Apollo 14

28 January 2021 2049 view(s) 7 min read
Apollo 14

Apollo 14 header

Apollo 14 launch

Apollo 14 was the eighth crewed mission of the Apollo program, the third mission to land on the Moon, and the first mission to land in the Moon's highlands. The mission was initially scheduled for 1970 but had to be postponed due to the Apollo 13 mission failure investigation and the need for modifications to the spacecraft. The Apollo 14 crew, Commander Alan Shepard, Lunar Module Pilot Edgar Mitchell, and Command Module Pilot Stuart Roosa, launched on Sunday, January 31, 1971, for their nine-day mission following a forty-minute weather delay. While attempting their lunar landing, the crew encountered and overcame a series of technical malfunctions that could have resulted in a second consecutive aborted mission, and possibly, the premature end of the Apollo program.

Apollo 14 launched following a 40-minute launch delay due to weather, the Apollo program's first delay, and if Apollo 14 were not launched during the launch window provided, it would have been postponed until March. NASA had changed their launch rules after Apollo 12 was launched during bad weather and had been struck twice by lightning. However, a successful launch occurred with US Vice President Spiro T. Agnew and the Prince of Spain, the future King Juan Carlos I watching. 

Kitty Hawk CSM in orbitAfter the spacecraft reached orbit, the S-IVB third stage shut down, and the crew performed checks of the spacecraft and its systems before restarting the stage for the translunar injection, the burn that placed the spacecraft on course to the Moon. After the burn, the Command Service Module separated from the S-IVB. The transposition maneuver was performed by Roosa, turning it around to dock with the Lunar Module before the spacecraft separated from the stage entirely. Roosa had practiced the maneuver many times and hoped to break the record for the least amount of propellant used in the docking procedure. However, the docking mechanism would not activate when he brought the modules together. Over the next two hours, Roosa made several attempts to complete the docking, while mission controllers sent advice to the Apollo 14 crew. This was necessary for the mission to continue because if the LM could not be taken from the S-IVB, no lunar landing could occur. It would have been the second consecutive failure to land on the Moon, meaning the Apollo program's possible end. Mission Control suggested they try the docking again, but this time with the docking probe retracted, hoping that the latches would trigger with the contact. This solution worked, and within an hour, the joined spacecraft had separated from the S-IVB. 

At 60 hours into the flight, Shepard and Mitchell entered the LM to check its systems. At the same time, they photographed a wastewater dump from the CSM, part of a particle contamination study in preparation for Skylab. Apollo 14 was the first mission where the CSM propelled the LM to the lower orbit, although Apollo 13 would have done this had the abort not have already occurred. This change was to increase the amount of hover time available to the crew, a safety factor considering Apollo 14 was set to land in rough terrain.

LM Antares on the Moon's surfaceThe LM Antares had two serious problems after separating from the command module in lunar orbit. The computer on the LM began receiving an ABORT signal from a faulty switch. NASA believed the computer could be getting this false reading if something had shaken loose and had been floating between the contact and the switch, effectively closing the circuit. The immediate solution, which was tapping on the panel next to the switch, briefly worked, but the circuit closed again shortly after. If the problem continued after the descent engine fired, the computer would initiate an auto-abort, thinking the signal was real, which would cause the ascent stage to separate from the descent stage and push back into orbit. The MIT and NASA software teams scrambled to find a solution that would stick and not jeopardize the Apollo 14's safety. The software was hard-wired, which prevented it from being updated from the ground. The solution they found made it appear to the computer that an abort had already occurred, and the computer would then ignore any incoming automated abort signals. This meant that if an abort had become necessary, the astronauts might have to initiate it manually. Mitchell entered the solution into the computer with minutes left until the planned ignition.

A second problem happened during the powered descent when the LM landing radar failed to lock onto the Moon's surface automatically. This deprived the navigation computer of important information on the spacecraft's vertical descent speed and altitude. The astronauts cycled the landing radar breaker, and the unit successfully picked up the signal near 22,000 feet. Mission rules stipulate that an abort is required if the landing radar is out at 10,000 feet, although Shepard would have tried to land without it. Shepard steered the LM to a landing with the landing radar. He landed the LM the closest to the intended target of the six missions that landed on the Moon.

