Ocean of Storms: A Timeline of A Scientific America

I: Eagle's Flight
  • Launching a new timeline here (hope the name isn't taken). I'll answer questions here and there as they come, but I'm hoping to tell the story, for the most part, through a series of short stories and let internal context clues do a good chunk of the heavy lifting. Still, I'll try not to leave you in suspense for too long between posts. Hope you enjoy this first installment.

    Ocean Of Storms


    21 January 1967

    X-20 Dyna-Soar

    Orbital Inclination: 80 degrees

    Altitude: 220 miles

    Callsign: Eagle

    From the ground, even if someone was looking for it, it would have been almost impossible to spot the X-20. The black exterior soaked in sunlight like a sponge and an observer’s best chance would have been to catch a glint of sunshine off of the cockpit window as the spacecraft crossed the terminator line. The mockup that was shown to the public was emblazoned with big white “U.S. AIR FORCE” lettering, but the real one was as black as night, save for Old Glory on her dorsal fin.

    Truthfully, that wasn’t really important. Even if you could spot the X-20 and even if you knew what you were looking at, by the time anyone could do anything about it, this mission would be over.

    “Cheyenne, Eagle. I have the Corona in sight. Range to target is 35 feet. Requesting go order for docking.”

    The X-20’s pilot was relieved to have gotten this far. He had been strapped into this seat for the past 36 hours and the interesting part of this flight was about to begin.

    The headset gave its familiar beep a moment later, “Eagle, this is Cheyenne Center, you are go for receptacle opening and docking. Repeat, go for docking. Recommend you move to suit oxygen and confirm backup before commencing maneuvers.”

    They’re worried I’m gonna crack the windshield when I close in, he thought. Still, no one ever died from being too careful. He closed the valves for his external airflow and sealed the helmet visor. Technically, he was now on an independent life support system, totally separated from the cabin air that moved around him. He had become, essentially, a spacecraft within a spacecraft, as his suit was vacuum rated.

    “Roger Cheyenne. Suit LS is confirmed. Keying the receptacle door now.”

    On his right, there was a toggle at his elbow. He pressed it forward to the OPN side and could hear the small whirring of a motor behind him. Just behind the cockpit, on the starboard side of the spacecraft, a door opened revealing a small alcove. The padded space within was designed to give a smooth ride all the way to Edwards. Half of him wondered if his cargo would be more comfortable on the way home than he was.

    In the moments he was performing these functions, Eagle had drifted about 2 feet closer in to the Corona. He double checked his range and reconfirmed that his target was clean.

    The Corona satellite looked like a metal cigar floating in space. Cigar being the nicer image, though a lesser observer might have used a more phallic reference. Her cameras were housed internally, but the clarity of viewing her through a vacuum made it easy to spot where their portholes were. He didn’t focus there though. The pilot’s eyes were set on the small loop at her stern. This was where he would latch on. A small hoop, which was appropriate as it was about the size of a basketball, with an empty cone to help guide in the male portion of the docking system.

    Calling the device a docking arm was very generous. Even the engineers who had tacked on the system would have to admit that it was little more than a rounded steel shaft on a low support. It had but one purpose, and that was to slip neatly into the Corona’s female mount. The arm was mounted on the starboard wing. Two hours from now, it would be jettisoned and would make a small fiery trail over the Pacific, trailing behind the Eagle as she returned home.

    This was the tricky bit. The pilot maneuvered within 10 feet, but the last few were critical. His RCS fuel was at 55%, which was enough to get in, but he wanted to preserve at least 35% for retrofire and any emergency that may crop up before landing. Up here, fuel was life, or so the instructors had said once a day, every day, for three years.

    The Corona had been augmented with the docking sleeve, but there was no device on her frame that he could use to guide himself in. It was a matter of keeping his head turned to the right and keeping an eye on the arm, the sleeve and his rangefinder. All while wearing a space suit and maintaining vigilance over the myriad of systems that kept the X-20 functioning. No wonder the Air Force was already hard at work on a prototype that could carry 2 pilots. As far as he was concerned, it couldn’t get off the ground soon enough.

    Left, down, overcorrecting right. He was thankful that CAPCOM wasn’t asking for any updates. Cheyenne Mountain was technically in-charge, but even they knew when to shut up and let him fly.

    “Three feet.” That was all they were getting from him for a status report.

    The docking arm’s tip slipped in front of the cone’s far end and he felt a shudder as it slid against the surface. His half a foot per second of speed took care of the rest. There was a lurch as the docking arm slid home, but when it caught, it was solid. There had been a concern that he might bounce off. After all, this had never been tried before. This was only the 3rd flight of the X-20.

    He let out a long breath and checked for signs of motion. There was a slight yaw, but only a couple of degrees per minute he estimated. That was to be expected when you bring together two spacecraft of comparable size in this way.

    “Cheyenne, Eagle. Capture confirmed.”

    He could hear a cheer in the background as the call came back. “Roger, Eagle. We have you confirmed as locked in. Confirm that you are prepared to receive and we will trigger the transfer on your mark.”

    “Cheyenne, Eagle. Prepared to receive. 10 seconds on my mark. Mark.”

    He kept his eyes on the small door in what he had begun to think of as the underside of Corona. The silver cylinder slipped silently out and he felt a thump behind him as it found its way into the padded compartment of the X-20. He keyed the door toggle back to CLS and made the call everyone had been waiting for.

    “Cheyenne Center. Cargo transferred.”

    One hundred miles below, the Cheyenne Center Flight Director made a remark about the astronaut’s deadpan tone at such a pivotal moment.

    It took a few minutes to confirm the ground track and make sure that the cargo itself was not loose in the container. After a quiet ten minutes while the ground control processed new information, the X-20 pilot got a little restless.

    “Cheyenne Center, this is Eagle. Requesting permission to undock.”

    It took a long moment for the call to come back. “You’re go Neil. Engineering recommends a single pulse from the RCS.”

    The pilot winced at the use of his Christian name. With the redundant layers of radio security, it wasn’t likely to get back to Russia, but why chance it.

    He locked the flight stick into position and switched to a push-button control for the RCS. Better to not risk a hand motion fouling the maneuver. He pushed the switch to AFT and felt a shudder. Out the right window, the arm didn’t slip from the cone. The Corona pitched down, taking the X-20 with her.

    This wasn’t good.

    “Cheyenne, Eagle. Negative release on the Corona. Moving to correct the pitch angle.”

    He keyed the RCS back to fly-by-wire and pulsed the jets to stop the rotation. The spacecraft were stable again, but he was still attached to this thing.

    Eagle, Cheyenne. FIDO is authorizing one more attempt using RCS undocking. After that, we’ll go to disengagement.”

    “Copy that Cheyenne. RCS at 42%. Gonna try this again.”

    He stayed with the stick this time and pulsed the RCS. The lurch was jarring, but the result was the same. The docking arm was still stuck in the Corona’s cone and the pair had begun to tumble again.

    “Whoa… okay. Bringing her back to one.” The deadpan tone was gone. He was getting a bit concerned.

    Eagle, Cheyenne. We’re gonna have you disengage the arm, but you’re about to have LOS as you leave the CSQ tracking station. We’ll pick you up in 5 minutes over Hawaii and we’ll have a plan for you then. Copy?”

    The pilot gritted his teeth. “Roger Cheyenne. Just gonna sit here for a few minutes. I’ll be waiting for your call.

    It was a tense five minutes with nothing to do but wait. During the loss of signal, he considered that Cheyenne control must have felt the same way when he was docking: a flurry of activity on the other end of the line, but nothing to be done here.

    He was relieved to hear the communications beep and Jerry Swinson’s voice coming through from Colorado. “Eagle, Cheyenne. Can’t get rid of us that easily.”

    The pilot was all business, “Roger that. Do you have the maneuver ready?”

    “We do indeed. We want you to trigger the pyro for the arm and engineering would rather you did not do any RCS burns until after we have the ability to assess. Repeat, do not fire RCS until ground track has a read.”

    “The pyro will push me away on it’s own? Over.”

    “That’s the plan Eagle. Engineering thinks that the pyro fire itself will provide enough of a kick to clear Eagle. Reconnaissance confirms that the loss of the cone function is acceptable. You’re gonna leave Corona with the arm still engaged. After separation, we’ll have you back on flight plan and we’ll proceed with retro.”

    “Roger that Cheyenne. Ready to disengage the arm on your mark.”

    “Go Eagle.”

    There was a small white flash as the explosive bolts fired on the top of the starboard wing. The docking arm separated cleanly from the X-20 and the moment arm of the force rolled the Eagle away slowly, like a tired dog settling down for a long nap.

    He breathed another sigh of relief as the two spacecraft got some space between them. He looked up and saw the detached arm sticking uselessly out of the Corona’s cone. No one would ever dock with the Corona again, but that was a problem for another day.

    An hour later, he was ready to come home.

    Retrofire went smoothly a hundred miles over the coast of New Zealand. The engine module at the back of the ship separated smoothly and would make a nice little meteor shower twenty minutes later for anyone in the middle of the Pacific who happened to look up.

    Communications blackout came and went. It was spooky to be out of contact, but it was to be expected. Reentry was simultaneously the scariest and most exciting part of the flight for him. Docking and transfer had been tricky to be sure, but screaming through the upper atmosphere with a thick metal sheet as his only protection from a fiery demise… it was enough to get the blood pumping.

    As he came down through the stratosphere, the Eagle remembered that she was, at her core, still an aircraft. The wings cooled down and the X-20 began its long glide to the California coastline.

    Over Port Arguello, he saw the T-38’s come in from the south. “Cheyenne, I have sighted the escorts. They are taking position on my wing. Expect touchdown in 5 minutes.”

    “Copy Eagle. Safety crews are standing by. Escort flight confirms your ground track as good. You are go for landing.”

    The X-20 swooped down from a clear blue desert sky. Its black silhouette looking, for all the world, like some kind of alien space bat coming in to chomp down on some unexpecting humans.

    Neil Armstrong cracked a smile as he sighted runway 22R for Edwards Air Force Base. He felt the X-20’s momentum through his seat as he came down through 3,000 feet. The final turn burned off the last of that momentum and the whirr of the landing skids lowering told him there was nothing left but to fly the plane.

    The skids weren’t his favorite part of the system, but they had worked on two earlier flights and the runways at Edwards were basically painted sand. Armstrong made his final alignment and heard the snap-roar of the rear skids touching down on the desert floor. He brought the X-20’s nose down like a hummingbird and could see a couple of support trucks speeding along out the left-hand window, eager to meet up with the spacecraft as it came to a stop.

    Technically, he should have done a radio call to confirm touchdown, but his focus was on the stick and the task at hand. No one would blame him. After all, he was still a civilian pilot, even if this was an Air Force spacecraft.

    The roar of the skids against the desert sand faded from loud to dull and when it finally reached full quiet, all he could hear was the low moan of the air pumps. It was a very tranquil feeling to know that both he and the ship had gotten home safe.

    “Cheyenne, Edwards Base here. The Eagle has landed.”


    In the coming days, Air Force assessments determined that the failure of the docking arm was not a drastic blow to the Corona reconnaissance system. The film packages spit out by the satellite could still be obtained by parachute snag. The X-20 had proven a limited effectiveness in achieving on-orbit objectives. Still, word among the X-20 pilots was that the program's lifespan was about to be cut horrendously short.

    The X-20 would soon be grounded, not for mechanical failure, or a defect in functionality. It was to be brought down by an enemy that could never be countered by engineering or skill in a pilot's seat. Politics was about to clip the wings of the Air Force's primary access for manned orbital flights.
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    II: Summon the Heroes
  • Summon the Heroes
    5 June 1968

    Good Samaritan Hospital

    Los Angeles, CA

    34° 03’ 16” N 118° 15’ 55” W

    Frank Mankiewicz was exhausted. He had been awake for over 24 hours now. This had certainly been the busiest day of his life up to this point and if anything else happened, he felt certain he would simply faint.

    The façade of the Hospital of the Good Samaritan presented the name in simple block letters. It would make a decent background for the cameras, without being overly distracting. Still, he’d have preferred to get an American flag somewhere behind him. In a campaign, the image was everything, and this was an image that would be replayed quite a bit over the next 24 hours.

    Frank was about to be the narrator of the biggest story in the world at the moment. He checked his reflection before stepping out in front of the three dozen reporters and cameramen who’d been waiting patiently for the last hour.

    He made his approach, took a deep breath and found the even tone that had helped him so many times over the past few months.

    “Good morning. I have a brief statement on the incident at the hotel, and then I’ll be taking a few questions.”

    He adjusted to a more stentorian tone, “After Senator Kennedy’s speech last night at the Ambassador Hotel he proceeded through the kitchen area. On his way to the car outside, the Senator was approached by an unidentified individual. This man was armed with a revolver. Somewhere between 3 and 5 shots were fired. Accounts differ. Senator Kennedy was struck in the shoulder. The assailant was tackled to the ground by Colonel Glenn and a few other people. Senator Kennedy was responsive and did not lose consciousness. He was rushed here by ambulance and doctors have completed their initial assessment. The Senator’s wound is not considered to be life threatening and he is expected to be released later this morning. Senator Kennedy has asked me to express his thanks for the support that has been expressed in the last few hours and he has confirmed his commitment to stay in the race. Later today, the campaign will move to New York and we will, as the Senator said last night, go on to Chicago and win this. I’ll take your questions now.”

    There was the usual burst of calls and after a moment Frank selected a reporter from the LA Times.

    “Have the doctor’s expressed any concerns about the Senator continuing the campaign?”

    “No. The Senator’s wounds are somewhat superficial. The Senator’s doctors have cleared him to continue normal activity within a few days.”

    “Can you give us any information on the would-be assassin?”

    “I’d like to direct those inquiries to the Los Angeles Police Department. I’m sure they’ll be issuing their own statements on this matter in the coming hours. I have nothing to offer you on the gunman at this time.”

    “Can you speak to the actions of Colonel Glenn?”

    “Colonel Glenn was a few steps ahead of Senator Kennedy and was able to step between the Senator and the gunman. He was able to tackle the man and ensured that he was unable to aim the weapon. At that point, several others including Mr. Plimpton and former FBI agent Berry stepped in to help disarm the man.”

    “Was Colonel Glenn hurt?”

    “No one else was shot. Though a few members of the Senator’s staff and security have cuts and bruises sustained in the scuffle to disarm the gunman. Colonel Glenn’s Marine Corps training seems to have been very effective and the Senator would like to thank the Colonel and everyone else who was present tonight.”

    Two questions later he ended the press conference. An hour later he fell into his hotel bed and slept more soundly than he had in years.

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    III: The Gravity of the Situation
  • The Gravity of the Situation
    10 August 1968

    Kennedy Compound

    Hyannis Port, MA

    41° 37’ 48”N 70° 18’ 8.5” W

    Colonel John Glenn Jr. could have been regarded as something of an expert on both pressure and gravity. If not in the physical sense, then certainly in the psychological sense. He’d flown over 100 combat missions in two wars. He’d flown across the United States at a speed literally faster than a bullet.

    And there was that time he’d been the first American to orbit the Earth.

    Still, he found himself with an unshakeable level of nervousness as he approached his friend on the beach. The gravity of the situation was not lost on him. And he’d been feeling pressure ever since the question had been put to him on Tuesday.

    Colonel Glenn walked towards the boat at the water’s edge. From 20 yards away he called, “Senator!” using the formality to mask his nerves.

    Bobby Kennedy was all smiles on this bright summer day in his favorite spot in the world. If his guest felt at all uncertain, he was having none of it. Sporting black sunglasses and a fresh tan, he was every bit the image that the Kennedy’s had spent the last three decades cultivating.

    “For God sakes, John, call me Bobby,” he said, flashing the grin that had won him so many delegates in the past few months.

    Senator Kennedy stepped down from the sailboat and shook John Glenn’s hand. He covered the slight wince that came from the pain in his shoulder, but Glenn noticed. He’d been looking for it, after all.

    “How’s the shoulder, Bobby?”

    “It’ll be fine. Plays hell when I have to shake three hundred hands every day, but it’s a small price to pay when you consider how bad it could have gotten. Thanks again, by the way.”

    Glenn put up a hand to wave off the thanks. They’d each had enough of the incident from two months ago. Bobby had had enough of other people’s concern, and John had gotten more praise than he was comfortable with.

    Bobby’s tone got softer as they sat down in a pair of chairs. “Did you talk to Annie?”

    Glenn nodded, “She’s nervous about the whole thing. We’ve talked about a Senate run in two years, but this? Honestly, it was always something for down-the-road. Far down the road.”

    Bobby Kennedy nodded. He wanted to hear it all before he started in.

    John continued, “Bobby, if we go ahead, you’re going to be getting a lot of questions about my education, my lack of experience. You could get bogged down by it and I’d hate to be the reason this thing slips away from you.”

    Kennedy nodded again.

    John went on, “And that’s not even taking into account the anti-war crowd. How is it going to look with you standing next to a Marine Colonel from now until November? I’m sure Steve Smith has said as much.”

    “Steve Smith worries about the sun rising tomorrow morning. He sees spiders in every corner. And there’s plenty of spiders out there, which is fine. I’m not worried about all that right now. All I want to know is: Do you want this?”

    John shifted in his seat, “Why me Bobby? What makes you think I’m the best choice here?”

    Kennedy smiled, “I don’t want this to be 1960 all over again. Nixon is gonna fight for every vote out there and he’ll bring everything he’s got to bear. I want this to be his last election because a Kennedy will have finally beaten him outright and there won’t be any thought given to how close it was.”

    He paused for effect. Ever the orator, even with an audience of one, “You’re uneducated? Hell, John, you’re an astronaut. If that’s not good enough for the American public, I’m not sure what would be. You’re inexperienced in politics? That’s great. You’ve got no scandals, no skeletons, no knots that we have to untangle. I’ll handle the anti-war kids. We’re gonna get the troops home by our first Christmas in office. And there won’t be a single voter on Election Day who won’t know as much. And you’re a Marine Colonel. What better way to signal to middle America that the Democratic Party can respect law and order and still uphold the national interest at the same time?”

    He let out a long breath. “Find me any American who doesn’t think of you as a hero three times over. If you can find one, I don’t even want their vote.”

    Glenn tilted his head slightly. “That’s fine, but that’s not it, is it?”

    Bobby’s resolve turned to a smirk, “No. That’s not it.” He paused and let out a small sigh, “I think when God wants you to have something, He drops it right in your lap. I think He wanted me to live and so He dropped you right where He needed you. I think He wanted us to unite the country with a ticket every American could get behind. … So He’s dropping this right in your lap.”

    Glenn took a breath and let that wash over him, “That’s tough to say no to.”

    “That’s the idea, John.”

    They both laughed and looked out over the Atlantic.

    Kennedy broke the silence, “John, in all seriousness. I think we can make this a better country with you as the VP. It’s as simple as that. Can you help me out?”
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    IV: Rise
  • Rise

    18 October 1968

    Apollo 7

    Orbital Inclination: 31.6°

    Altitude: 146 miles

    Callsign: Phoenix

    Thomas Wheaton paced nervously outside the MOCR, listening to the air-to-ground loop on a headset he’d borrowed. For a long beat he pondered on the irony that this, arguably one of the safest parts of the flight, was the part that made him the most nervous.

    Wheaton wasn’t an engineer. He wasn’t a scientist. He wasn’t a pilot or an expert in any field that would be useful to NASA, save one.

    Thomas Wheaton knew how to marshal public interest.

    A degree in communications and public relations from Yale had provided him with a wealth of opportunity when he’d graduated in 1963. But, for reasons that baffled his father and mother back in New Hampshire, he’d decided to head for Houston. NASA, preparing to enter the heady days of the Gemini program had two great draws that had captured Thomas’s interest. The first was that NASA was an agency whose lifeblood was dependent on capturing the public’s attention. The second was that NASA clearly needed some assistance in keeping that attention.

    Thomas had followed the flight of Gordon Cooper’s Faith 7 mission shortly after his graduation. Followed, being the operative term, as press coverage of the flight was not nearly as intensive as it had been for John Glenn’s flight. He’d had to read several scattered articles to get the full story. Cooper had set an American record for the longest spaceflight and had concluded his mission with a harrowing manual reentry that was punctuated by a flawless pinpoint landing. It was the kind of narrative that the public would have eaten up… had it been presented properly.

    As it happened, Cooper’s flight had even included a TV camera whose footage had never been broadcast. It was simply incredible to Thomas that live television from Earth orbit hadn’t been of interest to the networks.

    Three months later he’d come to Houston, determined to never let a program as vital to progress and the national interest as NASA, wither in the shade of bad press coverage.

    As Wheaton saw it, the critical issue to capturing the public’s attention was that NASA’s public face mirrored its internal seriousness. The final missions of the Mercury program lacked a flare of the dramatic, to an outside observer, because NASA did not want the public thinking that it was putting astronauts at undue hazard. Meanwhile, the flight of Gordon Cooper could easily have been the stuff of legend. The only trick was to place it in the proper perspective for the public. A public that was, at its core, ready to be captivated by the closest mankind had come to the science fiction characters of the past 100 years.

