On the Moon

Astronauts Alan Shepard and Ed Mitchell had named their lunar module Antares, and after their quarter-of-a-million-mile journey of fits and starts, they were on the moon, ready to plant their boots in lunar soil. Shepard was first. He stepped off Antares’s small porch and moved slowly down the ladder. He paused on the last rung. The last three-and-a-half feet were only a lazy drop for the carrier pilot.

Like the mythical bird of yore, NASA’s Apollo 14 Phoenix had risen from Apollo 13’s ashes, equipped with more reliable hardware and safeguards. But, more important to members of the space family, America’s first astronaut was in command. Alan Shepard would be the only one of the Mercury group to reach the moon. He had gone for all seven, for all of us who’d been there with him from the beginning. The lunar dust he’d kicked up with his drop to the surface settled quickly as he paused. “It’s been a long way,” the son of New Hampshire spoke quietly, “but…we’re here!”

Alan was talking about all the years he and his friend Deke Slayton had been grounded with ailments, all the years they’d watched others go, and Deke in Mission Control answered with affection, “Not bad for an old man.”

Shepard had reached the moon at age forty-seven. The country’s original astronaut turned slowly, pushing his boots into the grayish-brown dust, reminding himself no living creature had ever done this before in this desolate, silent world. “Gazing around at the bleak landscape, it certainly is a stark place here at Fra Mauro,” he said as if he were speaking only to Deke and those in Mission Control. “It’s made all the more stark by the fact that the sky is completely dark.” He surveyed the wide lunar landscape, turning his back to the dazzling sun. “This is a very tough place, guys.”

Ed Mitchell worked his way down the ladder. The MIT Ph.D. of everything technical dropped to the surface and quickly began moving about, testing his body’s reactions to the weak gravity in a world one-sixth the mass of his own. Mitchell was the first of a new breed of astronaut. He was a member of academia instead of flying warriors, and he found the moon a playground for learning.

“Mobility is very great under this ‘crushing’ one-sixth g-load,” Mitchell quipped.

He and Shepard gathered samples of rocks and soil into containers to please the scientists back home. They placed their remote television camera sixty feet away so those on Earth could watch them setting up their experiments. They unloaded a new device for hauling materials across the lunar landscape. The engineers named it a modularized equipment transport, or MET, but Mitchell and Shepard simply called it their lunar rickshaw.

The rickshaw carried an extensive supply of tools, cameras, instruments, safety line, core tubes for digging into the lunar crust, and maps and charts for the two moonwalkers to navigate their way through and around craters, gullies, and boulder fields.

Overhead, their command ship, Kitty Hawk, raced across the moon’s black sky. Crewmate Stuart Roosa had remained at Kitty Hawk’s controls, and he continued his circling of Earth’s natural satellite. Every two hours he was making one complete pass around the moon, and suddenly his voice became very excited. “I can see Antares on the surface!” he told Mission Control. Sunlight gleamed from the spidery moon ship surrounded by a bright and new wide area of dust that had been splayed outward by Antares’s landing.

When Roosa reached the moon’s other side, he made further thrilling discoveries. He swept Kitty Hawk’s cameras across craters never seen from Earth, including an extremely bright crater directly beneath his orbital path. Unseen, unknown by astronomers, it was a meteoric impact that was only weeks, possibly months, old—a virgin crater on a world that had been bombarded with such impacts for 4.6 billion years.

Back on the lunar surface, Alan Shepard was looking upward into the blackest of skies, thrilled at the blue-and-brown miracle that was his home planet. One-third of Earth hung magically suspended, floating. “That was breathtaking! The ice caps over the poles, the white clouds, the blue water…gorgeous, Barbree, just gorgeous!” he would tell me later with an excitement and a knowing he had seen something reserved for the gods.

“Earth,” he explained, “is limitless to everyone with its vast oceans and towering mountains. There’s always a distant horizon and changing dawns and sunsets. But looking at Earth from the moon, earth is in fact very finite, very fragile…so incredibly fragile. That thin, thin atmosphere, the thinnest shell of air hugging the planet, it can be blown away so easily! A meteor, a cataclysmic volcano, man’s own uncaring.”

Suddenly this master of wings and rocket fire, hero to millions, confessed to me that he had unashamedly wept with his boots planted firmly in lunar soil. Tears streaked down his cheeks as he stood praying for our only safe port in this corner of the universe. Minutes passed before he could stop his tears and prayers, before he could force himself out of his introspection.

