as soon as the astronauts tried to fire their descent engine. Once again, the experts in Mission Control attacked the problem, aided this time by specialists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Instrumentation Laboratory in Cambridge. With only minutes to go before the landing, they came up with a way for the astronauts to work around the faulty switch.

But even as Antares' descent engine rumbled silently in the lunar vacuum, Shepard and Mitchell weren't out of the woods yet. As they descended toward Fra Mauro, there was a problem with the craft's landing radar. Thirty thousand feet (9,144 meters) above the Moon, the radar was supposed to lock onto the surface to give the two pilots accurate readings on their height and speed. But it simply refused to work. Anxious moments passed while Shepard and Mitchell waited for word from Houston. They knew that if the radar didn't come on by the time they reached 10,000 feet (3,048 meters), the mission rules specified a mandatory abort.

From Mission Control came a request: "Cycle the landing radar circuit breaker." Shepard pulled the circuit breaker out and pushed it back in again. And then, just after Antares descended through 22,000 feet (6,705 meters), the landing radar came to life with a steady stream of data. After breathing a sigh of relief, Shepard took control of Antares and steered the craft to a safe touchdown, right on target. After the dust settled, Mitchell turned to his commander and asked him what he would have done if the radar data hadn't come in. Shepard, who had been absolutely determined to land, radar or no radar, answered simply, "You'll never know."

Hours later, Shepard stepped off Antares' footpad and onto the ancient dust of the Fra Mauro highlands. "It's been a long way, but we're here," he said, referring more to his own personal odyssey than the quarter-million-mile journey to the Moon. Overhead, he caught sight of the blue and white crescent of Earth, shining brilliantly in the black lunar sky. For just a moment, Shepard -- known as one of the most hard-boiled characters ever to walk through NASA's doors -- was overcome by its beauty, and by his own relief at reaching the Moon. Inside his space helmet, tears streamed down his face. After a moment he brought his mind back to the job of exploring, as Mitchell joined him on the surface. For the next few hours they set up scientific experiments and collected rock samples, and Apollo 14's explorations were off to a great start.

Coming next: an interview with Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell and the golf shot heard around the world...


The preceding article first appeared on SPACE.com. It is reprinted with permission.

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