    Genuine public attention came from the press and the press would only pay attention to a flight if it was either bold, or in danger.

    The Gemini program had vindicated his theory. The initial flights were all groundbreaking, (at least for America’s astronauts) and each one had, in its own way, created a spectacle that the press could not help but follow. The press’s enthusiasm for the early Gemini missions was outshone by its coverage of the flight of Gemini 8.

    Though Thomas would never admit it to anyone, in terms of public attention, Gemini 8 had been about as good as a flight could go.

    Commander Dave Scott and pilot Jack Crichton had docked with the Agena target booster perfectly. It was the first docking in space and there were reporters on-hand for the event. Less than 30 minutes later, a critical failure occurred in one of the Gemini’s thrusters. All three networks broke into regular programming to cover the subsequent emergency undocking and reentry. Scott and Crichton were given a hero’s welcome upon their safe return.

    From the perspective of the flight controllers, engineers and astronauts, the flight was a near disaster and a heart-stopping check on NASA’s so-far spotless record. To Tom Wheaton, then a deputy in the Public Affairs Office of Johnson Spaceflight Center, it was a chance to spotlight the program. The narrative that he’d helped to craft in the days that followed was of a heroic team of engineers, scientists and the astronauts themselves.

    By the time it was all over, Scott and Crichton had been on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and NASA’s budget for the following year had gone up by 1% more than was requested.

    The final flights of the Gemini program, bold though they may have been, failed to generate much interest. The lesson was not lost on Thomas: repetition leads to boredom.

    Today though, none of that mattered. The fire of 20 months ago was still very much on the minds of everyone at NASA and it hadn’t strayed from the attention of the public at-large. The witch-hunt investigation by Congress had brought the program to its knees and Wheaton had felt utterly helpless to stop a press corps and a legislature that was determined to seek retribution for the deaths of Grissom, White, and Chafee.

    Rather than run from the specter of Apollo 1, Wheaton, now the Assistant Director of Public Affairs at JSC, had devised a strategy to try and turn a negative into a positive. In concert with Wally Schirra, who had initially met with resistance, Wheaton had lobbied for Apollo 7’s callsign of “Phoenix” and use of the mission patch with the mythical bird rising. The story for this flight was of a triumphant “return to flight” for NASA. One that had learned from earlier mistakes and was ready to fulfill its mission to land on the moon within the next 14 months.

    That was around the time things had started to get away from him.

    Apollo 7, in terms of public attention, was quickly becoming a victim of its own success. The flight was going well from an engineering standpoint. The Apollo spacecraft was working as expected and had been preliminarily given a go for at least 100 orbits. The changes made over the last 18 months had clearly made the vehicle safer and the program as a whole seemed back on course. But Wally Schirra had developed a head cold and was getting irritable up there. There was something of a rebellion brewing between Mission Control and the Phoenix. Yesterday’s TV broadcast had been 5 minutes of gray-faced astronauts looking slightly miffed that something as mundane as television was interrupting their “very important work.”

    Mission objectives were being met, but mission narrative was limping along, sullen and annoyed.

    Wheaton was betting everything on a Hail Mary pass.

    Bob Hope, America’s favorite comedian, had planned to put on a variety show a few days after the return of the astronauts to Houston. Desperate for good attention and needing to change the story of the day, Wheaton had approached Hope’s people about coming to Houston for a brief conversation with the astronauts in orbit.

    It was fortunate that the comedian had such an interest in the space program. The request for a change in program had been passed along to Chris Kraft. Wheaton wasn’t present, but he’d heard that Kraft, who had a reputation for no nonsense, had given a long eye roll before assenting.

    Now, on day 7, Thomas waited nervously outside the MOCR while Bob Hope was fitted with a CAPCOM headset and sat down to have a very long-distance phone call.

    A TV monitor at the end of the corridor showed three tired astronauts and he heard Hope’s voice over the headset.

    “Phoenix 7, this is Bob Hope down here at Mission Control. Do you read me up there Wally?”

    On the monitor, Wally Schirra perked up and smiled. This was an unexpected surprise. He raised an eyebrow and a grin to Eisele and Cunningham.

    “Houston, Phoenix. Yeah, we read you, Bob. How you doing down there?”

    For the next 15 minutes, Hope charmed the pants off all three astronauts and managed to lighten the mood both in orbit and on the ground.

    Thomas made a note to get a clip of Hope and the astronauts discussing playing golf on the moon and having that sent to outlets for wide release. He’d been concerned about an irritated astronaut talking with a beloved celebrity, but he needn’t have worried. Bob Hope could brighten anyone’s day.

    Later that evening he drafted another memo on the potential media interest in another flight of the X-20 Dyna-Soar that had been transferred to NASA last year. The astronauts from the X-20 program had already begun to train in other areas, but Thomas had tried, on numerous occasions, to reiterate the public relations bonanza that more flights of the Dyna-Soar could bring. As impressive as an Apollo flight was, there was something about a spacecraft with wings that got kids interested.

    Still, he knew it was futile. With the end of the decade 14 months away, every resource would be focused on that. Tomorrow he resolved to go over his notes for the December flight of Apollo 8. Jim Lovell would command the first flight to the moon, with John Young and Bill Anders. Truthfully, Wheaton wasn’t that worried about a narrative for Apollo 8. Humanity’s first flight to the moon would have everyone’s attention.
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    V: The Morning Mail
  • The Morning Mail

    1 November 1968

    Washington Post Headquarters

    Washington, DC

    38° 54’ 16” N 77° 02’ 06” W

    Well, this was an utter sack of shit. Ben Bradlee had gotten back from lunch to find the biggest story of the year had been unceremoniously dumped onto his desk. Not that he’d planned on having much of a weekend anyways, but this was about to blow it all to hell.

    It was in a plain envelope simply marked BRADLEE. No postage, no return address. However it got here, (and he had a pretty good idea), it had been hand-delivered.

    The envelope wasn’t the issue though, at least not for the moment. Like every bombshell, it was what was inside that was the big trouble.

    A single reel-to-reel tape. Bradlee had had the forethought to get everyone else out of the immediate vicinity before playing the tape. If not for that, someone might have fainted.

    The tape itself was obviously a wiretap. Therefore obviously illegal and obviously obtained without the knowledge of the two people talking on it. He wondered about the legality of even possessing it, but his conscience was clear that he’d done nothing wrong… so far.

    A conversation played out in tense tones between H.R. Haldeman and Anna Chennault. With tacit, but reasonable instructions, Haldeman had directed Mrs. Chennault to “monkey wrench” the negotiations to end the Vietnam War. It had all the classic hallmarks of a Nixon operation. It had the cloak-and-dagger feel of a bad spy novel, but with enough subtlety that you had to chase it through a briar patch to get the whole story.

    He didn’t have that kind of time. The election was 4 days away. It was already looking like it would be 1960 all over again, Kennedy and Nixon, down to the wire. If he could break the story by Monday, that would likely be the end of Dick Nixon. If he broke it and was wrong, that would likely be the end of Ben Bradlee.

    Sighing, he lifted his phone and dialed the digits known to every reporter in America.

    “White House switchboard. How may I direct your call?”

    “James Jones, please. This is Ben Bradlee at the Washington Post.”

    There was a long pause before he heard, “One moment, please.”

    The White House Appointments Secretary came on the line a minute later, “Ben, how’s your day going?”

    “It was going a lot better before you started trying to use my newspaper as the tip of Lyndon Johnson’s spear.”

    “Why, Ben, I don’t have the first clue what you’re talking about.”

    “Off the record, Jim. What the hell?”

    “There’s not enough for a formal announcement. It’s not enough for the Justice Department to move on. To say nothing of how it was obtained.”

    “And if you think I’m not going to get into that…”

    “He doesn’t care. Come January, it’s someone else’s problem either way.”

    “A grand jury might feel differently.”

    “That’s not why you’re calling though.”

    Bradlee sighed, “No.”

    “It’s true. He’s trying to extend the war.”

    Bradlee tone was mocking, “Oh, ‘it’s true’. That’s not exactly something I can put on page one.”

    “I’ll make sure anyone you need will take your call, but it’s not going to come from the White House and it’s not going to anyone else.”

    “If I were smarter, I’d dump it right in the Potomac.”

    “You really think you can walk away from something this big?”

    “I think this is either LBJ having one last bit of fun at Ben Bradlee’s expense, or he’s trying to get me to screw Richard Nixon just for the hell of it. Or…”

    “Or, it’s exactly what it looks like.”

    “Yeah… or that... Why the hell did you guys pick me?”

    “Because no one would ever think that we would.”

    A beat passed between them.

    “He really wants to hand his office over to Bobby Kennedy?”

    “No, but he also wants to make sure Dick Nixon never gets his hands on it either.”

    “I’m not going to be a pawn in this game.”

    “That’s fine Ben. If you can listen to that and be sure you’re making the right call. If you’re ready to deal with everything else that comes after… or not…” the thought hung in the phone line.

    “Don’t put that on me.”

    “It’ll be on all of us if this goes south.”

    Another beat.

    “Jim… tell the President that Ben Bradlee says, ‘fuck you.’”
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    VI: Those Wonderful Toys
  • Those Wonderful Toys

    19 February 1969

    Project Phoebus

    Jackass Flats, NV

    36° 48’ N 116° 18’ W

    Tom Paine wasn’t bothered by the heat. Texas summers could be much worse than this. He wasn’t really bothered by the sand and the dust. The deserts of Nevada were harsh, but he’d been prepared.

    No, Tom Paine was uneasy because of the radiation.

    Despite the reassurances from every engineer and physicist that all the test and observation facilities had the proper distance to avoid any nasty side effects, Paine was nervous. Conventional rockets, despite their tendency to explode, at least had the decency to be a danger only to those who rode them or had the misfortune to be underneath them. But this NERVA (they were really going to have to come up with another name) was a very different beast altogether.

    The principles of the system were easy enough to grasp. Hydrogen gas, superheated by a nuclear reactor, is fired through a rocket nozzle at high speed and high temperature. Paine had listened to a couple of lectures on the inner workings, but the bottom line was, it was more efficient than the SIV-B and would probably wind up being as good or better in most other categories.

    The problem was still the radiation.

    Paine went through the arguments in his head one more time. If even he was uncomfortable being within a mile of this thing, how could he ask the good people of central Florida to have one firing near their homes? The early numbers indicated that the most dangerous areas to be in were anywhere behind the engine itself, which, unfortunately, meant that it would probably never fly anywhere outside of this desert basin.

    He’d been discussing it with Anderson on the flight out here.

    Clinton Anderson, the senator from New Mexico, has long been one of NASA’s strongest allies on the Hill. He’d been instrumental in securing the funding for all the new priorities of late. After the fire, Anderson had helped to call off the attack dogs and gave enough political cover for the agency to pull itself together and get moving again.

    At the moment, the idea that was being floated around headquarters in D.C. was to push ahead with the NERVA, but to concede two main points. First was to provide assurances that NASA would never let the engine fire within Earth’s atmosphere. Any firing of a nuclear engine would have to be done above, say, 100 miles. That was a psychologically satisfying number to the American people. The second assurance was to Congress, not the public, saying that NASA wasn’t going to use the engine as the start of a manned Mars mission.

    The Republicans were worried sick that, what with the new President Kennedy and a VP that was a former astronaut, America was about to cross the finish line of the space race, just to launch another one, even more costly than the first. NASA had been living high-on-the-hog since 1961 and there were a lot of people who were starting to ask why. Space exploration needed to get a lot cheaper, or a lot sexier very soon.

    Still, the program had been well-defended, thanks to Anderson, and with the first test flight of the LEM coming up, it was time to start putting NERVA on the radar screen for long-term planning.

    The hot fire test had gone smoothly enough, all things considered. There was a 24-minute delay during the countdown due to a faulty pressure sensor. Truthfully, that kind of thing was to be expected. This was a new engine after all, nothing quite like it had been built on this scale before. During the delay, Paine had a chance listen in on the engineer’s huddle as they handled the situation. It struck him as a pretty professional operation. They weren’t there yet, but, within the next couple of years, they’d have an article ready for flight.

    Paine was shaking hands with a few of the administrators and had begun wondering about the arrangements back to Houston when one of the junior engineers came out of a backroom and pushed his way through the small group gathered around him. The kid couldn’t have been much over 25 and he looked like he’d seen a ghost.

    “Doctor Paine, sir, there’s a call for you.”

    Paine was surprised. This facility wasn’t exactly well-known, and his trip out here even less so.

    He pulled the young man aside, “Did they say who?”

    “It’s the Vice President, sir.”

    Paine nodded. “Okay, take me to the phone.”

    Down a wood-paneled corridor and into an office that could have belonged to a factory foreman, or a high school assistant principal. Paine picked up the phone.

    “Mr. Vice President.”

    The warm-natured gravelly voice of John Glenn filled the earpiece, “Tom. Hey, how are you?”

    “Doing well, sir. Is everything all right?”

    “Yes, yes, still getting settled in here. I’m glad I caught you before you got out of Nevada.”

    “Certainly, sir. What can I do for you?”

    “Tom, I need you to take a look at one more project while you’re out there. Something came across my desk that I’d like your opinion on.”

    This was strange.

    “Mr. Vice President, I’d… I’ll be happy to take a look at whatever you need, sir. Can you tell me what this is about?”

    “It’s not something I want to get into on the phone, Tom. These days, you never know who’s listening in,” Glenn gave a small chuckle. A passing reference to the wire-tapping aspect of the Chennault Affair, which had been all over the news. It was a scandal that was ruining Richard Nixon and the wire-tapping aspects had chased Lyndon Johnson from the White House.

    “Yes, sir. What do you need me to do?”

    “When you get back to the airport, the flight plan will already be filed. We’ll try to have you home by tomorrow.”

    Paine was thoroughly confused now.

    “Absolutely Mr. Vice President. I’ll be happy to do whatever I can.”

    “Oh, and Tom, they tell me you’re out at the NERVA site. How does it look?”

    “Very impressive, sir. I think we’ll be able to put this to good use if we keep it going a couple more years.”

    “Fantastic. Over the next few weeks, I want to get a plan for the president about where we go from here, after the first landings. I don’t want the program to become a political football for the next decade."

    “I couldn’t agree more, sir.”

    “Okay, Tom. Have a safe flight.”

    3 Hours Later

    Restricted Area 4808 North

    Groom Lake, NV

    37° 14’ 06” N 115° 48’ 40” W

    The flight out was… awkward.

    There was a very stern looking Air Force colonel who had greeted them on the plane. In polite, but direct language, he asked them for their identifications and proof of their level of security clearance. Then there was a series of calls and checks as the colonel verified that information. Then there was a 10-minute sequence where the covers on the aircraft windows were sealed shut and locked.

    Tom Paine was quickly moving from intrigued to annoyed, with a side of paranoia to boot. Senator Anderson was in a similar frame of mind.

    They had taken off and Paine, as planned, had no idea which direction they were traveling in.

    On the way out, Paine and Anderson talked about the next steps for the program. Paine explained the details of the integrated program plan to the Senator. He was quite proud of the plan, which outlined the details for everything NASA could do all the way until the year 2000. A space shuttle, space stations in Earth and lunar orbit, a moon base and missions to Mars. It was grandiose but do-able. Paine could not have been more excited about the future.

    Anderson had the unenviable task of reigning him in as he started talking about the prospects of a base on Mars.

    “Tom, it’s a beautiful dream, but you have to understand that’s all it is, right? I mean, Congress isn’t wild about your current funding now, let alone after we land on the moon.”

    “But we have the ability to…”

    “But the public sentiment for this is softening by the day. Congress isn’t made of dreamers, Tom. It’s made of lawyers. Lawyers who pay attention to the people when they have to, and the money all the rest of the time. You guys are doing great inspiring kids and engineering professors, but, this time next year, the landings will be old news and people will want to know how the economy of the 1970’s is going to work for them.”

    “So, what? We just abandon the new frontier because it’s expensive?”

    “No, but have you ever met a kid who asked for a pony and actually got it?”

    “What do you think we can get?”

    “Honestly… not much, unless you can get it cheap, or make it so impressive that the public will demand more.”

    “If you can’t impress the American people by landing on the Moon, then what the hell do they want?”

    “That’s the question asked by everyone in Washington for the last fifty years.”


    The flight lasted less than an hour, but, on landing, the plane proceeded for a very long taxiing to a hangar. He only knew this based on the amount of light that managed to peek through the window covers and how it noticeably dimmed just before the aircraft came to a stop.

    Thirty minutes later, Tom Paine, Senator Anderson and a pair of upper-level engineering managers were finally allowed off the plane.

    Paine stepped down from the ladder and was greeted by an Air Force General this time.

    The general spoke in clipped tones, “Gentlemen. Welcome to Area 51.”

    Paine and Anderson exchanged a look that could have easily accompanied their having seen a ghost.

    Flabbergasted, Anderson, was the first to recover enough to reply.

    “General… why are we here?”

    The general stifled a grin and quipped, “Officially, sir, you’re not here. No one is. Having said that, we got word that you were to be shown one of our unmentionables. A briefing has been prepared for you, after which, you’ll fly off and, with any luck, none of us ever have to speak of this again.”

    Paine nodded, only barely maintaining his composure.

    “Lead on then, General. We’ll be glad to take a look at what you have.”

    In a windowless room, Paine and Anderson were seated and three unassuming looking engineers walked in. One had a box, one had a stack of drawings and the third was empty handed.

    Empty-handed spoke first, “Senator, Director Paine. We’d like to tell you about the X-28 Kestrel.”

    Over the next two hours, both men sat, riveted, and listened to the presentation.

    The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 had compelled the United States, along with every other signatory, to immediately cease any offensive military projects designed for use in outer space. The most visible result of this was the transfer of the X-20 Dynasoar project over to NASA and the acquisition of eight astronauts who had been trained to fly that spacecraft. While the agency was still evaluating the spacecraft for any use as a training or research craft, it was unlikely to see another flight.

    The Air Force had been busy in the meantime. While, officially, no such program could be flown, the Air Force’s black budget for 1967 had already been decided. One section covered the development of what was then considered Dyna-Soar II. Now it had a new name: Kestrel.

    Where Dyna-Soar was the Air Force’s first foothold into a military space program, Kestrel was a military dream made real.

    Kestrel looked like an X-15 had had angry sex with an F-4 Phantom. It was a 2-man spacecraft with smooth delta wings like the Dyna-Soar. The wings themselves had a shorter upsweep, but where the F-4 carried missiles underneath, the X-28 had detachable pylons on top which could carry anti-satellite weaponry. Behind the cockpit, there was a small cargo area, barely big enough for a VW Beetle. Kestrel, they explained, could carry missiles to orbit, and could bring a payload down.

    The implication was clear. Kestrel had 2 mission types. The first was to shoot down Soviet space assets. The second was to snatch satellites from orbit and bring them back, for repair, analysis, or God-knows-what else.

    Once that was understood, Paine was able to form his first question. “The cargo area on this thing isn’t big enough for most surveillance birds. How would you get one in there?”

    The Air Force general replied in lieu of the engineers, “We have a training program that would instruct crews on how to disassemble extraneous parts and leave the intelligence assets safe for return to Earth.”

    Paine nodded, “Just grab a wrench and tear apart a satellite?”

    The general looked troubled, “It’s a bit more complex than that.”

    Paine rolled his eyes, “It’d have to be.” He muttered under his breath, “Space cowboy nonsense.”

    The engineers continued. Kestrel could, theoretically, deliver small payloads to orbit, but, economically, that would be a bad use of a launch vehicle. Its goal was to confound Soviet space assets, should a shooting war begin, or potentially to discourage any major Soviet developments that would present a danger to MAD.

    For all the obscenity of such a blatant military use of outer space, (a prospect that Tom Paine found abhorrent), he had to admit that the Air Force had used the knowledge gained from the three Dyna-Soar flights very well. They had taken the lessons from the X-20, which, to be fair, was little more than a demonstration vehicle, and had come up with a design that would serve their needs very well.

    What was still unclear was why they were telling any of this to the director of NASA.

    Paine was exhausted enough to ask the question straightaway.

    The general was surprised, “Dr. Paine, the new administration is unhappy with the very existence of this project. The President was informed about it within a few days of the inauguration and shortly thereafter demanded a full halt to any Air Force activities that would be out of compliance with the Outer Space Treaty. We are on a full hold until directed otherwise. I expect that, in the coming weeks, this project will be phased out and disavowed, if not completely obliterated. Having said that, Vice President Glenn demanded that we present the program to NASA for evaluation before anything was mothballed.”

    Paine snapped back, “I’m not looking to shoot down Russian satellites.”

    “Sir, you’re in the market for a space shuttle. The Air Force wants something that we can use if things turn hot. Don’t you think there might be a way we can help each other out?”
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    VII: The Spider Cannot Fly

  • The Spider Cannot Fly


    Design Credit: Allen Stevens

    7 March 1969

    Apollo 9

    Orbital Inclination: 32.6°

    Altitude: 146 miles

    MET: T+ 93:50:06

    Callsign: Spider

    The high-pitched beep was followed by the grim voice of Jim McDivitt, “Flight, confirm loss of helium pressure. We’ve had a burst disc.”