Not only was Alan Shepard a sensitive person, the future admiral was a tough, no-nonsense “get ’er done” leader, and he knew their assignments on the moon demanded attention and labor, so he and Mitchell continued their appointed tasks. They strode and bunny-hopped in their spacesuits hundreds of feet from the protection of their lander Antares. Those on Earth watching the moonwalkers’ television images learned quickly that the lunar landscape is a visual illusion. What seems flat and featureless is much like an ocean surface on Earth. The “flatness” is in reality a long-waved undulation of the moonscape, and several times during their moonwalk, the astronauts’ exertion while toting heavy loads, bending and stooping to lift rocks, gave Mission Control reason for alarm. They could hear the astronauts grunting, sometimes loudly sucking in oxygen. The flight controllers realized they were pushing too hard, overloading bodies already drained by the demands of launch and flight to the moon.

Shepard and Mitchell were ordered to slow their pace, and soon they were moving through their chores with ease. Four hours and fifty minutes into their first moonwalk, they returned to Antares and loaded on their samples.

Their first excursion was complete, and like little boys crawling into their tree house, Shepard and Mitchell eased their way back into Antares’s cabin, sealed the hatch behind them, pressurized their ship, and ate and drank their fill. They replenished their spacesuits’ containers with oxygen and water, checked the battery packs and systems, and enjoyed the pleasure of being free of their cumbersome exoskeletons.

Exhausted, they slept.

Antares’s astronauts were up and ready to go two hours early. They had slept well and were telling the 150 people in Mission Control and its back rooms to get the lead out.

“Hey, we’re up and running this morning,” the forty-seven-year-old Shepard boasted. “The shape of the crew is excellent.”

The flight surgeon nodded, the flight director was delighted, and CapCom told the moonwalkers, “We’re turning you loose.”

Shepard and Mitchell bounced down Antares’s ladder eager to top every item on their moonwalk work list. This was the first full “geology field day.” They loaded their lunar rickshaw for the trip to Cone Crater, sure it would carry their heavy load, giving them a break from lugging rocks as big as bowling balls. But the rickshaw failed to fulfill its promise. Fra Mauro was covered with thicker and deeper dust than that found at the Apollo 11 and 12 landings sites, and pulling the rickshaw was like plowing through deep sand.

“This is ridiculous,” Mitchell called to Shepard. “Let’s pick up the damn thing and carry it.”

There was no argument from the commander, and the two carried the rickshaw loaded with supplies only to be fooled by the undulating nature of the terrain. It was like looking at mountains across a desert on Earth. In clear air, a mountain peak or range might appear to be only a few miles away when it is actually forty or fifty miles distant.

The navigation charts seemed to have been prepared for some other planet, and distance measurement proved to be misleading. The sun angle and the crystal-clear sharpness of a world without atmosphere threw off their depth perception.

Their journey had become a fierce slog. Frustrated, their strength sapped, they lost sight of where they were, and more important, where they were going. Every time the astronauts stopped they referred to their checklist, collected samples, and noted lost time. They were gulping oxygen, drenched in perspiration, but they weren’t giving up. “There’s the rim of Cone,” they assured each other. “We’re getting close now.”

Houston was concerned and told them to take it easy. Keep moving, but take it easy.

Then, finally, before them a steep climb loomed. It was a slope longer than a football field to the rim of Cone Crater. To get there, they would have to slug it out through a massive boulder field. There was rubble and smashed rocks everywhere, and they knew they were almost out of time. They pushed themselves as hard as they could—fighting up the slope in ankle-deep moon dust.

“You take two steps up,” Shepard told Mission Control, “and you slip back one. It’s like a day at the beach, plodding through deep sand.”

Suddenly, Shepard slipped to one knee and Mitchell had to come to his rescue and help him up. It was becoming obvious they were nearing the end. Houston would soon be ordering them to start back to Antares. They gulped in air and kept on pushing and pulling, digging their boots into the loose, dusty surface. But it was painfully clear Cone Crater had won.

Time, oxygen, and physical strength were all running out, and Mission Control knew Shepard and Mitchell were at the very edge of their endurance. They were still about seventy-five feet from the top.

“Alan, Ed, you guys have already eaten into your thirty-minute reserve,” said CapCom. “We think you’d better proceed with the rock sampling where you are.”

The high rim of Cone Crater would remain unchallenged.