Shepard planting flag on the MoonAfter stepping onto the lunar surface, Shepard stated, "And it's been a long way, but we're here." The first EVA began on February 5, 1971, after a delay because of a communication system problem, which pushed the start of the first EVA to five hours after the LM's landing. Shepard and Mitchell devoted most of the first EVA to equipment offloading. This was televised back to Earth, though the picture tended to degenerate during the latter portion of the EVA. They collected and documented lunar samples and took photographs of the area on the way back to the LM. 

The astronauts had been surprised by the ground conditions of the Moon, expecting a flatter terrain in the landing area. This was an issue on the second EVA, as Shepard and Mitchell set out for Cone Crater's rim. The craters that they had planned on using for navigational landmarks looked incredibly different on the ground compared to the maps they had, which were based on pictures taken from lunar orbit. They also consistently overestimated the distance they had traveled. Mission Control couldn't see the astronauts, seeing as the television camera remained near the LM. Mission Control worried as the clock ticked on the EVA and monitored the astronauts' heavy breathing and rapid heartbeats. Mitchell and Shepard climbed the ridge they expected was the crater rim only to find they were not at Cone Crater. They strongly suspected the rim was nearby, but they were physically exhausted from the effort and were instructed by Mission Control to collect samples from where they were and then return to the LM. Later, it was determined that the astronauts had come within about 65 feet of the crater's rim. The difficulties faced by Mitchell and Shepard emphasized the need for transportation on the lunar surface with a navigation system, which was met on Apollo 15 by the Lunar Roving Vehicle.

Tracks on the Moon from Apollo 14Shepard performed a stunt, which is probably what Apollo 14 is best remembered for once the astronauts were back in the LM's vicinity and within view of the television camera. Shepard brought two golf balls and a six-iron golf club head, which he attached to a lunar excavation tool handle. Shepard took several one-handed swings (due to the limited flexibility of the EVA suit). He enthusiastically exclaimed that the second ball went "miles and miles and miles" in the low lunar gravity. Mitchell then joined in and threw a handle of a lunar scoop like a javelin. The handle and one of the golf balls ended up in a crater together.

Some geologists were pleased with the close approach to Cone Crater and sent a case of scotch to the Apollo 14 crew while they were in post-mission quarantine. However, their enthusiasm was mitigated because Shepard and Mitchell had only documented a few of the samples, making it nearly impossible to figure out where they came from. 

On February 6, 1971, Antares lifted off from the Moon, docking an hour and 47 minutes later with Kitty Hawk. The first attempt at docking was successful, despite concerns based on the docking problems early in the mission. However, the Abort Guidance System on the LM, used for navigation, had failed just before the two crafts docked. The ascent stage was jettisoned and collided with the Moon's surface after the equipment, crew, and lunar samples were transferred to Kitty Hawk. A transearth injection burn occurred on February 6, during Kitty Hawk's 34th lunar revolution. The crew conducted a press conference on their final evening in space. The questions had been submitted to NASA in advance and read to the astronauts by Mission Control.

apollo 14 splashdownSplashdown occurred in the South Pacific Ocean on February 9, 1971, approximately 900 miles south of American Samoa. The astronauts were flown to Pago Pago International Airport in Tafuna after recovery by the ship USS New Orleans, then to Ellington Air Force Base near Houston in a plane with a Mobile Quarantine Facility before continuing their quarantine in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory on base. They remained in quarantine there until February 27, 1971. The Apollo 14 crew were the last to be quarantined on their return from the Moon, and they were the only Apollo crew to be quarantined both before and after the flight.

Roosa took several hundred tree seeds on the flight. These were germinated after returning to Earth and were widely distributed around the world as commemorative Moon trees. State forestry associations were given seedlings to mark the United States Bicentennial in 1975 and 1976.