    A silence hung through the Mission Operations Control Room. It seemed to stretch all the way into Earth orbit.

    Krantz took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He sighed and finally broke the silence, “Copy, Control. CAPCOM, have them secure the descent engine.”

    Jack Swigert was CAPCOM at the moment. He relayed the instruction to Commander McDevitt. Krantz took his seat and listened on the air-to-ground loop as they safed the descent engine.

    “GNC, confirm the range between the 2. Fido, start figuring out the burn for the new rendezvous.”

    From the trench at the front of the room, confirmations came in and slide rules were broken out.

    Chris Kraft stood at the back corner of the MOCR, watching Gene Krantz manage the situation. It was a devastating setback on a flight that had been full of them. He could sense the frustration in his protégé as the calls went back and forth, confirming that the most important part of this mission had failed.

    Kraft gave it ten minutes, to let the situation stabilize and all the reports come back, then he stepped over to the FLIGHT console.

    “Gene, can we have a word? Glynn, can you cover him for 2 minutes?” Kraft said, directing his second request to Glynn Lunney who was on-hand for the maneuver.

    Lunney nodded and Krantz took off his headset. Kraft led him out into the corridor and found an empty room a couple of doors down.

    Krantz didn’t need to be asked. He slammed down a legal pad onto a desk and let out a frustrated growl. “Just fucking bullshit! Tom Kelly said we’d be fine for the burn. They cleared it at pre-launch checks. They cleared it after docking. They cleared it an hour before separation. And all of it was bullshit. They were just guessing.”

    Kraft had no outward display of emotion, frustration or otherwise, “The helium disc?”

    “Yeah, the tank’s pressure was high, but still within the margin. But they’re the ones who wrote the margin rules. They barely got the thing up and running in the first place. We should have known they might not know what they were talking about.” His tone shifted as the anger vented, “Ugh… goddamn it. I’m sorry Chris. This is on me. I’m flight when the disc burst. It’s unacceptable.”

    Kraft continued his even tone, “Hey, an untested engine fails in its first manned test. Who’d have thought, huh? And after everything else had gone so well on this one.”

    Krantz let out a wry laugh and sat down.

    Even before the burst disc, this flight had been an embarrassment. The LMP, Schweickart, had gotten very ill early into the flight. McDevitt didn’t report it until a couple of days in, just before the first EVA was to take place. This had meant that the transfer, from Spider to Gumdrop wasn’t able to be practiced. Schweickart was feeling better now, but, if there was a problem with the ascent stage, then they’d be relying on an untested EVA maneuver just to get the crew home.

    Drawing Krantz’s attention, Kraft smiled and continued, “We all agreed on the burn. What the hell were we supposed to do? Abort without even trying it? Half the mission profile involved the LEM free-flight. Brass would have killed us for not trying.”

    Gene nodded and sighed, “We’re into down-moding now.”

    Kraft nodded back, “Yeah. Yeah. We’ve still got the ascent stage. Do you think it’s worth anything to try to do an out and back with it?”

    Gene pondered for a long moment, “I’m not sure. I hate bring them back so soon. We’re only,” he checked his watch, “what, an hour separated? That’s not much. Still, I don’t think we can let the distance open more than a couple hundred feet or so.”

    Kraft agreed, “Talk it over with the team. Maybe we can do paired burns with the ascent and SPS. Let them fly a bit, but keep the distance close.”

    Gene looked skeptical, “We’ll work on some options, but I doubt that’s gonna fly.”

    Kraft nodded, “It’s a long-shot, but, the longer we have them in free-flight, the easier it’ll be the next time we put men in a LEM.”

    Krantz began to consider the far-reaching implications, “Jeez, Chris. What’s this gonna do to us in terms of delays?”

    Kraft sighed, “It’s not gonna be good. We’ll have to bump the F mission back a bit until we figure out what the hell went wrong and how to keep it from going wrong again.”

    Krantz nodded as they started to walk back to MOCR, “There’ll be a review board.”

    Kraft nodded, “There’ll be a review board, yeah. But it’ll have to be fast. We’ve got launch windows for, what? May, July, November?”

    They paused outside the MOCR. Gene sighed, “If it’s November, we’ll have one shot. That’ll be it for the decade.”

    Kraft’s voice was resigned, “When the dust settles from this, we’ll put everything we’ve got into landing sims.”

    Krantz opened the door. Kraft thought he should hear something a little more encouraging before he walked back in, “Gene? Forget all that for now. Get as much as you can out of the ascent engine, bring ‘em home and we’ll sort out the rest after they’re on the ground.”

    Krantz gave a slight nod, mostly for courtesy. He had no need for the reminder.

    He resumed his position at the flight console with a polite nod to Glynn Lunney. Once the headset was on, he was back into “director-mode.”

    “Okay people. Let’s go around the room real quick. We’ve still got an ascent engine. We are into downmoding but we are not in an abort mode and, for the moment, we do not have an emergency situation. What we do have is an opportunity to run the EVA emergency egress that we scrubbed the other day. GNC, what’s the current range between Spider and Gumdrop?”

    The reply came quickly, “Three hundred feet, flight.”

    Krantz nodded. “Three hundred feet. We’re going to open up that distance a bit with the ascent to simulate a proper rendezvous. Then we’re going to bring them in close and we’ll do the crew transfer. We can still squeeze out some mission objectives here folks, so that’s what we’re gonna do.”

    9 May 1969

    Manned Spacecraft Center

    Houston, TX

    29° 33’ 47” N 95° 05’ 28” W

    Bob Gilruth knocked on the door to Gene Krantz’s office. It was 10pm on a Friday, but he knew that Gene would still be working.

    “Gene, the final report is coming out Monday, but they sent over an early copy,” he held up a thick folder of papers, hot off the printer.

    “Can you save me the 300 pages Bob?”

    Gilruth didn’t have to find the quote, “Hardware specifications and procedures were ill-defined, but were based on the best data known to both Grumman and NASA officials. The redefined parameters have been accepted and LEM 4 is officially cleared to fly on Apollo 10 in July.”

    Krantz leaned back in his seat, “About as good as we could hope for, I suppose.”

    “Gene, it wasn’t your fault. You gotta let this one go. Everyone got home safe. We got a lot of objectives met. I’d have gone for the burn, so would everyone else. The review board made a point to say as much. We’re gonna need the White Team in November for 11. You have my every confidence.”

    Gene Krantz allowed himself to crack a small smile. “I appreciate that Bob. Thank you. It means a lot.”

    “Sure, sure. Get some rest. What time are you running the first sim tomorrow?”

    “0800. Borman and Bean will be in the loop too.”

    Gilruth nodded and stood up, “That’s good. I’ve got to see how things are going at the cape.”

    Gene raised an eyebrow, “Are they still checking tanks down there?”

    “Yeah, every tank on every bit of hardware that we’ve got. Schweickart is down there with a clipboard himself. He volunteered to head up one of the teams.”

    “Have they found anything?”

    “Apparently there was some kind of issue with O2 tank number 2 on AS-508. They’re swapping it out for a fresh one.”


    A few hundred yards away, in a small office near the edge of the campus, Thomas Wheaton was busy. He’d spent the afternoon talking to a technician from Westinghouse. He’d gotten just the answer he’d wanted to hear.

    By Monday morning, the Director of the Public Affairs Office would have something to read besides the report of the Apollo 9 Review Board. Wheaton chose a title for his memo:

    Potential Programs to Maximize the Use of Color Television on Apollo 11
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    In Other News: 16 November 1969
  • In Other News: 16 November 1969


    Image Credit: Tim Gagnon & Jorge Cartes

    16 November 1969

    Apollo 11

    Day 3

    MET: T+ 44:12:06

    Callsign: Columbia

    Frank Borman craned his neck to snag a bacon square out of the air in front of him. He was feeling much better after the events of the past 2 days.

    He squeezed the bag of grape juice and caught most of what came out. Wiping off his chin, he stowed the containers and concluded his breakfast. As he settled into the left-hand seat of Columbia, the voice of his old friend Jim Lovell came over the radio from 100,000 miles away.

    Columbia, Houston. How are you reading me this fine morning?”

    Borman cracked a smile, “Houston, Columbia. 5 by 5. Jim, you’re CAPCOM this morning?”

    “Roger that. You boys about done with breakfast?”

    “Affirmative. Mike and Al are finishing up now. I got done a couple of minutes ago. You can let everyone know that bacon up here is basically just as good as bacon on the ground.”

    “Well Frank, I’m sure America’s pork industry is gonna appreciate that endorsement.”

    The three astronauts chuckled slightly before Lovell went on.

    “I brought in my Sunday paper today. Figured you guys might want to grab some coffee and I’ll read you the headlines. Seeing as you’re out of town this week.”

    Borman checked his watch and nodded. They would have a few hours before they were scheduled to move over to the LEM to check out Freedom’s systems.

    “Copy that Jim. What’s in the Chronicle today?”

    “Well, for starters, you guys are the top story again. Which isn’t much of a surprise since you’re basically the top story everywhere they have newspapers.”

    Borman gave a tight smile to his CMP and LMP. They’d known months ago that the press would follow this flight like none before or since. One of the few comforting thoughts during the harrowing launch on Friday had been that, one way or another, they’d done their last interview for at least a week.

    “Forget all that. What else is in the paper Houston?”

    “Let’s see. The final stages of the troop withdrawal have begun. Army officials are stating that at least 60% of American forces will be back home in time for Christmas.”

    “That’s good to hear. I think everyone in the loop today has someone they’re looking forward to seeing again.”

    Lovell piped back, “No doubt.” After a moment’s pause, he continued, “The first formal charges have been filed in the Chennault Affair.”

    Mike Collins chimed in from the middle seat, “Haldeman or Nixon?”

    Lovell continued, “Haldeman. The indictments cover criminal conspiracy and violation of the Logan Act.”

    Borman let out a mournful whistle. What a mess that whole scandal had become. Richard Nixon, flawed though he was, had served his country, both in uniform and as Vice President. While Borman hadn’t voted for him last year, he was sorry to see a public servant brought so low.

    He couldn’t get into that over the radio though since the whole world might hear it. He limited his comment to, “Bad bit of business there.”

    Lovell was equally tactful, “Indeed. Also, looks like Wall Street is starting to recover from what they were calling the ‘Summer of Peace.’ The stocks of the major defense contractors are starting to recover. And commercial stocks are on an uptick as we’re moving into the holidays. Unemployment is declining.”

    Alan Bean’s soft tones came up, “Always good news.”

    Lovell continued, “Heh, this is funny. There’s apparently something of a run on color televisions over the past month or so in anticipation of the landing. The word is out that you guys are going to be broadcasting from the surface in living color. Folks want to see that. They’re even low on color TV’s in Europe right now. And there are several towns around the country that are going to hold viewing parties.”

    Borman smirked, “Oh thanks, Jim, easing of the pressure. Nice to be reminded that now not only will the whole world be watching, but plenty of them will be doing it in color.”

    Lovell came back, “Sorry, Frank. Tell you what, let’s go to sports.”

    A moment passed as Lovell flipped to the page, “Okay. President Kennedy, after his return from watching the launch on Friday, welcomed the New York Mets to the White House. The Mets were there to celebrate their victory over Baltimore in the World Series last month. The President apparently remarked that New York needs to stop upsetting Baltimore for the rest of the year.”

    Borman tilted his head. Collins answered his unspoken question, “Ah… cause Joe Namath beat the Colts in the Super Bowl and that was an upset too.”

    The comm beep came back, “Not the best year to be a sports fan in Baltimore.”

    Al Bean smiled, "You could always root for the Senators. Especially now that Bob Hope bought them up."

    Bob Hope had been part of a group that bought the team 2 years ago.

    Collins laughed quietly, "I love that he changed the uniforms to green and gray."

    Borman laughed too, "He said that was the color of a dollar bill, which was all Senators really cared about anyways."

    A hearty chuckle filled the small spacecraft.

    Borman had a question, “Hey, whatever happened to those new teams they threw into the National League this year?”

    Lovell replied, “The one up in Montreal, the Royals, they came in 6th in the league. The other new squad is the one out in San Diego. The San Diego Tides. They finished dead last.”

    Al Bean spoke, “There’s gonna be two new AL teams next year, right?”

    Lovell’s call came back, “Roger that. The Seattle Pilots…”

    Collins said, “Love that name.”

    Lovell chuckled and replied, “Yeah, I’d have to agree. The other new team is gonna be in Kansas City.”

    Borman keyed his mike, “What are they calling that one again? Over.”

    Collins answered instead, “Apparently, they wanted to be the Kansas City Royals, but Montreal beat them to the punch. Now they’re gonna be the Blue Sox.”

    “Blue Sox?” Borman asked.

    Lovell answered, “Why not? We’ve already got Red and White.”

    Borman nodded, “Red, white, and blue? Well, on behalf of the crew of Columbia and Freedom. We approve. Are the Oilers playing today?”

    “Umm… yeah. They’re on the road in Denver. I’ll come back with that score tomorrow,” Lovell said.

    A beat passed and Apollo 11 went 100 miles during the pause.

    Lovell’s voice came back, “Okay fellas, we’re gonna start the day now. We’ve got a couple of housekeeping procedures here for you…”

    Image credit for patch
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    VIII: The New World
  • The New World

    Image Credit: Alan Bean

    19 November 1969

    Apollo 11

    Flight Day 6.

    MET: T+ 108:10:23

    Callsign: Freedom

    The launch on Friday had been harrowing. What had started as a light shower at the Cape had culminated with a lightning strike about 30 seconds into the flight. He’d died a thousand deaths as they’d fixed the issue. With any luck, the flight surgeon would never tell him what his heart rate had been during those terrifying moments. The caution and warning panel had lit up like a Broadway marquee. His every instinct as a pilot had told him to throw the abort handle, but, though he hated to admit it, in the back of his head, he had thought of what it would do to the country and to the program.

    This was their last chance. There was no launch window left in the decade to make this landing. Today, one way or another, John Kennedy’s goal would be met… or not. And somehow he, Frank Borman, pride of Tuscon, Arizona, would be humanity’s first representative on another heavenly body.

    It was enough to make him laugh and shudder, from the magnificent scope of it all.

    He looked out the window and saw Columbia slowly drifting back. He said a quick prayer that he’d see the ship again, remembering to be thankful that he was able to be here at all; and silently admonishing the part of him that wished he was back at home.

    Alan Bean tapped him on the shoulder. He didn’t say anything as the mikes were hot, but Borman nodded to let his LMP know that all was well.

    “Houston, this is Freedom. We are ready for the burn. Just want to say, before the show starts, thanks to everyone down there for getting us this far. We couldn’t have done this without you. We’ll make you proud up here.”

    Charlie Duke was the voice in his ear all the way in. He’d been at the CAPCOM desk for several shifts over the past few days, “Thank you Freedom. We’re gonna be right there with you all the way to touchdown. Best of luck to you fellas.”

    For an Air Force aviator like Frank Borman, there was nothing so comforting as a checklist. For the next 2 hours, he and Alan Bean, one of the best pilots the U.S. Navy had produced, were engrossed in the checklists necessary to bring Freedom down to the start of powered descent.

    In a flash, it was all starting to happen. Five hundred klicks out.

    Borman felt a grin creep over his face and suddenly felt right at home, “Okay Houston, here we go. Program 63.”

    He couldn’t see Al’s face, but his voice was barely-controlled excitement, “Throttle up!”

    Freedom’s decent engine pushed him further onto the balls of his feet as the LEM computer got settled in for the descent.

    Weight returned to his feet as Freedom throttled up to 10%. Alan made the next call, “DPS is looking good Houston. Seeing good numbers on helium and the RCS isn’t making much noise.”

    “Roger Freedom. We’ve got your downrange offset now. Noun six-niner. Input is 04000. Confirm?”

    “Houston, Freedom. Roger. Copy noun six-niner. Input 04000. Go for input?”

    “Go for input.”

    A moment passed. Freedom wasn’t positioned to let them see the surface, but they were too busy to look at it anyhow.

    Bean checked his panel, “Aggs and Pings line up.”

    “Roger, confirmed on ground track. We’ve got you right on the line.”

    So far, so good.

    Borman felt relief at seeing the velocity and altitude lights wink out. Right on the button. Freedom’s computers were dialed in today.

    Charlie Duke came back, “Okay, Freedom. Expecting data convergence in a moment here. Your computer and your radar are working and playing well with others today.”

    The RCS pushed the ship through a brief shudder. Bean relayed as much to the ground.

    “Roger, Freedom. RCS numbers still in the green. We’ll keep an eye on it. Recommend you transfer data from Pings to Aggs. Pings has a better lock, over.”

    Bean keyed the necessary inputs. Freedom throttled down and started to level out a bit. Borman got his first view of the field before him. “Key up the camera Al.”

    Bean reached up to switch on the camera by the window. “Frank, 160 down, 12000.”

    Borman nodded at the descent rate and altitude numbers. He’d have preferred a little slower and higher, but he’d dealt with worse in the sims.

    “P64! There we go. LPD indicated. We’ve got our eye on the ball now Houston.” His stomach rolled with the ship as Program 64 pitched the LEM up for the final phase of the landing.

    Bean gave a triumphant chuckle, “Heh ha! There’s the snowman. Right down the middle of the runway!”

    Borman felt like he could jump for joy. “Okay! Excellent! 43 degrees and we’re all set.”

    Bean updated him. “3500, down at 99. Looking good Frank.”

    “I want my LPD over a bit to the right,” Borman said.

    “Plenty of LPD time. Coming through 2000 now.”

    Borman made the adjustment of the landing point detector, “There we go. 33 degrees.”

    “Down through 1500. Plenty of gas.”

    “Looking good Houston. Should get into Program 66 here any second.”

    Alan said almost on top of him, “Program 66. You’ve got the stick, Frank. 10 percent at 500, babe. Plenty of gas.”

    For the next two minutes, Frank Borman felt nothing at all. He was as focused and determined as he’d ever been. The calls from his LMP came in the exact same clipped, precise manor that he’d used every day for the past year in the simulators back in Houston.

    Houston’s call for the quantity light was of no concern. He had his target and as he passed through 40 feet, he felt the tranquility of confidence in himself and the thousands of people whose efforts had brought him here. In the final descent to the surface, all his nervousness, all his apprehension, all his doubts and fears left him. Frank Borman felt free.

    “Contact light. Okay. Engine arm off. Bus 2 closed.”

    For a moment, the silence on the Ocean of Storms was matched only by that of humanity holding its collective breath.

    Borman had the honor of the call, “Okay, Houston. Freedom has come to the moon.”


    An hour later, all was ready. There had been much discussion before the flight about how much time there should be between landing and the first EVA. In the debate, Borman had sided with a young man from the public affairs office who had wanted to make sure the EVA started at 9 pm Eastern time. That had suited Borman and Bean very well as it meant they only had to wait 2 hours, instead of the proposed 4.

    Al finished the last suit check and took himself off of VOX for a moment. “Any idea what you’re going to say out there?”

    “Not the first damn clue,” Borman laughed. It had been a running gag with the crew for the last 6 months. “Whatever it is, you’ll find out soon enough.”

    “Frank. Thanks. That was a fantastic job today.”

    “Couldn’t have done it without you Al.”

    The process of opening the door and sliding out of the hatch was simultaneously exciting and tedious. It was a feeling that could easily be communicated to any child that had waited in line to get into Disneyland.

    He made the climb down the ladder slowly, remembering to pull the handle that released the video camera. That same young man from public affairs had buttonholed him after the meeting and had subtly explained that an awe-inspiring presentation tonight could directly translate to more flights in the future.

    “Okay, Houston. I’m at the footpad now. The dust around the LEM seems to be rather even. Landing legs are solid and Freedom is in good condition. The surface is fine-grained and has a powdery look to it.”

    In the days to come, a certain Hollywood director, in an attempt to be complimentary, made a casual remark that the light had hit Borman just perfectly as he stepped off the LEM. The director was quoted as saying that he couldn’t have done better with an actor on a soundstage. Certain cultural vandals took the quote as a chance to discredit the entire enterprise as a hoax.

    Two hundred million Americans gasped as Frank Borman took his first step onto the lunar surface.

    A beat passed in utter silence, forever separating mankind’s past from its future.

    Borman’s eyes lifted up briefly from the surface and, over the left landing leg, he saw the Earth in all its beauty, surrounded by an infinite ocean of pure black night.

    The words came to him from out of a distant memory.

    “Oh God, Thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”
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    IX: Person-To-Person
  • Person-To-Person


    Image Credit: Alan Bean

    19 November 1969

    Apollo 11

    MET: T+ 112:16:54

    Oceanus Procellarum

    3°11'51" S 23°23'8" W

    Jerry Swinson, a transfer from the X-20 program, was CAPCOM for the EVA. “Freedom, this is Houston. Al, can you pull that lens cap off for us? If you’ve got it all lined up there.”

    “Roger that Houston, let me get it turned around here.”

    Alan Bean turned the tripod away from the sun. He circled the stand and pulled the black cap off of the lens. Seven hundred million people saw an image of Frank Borman standing on the Ocean of Storms.

    In full color they watched the two astronauts put up the Stars and Stripes. The red and blue stood out on the bright gray surface. The only thing more brilliant was the gold of the lunar module in the background.