“I think we’re looking at what we want right here,” Shepard told Mitchell, trying to put the best face on their failure.

They gathered samples from the boulder field and started back. Coming down the slope was much, much easier. They could almost fly. Striding downhill, the moon’s weak gravity permitted them to leap over rocks as they went, and soon they had reached the lunar module. They loaded their booty aboard and were ready once again to climb into Antares’s cabin.

Well, almost ready.

“Houston,” Shepard called Mission Control, removing a small metal flange from his suit pocket. He carefully attached it to the long aluminum handle of the collector he’d used to pick up rock samples.

I was co-anchoring the NBC Radio Network’s coverage in our broadcast trailer outside Mission Control, and I laughed loudly. I knew what was about to happen. Shepard had let me in on his secret. I turned to my stunned co-anchor. “Russ, have you ever wondered how far an average golfer could hit a ball in lunar gravity? Well, Mr. Ward, you’re about to find out.”

“Houston,” Shepard paused for effect, “you might recognize what I have in my hand…the handle for the contingency sample. It just so happens to have a genuine six-iron on the bottom.”

Those in Mission Control were now laughing.

Shepard reached into a pouch of his suit and held up a golf ball.

“In my left hand I have a little white pellet that’s familiar to millions of Americans.”

The flight controllers grinned.

Alan Shepard, an avid golfer, dropped the ball into the moon dust. He made his best effort to assume a normal two-handed stance to address the ball, but his bulky spacesuit would permit only a one-handed swipe.

“I’m trying a sand-trap shot.” He laughed as he swung awkwardly, the six-iron spraying moon dust and dropping the ball into a crater only a few feet away.

“I got more dirt than ball.”

“Looked more like a slice to me,” Mitchell quipped.

Shepard wasn’t to be stopped. He dropped a second ball and the home-rigged golf club found its target, sending the white ball racing away into the black sky.

“There it goes! Miles and miles and miles!” Shepard said with pride.

Some argued the golf ball sailed only a few hundred yards while others, taking the weak gravity into account, suggested it could have gone into its own lunar orbit.

With his Tom Sawyer grin Alan later told me, “I really don’t know where the damn thing went.”

Shepard and Mitchell ran through their pre-lunar-launch checklist, made sure everything that was suppose to be on board was on board, and Shepard turned to the remote television camera.

Alan Shepard’s golf shot on the moon. (Shepard Collection).

Apollo 14 moon rocks. Alan Shepard (right) leans over to view a basketball-size rock being examined by Ed Mitchell (table, left). (NASA).

“Okay, Houston, the crew of Antares is leaving Fra Mauro Base.”

“Roger, Antares.”

With mixed emotions, Shepard and Mitchell closed their lander’s hatch and monitored the countdown timers as they flashed away the minutes and seconds. Antares’s ascent rocket shot flaming thrust into its descent-stage launch pad. The lunar module leapt from the moon and sped into the black sky, into its rendezvous orbit with Apollo 14’s command ship Kitty Hawk.

The docking of the two spacecraft was perfection. Kitty Hawk fired up and carried its smiling crew home.

The legacy of Apollo 14 went far beyond returning the lunar landing program to safe flight. The three remaining Apollo lunar landings, which had been on the edge of cancellation, would not be cut.

On July 26, 1971, Apollo 15 astronauts Dave Scott, Jim Irwin, and Al Worden flamed onto the lunar highway. Scott and Irwin rode their lander, Falcon, to the foothills of the Apennine Mountains while Worden, overhead in Endeavour, began a photo survey for future landing sites.

Dave Scott and Jim Irwin became the seventh and eighth astronauts to step onto the moon. They had been given a great landing site. They stared in wonder at the Apennines, mountains towering fifteen thousand feet, as they drove the first lightweight electric car, a cross between a golf cart and a dune buggy, over the lunar surface. They drove it up and down slopes heavily laden with tools, moon rocks, and other lunar samples as well as cameras. With the ability to travel a distance of six miles, the two astronauts did little moonwalking. They increased the area to be traversed, studied, and sampled. The six miles was a safety limit. If the “moon buggy” broke down, the astronauts would still have enough power and oxygen in their suits for a steady walk back to their lunar landing craft. Apollo 15’s Scott and Irwin spent three days at the feet of one of the moon’s largest mountain ranges.