    “Okay guys, we’re getting a picture on the TV here that is just phenomenal.”

    “Copy that, Houston. Al and Mike and I would like to say hello to the people of Earth. We want to say thank you to the people of the United States, who have been excellent in their support of the space program since its inception.”

    “Roger that Frank.”

    Alan’s line came next in the script, “We would also like to acknowledge the thousands of employees of NASA and our contractors, who worked tirelessly to bring us here to this new horizon. Without their support, we would never have gotten off the ground.”

    Frank decided this was a good moment to ad-lib, “Also Houston, we’d like to take a moment to remember those who gave their lives in this pursuit. Our fellow astronauts Gus Grisson, Ed White, Roger Chafee, Clifton Williams, Ted Freeman, and from the Soviet Union, we want to remember Valentin Bondarenko and Yuri Gagarin. We honor their sacrifice and we will never forget them, as we explore and expand our horizons.”

    A moment of silence passed. For a brief span, both Moon and Earth were as quiet as the space between.

    “Copy that Frank. We’ve got a couple of people who’d like to speak with you now.”

    Across the void, a familiar voice came through, “Good Evening, Frank and Al. This is Robert Kennedy. I’m here with Vice President Glenn and we’re speaking with you from the White House.”

    He continued before they had a chance to acknowledge him, “This is one of the proudest moments of my life, and I’m sure the same can be said for every American and every citizen of the world. This evening you have united us all in brotherhood. Every human being around the world can share in this immense achievement. And though it is the flag of the United States that now flies over the lunar surface, we can be sure of two things. First is that that flag now represents our world as a whole, and second, that flag is but the first of many. The peaceful exploration of space has only just begun and there is much great work still to be accomplished on this new frontier. I thank you for blazing this trail for us and, I assure you, there will be more great achievements to come.”

    Frank finally was able to get a word in, “Thank you, Mr. President. We’re honored to be here representing all of humanity in the cause of peace and understanding.”

    “Yes indeed. Now, I’m sure Vice President Glenn will want to say hello.”

    The gravelly aviator’s voice spread over two hundred thousand miles to speak with his old colleagues. “Frank and Al, I just wanted to compliment you on a fantastic landing. That was absolutely aces boys. All of us back on Earth are looking forward to seeing you come home safely next week.”

    “Thank you, Mr. Vice President. Wish you could have joined us for this trip.”

    “I wish that too Frank.”

    The President came back on the line, “We know you’re rather busy up there, so we’ll let you get back to work. I’ve got to go speak to the phone company, as I fear this may be the farthest person-to-person call in history.”

    A wry grin broke out on the astronauts' faces. They gave a polite chuckle and began walking back to the LEM to set up the experiments package.

    “Thank you very much, Mr. President. We look forward to seeing you when we get back.”

    Alan addressed the camera as they brought the ALSEP out from the LEM’s shadow, “Okay folks, this is the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package. We call it ALSEP. This box that I’m holding here is a laser reflector. It’ll allow our scientists back on Earth to precisely measure the distance to the Moon from now on. Next, we have a…”

    For the next two hours, humanity’s first lunar explorers narrated their activities from the surface to a captive audience. Live, color television from the Moon was now in the capabilities of the human race.

    There were a scant few who turned off their televisions during the rock collection. The next day, almost all of them cursed their impatience.

    After the last of the surface samples had been loaded up, Frank Borman walked back to the tripod and gave a slow, panoramic sweep of the lunar surface. By the original flight plan, he was supposed to sweep right to left for the geologists to get a feel for where to send them on their second, final EVA tomorrow. Instead, he swept left to right, recording the close lunar horizon, and then panned up to give the audience one last bit of wonder.

    The slow zoom showed a half-Earth hanging brilliantly in the sky. The terminator line was clearly visible and cut sharply across the orb. Clouds patterns showed an awe-inspiring white against the crystal blue ocean. A swath of central Europe was visible, even from this great distance.

    Behind the camera, Frank flipped to the last page of his suit checklist. He frowned as he looked at the lengthy verse written there. Genesis had a tendency to ramble on a bit, and he needed to be brief. They were already behind schedule and the first landing was no time to take chances.

    With all of humanity framed in the image, he spoke again, “We have an infinite amount to learn, both from nature, and from each other. That work is just beginning. On behalf of the crew of Apollo 11, we’d like to wish you all good night, good luck, and God bless all of you; all of you on the good Earth.”

    For most of America, Walter Cronkite took over narration as Borman and Bean secured the samples and reentered the LEM. As the feed from the surface was cut, around midnight Eastern Standard Time, Cronkite made a point to remind everyone watching to tune in the next night, when the crew would be walking a few hundred yards away to look at Surveyor III. It would be the first time in history that human beings had caught up to one of their robotic explorers.

    During their return trip from the Ocean of Storms, it was reported that the broadcasts from the Surveyor EVA retained 94% of the audience from the previous night.
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    X: The 50 Stars Initiative
  • The 50 Stars Initiative


    20 January 1970

    U. S. Capitol

    Washington, D. C.

    38° 53′ 23″ N 77° 00′ 32″W

    President Robert F. Kennedy’s Annual Message to Congress Regarding the State of the Union

    Before closing today, I wish to speak to you on one final matter of public interest.

    Nine years ago, my brother stood on this very spot, in this hallowed chamber. And with confidence in the American people, and a fierce belief in what we could achieve together, he challenged this nation to go to the moon. Every American was surely moved by the fulfillment of that goal last November, and I wish to recognize the men of Apollo 11 who are here with us today.

    (Kennedy signals to the balcony and Mr. Bean, Mr. Borman and Mr. Collins are recognized. Applause lasts for 2 minutes.)

    Our forefathers were the bold ones. The ones who voyaged; the ones who set sail, despite the dangers, in the hope that they could discover, build and thrive in a new world. We shall not dishonor that proud legacy.

    There have been rumblings, both in this chamber and outside of it, that the cost of exploration is too high, and that only after solving all the other problems that we currently confront, should we use our resources to explore the heavens. In a similar way, I’m sure that there were concerned advisors to Isabella who told the queen not to give aid to this fool Columbus who wanted to make his way across the outer ocean. I’m sure there were those who condemned Orville and Wilbur Wright as cranks pursuing an impossible dream. I’m also sure there are those who felt that we’d have done better to leave outer space to the communists. That our hopes and dreams must be sacrificed in the name of expediency. But, friends, that kind of thinking is not worthy of you, it’s not worthy of a President, it’s not worthy of a great nation, it’s not worthy of America.

    Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land, or in our legislature.

    To that end, tonight, I am announcing a bold new vision for America’s future in outer space. The 50 Stars initiative. In the coming decade, we shall build on the successes of the one before. We will learn not just how to travel in space, but how to live and build and thrive there. In every one of our 50 states, we will create new jobs and new industries, which will develop and test new technologies. Computer systems, rocket engines, solar energy, and more beyond. Every state in our union will be able to contribute, and every state will feel the benefits of high-tech, high-paying jobs for its people. These technologies will invariably spread and improve American life in countless other ways. The opening of outer space has already shown great leaps in communications, metallurgy, weather forecasting, air travel; to say nothing of the invaluable benefit of inspiring a new generation of Americans to study the sciences and reach for the stars. As we embark on further voyages into the unknown, we shall find vast returns on our investments, both in our bank accounts and in our textbooks.

    The industries that we create will be both far-reaching and long-lived. I do not wish to offer a plan to Congress on how to create the economy of the 1970’s. I wish to offer a plan for the American economy all the way into the next millennium.

    Our Creator, in his grace, has gifted us with a sky full of potential. In our quest to explore the Moon, we shall begin to learn about the planets and moons beyond. This pursuit of knowledge is universally recognized as a service to mankind.

    Much as our armed forces have safeguarded democracy and freedom, and much as our Peace Corps has shared our bounty and our brotherhood with the world; now NASA will be our trailblazers to the future. The knowledge we gain, the technologies we develop, the education we impart to our children and to the world at large will be used for the betterment of all mankind.

    I issue a call tonight. A call for Americans to unite on a journey for knowledge and for peace. This new path that we forge is not for the timid. It is not for men weary of the challenges the future brings. It requires the courage of a nation of explorers. It requires the strength of a proud people, united in their vision of a better world for themselves and their children. My call is not to those who believe they belong to the past. My call is to those who believe in the future.

    Thank you all and God bless America.
    XI: The Intrepid Voyagers
  • *Original patch design by Michelle Evans for the play 'Darkside.' Ms. Evans is also the author of 'The X-15 Rocket Plane, Flying the First Wings into Space' and her website can be found here.

    14 March 1970

    Apollo 12

    Flight Day 1

    MET: T+ 03:02:00

    Callsign: Discovery

    Dick Gordon sighed and rubbed his nose. This was starting to look grim. He took a deep breath before firing Discovery’s thrusters for station-keeping. He wasn’t sure if the situation had gone from frustrating to embarrassing yet, but either way, it was close to the border.

    As the flight’s commander, Buzz Aldrin was technically not supposed to handle this maneuver, but he was considering giving it a shot. After all, they were about to start the fourth attempt to dock with Intrepid.

    Aldrin tapped Gordon on the shoulder to stop him from starting again. He keyed his headset, “Houston, Discovery. Okay, guys. We’ve had 3 runs at this now. It may be time to try something a little different.”

    Bruce McCandless was working CAPCOM today, “Roger that, Discovery. We’re working on a procedure here. Stand by.”

    Edgar Mitchell, the LMP, checked the range between Discovery and the S-IVB again and said, “Guys, I’m seeing scratches on Intrepid’s docking cone.”

    Aldrin floated over to the right-hand side of the command module and took the scope from his LMP. “Yeah, Houston, confirmed. Looks like we’ve got a small scratch in the LEM cone. Can you advise, over?”

    Dick Gordon looked a little panicky, “You think we hit it too hard that last time?”

    Aldrin shook his head, “No, I’m thinking it’s a flaw in the latches.”

    They’d made three runs at docking already. The first time, Gordon had brought them in at a hummingbird-esque 3 inches per second. The CSM had simply bounced off the top of the LEM. The alignment had been fine, but, for the first time in the Apollo program, the docking had failed. A second attempt went much the same way. Under guidance from Houston, they’d increased the closing speed to about 1 foot per second, but that felt very fast to Dick Gordon and he was reticent to try it again, for fear that he’d damage Intrepid and all its delicate systems.

    Now they needed a new plan.

    Gordon came up with something first, “Houston, Discovery. Let’s try this. We’ll close with Intrepid slowly, but, if we start to bounce, I’ll push in instead of drawing back. See if holding on the cone for a bit will let us retract.”

    Aldrin spoke next, “I think that’s the right call. I’m seeing barber pole just before we bounce, but we’re just not getting retraction.”

    CAPCOM came back, “Roger, Discovery. Let’s give that a shot and see what happens.”

    Aldrin nodded to Gordon. Gordon, feeling better, armed with a new plan and the confidence of his commander, took the joystick in hand and started maneuvering again.

    Ed, in the right hand seat, called the approach, “25 feet. 15. 10. Okay, here we go.”

    Discovery lurched as it slid into position. Gordon, feeling the impact, fired the CSM’s thrusters forward to hold the contact.

    Aldrin’s voice was excited, “Barber pole! Okay, hold, hold.”

    They heard the mechanical clicking as the docking system drew the two spacecraft together. The excited thumping that signaled the LEM was finally ready to come out and play.

    “Bingo! Houston, we have hard dock!”

    McCandless breathed a sigh of relief. “Roger, 12. Good to hear it. We’ll take a little bit to settle before we go for extraction.”


    Three hours later, Gordon finished turning the last bolt and slowly and carefully pulled the probe assembly out and into the main cabin. The three astronauts eagerly gathered around it, Mitchell holding up a TV camera for the engineers on the ground.

    Gordon turned over the three-bar probe and showed each side to Aldrin and the camera. The three men looked at the probe, then at each other.

    “Damned if I can see anything wrong with it.”

    The new CAPCOM was Scott Keller. His southern accent carried a twang across several thousand miles of void, “Copy, Discovery. We’re showing your footage to the boys from North American. For what it’s worth, it looks pretty good to me.”

    Aldrin called back, “Not seeing anything broken. No scoring or anything obvious.”

    “Dick, is that bolt at the base loose at all?”

    “No, it’s tight Ed.”

    Aldrin frowned. “It’s engineering hell. Everything checks, but the thing doesn’t work.”

    “It worked when we needed it to.”

    “After 4 attempts. That’s not exactly impressive.”

    Keller came back over the radio, “Engineering is recommending you give it a good wipe down and then reattach it. Having it out like this isn’t great for the system in the first place.”

    Aldrin nodded as Gordon started giving the probe a once-over with a cloth. “Yeah, Houston, I’m still thinking whatever this is has got to be an issue with Intrepid. When we get in there tomorrow, we can take a look on that end and see if anything seems out of place.”

    “Roger that, Buzz. We’re evaluating. That may affect our rendezvous procedures.”

    Edgar Mitchell looked grim. If Intrepid couldn’t be relied upon to dock with Discovery after the landing, there was a decent chance that Houston may scrub the landing entirely.

    Aldrin floated over to him and switched off VOX. “We’re not gonna let them take the landing away. We can transfer over in suits if we have to. They’re not gonna scrub for the second flight.”

    Mitchell nodded. It was hollow solace for the LMP. Intrepid was more or less his ship after all. He wasn’t wild about anything being wrong with her.

    The debate, such as it was, with the ground, was more or less an exercise for the NASA brass. Flight Director Lunney and Commander Aldrin both felt that scrubbing the landing wasn’t exactly a reasonable response to a faulty latch in the docking system. Both felt comfortable with that assumption. And it stood to reason that if the two ships could be brought together once, they could do so again. Armed with the backup option of an EVA transfer and there was very little reason to not proceed with the landing as planned.

    A ten-minute exchange with mission control was enough to get everyone on the same page, and satisfy the desire that the devil’s advocates have a hearing before the inevitable was agreed upon.

    To close it out Aldrin offered, with a wry smile, “I’m glad we’re settled on this Houston, Ed and I have a very important appointment the day after tomorrow in the Sea of Tranquility.”


    20 March 1970

    Apollo 12

    Flight Day 6

    MET: T+ 120:45:00

    Callsign: Intrepid

    Officially, there was a random drawing to determine which network’s anchor would be doing the interview between EVA’s. Unofficially, the press office was unanimous that it would be Walter Cronkite, and the “drawing” had taken place out of public view.

    After a few questions about the flight and the first EVA, Cronkite read through a question from a randomly selected youngster.

    The dean of evening news relayed the question. “Buzz, James, an 8-year-old from Nebraska, would like to know what it’s like to walk on the Moon.”

    Buzz and Ed both looked into the TV camera mounted in a corner. “Well, James, it’s like every vacation, Disneyworld, the beach, roller coasters and amusement parks, all rolled into one. It’s the most excited that we’ve been for anything in our lives.”

    "And tell us about your choice of words as you stepped off the LEM."

    Aldrin could imagine the newsman reclining slowly to hear this answer. Part of him wondered if his choice had rung hollow next to Borman's words from last November.

    "Yes, 'Magnificent desolation.' The magnificence of human beings, humanity, Planet Earth, maturing the technologies, imagination, and courage to expand our capabilities beyond the next ocean, to dream about being on the Moon, and then taking advantage of increases in technology and carrying out that dream - achieving that is magnificent testimony to humanity.

    But it is also desolate - there is no place on earth as desolate as what I was viewing in those first moments on the lunar surface. Because I realized what I was looking at, towards the horizon and in every direction, had not changed in hundreds, thousands of years."

    “And Buzz, I wanted to ask you about the monolith you brought along.”

    Aldrin flashed a grin and held up a small black prism that fit in the palm of his hand. “Yes, Walter. As you know, the movie 2001 from a couple of years ago was very popular with us in the astronaut corps. There’s a scene from the film where a monolith, a black slab, very much like this one I have here, is discovered on the Moon. Tomorrow morning, during our EVA, I’ll be planting this miniature one in the lunar surface and, with any luck, an explorer in the year 2001 may come along and find it still sitting here.”

    “That sounds like a fine plan, Buzz.”

    “In honor of that film, we named our command module Discovery, after the ship that they fly to Jupiter. Similarly, our mission patch is an alignment of the Sun, Moon and Earth, much as you saw in the opening to the film.”

    Cronkite’s voice caught up to the 3-second delay, “I hear that you and Commander Lovell both wanted that name for your spacecraft.”

    “Yes, that’s correct. We flipped a coin for it last year. Jim Lovell and his crew will be flying to the Moon in the Odyssey later this year.”

    “We’ll certainly look forward to that flight, just as we’ll be watching tomorrow morning when you and Ed go outside again.”

    “Yes, and Ed and Dick Gordon and I look forward to seeing everyone back on Earth next week. From the Sea of Tranquility, this is the crew of Apollo 12 wishing everyone back on Earth a good night.”

    21 March 1970

    Apollo 12

    MET: T+ 143:37:12

    Discovery-Intrepid Rendezvous

    Altitude: 118 miles

    Buzz Aldrin wasn’t the type to take undue risks. Truth be told, no astronaut was. Any thrill-seekers and adrenaline junkies were subtly filtered out, usually long before they saw a NASA paycheck. The space-cowboy, silk-scarf image was a laughable fiction to those who knew the astronauts best.

    Still, as Aldrin floated within the confines of his moon suit, he knew that the following hour would be both risky and thrilling. In the back of his head, he wasn’t entirely sure whether he was excited or nervous.

    His mike was hot and he tried to maintain a level voice. “Houston, Intrepid. Five attempts now and we still don’t have it. Look, it’s not like we haven’t prepared for this eventuality. I’m recommending we start depressurization procedures and Ed and I will transfer outside.”

    A quarter of a million miles away, Glynn Lunney did a poll of the flight controllers and there was a consensus. With the docking system being somewhat uncooperative, the only option left was an EVA transfer. No one really believed that a sixth attempt would be any different from the first five. The inspection of Intrepid’s drogue from a few days ago had yielded no answers to the problem.

    Charlie Duke had the CAPCOM desk for the moment. “Roger, Intrepid. You’re go for depressurization. Recommend you depress first and prepare your samples for transfer while we have Discovery go through depressurization.”

    “Copy, Houston. Dick, you got your tux on? Ready for us to come over?”

    Dick Gordon’s steady voice came back, “I’m set here Buzz. Go ahead on your end, I’ll monitor station-keeping and range just in case there’s a shift.”

    “Okay, here we go.” Buzz nodded to Edgar Mitchell who threw the appropriate switches.

    Cabin depressurization took about 5 minutes, during which time, they prepared the surface samples for transfer. Buzz was determined not to lose a single bag of dust or rock and they went through the sample return list twice as Gordon cycled Discovery’s air back into the service module tanks.

    The procedure had been practiced a few times on the ground, with the understanding that it was possible, but rather unlikely to be needed. The engineers from Grumman had been of two minds about the best way to proceed, but eventually, several years before the first LEM flight, it had been agreed that, in the event of a spacewalk transfer, the CSM and LEM would maintain their basic docking configuration, even without a hard dock.

    At the moment, the only thing that separated Buzz and Ed from Discovery was a few inches of metal and a few microns of pure vacuum. The plan called for them to egress the same way they had on the lunar surface, then use very carefully placed handholds to bring themselves across. It was the kind of thing that was rather simple in a water tank on Earth, or in the pages of a flight manual, but that got a little tricky when it was being done a hundred miles over the Moon.

    Buzz was the first to emerge and he rooted himself firmly on the porch. He twisted his body to look “up” relative to Intrepid’s position and saw Dick Gordon waving back from Discovery’s hatch, not 20 feet away from him.

    “Hand me that first bag Ed.” Buzz reached back through the hatch and took the white bag from Mitchell’s outstretched arms.

    He gripped the top of it very carefully. Inside were about a third of their surface samples. “This has got to be what armored car drivers feel like,” he said, to no one in particular.

    Gingerly, he made his way up the lunar module’s ascent stage, careful to keep his eyes on the hand holds. Truth be told, he felt rather comfortable. He was, after all, the first astronaut in the corps who really figured out how to move and walk and work in zero-G. The flight of Gemini XII had been a demonstration to the entire agency that, with preparation and control, a spacewalking astronaut could do just about any task that was required.

    Back on Earth, there were whispered conversations that, if this had to happen to a particular crew, it was fortunate that it had been Aldrin’s.

    In Grand Central Station, as they had 9 years before for John Glenn’s flight, passengers stopped to watch the crew transfer on live television. All three networks broke in from regular programming to show the feeds from Discovery’s TV camera. The air-to-ground loop was not part of the broadcast, but each station had secured an astronaut to explain the events to semi-confused viewers. Many of which had been watching over the past weekend as the crew had roamed Mare Tranquilitatis.

    Carefully, both for himself and for the precious cargo in his hands, Buzz Aldrin hand delivered 4 bags of lunar samples to Dick Gordon, who stowed them before monitoring Buzz’s return to Intrepid’s porch. The process was the longest 20 minutes of Glynn Lunney’s career to that point.

    Aldrin had insisted on being solely responsible for the rock samples. Being the commander, and a veteran spacewalker, he wanted his LMP to be only concerned for his own safety, rather than having to also worry about ferrying sample bags.

    With the last of the bags transferred and stowed aboard the command module, Aldrin had Gordon move to the interior and then placed himself in the hatch, taking Gordon’s place.

    Flight surgeons tracked Edgar Mitchell’s heart rate at 88 bpm, up from his usual 70. Mitchell steadied himself on the porch, and got his bearings. Life became so much easier when all he was looking at was the spacecraft and the blackness beyond it, rather than the Moon, so far down and far away.

    Four holds allowed him to climb up Intrepid’s angular surface. At the last one, he began to more or less crawl along the top of the ascent stage. Aldrin reached for him from the hatch, but, in his prone posture, Mitchell couldn’t be reached until he rose from the position.

    Aldrin talked to him the whole way and, 5 minutes after he emerged from the lunar module, Edgar Mitchell slid, headfirst, into the CSM, to the delight of a captive audience, both in mission control, and around the United States.

    Feeling like an unbearable weight had lifted, Mitchell looked around the airless module as Aldrin closed up the hatch, “I leave home for a couple of days and look what happens.”
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    XII: The Saga of Apollo 13 - Part I
  • The Saga of Apollo 13


    3 June 1970

    Apollo 13

    MET: 119:45:37

    Fra Mauro Highlands

    Callsign: Aquarius

    It had all been worth it. The last decade had built to this moment, and it was, truly, everything he’d hoped it would be. The grandeur of this spot could not be matched by any place on Earth, if for no other reason than the entire Earth was in his field of view.

    That thought caught him more than any other. There was no other spot in the universe where you could put your feet on solid ground and look up to see the blue seas and white clouds of Earth. From Mars, the home planet would be a bright dot on the horizon, from most other planets, it would barely be that.

    Jim Lovell looked over at his LMP Fred Haise and smiled. Even in comparison to the first two flights, this was truly something special.

    Frank and Alan had set down on a relatively dull spot in the Ocean of Storms. It didn’t matter to anyone then. The Moon was more than enough. No one cared that the horizon held little but a few paltry craters and some small sloping mounds.

    Buzz and Ed’s jaunt in the Sea of Tranquility was much the same way. A flat spot of open ground, perfect to prove the engineering, but not really interesting from a geological, well, technically selenological perspective. They were perfect spots to land if you were just visiting the Moon for the first time. But for humanity’s third trip, it was time to go off-road.

    The view from Fra Mauro was a reminder that human beings had an innate desire to explore. Cone Crater was an impact site that provided something of a natural bore hole into the lunar regolith. The view from the rim was akin to that of Meteor Crater in Arizona. Cone Crater was a thousand feet across and over two hundred feet deep. The panoramic vista was truly awe inspiring. NASA had promised a majestic sight to three skeptical network news directors, and they had delivered.

    Lovell finished the camera pan and turned to face Aquarius, a few hundred yards away. From here, the LEM almost seemed like just another large boulder, save for the brilliant sheen of the gold thermal reflectors on the descent stage. The lumpy grey and black of the ascent stage blended well with the surface. Jim allowed himself to ponder the concept of being out here without a ride home, and found the idea both terrifying and exhilarating.

    From his headset, Jack Swigert’s voice came through from Houston, “Aquarius, Houston. We’d like to patch you into the TV feed for a couple of minutes to talk about the view you’re seeing and your upcoming activities.”

    The astronaut corps had lobbied successfully to keep the televised radio loop closed during surface activities. Technically, it was all a matter of public record and the press could use it anytime they liked, but, the networks had agreed to play ball, if for no other reason than it would allow both the agency and the news organizations to deliver a much more polished product to the viewers than they’d gotten from Apollos 11 and 12. Not that anyone on Earth had complained.

    The upper management of NASA had, with frustrated reluctance, admitted the need for live broadcasts during flight and especially on the lunar surface. The “shows” (how that word had horrified every engineer and scientist who drew a NASA paycheck) had led to some very positive feedback from Congress and the public at large. Both groups being critical to funding further exploration. Still, the idea of interrupting surface operations with an address to an audience back home was abhorrent to everyone involved, therefore, a compromise was reached.

    The Public Affairs Office had provided each network who carried the broadcast live an astronaut and a geology expert. They were there to provide insight and commentary and to explain to viewers at home what was happening on the surface at any given moment. It allowed NASA to not have to worry about millions of ears monitoring every word that was spoken on the air-to-ground loop, and let the agency put its best face forward without bothering mission personnel.

    From time to time though, public affairs would ask the moonwalkers to put in a few words themselves.

    Jim and Fred found the whole arrangement a bit tedious, but, it was a small price to pay, all things considered. Lovell would be the first in the astronaut corps to say that, for every American that watched the broadcasts from Fra Mauro, at least a certain percentage would write their congressman and request more funding for the trips to come.

    Also, he was rather excited for the interview with Jules Bergman when they got back to the LEM tonight.

    Lovell gave a small shrug to his LMP, but realized that the body language was lost in the moon suit. “That’ll be fine Jack. Patch us in.”

    “You’re go, Jim.”

    “Folks, we’re standing here at the rim of Cone Crater and it is quite a sight. What you’re seeing is what happens when an asteroid, probably no bigger than a hundred feet or so, slams into the lunar surface. The bright areas that you’re seeing around the edge are what’s called an ejecta blanket. They’re dust and rocks that were ejected during the impact and landed all around the hole. Freddo and I have brought along our cart full of tools and we’re going to be taking some samples from the rim and see how far down we can get here. Every bit farther we can get into the crater could lead us to rocks millions of years older than the ones we find at the top. We’re very interested in seeing what we can learn about the Moon’s history. After that, we’ll be loading up our cart with rocks and heading back to Aquarius. You can see it over there, about half a mile from here.”

    Fred Haise beeped into the loop, “Jim, I think this’d be a good time to try our little experiment.”

    Lovell grinned, “Yeah, Fred. This’ll be perfect. Folks, if you’re anything like Fred and me, sometimes when you stand at the edge of a big cliff, you get a powerful urge to drop something off. Well, up here, there’s no one to tell us not to. Go ahead Fred.”

    Haise walked a couple of feet over to a boulder about the size of a basketball. He put one boot on top of it and rocked it back and forth, then, after a couple of motions, it rolled down the face of the crater. Lovell kept the camera on it as it bounced down the slope, banging into a couple of smaller stones and sending them careening into the base of the crater.

    “Just a reminder ladies and gentlemen that that rock had likely been sitting in this exact spot for more than a billion years. We’ll figure out the age a little more precisely when we get back home.”

    Mission Control closed the radio loop again and they began a slow, careful descent into the top third of Cone Crater.

    Back in Houston, Swigert switched over to talk to Ken Mattingly in the Odyssey, in his orbit 60 miles above Lovell and Haise.

    Odyssey, Houston. Ken, you’re coming up on LOS. Everything looks good down here, just wanted to check in with you before you go swing around.”

    Mattingly’s voice came back 3 seconds later, an ever-present reminder of just how far away they really were, “Houston this is Odyssey. All good here from 60 miles up. When I come back, I’ll have some observations for the geology back room. I’ll log it to the tape dump and we’ll clear all that out on the way back home. Keep an eye on Jim and Fred for me. See you in 45 minutes.”

    “Copy that Ken. Catch you on the flip side.”

    Swigert nodded to his counterpart, Gene Cernan, who was talking to Lovell and Haise as they made their way into the crater. Swigert took a moment to watch the feed. They had descended about 30 feet down the crater wall and part of him thought that might be far enough. If they fell in like that boulder, there would be no way to get them out. Still, Lovell was a solid commander and not the type to take undue risks.

    As he debated going to grab a cup of coffee he got distracted by an unsubtle whispering to his right.

    Sy Liebergot at the EECOM console was in conference with his back room guys. Something was up. The suspense didn’t last long as Liebergot came on the line, “Flight, EECOM.”

    “Go, EECOM.”

    “Flight, we had a slight loss of cabin pressure in Odyssey just before LOS, over.”

    “A loss of cabin pressure?” Krantz seemed incredulous.

    “Roger, Flight. Data readings went down a tenth of a p.s.i. just before LOS.”

    “Instrumentation, EECOM?”

    “Likely, Flight. I’m thinking it’s ratty data as we entered LOS.”

    “What’s ECS say?”

    “SSR concurs Flight.”

    The Environmental Control System engineers in the Staff Support Room agreed with Liebergot’s assessment that this was likely just an error in the readings. Such errors often occurred when a spacecraft’s signal was lost. When a command module went behind the Moon and lost contact with Houston, the last few bits of information from the spacecraft were notoriously unreliable. The signal would become garbled before cutting out entirely.

    Liebergot frowned. In his time as EECOM, he’d seen ratty data indicate everything from malfunctioning thrusters, to bad fuel cells, to a blown oxygen tank. That last one had really scared the bejesus out of him.

    Krantz nodded and winced. With something as important as internal cabin pressure, this wasn’t so easy to dismiss. A loss of cabin pressure could mean anything from a puncture of the hull, to a malfunction of the life support system. It was a scenario that was feared by everyone who understood the operation of an Apollo spacecraft. Still, it would be a horrible waste to alter the surface activity over a piece of ratty data. To be a Flight Director was to constantly be asked to make life-altering decisions based on less-than-perfect data. It was not a job for the faint of heart.

    The memory of the burst helium disc on Apollo 9 last year was still fresh in his mind. The White Team of Mission Control needed him to make the call.

    “INCO, did you pick up anything unusual before LOS?”

    “Negative, Flight.”

    “FAO, how long until we have Lovell and Haise start back for Aquarius?”

    “Thirty-seven minutes, flight.”

    Swigert looked at the big board up front. The clock marked AOS read thirty-five minutes and counting. That would be when they’d have new data from Odyssey and know if this was all really a problem with the spacecraft, or just ratty data.

    Krantz didn’t hesitate. This was a matter of crew safety. “CAPCOM, have the crew start back for the Aquarius. TELMU, Control, start reviewing for an emergency ascent and rendezvous with Odyssey. Retro, Booster, I want launch and rendezvous data ready for Lovell and Haise before they get Aquarius repressurized. FAO, if Odyssey comes back from LOS clean, I want to know what surface operations we can perform during the walk back. Let’s go people.”

    Twenty engineers got to work, along with dozens of others in the SSR.

    Swigert had the unenviable task of starting Lovell and Haise back to the LEM.

    Aquarius, Houston.”

    “Houston, Aquarius.”

    “Jim, we need to wrap up activity at Cone and start to head back to the LEM.”

    “Uh, by my watch we’ve got another half hour here. What’s the story, Houston?”

    “Jim, we’ve read a potential drop in cabin pressure aboard Odyssey. She’s past LOS right now, but we want to start heading back to the LEM so we can do a rendezvous if the data is accurate.”

    “A drop in cabin pressure on the Odyssey?”

    “Roger, Jim. Just to be on the safe side, we want to get you and Fred heading back before Odyssey comes back around. If everything is okay, we’ll be able to come back tomorrow and finish out the checklist for Cone.”

    “Copy, Houston. We’re starting back now.”

    On the screen, Swigert saw the feed from the surface TV camera. It was on a tripod at the crater rim and showed Lovell and Haise making their way back to the lip of Cone Crater. Jack could only imagine the frustration they must feel at having to cut the EVA short. Whether the Odyssey was crippled or not, it was a terrible loss to sacrifice any time on the surface.

    The next thirty minutes were a flurry of activity across every console and back room in Mission Control.

    Lovell and Haise were about 50 yards from the LEM when the AOS clock reached zero.

    Swigert keyed his mike and looked over at Sy Liebergot. He wondered whether Sy’s face or Ken’s voice would be the first confirmation.

    Odyssey, Houston. Do you read me?”

    It turned out to be a tie. Sy Liebergot stared into his console like he was looking at the Grim Reaper.

    Mattingly came over the line clear as a bell, “We had a sudden depressurization here, Houston. Cabin pressure is down to zero and at the moment I’m on suit pressure. I’m guessing there’s a leak in the bulkhead, but I don’t know.”

    For a man who had the cold vacuum of space a mere 6 inches from his throat, Mattingly was relatively calm. Swigert hoped to keep his tone just as even.

    “Roger, Odyssey, we copy your depressurization.”

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    The Saga of Apollo 13 - Part II
  • The Saga of Apollo 13 - Part II


    Image Credit: Alan Bean

    3 June 1970

    Apollo 13

    MET: 124:32:37

    Manned Spacecraft Center - MOCR

    29° 33’ 47” N 95° 05’ 28” W

    They had scrambled, but, in the end, it wasn’t fast enough to get to Odyssey on her first pass.

    Getting the new ascent and rendezvous data into the computer took longer than expected. The window to rendezvous with Odyssey as she first came around under zero pressure was less than half an hour. Rushing matters would be far less safe than a vacuum pressure command module, so the decision was made to have Mattingly ride through one more orbit before they blasted off from Fra Mauro.

    As he finished loading the last of the samples into the LEM, Lovell keyed his microphone, “Houston, are we thinking we keep the LEM at zero pressure through launch and rendezvous? There’s not much point in filling her up if we’re going to be docking with Odyssey at zero.”

    Swigert confirmed, “Roger that, Aquarius. That’s the current thinking. The LEM computers should hold out long enough for the rendezvous and docking.”

    “They can function at zero for that long?”

    “Grumman is saying yes. TELMU is saying yes, but not quite as vigorously.”

    In orbit, Mattingly, stuck in a rather precarious position, seemed to be handling things just fine. He’d gone to suit oxygen as soon as the trouble had started. There had been no sign of a problem until the Master Alarm had gone off and he’d seen the cabin pressure needle begin to drop. He’d donned his space suit and had secured himself before the pressure had been reduced by half.

    His next step was to go through a standard depressurization of the Odyssey. He did this to conserve as much oxygen as possible. With the tanks in the service module sealed off from the command module, he plugged himself in to Odyssey’s system and took in air through the hookups. Though the leak wasn’t something he could locate, or fix, he did take heart in the fact that it was slow.

    His best guess was that the Odyssey had suffered a small impact, or that a crack had formed somewhere on its skin from a manufacturing fault. In either case, it was unclear where the fault was exactly. Somewhere in the cone of the command module, air was getting out, but he had no way to see from where the air was escaping.

    After checking and rechecking the new rendezvous data, Mattingly began to think long-term. As Odyssey swung around to the far side of the Moon, he began to gather every bit of food and water that he could. The water in the service module should be kept warm by its internal systems, but there were a couple of bags of drinking water that needed to be secured and he put them aside on the right-hand couch. Food would be another priority for the return to Earth and he tried to get a sense of how much had flash-frozen from the lack of atmosphere. Truthfully, frozen food wasn’t a big problem, but, after the rendezvous, he would have to transfer everything they’d need to get home into the LEM. This meant food, water, and carbon monoxide filters.

    Back on Earth, as things had begun to move fast in the MOCR, Sy Liebergot switched over to the SSR loop on his headset.

    “We need to get a procedure together for using Odyssey’s lithium hydroxide in Aquarius’s ports.”

    “The CSM takes square cartridges, and the ones on the LEM are round.”

    “Yeah, Paul. I know. Take a couple of guys, get together with a couple of people from TELMU and figure it out.”

    “What the hell are we gonna do about the oxygen, Sy?”

    “I’m working on that. We’re gonna have to rig something. Start figuring out how we can do hose connections with some of the stuff we’ve got on board.”

    “Are we even going to be able to reenter with a dinged up command module?”

    “Ask the guys from retro, but first, go figure out how to put a square peg into a round hole.”

    “Copy that, Sy.”

    Liebergot returned to his calculations and it wasn’t looking great. The problem wasn’t so much a lack of oxygen as it was how to get it into the astronaut’s lungs.

    The PLSS setups could provide air and water, but they were only designed to be used for a few hours. Having the crew wear space suits the entire way home wasn’t a great option, and it assumed that nothing would go wrong with the system even after it had been used. Even if they did go that route, the men wouldn’t be able to eat anything that wasn’t sealed in the suit with them. There was also the risk of being unable to eliminate heat or CO2 from their systems if any of the suits developed an issue.

    Liebergot flipped rapidly through the flight manual. Section 5’s section on the LEM consumables was his concern. He was getting a crazy idea.

    He scribbled a couple of simple diagrams on a pad and broke out a slide rule. As he did, Krantz came on to the loop.

    “Okay everyone, I want a go-no go to start up liftoff procedures. FIDO?”

    “Go, flight.”


    “Guidance is go.”


    “Go, flight.”


    Oh boy. “No-go here, flight. EECOM is no-go.”

    Everyone turned and looked at Sy. He rose slowly from his chair. “Flight, I’m looking at ascent consumables and I think we need to get every scrap of O2 we can out of there.”

    “What do you mean, EECOM?”

    “Ascent tanks hold less than 5 pounds of O2. It takes 6.62 to pressurize Aquarius. Even if we get Mattingly into the LEM, they’re not going to have enough O2 in Aquarius to pressurize. Not without using Odyssey’s tanks.”

    “We know that Sy. We’ve got to figure a way to use Odyssey’s tanks once we link up.”

    “Yeah, but if we can’t do that immediately, we’ve got to have them waiting in suits until we figure it out. And if the fix requires any kind of assembly that they can’t do in suits, then we’re in trouble.”


    Sy pushed past his interruption, “Even if we can rig a connection, if it’s not continuous, we’re only going to be providing enough O2 in the system for about 4 hours, with all 3 crew inside Aquarius. 5 pounds of O2 at a time, all the way home. That’s a lot of strain on a system that’s already halfway through its life expectancy.”

    “So, what’s your fix?”

    “The descent oxygen tank.”

    “The descent oxygen tank is buried in the descent stage structure.”

    “Yes, it is. We have to get it out of there and load it into Aquarius. It can hold 10 times what the ascent tank can.”

    “How the hell are we going to get it out of the descent stage?”

    “I’ve been working on that, but I need Grumman’s guys.”

    Krantz snapped his fingers at the assistant flight director who sprang up and ran to get the on-site Grumman engineers.

    Krantz turned back to Sy, “So, what, we have Lovell punch through the LEM’s panels and take out the oxygen tank? Even if he can reach it, it’s going to be a mess of plumbing in there.”

    TELMU piped up from 2 consoles over, “Flight, we can get the tank out.”

    In the back, one of the engineers from Grumman was putting on a headset, “We added quick disconnects last year when we did all the tank checks. We haven’t done it before, but, it can be done.”

    Sy turned back to Krantz. “Gene, we need a backup plan in case we can’t get Odyssey’s O2 into Aquarius. If we don’t do this, then we’re putting everything on being able to connect these two separate life support systems.”

    “TELMU, what’s that tank weigh?”

    “74 pounds, flight.”

    Sy countered, “It should be less now since we’ve used about half of the O2 already, right?”

    TELMU shook his head, “More like a third. We still haven’t repressurized Aquarius yet.”

    Krantz looked over Sy’s shoulder into the Trench, “FIDO, what’s 74 more pounds of weight going to do to us?”

    “Stand by, flight.”

    Krantz didn’t like any of this, but he also knew better than to second-guess his team, “CAPCOM, have Lovell pull the descent oxygen tank.”


    3 June 1970

    Apollo 13

    MET: 125:12:37

    Fra Mauro Highlands

    Callsign: Aquarius

    This had to be one of the weirdest EVA tasks in NASA history.

    Lovell stood in front of quadrant 3 of Aquarius. He felt terrible about what he was about to do. It felt like chopping down a beloved oak or a California redwood. “Fly a quarter-million miles, land a rocketship made of tin foil and pick up a rock that’s a billion years old.” He laughed as he twisted his rock hammer in his hand, “My kingdom for a screwdriver.”

    He jammed the claw of the hammer into the quadrant panel and peeled back the thermal protection layer. Fortunately, this side of the LEM faced the sun, which meant he had enough light to work.

    At the bottom of the recess was the supercritical helium tank, which, now that he’d pulled back the thermal protection, would begin heating up. TELMU assured him that it would take a few hours before that tank overpressurized. Aquarius would be linking up with Odyssey before that helium tank exploded and shattered whatever remained of Aquarius’s descent stage. Above the helium tank was his prize.

    Tucked behind a support member, the oxygen tank was about the size of a basketball. They had put the guys from Grumman directly on the line with him to talk him through the procedure and he had, quite carefully, pulled out the tank and the associated pump and pipe that went with it. He wasn’t sure how they’d be able to use all of this, but, it was somewhat reassuring to be holding a large tank of air at a time when his crew would be in desperate need of it.

    Haise had come to the LEM porch to help bring the tank inside. It was far too difficult to climb the ladder without having to lug around an oxygen tank at the same time.

    The whole operation had taken less than 20 minutes, but it meant that they’d also missed the second window to dock with the Odyssey.

    On the next pass, the Aquarius lifted off from the lunar surface.

    The launch profile more or less matched what was in the flight plan, though it had been accelerated by more than a day. Ascent procedures didn’t have to change, and the delay had allowed them to get the last of the surface samples into the LEM.