In April of 1972, Apollo 16 astronauts John Young, Charles Duke, and Ken Mattingly flew to the moon. Young and Duke left Mattingly in lunar orbit babysitting their command ship, Casper, while they rode their lunar module, Orion, to a wide plateau on the edge of the Descartes Mountains. The second moon buggy took the two astronauts through massive boulder fields, around and through craters, and through some chemical rocks with aluminum basalts. They came home with 213 pounds of samples for happy geologists.

Late that year, on December 7, 1972, shortly after midnight on a Cape Canaveral coast mantled in darkness, people within fifty miles thought the sun had come up. What appeared to be daylight flared along the beach, spreading outward as the Saturn V rocket with Apollo 17 went to full thrust. It rose atop its own blazing fireball, leaving a light that was seen five hundred miles away atop Stone Mountain in Georgia.

Astronauts Gene Cernan, Jack Schmitt, and Ron Evans were on their way to what would be the last landing on the lunar landscape for half a century. Gene Cernan had traveled the same path to the moon before on Apollo 10. He and Jack Schmitt, the only geologist to sink his pike into the lunar crust, landed in the Littrow Valley of the Taurus mountain region and capped the most incredible series of expeditions in the history of the human race. They spent three days on the lunar surface, including more than twenty-two hours in a trio of stunning geological journeys, riding their moon buggy to fields of enormous boulders, to the slopes of steeply rising mountains, and along the edges of precipitous gorges from where they stood in awe of the chasms torn in the moon’s surface. They managed to load 243 pounds of rocks and soil aboard their lander, conduct dozens of scientific experiments, and strip away many of the moon’s secrets that had confounded people on Earth for centuries. The Apollo 17 finds have kept scientists of many countries intensely busy well into the twenty-first century.

What emerged from Apollo is a picture of a moon that was born in searing heat, lived a brief life of boiling lava and shattering collisions, then died geologically in an early, primitive stage. It came into being some 4.6 billion years ago, when great masses of gaseous matter called the solar nebula began condensing to form the sun, Earth, and other planets and moons of the solar system. The nebula first condensed into chunks of space debris—from small pebbles to miles-wide boulders—that crashed together and fused to form celestial bodies. This compacting of debris generated intense heat that turned the lunar surface into a sea of molten lava, to a depth of several miles. The cooled lava became the moon’s primitive crust. Debris left over from the creation of the solar system continued to bombard the moon, carving out giant craters and valleys and forming mountains by piling up large piles of rocks.

The young Earth apparently underwent the same period of meteorite bombardment and volcanism that the moon did for about a half billion years. Then the histories of the two bodies diverged. The weak lunar gravity could not prevent volcanic gases from escaping into space, and the moon became a dead body where life could not exist. But the larger Earth, with strong magnetic and gravity fields, held onto its volcanic gases, and they formed an atmosphere and oceans, creating conditions for the development of life.

America’s lunar landings learned more about the moon and our solar system than humans had learned in their species’s history. Technology advanced fifty years ahead of where it would have been had we not gone. Apollo 17’s flight ended the four-year stretch when twenty-four Americans, some twice, rocketed through the vacuum from Earth to the moon. Twelve of the twenty-four descended from lunar orbit to walk and drive across the small world.

NBC Radio and Television was there for every flight, from launch to splashdown. We enjoyed an out-front position and first-place ratings. Jim Kitchell, our executive producer, was simply the best. He had cut his teeth in television news by directing the first newscast put on the air by journalists, not broadcasters, who simply read what they were given. The show was the legendary Huntley-Brinkley Report, where Kitchell was the first to cover a breaking news event live. When it came to covering space flights, he led, we followed; and when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin reached the moon, Kitchell’s space unit was given the Emmy for “Coverage of Special Events.”

But sadly, as quickly as Project Apollo had arrived, it was gone—gone for thirty-one years until January 14, 2004, when President George W. Bush dusted off its historic pages. As of this writing, astronauts not yet born when Apollo 17 returned from the moon December 17, 1972, will head back to the lunar surface as early as 2018.

And if you should be asked, the first Martians are already here. They are your sons and daughters, and as soon as they move through the halls of learning, they’ll be saddling up to fly to our planetary neighbor on rockets and interplanetary ships named Ares and Orion.

As history had its voyages to the New World, its wagons west, its Kitty Hawks, and its Lindbergh flights to Paris, Mars will be the next generation’s Apollo.

It just could be the greatest adventure of all.

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