    The push to get everything squared away before the launch window meant that there was no time to throw in a few profound parting words, or to make any kind of demonstration on the surface. There was also, as a consolation, no time to really be worried about a failure in the ascent engine.

    Haise called the countdown and Lovell had the controls.

    “Okay, Houston, lift-off! Here we go.”

    Haise confirmed, “Engine start. Ken, we’ll see you in a little bit. Seven, eight, nine, pitchover.”

    “We have pitchover.”

    “On time. Looks good”

    “Wow, that’s a kick in the boots.”

    “We’re right on the H-dot.”

    “Seeing good numbers from Aggs and Pings.”

    “One minute. Velocity is right on the mark.”

    Swigert’s voice broke in, “FIDO has you right on the money Aquarius.”

    “Good to hear, Houston.”

    Over the next 6 minutes, Swigert let the crew handle the launch with little interference. He stayed off the air to let Lovell and Haise talk without interruption. As the burn completed around seven minutes in, he relayed the data for the tweak burn that would let them catch up with Odyssey relatively quickly.

    “That’s a hell of a tweak, Jack.”

    “Roger, Aquarius. FIDO advises this is our best trajectory for a short-window rendezvous.”

    Mattingly confirmed that he had visual contact with Aquarius.

    “Roger, Odyssey. We have your current range at 27 nautical miles, closing at 330 feet per second.”

    Lovell grimaced, “We’re coming in hot.”

    “Roger that, Aquarius. You’ve got the propellant to slow down with enough to spare.”

    “Easier to say when you’re not the one sitting on the gas tank, Houston.”

    Lovell chastised himself for the flippant remark. This wasn’t the time for that. Still, the tension that had built over the emergency was enough to overpressurize Odyssey’s cockpit. No one would think twice about a commander who was a bit on edge at the thought of returning to a vacuumed out command module, already having lost half of his time on the Moon.

    In the 10 minutes before LOS, Houston relayed procedures to both spacecraft for the rendezvous and docking. Due to the nature of the orbits, Aquarius would reach Odyssey over the far side. It was not ideal, but they’d practiced docking without ground control several times in the simulators.

    The problem would then be to get Mattingly into Aquarius and stabilize the situation. Whatever happened from here on, consumables would be the name of the game. They’d have to get everything they needed for the trip home into the LEM and then use an airless CSM to break out of lunar orbit.

    And none of it would matter if the source of the leak had also affected the heat shield.

    Last edited:
    The Saga of Apollo 13 - Part III
  • The Saga of Apollo 13 - Part III


    Image Credit: Ed Hengeveld

    3 June 1970

    Apollo 13

    MET: T+ 127:50:35

    Odyssey-Aquarius Rendezvous

    Altitude: 60 Nautical Miles

    Lovell’s voice was reassuring, “Ken, I know you’ve been waiting for a while now, but when we pull up, I wanna take a couple of passes to get some photography. See if we can find the source of your leak.”

    “Roger, copy Jim. I want to know what’s up with this baby too.”

    “Okay, looks like we’re coming in a little out of phase.”

    “That’s to be expected, I suppose.”

    “Yeah. I’ve got you on the COAS. Just stick with stationkeeping. We’ll do a flyby or two and then bring it around and in.”

    “Have you got the RCS for that?” Mattingly asked.

    Fred Haise checked the gauges, “Yeah, Ken, we’re all right on RCS.”

    “I’ve still got the computer up. Not sure for how long, but maneuvering is still solid.”

    “That’s fine, Ken, but we’ll take care of things. Conserve the RCS.”

    “Copy that.”

    Haise came back on, “Okay, Jim, TPF.”

    “Burning at 10. And... there we go.”

    “Ken, I’ve got you at 110 feet out here. What are you reading on your end?” Haise asked.

    “110, 109… 110. Yeah, we’re stable at 110.”

    Lovell came back, “Okay, not seeing anything yet, but give us a minute.”

    Commander Lovell and LMP Haise peered out their respective triangular windows at the Odyssey. The pulsing lights from Aquarius weren’t great to take in Odyssey’s outer skin, but they wouldn’t be in sunlight for another few minutes.

    “Have you got anything, Fred?”

    “Negative. I don’t think we’re gonna get a good look with this light.”

    “Copy. Okay, let’s just hold for a moment. We’ll be in it momentarily. Ken, while we wait, give me a couple of readouts over there.”

    Lovell and Mattingly took a few minutes to transfer and record some navigational data from Odyssey. Lovell wrote down the numbers on the back cover to the LM Data Book. If Odyssey’s computers went down before they were hard docked, at least they could have the data ready when they got them back up and running.

    As they finished transferring the last of the gimble angles, Odyssey and Aquarius came into the sunshine.

    “Okay, there it is. Oh, God.” Haise was the first to see it.

    Lovell craned over because Haise was holding the telephoto lens. “You’ve got it?”

    “Yeah, above window 1.”

    Mattingly had the resigned tone of a man who knew he was about to get bad news, “A strike?”

    Haise spoke with a clipped voice, “Yeah, it’s small, couldn’t have been much of anything, but there’s a puncture, maybe the size of a fingernail.”

    Lovell took a look through the lens. Odyssey had been marked. Whatever had hit it had come in from the side. Based on the nature of the telltale gray streak, it looked like a few inches off and the meteoroid (assuming that’s what it was) would have missed entirely.

    Mattingly replied, “Get some good shots for me fellas. I want to show everyone this wasn’t my fault.”

    “I wouldn’t worry about that, Ken,” Lovell said as he and Haise snapped pictures of the Odyssey’s scar.

    “Hey, I want to come back here someday.”

    “Looks like we’ve got some debris too. Are you seeing that?”

    “How bad?” Mattingly asked.

    Lovell took a shot of the debris, “A few flakes, probably bits of the hull.”

    “Any other damage?”

    “Negative, not that we’re seeing. High gain looks fine. Umbilical looks fine. Not seeing anything on the service module.”

    “How far up is the impact from the heat shield?”

    “Got at least a foot, probably more like a foot and a half. I don’t think we’re in trouble there.”

    “That’s a relief.”

    “Okay, I think we’ve got what we need. Let’s bring it in.”

    “Roger that. Staying on stationkeeping. Let me know when you want me to go active.”

    “Copy. Stand by, we’ll swing around.”

    Aquarius maneuvered in front of Odyssey and pitched over. Mattingly relayed to them when he had the target in the reticle. Even with the suit on, the basic mechanics of docking weren’t too difficult to handle. Odyssey’s controls and wiring had survived being flash-frozen for the moment.

    Lovell couldn’t see the Odyssey in the docking attitude, but Mattingly called out the closing distances, so there were no surprises. All three of them breathed a sigh of relief when the lurch and shudder of hard dock marked the safe rejoining of the two spacecraft.

    “Welcome back fellas. The place has gotten a little drafty while you were gone.”

    The three men were content to wait until AOS with Houston, which occurred less than 15 minutes after docking. In the MOCR, Control and Fido were eager to give the call of a successful docking as soon as Apollo 13 came around from the Moon’s eastern horizon.

    Lovell heard the friendly voice of Joe Kerwin as soon as they came around, “Thirteen, this is Houston, how do you read me now?”

    “Houston, this is thirteen, we read you Joe. We have a stable hard dock and we’ve given the Odyssey a once over.”

    Over the next few minutes, Lovell and Haise did their best to describe, in detail, the scarring of the command module. The descriptions were clinical and cold. The tone familiar to any test pilot who had to explain an in-flight danger to an engineer after he had landed. Panic and dread were companions in any dangerous situation, but they had no place in an aviator’s demeanor in front of others.

    After a few minutes, Krantz came on to the controller’s loop, “CAPCOM, let’s proceed with getting them the TEI burn data. I think we’ve gotten the idea down here and we can have them relay more later if needs be.”

    Kerwin nodded and keyed his mike, “Thirteen, Houston. Thanks for that, Jim and Fred. We’re chewing on that data now. In the mean time, we’d like to get these figures to you for the TEI burn on your next orbit.”

    “Copy, Houston. We’re ready when you are.”

    “Have you got the TEI-PAD in front of you, Ken?”

    “Affirmative, Houston. Go with those figures.”

    “Okay, TEI-preliminary. SPS G&N; Noun 47 is 39057, Noun 48 is plus 0.84, plus 0.15; Noun 33 is 128:34:30…” Kerwin paused for a moment and Lovell interrupted.

    “128, Houston? That’s less than an hour away. You want us to get this on our next pass?”

    “Affirmative 13. EECOM and Fido both have concerns about the lifespan of the computer in vacuum. We’re gonna sort out everything else after the burn.”

    Lovell bit his lip inside his helmet. He’d have preferred an extra orbit to sort out any other issues, but time was of the essence here.

    “Roger, we copy. Continue with those numbers.”

    Kerwin continued, “Noun 81, we want plus 3730, minus 623, minus 104. Triple zeros for your attitude at Tig. N/A, plus 24, Noun 81 total of 3450 fps. Burn time is 3:04, VC is 3004. We’re gonna use Sigma Sagittarii for the sextant reference. That’s 37 in the computer, mark trunnion angles are 224.3 and 30.5. NA on your boresight and your COAS angles are both NA. Splashdown point for Noun 61 is plus 28.17, minus 159. Then 1024.4, 35178, 188:55:06. GDC align is through Deneb and Vega. That’s 43 and 36, respectively in the computer. Your roll align angles are 98, 174 and 020.”

    Another pause as Kerwin double checked the numbers from Fido and Guidance

    Mattingly wanted to fill out the rest of his list, “Joe, the Ullage numbers?”

    Kerwin came back, “Ullage, 4 quads, 12 seconds. That’ll get your propellants good and settled before you light up the SPS. Readback whenever you’re ready. Computer is all yours, Odyssey.”

    Lovell had been taking down the numbers on the back of a flight manual in the Aquarius. He had the first question, “39057 for Noun 47, Houston? The extra weight is us dragging Aquarius back home. Are we sure about the Noun 48 angles? Yaw and pitch trim with the Aquarius on the nose. I’d love to have someone run it in a sim if you haven’t already.”

    “They just got the run completed before AOS, Jim. It checks out down here. I know it’s not quite what we originally planned. They’re gonna run it again and I’ll have a TEI-final for you before you go around back again.”

    Lovell nodded, “Very well, Houston.”

    Kerwin asked, “Ken, how are you with what you’re seeing?”

    Mattingly called back, “How sure are we for 188, well, almost 189, on the entry interface timing?”

    “Again, they’re rerunning, but we’ll have other data for you after you break orbit. We’re looking into the possibility of a burn after pericynthion, just to get you here a little sooner.”

    Lovell asked, “How much longer after?”

    “It’s looking like 2 hours. Pericynthion plus 2 hours. PC+2. Assuming all goes well.”

    Mattingly was satisfied with that answer. The guidance computer needed a number for the MET at entry interface after the burn, but that number could be altered a bit after the TEI burn without adversely affecting the guidance system.

    “Copy that, Houston. And all axes at zero attitude for the burn, even with Aquarius?”

    “Roger, thirteen. The guidance platform alignment should give you just what you need there.”

    Lovell took command of the situation, “Okay, Houston. We’re going to do a readback now on the TEI prelim, then, while Ken is entering it into the computer, Fred and I are going to start transferring samples over. I want to get everything stowed away by the book before the burn. After that we can see about the oxygen. Confirm?”

    A long moment passed as Houston conferred.

    “Roger that, Jim. We think that’ll work just fine.

    Ten minutes later, Lovell and Haise reentered the Odyssey.

    Haise was surprised to find the CSM as bright and well-lit as it was when they’d left. Something about the situation had him imagining a cold and dark command module. Cold yes, dark no. The Odyssey’s service module hadn’t been damaged, and power was still flowing into the lights and displays. The vacuum that filled the cockpit would eventually shut down the computer; but, until that occurred, the Odyssey would maintain a somewhat normal appearance.

    Lovell found his CMP entering numbers into the computer for the TEI burn. He tapped Mattingly on the leg as he floated into the cabin. Mattingly waved a gloved hand and indicated a couple of containers that he’d put aside during Aquarius’s ascent.

    “Jim, I’ve gotten these ready. That’s the food from the locker.”

    Lovell replied, “Roger. Thanks, Ken. We’ll get that moved over as soon as we get the rocks up here.”

    “I can’t get any flow on the water lines. I think they’re already frozen up.”

    Lovell nodded in his space suit. He caught himself and spoke over the suit radios, “Yeah, I was afraid of that. We’ll have to figure something out for the water.”

    “I’m about halfway done here. After that, I’ll give you guys a hand moving this stuff into the LEM.”

    Lovell interrupted, “No. Take down the nav data. After she freezes up, we’ll have to get the numbers into the LEM computers for the trip home.”

    “Copy that. CO2 scrubbers are in the lower equipment bay.”

    “Stay on it. Freddo and I will take care of this.”

    Mattingly keyed in the last of the numbers and then started to take down the new navigational data.

    In Houston, Sy Liebergot kept a close watch on his panel as Odyssey neared the last LOS in lunar orbit. His muscles were tense and, just after Apollo 13 went behind the lunar horizon, it dawned on him that he’d been in a full body clench for several minutes now.

    After the screens of the MOCR lost the feeds from the orbiting spacecraft, Gene Krantz came onto the loop. “Okay, White Team, listen up. Starting now, I’m pulling White off of consoles. Everyone assemble in 210 in 5 minutes for new assignments. Hand your consoles over to the Black Team. Get a move on.”

    Five minutes later, a collection of the most nervous men on Earth stood in an average sized conference room that could have been pulled from any small business in America. An abandoned coffee pot sat on a file cabinet in the back corner. Those with military experience unconsciously snapped to attention when Krantz entered the room.

    Krantz wasted no words on introductions. “Consumables. Navigation. Control. Sy, Jack, and John,” he pointed at each in turn, “Each of you are gonna take your respective areas and get a new flightplan together for the return flight. I want two more groups, one for repair options, if any. One for reentry. Work the problems, one by one.”

    He checked his watch. It took him a moment to register that it was now after midnight. “Wake up anyone you need. Get them in here. Grumman, North American, whoever. Everyone is on the clock now. We’ve never lost an American in space. We’re sure as hell not going to lose one on my watch. Failure is not an option.”

    Twenty minutes later, Darren Yancey, a junior member of the Black Team EECOM SSR sat at the MOCR EECOM console. His boss was on his way in, but had not yet arrived. There was apparently an issue with a car that wouldn’t start. Yancey had dreamt of what it would be like to be in the main room and in control of a console during a flight, but this particular dream had become far too scary. Now that he sat in the big chair, there was a big part of him that wanted someone else to take over.

    He checked the connection of his headset for the fifth time as the AOS clock counted down the last 20 seconds. Thirteen should have made its TEI burn about 20 minutes ago and should be emerging any moment on a new course heading for Earth. Darren took a deep breath and prepared himself for the incoming telemetry.

    The AOS clock reached zero. He scanned his monitor. It seemed frozen. No new data. No new indicators or numbers.

    A chill grabbed his chest. There were a few possibilities and all of them were bad. If he wasn’t getting data, that could mean that Odyssey still hadn’t emerged from the far side. In which case, it may be off course. Or worse still, there could have been a catastrophic failure of the Service Module Propulsion System. If the SPS had failed, the crew could be stranded, or lost entirely at this point.

    He was about to speak his first words on the loop when he heard Lovell’s voice over his headset.

    “Houston, this is Aquarius. We’ve got good news and bad news for you here. The good news is that Odyssey has fired the TEI burn on time and on target. We got through start up and shut down with no problems. About 5 minutes later, we lost the platform in Odyssey. Fred and Ken and I have all made our way into the LEM and we’re awaiting your instructions for pressurization procedures. We’d very much like to get out of these suits. Please advise.”

    Last edited:
    The Saga of Apollo 13 - Part IV
  • The Saga of Apollo 13 - Part IV


    4 June 1970

    Apollo 13

    MET: 130:15:22 (59 hours to Entry Interface)

    Manned Spacecraft Center - MOCR

    29° 33’ 47” N 95° 05’ 28” W

    Krantz had shed his customary vest and his plain black tie was loosened. Kraft and Lunney gave him their full attention and he spoke quickly, but clearly. “I’ve got the White Team into separate Tiger Teams now. They’re each taking one issue that we’re going to face on the way back in. Guys from EECOM and TELMU are working on the CO2 scrubbers. They’re figuring something out with the suit hoses to filter Aquarius’s air. Recovery and Guidance are still figuring out if it’s worth it to do a burn. We lost the PC+2 opportunity, but there might be something we can do with what we have left in Aquarius.”

    Kraft interjected, “That’s not much, considering what we had to use for the ascent and rendezvous.”

    Krantz said, “Yeah, we’re low on fuel in the LEM. It may be worth it though, considering the water situation. John Aaron’s team is working on how to get a cold CM powered up again. That’s gonna be the worst of it, I think.”

    Lunney nodded, “It’ll still be cold in the Odyssey four days from now.”

    “I’ve been thinking about that. We may want to try to see if we can seal that hole and then feed O2 into the cabin. After we get the scrubbers sorted out, we’ll figure out how much air we can spare to feed into Odyssey to get the computers going before reentry.”

    Kraft raised an eyebrow, “Let it leak intentionally?”

    “Yeah, if we can keep air in the cabin for maybe an hour or two before entry, we can get the AGC going again and it’ll hold out through splashdown.”

    Lunney asked, “We need to figure out if venting that much will affect the entry angle.”

    Krantz nodded, “And what may happen if we’re still venting after entry interface.”

    Kraft spoke up, “That’s pretty dicey, Gene.”

    “We’ve got to have the AGC up and running before interface. The AGC needs air around it to function for any extended period. We can try to minimize the effects of everything else and I think we can get it down pretty good. We’ve got 2 days to figure that out.”

    Kraft pondered for a moment. Technically, Krantz was in charge, but there was no one at NASA who wouldn’t be interested in the opinion of Christopher Columbus Kraft Jr. when it came to matters of crew safety. After a moment, he realized that Krantz and Lunney were waiting for him to speak, “What? That’s what we’ve got to do. Let’s get to it.”


    *Down the hall, in the GNC backroom, Gold Team’s Gary Coen was having a very unusual conversation with a rep from the subcontractor who had built the AGC.

    “I need you to consult your manufacturing records and see what experience you have powering up an inertial maneuvering unit from a completely cold state to a fully operational state.”

    “A completely cold state?” the engineer asked.

    “Completely. No heaters.” Coen replied.

    “That’s easy. We don’t have any experience with that.”

    “None?” Coen asked.

    “None. Why would we? That unit’s supposed to be heated. We already know that if you fly without the heaters, the thing’s not going to work.”

    “So, you’ve got no data on this at all?” Coen asked.

    “Well,” the engineer said, after a pause, “one of our people up in Boston did take a guidance unit home with him one night and accidentally left it in his station wagon ‘til morning. It got down to about 30 degrees, but the next day the thing started right up with no problem.”

    “That’s it?” Coen asked, with a raised eyebrow.

    The engineer shrugged, “Sorry.”*


    4 June 1970

    Apollo 13

    MET: T+ 148:20:09

    Callsign: Aquarius

    41 hours to Entry Interface

    They’d let them sleep after pressurization was complete and stable. Lovell, Haise and Mattingly had managed to find comfortable spots in Aquarius, despite the cramped space. Mattingly had chosen to curl up over the ascent engine, behind Lovell and Haise, who more or less slept standing up, not that the term had any meaning in zero-G.

    When they woke, Houston began a run down of the new flight plan. In an ordinary flight, the trip home was relatively uneventful. It was as close as an astronaut would get to a vacation in space. Sure, there were a few occasional observations to make, or a bit of housekeeping to take care of, but, for the most part, the return from the Moon had a fair bit of downtime.

    Not for the crew of Apollo 13.

    With Aquarius being designed to hold 2 men for 2 days, the first priority was to extend her consumables. In order of priority, these were power, water, and air.

    In order to get more power into Aquarius, they would need to activate the Odyssey to back up the LEM’s power supply. This was a procedure which was only to be used for the flight out to the Moon, should a problem develop with the LEM’s batteries.

    In order to initiate the power transfer sequence, Odyssey’s computers would have to be activated. In order to activate the computers, they’d have to be brought to a stable temperature; which meant repressurizing Odyssey. In order to repressurize Odyssey, it would need to be patched.

    So, in a space that would be dwarfed by a walk-in closet, one by one, the men of Apollo 13 donned their space suits.

    Haise grinned despite the situation. He said to Lovell as he sealed him up, “First you needed a screwdriver, now I’d give my right arm for a good caulking gun.”

    Vance Brand was working CAPCOM today. He called back, “Roger that, Fred. I’m betting we’ll have all sorts of new additions to the in-flight tool kit on the next trip.”

    Haise sheepishly shrugged, reminding himself that they were on VOX and Houston was copying their every word.

    The EVA would have two objectives. First was to refresh the jerry-rigged oxygen tank from Aquarius, using Odyssey’s oxygen system. Ken Mattingly would handle that, sitting in the left-hand seat of the Odyssey. At the same time, Lovell would go through Odyssey’s hatch and, armed with duct tape and a few loose nuts and bolts, would attempt to patch the hole in Odyssey’s hull.

    Truthfully, the engineers of the MOCR weren’t very confident in the repair plan, but, if successful, it would be very helpful. The greater purpose was to prepare the spacecraft for a pressurization and power-up, to look for potential difficulties in doing so before reentry. The idea being, if the fix held, all the better, if not, they’d have a test run for Saturday.

    Lovell led the way through the tunnel between Odyssey and Aquarius, armed with a roll of duct tape, a couple of washers and screws and his Hasselblad 500EL surface camera. The plan was to diagnose the hole from up close. The tape would be his main tool. If he could jam a screw into the hole, that might be worth a try, but he was loathed to risk making it any worse. He carried along the Hasselblad so that Houston would be able to get a good look at the hole once they got back.

    Houston had batted around the idea of using the surface video camera, but that idea was nixed as it would likely be in direct sunlight, and would risk frying the circuitry. Lovell had been against using it too, since the video camera was more cumbersome. He was fairly comfortable with the Hasselblad at this point. He’d taken a training model on several vacations with Marilyn and the kids.

    Haise followed behind him, a bungee cord connected Haise’s hand to Lovell’s left foot. It wasn’t really necessary, but it was an extra layer of safety, on a flight where plenty of safety had leaked out with the oxygen.

    Mattingly brought up the rear, cradling the Aquarius’s oxygen tank like a running back with a football. He assisted Lovell with opening the Odyssey’s hatch, then got to work on connecting the oxygen tank to the output.

    “Okay, Houston. I am out the door. Let’s see what kind of hand we’ve been dealt here.” Lovell said.

    “Roger, Jim. We’d love to get your descriptions on this before we start the repair.”

    “Copy that, Houston. There’s not much to this hole. It looks a lot like someone shot the Odyssey with a big BB gun. It’s maybe twice the size of his thumbnail with some wrinkling around it. The hull itself appears to have been scorched, likely scoring from the heat generated by the high-speed of the impact.”

    He managed to photograph the damage from all sides. “Houston, I think I can see a bit of the rock itself. It looks like a piece of it wedged in one of these tiny little ridges on the outer hull.”

    Vance Brand’s voice was excited, “Roger that, Jim. We’re definitely gonna want you to bag that piece and bring it back.”

    “Copy, Houston. Freddo, if you could please, disengage my line and get me a sample return bag.”

    A few minutes later, Fred handed him a bag through the hatch. Lovell very carefully pried out the piece of stone and bagged it. Returning it to Fred’s outstretched hand with the gentleness one would usually reserve for an infant.

    “Okay, Houston. That’s sample number 13290 for when we get back home. Now, let’s see about getting this hole fixed.” Lovell said.

    He stretched out a piece of duct tape, about half a foot long. He placed it over the hole and pressed it home. In vacuum, no one was sure how well it would hold up. It laid flat and didn’t peel up, which was a good sign. He took a photo of the first strip laid down. The wrinkles were troubling. The ridges around the hole made ridges in the tape. It wasn’t ideal, but there was nothing to be done for it. He applied more strips to either side of the first, then another layer on top, then put two strips on each end, perpendicular, like the logs on a raft. It was all he could think of. He relayed as much to Houston. Time would tell if the patch was airtight, or if it would last even a minute with the 5 psi of Odyssey pushing against the vast nothingness of the entire universe.

    It was best not to think about it.

    Ten minutes later, he was back inside. They stayed in the suits, with the Aquarius sealed up behind them. If the seal failed after they reached full pressure, it was probably best to have Aquarius cut off from any of the issues that may result.

    Mattingly, being the CMP, was given the left-hand seat for the test.

    “Okay, Houston. Opening the valves now. Let me know how it reads down there.”

    At the EECOM station, Liebergot monitored the console over the shoulder of Black Team’s EECOM. They had switched to a secondary channel for the telemetry, and were able to monitor the rising pressure within the spacecraft.

    Back in Houston, Glynn Lunney was Flight for the moment. “EECOM, give us a rolling commentary if you will please.”

    “Copy, Flight. Point five psi. One. One point five...”

    Over the next few minutes, Odyssey refilled with pure oxygen from the service module. There was a collective sigh of relief when the spacecraft got back to 5 psi.

    Lunney didn’t want to signal any relief, to his controllers, or the world listening in. “People, we’re not out of the woods by any stretch. We have no idea how long this’ll last. Let’s use this time to sort out as much as we can. GNC, let’s start in with the AGC initialization procedures.”


    5 June 1970

    Apollo 13

    MET: T+ 158:32:12 (30 hours to Entry Interface)

    Manned Spacecraft Center - MOCR

    29° 33’ 47” N 95° 05’ 28” W

    The seal had held for 108 minutes. That was better than expected. The crew had used the time to get the last of the Odyssey’s potable water into bags. That had helped immensely with replenishing Aquarius’s tank and keeping the LEM’s hardware cool. They had also managed to restart the AGC and get power transferred to the LEM batteries.

    Liebergot had worked closely with a couple of the reps from Grumman and North American and they’d been able to relay a procedure that allowed the batteries to continuously draw from Odyssey. It would be nerve-wracking to monitor the power feeds for the trip home, but it was well within Houston’s capabilities.

    The crew had stayed in suits for the entire time, and it came as no surprise when they had to move back to the Aquarius. They’d dutifully preserved as much air as they could from the Odyssey’s tanks, then took the AGC through a by-the-book shutdown, to avoid any further damage.

    After a rest period, Vance Brand called up 13 to get a handle on the next situation before it became a crisis.

    Aquarius, Houston.”

    Houston, Aquarius.”

    “Fred, we have some new instructions on your CO2 situation up there. Are you guys awake? Ready to start the day?”

    “Roger that, Houston. We’re good to go. What have you got?”

    Brand looked through the extensive wad of notes that he’d been handed by the engineers, “Okay. Just some info. We're working up a procedure for you to use to—to use command module LiOH canisters to connect to your hoses—the outlet hoses in the LM so that, as time passes in the mission, you can continue scrubbing the LM atmosphere. And this whole thing requires modifying a kit so that you can attach the hose modifying a LiOH canister, so you can attach the hose to it. Over.”

    Haise replied, “Roger, Houston. Whenever you’re ready, we’ll start in. You guys just tell me what sort of material you had in mind to build this out of, and Ken and I will go to work on trying to construct that thing. Assume we'll use the space-age baling wire or the gray tape?”

    “That's affirm. We have a lengthy procedure here; but, in short, you use plastic as a covering for the whole thing. You put some kind of a stiffener at the top so the plastic doesn't suck against the LOI—LiOH enter—entrance side. You'll—You need gray tape to stick the whole thing together, and you need something like a sock to put in the—the bottom so that the outlet side is plugged up. As it turns out, the flow is rather U-shaped through the cartridge, Fred. It, if you plug up the bottom, it comes in one side of the top and goes out the other.”

    There was silence for a few minutes as materials were gathered. Lovell used the time to fine tune the PTC barbecue roll, which had given them trouble, with Aquarius carrying Odyssey’s bulk on her back.

    Mattingly came on the line, “Okay, Vance. A couple of items we uncovered for that cartridge MOD. One is the special dust covering bag that we were going to use on the tote bags, that is pretty thick and nonporous; and we retrieved a fairly large—enclosed—enclosure made of plastic that those drink bags are in that I think we can scissor and also make do for a cover, taping it on, if that's appropriate.”

    “Stand by, Aquarius. I want to get Joe Kerwin on comm. He was on the team that put this thing together. Let me put him on the line.”

    Kerwin’s voice came over a moment later, “Okay; right. Okay. I'm ready to start into the procedure. When you answer me back, speak up—speak up into the microphone, because our downlink is pretty noisy. The first thing we want you to do, and we'll do this on one canister, and then let you go ahead and repeat it on the second. So take one of the LCGs and cut off the outer bag. By cutting along one the heat seals; do it carefully and close to the heat seal, because we may have to use the outer bag if we damage the inner bag. So go ahead and do that, and then we'll do the next step.”

    “Take an LCG, cut the outer bag by the heat seal, but don’t damage the inner, right?”

    “Right, just cut along one side.”

    “Okay, we’ve done that.”

    “Now, remove the inner bag from the outer, cut the inner bag, also along one of the heat seals, down one side.”

    Over the next half hour, Kerwin walked Haise and Mattingly through the construction of the “mailbox” device that filtered Aquarius’s air.

    6 June 1970

    Apollo 13

    MET: T+ 180:17:06

    Callsign: Aquarius

    8 hours to Entry Interface

    Jim Lovell woke up from a fitful sleep with Ken Mattingly’s hand on his shoulder. He reached for it instinctively and Mattingly held him steady.

    Mattingly nodded towards the still sleeping Fred Haise, floating in his corner of the cramped Aquarius cockpit. Mattingly put a finger to his lips and Lovell nodded and checked that the microphones were off of VOX.

    Lovell whispered, “What’s up, Ken?”

    “I’ve been thinking about entry interface.”

    “You and me both.”

    “Jim, there’s something I want to recommend, but… it’s not something I want to talk about.”

    Lovell tilted his head. Mattingly looked very troubled. “What’s on your mind, Ken?”

    “Mission rules call for us to go to VOX before interface. Hot mikes all the way down.”

    Lovell nodded, “Yeah, it’s just one less thing to worry about.”

    “I think we should go to manual transmission.”

    “Oookay, but why does it matter.”

    “In case it doesn’t go according to plan.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “The blackout should last for 3 minutes, but there’s no guarantee when it’ll lift. It’s a little bit different for every flight.”

    “Yeah, but I still don’t see…”

    “If we have a burn through, there’s no way to know when…”

    “We’re not gonna have a burn through.”

    “With the impact, and we may be venting… There’s no way that tape will hold up. And we don’t know if it’ll get hot in the Odyssey with that exposure… or how hot it might get. And we don’t know how any of this may have affected the chutes.”

    Lovell nodded. He’d been trying not to think about that as there was nothing to do for it. The parachutes could be heated after power-up of the Odyssey, but, like the computer, they weren’t designed to be flash-frozen either.

    He could see where Ken was going with this, but it was worth saying, “What does this have to do with the comms?”

    “If we come in ballistic… or not at all… I think it’d be better if we did it silently, as far as the air-to-ground loop.”

    Lovell nodded, “Bad for the program.”

    “It’ll be bad anyway, but it’s one less thing to put on the news.”

    “We’re a public records agency.”

    “Yeah, and I really don’t want my parents to hear anything like that, if the worst happens.”

    Lovell agreed with that. The idea of Marilyn or the kids hearing something like that was too terrible to contemplate.

    “Ken, it’s gonna be fine.”

    “I know. I’m just saying…”

    A beat passed between them.

    “Yeah… yeah, okay. I’ll keep it in mind.”

    Haise grumbled through a snore and woke up slowly, “Morning fellas. I didn’t hear the rooster crow.”

    Lovell left the grim nature of the conversation behind, “Homecoming day. Let’s get some breakfast before we head back into the office.”


    Image Credit: NASA​

    6 June 1970

    Apollo 13

    MET: T+ 188:50:06

    Callsign: Aquarius

    10 minutes to Entry Interface

    The new seal was in place, Odyssey was pressurized and powered up. They’d gotten it all done with less than half an hour to spare.

    Aquarius had departed like an old friend. They silently watched her tumble away, awaiting her fiery fate over the Pacific.

    If the 108 minutes of the first patch was a guide, they could expect air pressure to stay constant through entry interface, but no one believed that a duct tape patch job would hold up against the plasma. The crew had stayed on suit oxygen since leaving Aquarius.

    Mattingly had the left-hand seat. Lovell had complete trust in his CMP. Jim had said a few thank you’s to the various technicians and engineers in Houston, as well as those in dozens of other sites around the country. Before switching off the VOX feed, he allowed himself one final word to the two men that he was closest to.

    “Gentlemen, it’s been a privilege flying with you.”

    The heat of reentry from a lunar flight is such that, if one were to put a diamond on the heat shield of the command module, there was a decent chance that it would literally melt during the descent. The energy generated was enough to lift every living person one foot off the ground, or to light up a major city.

    So, 8 strips of duct tape were reduced to a cinder in approximately 12 seconds. The crew was spared the knowledge of exactly when the patch failed. Reentry was like flying through a neon tube. The man-made aurora they flew through would have been beautiful, if it didn’t come with the knowledge of the dangers it created.

    With the patch gone and Odyssey leaking her precious oxygen, the ship began a slow shudder. The leaking air quickly caught fire and began to melt the weakened metal around the puncture. Later analysis would indicate that if the hole had managed to reach 5cm, it would have been enough to put the Odyssey into a tilt that would have doomed the spacecraft.

    In later years, visitors to the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. would often have their pictures taken with the Odyssey’s puncture prominently displayed. Docents at the museum eventually added a ruler to the display, showing that the hole itself was 1.5 inches across. About 3.8cm for those who used the metric system.

    Mattingly heard the call for Noun 67 from Houston. Neither he nor Lovell could understand at first why Houston wasn’t hearing their calls after the drogue chutes opened.

    Lovell laughed as he finally remembered to key the mike switch. He tapped Mattingly on the shoulder and pointed. Around 9000 feet of altitude, just as the mains were deploying, Lovell replied to the hails, “Houston, this is Odyssey. It’s good to see you again.”

    *The section with Gary Coen's conversation has been taken, largely verbatim, from Jim Lovell's book, Apollo 13.

    Please click any of the Houston links in Part IV to learn how you can help the victims of OTL Hurricane Harvey. Each link is unique. Find the one (or two, or 12) that works for you.
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    XIII: Mischief Managed
  • Mischief Managed


    Image Credit: Nixonshead
    15 February 1971

    Apollo 14

    MET: T+ 147:23:12

    Orbital Inclination: 86°

    Callsign: Endurance

    Thomas Wheaton was able to watch the interview from his office. NBC had won the draw, so it was their reporter on the loop. The monitor in his office just showed Al Worden sitting alone in the command module’s left seat. It had been 8 months since they’d managed to get an astronaut on primetime television. He was relieved to be getting some positive publicity.

    The review board for Apollo 13 had been necessary, boring and sympathetic. There was no grand foul-up, no great mistake. Just a bit of bad luck 240,000 miles from home. The House had tacked on a token hearing, just to clear the air and get their faces on television, but by then, it was a formality. The agency had survived without taking on blame. All things considered, it could have gone far worse, in every possible way.

    The interim moratorium had allowed the brass to reevaluate the plan for what was unofficially being thought of as Apollo: Phase II. The engineering-style flights had come and gone, serving their purpose well. NASA had proven it could land on the moon, land with pinpoint accuracy, and land accurately on interesting terrain, and return crews safely (“safely” being a relative term when it came to spaceflight operations).

    Still, all that was over now. It was time for the return to flight, and Apollo 14 was a new type of mission, for a new vision of what Apollo would do.

    Just as Apollo 8 had served as something of a trail-blazing flight for Apollos 11 through 13; Apollo 14 was now going to accomplish much-needed objectives for Apollos 15 through 20.

    Apollo, armed with newfound public attention and support, was becoming supersized. One week ago, Colonel Alfred Worden and his “Mission Specialist” had launched from Cape Kennedy. By outward appearance, the launch was just like any other Saturn V that had come before.

    After the TLI burn, the Endurance, a perfectly-named ship if ever there was one, undocked and flipped end-over-end. Worden had docked, not with a LEM, but with a “Mission Module” (not that anyone at NASA really used that term). The module, called Farsight, would never land on the surface, and, in fact, had no propulsion system to speak of.

    Farsight, unofficially, represented the very best that the Air Force could offer in terms of an orbital imaging platform. The cameras and sensors housed within the module would allow for much more accuracy and detail than anything previously flown. It had been a nightmare just to get the Air Force to let NASA use them in the first place. The idea of giving such technology to a civilian agency was anathema to most military minds. And then to have the mission staffed by an international astronaut…

    Still, right now, NASA had a lot of pull, both politically and with the general public. Orders had been given even before Apollo 13 had launched. The Air Force’s cameras had been brought in under the strictest secrecy and there were rumors that any photos released to the public after the flight would be delayed or degraded so as not to compromise the capabilities of military intelligence satellites.

    Wheaton turned his attention back to the interview.

    “Commander Worden, is it true that this flight will set a record in terms of total mission time?”

    Worden uncanned his answer, “Yes, that’s right. We launched last week and we’ve still got a long way to go. Literally. We’re spending a month in lunar orbit. That’s going to allow us to test out new life support systems and to see how Apollo hardware fares in extended periods. We’ll need to know these things if we want to establish outposts on this new frontier.”

    “Why so long in orbit?”

    “It takes 28 days for the Moon to orbit the Earth. During the course of those 28 days, the sun passes over every spot on the surface and we get 14 days worth of sunshine to make photographs and take readings. Staying here for a month will allow us to be able to photograph every site several times and from different angles. The images we bring back will be the basis for the most accurate maps of the Moon that we’ve ever had.”

    “And I understand your crewmate has a speciality in lunar imaging?”

    Worden nodded, which was a little strange in zero gravity, “Farouk is one of NASA’s leading experts in lunar geology. He knows the Moon’s terrain, arguably, as much or more than anyone else alive. He’s here so that we can find the things we don’t even know to look for. Farouk and I are the scouts for the landing missions to come. We’re going to find new features and places that can be explored from the ground.”

    “And what is it about your mission that could not be accomplished by unmanned ships?”

    Again, Worden knew a softball when it was lobbed to him, “Having men up here allows us to adapt to things that a satellite image can’t reveal. We can see what looks out of place. Respond to a glint on the horizon, or a shadow that’s intriguing. With satellite imagery, we’ll be able to get detailed images, but you can’t always see the subtleties of a landscape. Farouk and I are looking for the things that machines don’t know how to look for. To say nothing of the fact that, even with the best sensors and cameras, a naked human eye can still get a sense of the landscape in a way that no image on a screen or a map ever could convey.”

    “Can you tell us more about this special module?”

    “Sure. Instead of the LEM, on this trip, we’ve got something new. The module is actually in two parts. The bigger piece, which we call Farsight, has a suite of cameras and sensors recording everything we can see from up here. It’s also got a small alcove with a big window where Farouk or I can float and take observations directly. Honestly, only one of us can really fit in there at a time. It’s more of a closet than a cockpit. But it’s got the best view on the ship. There are a couple of access panels that allow us to do some maintenance on the recording equipment, but hopefully, we won’t be needing them. Now, that’s Farsight. Attached to Farsight, on the other side, is a small communications satellite, which we’ve taken to calling Gossip.”

    Worden allowed the interviewer to prompt him, despite the communication lag of a 2 light-second distance.

    “Why Gossip?”

    Gossip is a relay satellite which will be used on future missions that land on the far side of the moon. Its job will be to relay signals from Earth to the lunar surface and vice versa. Since all it really does it hear things and repeat them, we thought Gossip was a pretty good name.”

    “I see. And Gossip will remain in orbit after you leave, yes?”

    “That’s right. At the end of our mission here, early next month, we’ll detach Gossip and Farsight before we fire our Service Module Propulsion System, or SPS as we call it. Gossip has a small motor on board that will push it into a high-elliptical orbit to give it a much greater time over the lunar farside.”

    Wheaton breathed a sigh of relief that Worden hadn’t referred to it as a Molniya orbit, which was the Russian name for it. The Russians had been using orbits like that for years to give them greater coverage of their own territory.

    “And what will happen to Farsight?”

    “It will remain here in our current orbit. The onboard power systems will keep sending data back to Earth for a while and it will serve as a secondary platform for relaying signals to and from the Moon.”

    That was the optimistic idea. Technically, Farsight would be too low to relay much of anything unless a mission happened to be underneath it at just the right time. Still, technically, it would be capable (at least for a time) and it was better not to mention that it would become humanity’s latest piece of space trash, though around the Moon this time.

    There were a few questions to go about particular bits of interest regarding life about Endurance and Wheaton breathed a sigh of relief when the interview concluded. The reporter had not asked about the crew selection process for this flight.

    The original flight crew for what had been planned as the final H-mission had Dave Scott as the mission commander, with Worden as his CMP and Jim Irwin flying right seat on the LEM. Then there had been a bit of a row.

    A German stamp collector had propositioned Scott and Irwin about smuggling postage stamp covers (whatever that was) aboard the LEM and then selling them off as lunar souvenirs after the crew returned from the Moon. Technically, that was a violation of NASA protocols, (though unofficially, it wasn’t the first time something like that had happened).

    The problem came when the NASA brass got wind of it. Scott and Irwin had been quietly reassigned to a later flight, which, it was understood, would never happen. Worden, despite being on the same crew, had been under suspicion but was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing in a quiet, unofficial, internal investigation. The overeager stamp collector had approached Irwin and Scott while they were on a separate surface training assignment and the two astronauts hadn’t yet had a chance to ask Worden, though he would likely have gone along with it.

    The whole situation was messy and something less than right. It had seemed unfair to Thomas to punish men for trying to find a way to make some money harmlessly. And being taken off a lunar landing was arguably worse than a death sentence for many astronauts. On the other hand, it could be said that any man who was lucky enough to be assigned a landing should count his blessings and not look for a profitable upside.

    At any rate, the H-mission was swapped in favor of this, the first and only I-mission of the program. The geologists were overjoyed at the chance for a complete and comprehensive lunar mapping mission and had gotten one of their own assigned to it, as a bonus.

    Farouk El-Baz was a world-class geologist and knew more about the Moon than almost anyone. His assignment on the flight had been a beautiful solution to a public relations quagmire. The first flight of an international astronaut on an American ship, to say nothing of the first non-White man to fly on an American vessel. The stories done on El-Baz’s personal history, his family and his career were all stories that would otherwise have been aimed at the stamp controversy. It was also a quiet signal to the average American that even a non-astronaut like El-Baz could survive and contribute to a real Apollo mission. Surely a few more people had become members of Pan-Am’s “First Moon Flights Club” as a result. Wheaton couldn’t help but chuckle at the thought.

    10 March 1971

    Apollo 14

    MET: T+ 704:18:35

    Orbital Inclination: 86°

    Callsign: Endurance

    Farouk looked over and verified that the transmitter wasn’t on VOX before he spoke.

    “You promised me this wouldn’t happen.”

    “I know. I know.”

    “You said, ‘It’ll be a month of observations and floating. You won’t have to do any crazy astronaut stuff.”

    Worden sighed as he finished rigging the suit hoses, “I know.”

    “What are we doing now Alfred?”

    “Crazy astronaut stuff.”

    “Plan well executed, yeah?”

    “It’s not like we didn’t know this could happen.”

    “All I wanted was a lot of good photographs. I’d be back in my office, going over albedo numbers…”

    “Hey, it’s just me doing the crazy astronaut stuff. All I need you to do is stay here in your seat and keep talking to Houston.”

    “In a space suit!”

    “Yeah… believe me, you don’t want to do this without one.”

    “When we get back I’m going to find whatever technician installed this thing and…”

    “It happens, buddy. There’s nothing for it. I know what to do and how to do it. Try to relax. Two hours from now, it’ll all be over and done with.”

    “You want to rephrase that?”

    Worden let out a clipped laugh, “I’ll be back inside, and we’ll break into the chocolate bars. Okay?”

    El-Baz sighed as Worden sealed his helmet, “It’s not like I have a choice.”

    “True,” Worden switched over to VOX, “Houston, Farouk and I are suited up. We’re ready to begin cabin depressurization. I’ve got my tool kit together and we’re in good shape.”

    Bill Anders had the friendly voice of CAPCOM today, “Copy that Al. We’re going to have you begin depressurization after LOS. Do not, repeat, do not egress until we have acquisition over the pole on your next pass. The hatch will not be opened until after we have a good signal.”

    “Copy, Houston. Endurance will be squared away as we come around the horn.”

    Forty-five minutes later, Alfred Worden emerged from the open hatch of the Endurance over crater Anaxagoras.

    Farouk looked out of window 1 with wide eyes as Alfred made his way out of the spacecraft. The Farsight had been fitted with handholds for this very purpose. The idea being that the handholds were low-weight and would be very useful in the event of an EVA.

    Gossip’s release mechanism had been considered a problem area. Gossip and Farsight were designed separately, built separately, and only within the last 6 months before launch had their respective engineering teams been able to coordinate their efforts.

    Worden surveyed the ship as he climbed towards it. Gossip was more or less a can with an antenna on the sides, a single engine at the rear, and a coating of solar cells on the outside. Its main dish (a smaller version of Endurance’s high-gain antenna, was pointed uselessly back at Endurance for the moment. Once he got it freed from the lattice-truss structure that mated it with Farsight, the antenna would independently acquire a signal from Earth and would get instructions to fire the engine into a high parking orbit.

    Worden clipped safety lines to two separate hand holds at the top of Farsight’s cylindrical shell. He then diagnosed the issue at hand.

    Gossip’s pyros had fired on time, but one of the four had failed to completely sever its connecting bolt. What was left of the bolt was holding the satellite on, like the victim of a botched guillotine execution with an infernal death grip.

    Worden radioed the situation in. The truss was tricky to get at with a wrench and he honestly thought he’d have a better chance of prying the thing loose by just pushing on the base of Gossip and hoping that the strain would tear what was left of the bolt in two. Houston wasn’t wild about the idea and told him to try the wrench anyway.

    Worden had studied Aldrin’s work on Gemini XII and knew how to anchor himself properly for using a tool in zero gravity. He checked his safety lines again and stuck a booted foot into a third handhold.

    After a few failed attempts to get the wrench into place, he finally got a proper grip and turned the bolt. In his excitement at freeing the wretched piece of metal, his foot slipped and Worden became the victim of Newton’s laws, his motions transferred from the freed metal into himself, spinning him slowly off of Farsight’s grips.

    “Whoa, oaah!” said the Air Force colonel as he slowly floated away from his spacecraft, much to the panicked eyes of his crewmate.

    For a long moment, as the universe spun before his eyes, Worden felt a fear like nothing he’d experienced as a fighter pilot. What he could not know was that Farouk felt much the same fear, lacking in any way the confidence to fly Endurance home from the Moon on his own.

    When the safety lines tugged taut and he came into a slow rebound, relief rushed over both men, the likes of which they would never again experience.

    Worden got a grip on one of the lines and slowly reeled himself in. The flight surgeon was kind enough not to comment on the heart rate of either man in mission debriefings later that month.

    An hour later, true to his word, Worden and El-Baz celebrated the successful firing of Gossip’s rocket engine with two Hershey bars and a view of the Earth rising over the lunar north pole.
    XIV: Blue and Grey
  • Blue and Grey


    Image Credit: Nixonshead

    31 July 1971

    Apollo 15

    MET: T+ 325:14:38

    18°34′26″S 155°22′51″W

    Callsign: Enterprise

    “Hornet Recovery one, this is the Enterprise. Hornet Recovery one, this is the Enterprise. Do you read? Over.”

    Jack Crichton was barely able to get the words out. He was actively suppressing seasickness; and the harness straps were cutting into his shoulders pretty bad.

    This really had to stop happening.

    Crichton had been the pilot of Gemini VIII with Dave Scott. Gemini VIII had ended with an emergency undocking and a splashdown hours away from the recovery vehicles. They had sat in Pacific swells for more than 4 hours, waiting for rescue, fighting off nausea from the fumes of the heat shield and leftover RCS fuel.

    If there was ever an experience that could put an astronaut off of spaceflight, that had to be close. But, likely as not, there was no rough ride that could deter an aviator from wanting to go to space.

    Now, 5 years later, he found himself, once again, floating in a quiet corner of the Pacific Ocean, waiting for a rescue by surface ships that were steaming to reach his bobbing spacecraft.

    Despite this relatively ignominious end, the flight itself had gone beautifully.

    Crichton and Bill Anders had piloted the Orion down to a soft, pinpoint landing near a wrinkle ridge in the Sea of Serenity. On their first EVA, they had deployed an ALSEP, planted the 4th American flag on the lunar surface, and had presented a relatively enjoyable hour of television, live from Serenity base. Later that afternoon, back inside Orion, they’d had a conversation with John Chancellor and Frank McGee on the NBC Nightly News.

    The next morning, Jack Crichton, in full view of a live television audience and an extremely nervous flight director back in Houston, attached a climbing rig to his A7L spacesuit.

    Since the announcement of the moon landing goal 10 years ago, every geologist on the planet had been excited about the chance to study lunar surface samples. Now, after only 3 landing missions, the geologists weren’t just satisfied with regular old regolith anymore. No, the rockhounds wanted samples from deeper down.

    The landing point for Orion was a ridge on Serenity base. This geological feature was indicative of magma movement in the past. Volcanic activity had shifted the basalt crust in this area and the ridge that resulted now offered a chance to get at the secrets of the interior workings of the Moon.

    After securing the harness and checking (for the 4th time) the anchoring of the rope line on which his life would depend, Jack Crichton began a slow descent down the ridge. Truthfully, he found the experience less exciting than it would have appeared to an outside observer. While the ridge was tall, the slope of it wasn’t overly imposing. He guessed that, should the worst happen, he could figure out a way to scramble up the incline and return to the safety of Orion. Worst case scenario, he planned to walk along the ridge until he found a shallower place to climb up.

    He had a shoulder mount for the television camera and the geology boys were seeing what he was seeing. They would have him pause every 10 feet or so and he could hear the whirr of the camera zooming in and out. He did his best to report anything unusual that he saw. For the most part, the surface looked standard-issue, but he generally understood that by descending the ridge he was seeing layering in the surface that revealed things about the Moon’s past.

    As he reached the maria floor, he disengaged the rope harness and left it on the ground. About 20 yards away was the equipment bag and hand-held drill that he and Bill had tossed down near the end of yesterday’s EVA. The drill would allow him to get several samples in the ridge’s face near the surface (theoretically the oldest and most interesting part of the ridge) and the plan was to get as many samples as the equipment bag could hold before Anders hauled it up on a second rope that he would toss down when Crichton was finished with his observations.

    Jack looked up and gave a wave to Anders as he stood on the crest of the ridge 30 or 40 yards above him. Bill’s suit was silhouetted against the blackness of open space and Crichton took a moment to snap a photo of that. The grey surface, the white suit and the black sky. The word he couldn’t think of at the moment was “iconic.”

    One thing that he could not see clearly was Orion. This was a problem with an interesting solution. The EVA suit radios relied on repeaters in the LEM to communicate with mission control. Since Jack could no longer see Orion, his radio signal was blocked by the ridge.

    During his descent, Anders had toggled a switch on his radio that provided a repeating loop for Jack’s transmissions. The signal from Houston to Crichton and vice versa was relayed through Bill Anders’s antenna. As long as Anders maintained visual contact with Crichton, then the loop would be secure and both astronauts would be able to talk to Houston.

    For the next 2 hours, Anders and Crichton walked for half a mile along the ridge Crichton below, Anders at the top. They made observations, took dozens of photographs and gathered samples. As the mission clock demanded, they wrapped up the walk on-time and Anders tossed down a new line to haul up Crichton’s rocks. He relayed the ease of the task to Houston and the commentators reminded everyone watching about the 1/6th lunar gravity.

    After listening to Anders secure the equipment bag, Crichton realized that he was no longer hearing calls from the ground.

    “Bill, I’m not hearing Houston. Can you check your relay?”

    “The switch is good here. I’m still reading them. I think it’s the repeater itself.”

    “Ah, dang. I had a feeling it’d crap out on us sooner or later.”

    “Glad it’s later. Must have been from all that movement in hauling up the bag. Houston, this is Anders. Jack is no longer reading you. Do you have his transmissions, over?”

    Scott Keller replied from a quarter million miles away, “Negative, Bill. We did not reacquire Jack after you moved to stow the bag. We lost the TV as well.”

    “Roger that, Houston. I’ve still got a strong signal from you both. We’ll do a manual relay until we get him back up the hill and I’ll let you know what he’s saying. We’re ready for his ascent here if you’re go down there.”

    A slow, gingerly climb brought Jack Crichton back in view of Orion and, as he crested the ridge, Houston regained his signal just as expected. An hour later, they concluded their surface activities. They'd even had time to toss a football back and forth a couple of times, much to the delight of the folks back home.

    The next morning, Stu Roosa monitored the ascent of Orion from the left hand seat on the CSM Enterprise. Enterprise was Jack Crichton’s second choice for a callsign. He had preferred Sirius, Orion’s faithful dog, but was overruled as the worry was that Sirius could be confused for “serious” in the event of a crisis situation. The public relations guys had been thrilled with the new name though. Star Trek was nearing the end of its 5 year run on NBC and the crews of both Enterprises were to have a splendid photo-op together after they returned to Houston.

    That was hard to think about at the moment though. Crichton looked out the hatch window at the Pacific Ocean and sky next to it. Not above it, next to it. The image would have turned his stomach, if it hadn’t already been turned.

    Twenty-four hours before entry interface, a typhoon had begun to develop just east of their splashdown zone. By the time meteorology had gotten a total sense of the weather system, it was too late to reroute the surface ships before the storm would be on them. Enterprise would have no trouble avoiding the storm, however. A small impulse from the SPS, only a few inches per second, was more than enough to change their trajectory and move their landing site hundreds of miles away from the danger area. Houston had ordered Enterprise to adjust course accordingly, but with the caveat that the crew would have to wait on the surface for the recovery craft for several hours.

    Scott Carpenter had landed about 250 miles off course back in 1962 and the Navy had spent a few panicky hours searching until they found him floating towards Puerto Rico. In 1965, Crichton himself had waited with Dave Scott for rescue after their Gemini VIII had developed a problematic thruster, necessitating an emergency landing. But in both cases, the spacecraft had the decency to land upright. Several Apollos had come back in Stable II configuration. Noses down into the water, the curved heat shield pointed at the sky. It was a simple procedure to inflate airbags near the top of the cone that would right the ship. The problem came when one of the three bags failed to inflate and, rather than a gentle flip onto her back, instead, the Enterprise listed to one side and rocked gently on one side, with the crew held into their seats at an awkward angle, still mostly head-down.

    It had been about an hour since splashdown. Holding back his nausea, Jack Crichton tried the radio again. “Hornet Recovery One, this is the Enterprise. Do you read?”

    The radio crackled to life and all three astronauts felt a rush of relief, “Roger, Enterprise. This is Hornet Recovery One. We have visual contact and are 5 minutes out. What’s your status?”

    Crichton looked over at his crewmates and nodded before keying the microphone, “Hornet Recovery, we are okay, but Enterprise has failed to reach stable one or two over. Repeat, we are listing awkwardly at this time. Please be aware of that as you approach, over.”

    There was a moment’s pause as the helicopter’s crew conferred amongst themselves. Their acknowledgment came a moment later.

    Crichton brought out his copy of the recovery checklist and was about to start it when Bill Anders tapped him on the shoulder.

    “Jack,” Anders said, and pointed out of the hatch window.

    “Oh, you gotta be kidding me…” Crichton looked out of the window and saw a grey fin that, while aerodynamic, had no business near his spacecraft. The sharks of the South Pacific had a bad habit of finding lost mariners. The crew of Apollo 15 was no exception. Fortunately, a spacecraft that could keep out the hard vacuum of the universe would have no problem separating a shark from a tasty trio of astronauts.

    “Rescue One, this is the Enterprise. You’re not gonna believe this...”
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    XV: High Fly-By-Wire Act
  • High Fly-By-Wire Act


    Image Credit: Nixonshead

    29 November 1971

    Manned Spacecraft Center

    Houston, TX

    29° 33’ 47” N 95° 05’ 28” W

    How far off are we?

    It was the question that had been hanging in the air, like a summer humidity that had the indecency to sweep through in late November. It was the most recent in a series of questions that had plagued NASA for the past 4 months.

    How long of a delay?

    How dangerous will that be?

    Are we going to be ready for the crew?

    The questions that had defined the autumn of 1971 were not yet finished. The one on the mind of Gerald Griffin right now could be answered with a distance. How far off are we? How far will the infernal machine have to drive to make the rendezvous point?

    He glanced at the clock on the wall as it swept through 0334 and suppressed the urge to sigh. Even if he had the answer, he knew that it would only lead to more questions. Each one more troublesome than the last.

    What’s the terrain between the new LZ and Alpha? Do we have what we need to plot a course? How long will it take to get there?

    And that last, most pestering one:

    Are we going to be ready for the crew?

    Gerry turned to Glynn Lunney and rubbed his eyes, “Remember all the bitching we had back and forth on 7? All the bullshit about spam in a can and the guys in California saying we can do better with robots? My kingdom for an astronaut.”

    Lunney let out a tight smile and nodded, “Yeah. Flyboys are gonna have a field day with this one. They’ll never let us live it down.”

    Gerry had a quick reply, “Only if we don’t make the rendezvous. We get to Alpha and this’ll be old news.”

    “Roger that.”

    Four months ago, representatives from Grumman and the Bendix corporation had informed NASA that the MObile Lunar Excursion Module, or, as the guys in public relations had begged them not to call it: MOLEM, was going to be delayed for two weeks, due to an issue with mating it to the first Cargo LEM.

    The delay was unfortunate, but not surprising to anyone who had paid attention to the development of spaceflight hardware for the past decade and a half.

    The very concept of a mobile, pressurized lunar laboratory and shelter had been in development since 1966, but no one had really expected it to be called for until the first landing 2 years ago. With the influx of interest and support from the general public, MOLEM was one of the tent poles of Apollo’s second phase.

    Even with a layout stripped down to the bare essentials for landing and return, the original Lunar Excursion Modules could only supply two men for three days of surface activity. With the long-term goals of Apollo shifting to longer and more productive stays on the surface, the priority became how to keep astronauts supplied and safe on the surface for extended periods of time.

    Astronauts were very demanding. They demanded food, shelter, air, water, a place to sleep, and constant communication with Earth. The scientists who created mission objectives for the surface stays were even more demanding. They insisted that astronauts travel farther, have access to equipment that was sometimes heavy and cumbersome, and that they be able to visit sites that were out of the sightline of the lander.

    With these demands at the forefront, Bendix and Grumman had gotten to work on two new spacecraft. The first, the Cargo LEM, was, at its core, a LEM descent stage which could deliver nearly 4000 kilograms of equipment to the lunar surface. The development of Cargo LEM was more complex than simply getting a computer and radio into a descent stage, but not much more complex.

    The next priority was to figure out what Cargo LEM would carry to the surface.

    Bendix had brought several options to NASA’s attention. A dedicated lab module, known as MOLAB, could be built specifically to maximize internal space and Cargo LEM capacity. It was the Cadillac option. The smooth cylinder of the MOLAB would have been perfect for the task at hand, but also had to be engineered from scratch. After a brief consideration of putting a stripped down command module on wheels, NASA had decided to run with a middle ground option that balanced utility on the surface with an ease in design and production.

    MOLEM used the ascent stage of a standard lunar module, which contained life support and consumables for the crew, and put it on wheels. Extra space was created with the loss of the ascent engine and the simplification of the computer systems. Controls were added for steering and speed. Every bit of available internal volume was devoted to water, food and scientific gear for the astronauts. By the time it rolled off the line (literally, as driving tests were the first of its challenges) the MOLEM was capable of supporting 2 astronauts for twelve days and driving them up to 250 miles at a maximum speed of 10 mph.

    The first one had been christened the Beagle in honor of the ship that had brought Charles Darwin to the Galapagos Islands.

    Originally, the idea for phase 2 had involved launching two manned Saturn V’s for each of the missions. One would deliver supplies to the surface, while a crew of 2 astronauts stayed in the CSM before returning to Earth. Presentations of this plan to non-engineering managers had gone very badly and other studies were commissioned on how best to deploy phase 2 hardware.

    In order to land a Cargo LEM, one first had to achieve lunar orbit. The best way to do that was with the SPS on the Service Module. Pairing a stripped-down service module to a Cargo LEM was not sufficient, as neither spacecraft was designed to fly to lunar orbit without a command module. And as long as you had to send a module with the unmanned Cargo LEM, you might as well put it to some use.

    Thus was born the Olympus space station.

    Calling Olympus a space station was an exercise in vanity. The “station” such as it was, was not much more than a can which interfaced with the service module and the Cargo LEM.

    The plans for the space stations of the 1980’s called for many cans like this to be joined together, each with a specific purpose, working together to provide an orbiting space laboratory. Orbiting over Earth, that is.

    Olympus could support up to two astronauts for up to 3 months, which was the longest conceivable surface duration which was being explored. The can was equipped with a pair of solar panels and was approximately twice the size of an Apollo CSM. What it had in volume, it lacked in propulsion, navigation, and computing power. Olympus was little more than a habitat module with a few scientific platforms on board for long-duration orbiting experiments.

    The idea would be to test the “cans” system of space station design in lunar orbit, using the CMP astronaut as a caretaker, since, on the longer flights of phase 2, he would have little to do in orbit that had not been done already.

    A single launch to provide a mobile surface laboratory, an orbiting lunar space station and a platform to test hardware and procedures for Earth-orbiting space stations to be built in the near future.

    It was a bold and audacious plan, born of the hubris that had brought NASA’s previous successes- at the cost of billions of dollars and several human lives.

    Still, there was little doubt, both within the agency and amongst those of the general public who took an interest, that astronauts Grissom, White, and Chafee would approve of such a grand strategy to complete mankind’s first lunar explorations.

    All of that was fine for newspapers and nightly news, but great plans are always accompanied by great challenges, and the flight of Olympus I was no exception.

    The wacky triumvirate of spacecraft were stacked and loaded upside down onto a Saturn V. The aerodynamic fairing concealed a kludge of a stack which featured the SPS engine bell pointed straight up. The absurd configuration would save the trouble of an autonomous docking after the third stage’s TLI burn.

    After Olympus and her Cargo LEM swung around the far side of the Moon, only a single firing of the SPS would be left to set her orbit. At which point the SPS would be out of fuel and Olympus would never change her orbital characteristics again. Fortunately, the plan was to settle her into one of the "frozen orbits," specifically the one at 27 degrees inclination.

    After Olympus had established her orbit, all that was left would be the undocking, descent, and landing of the new, untested Cargo LEM, which would have to delicately land 4000 kilograms worth of payload without the benefit of an astronaut at the controls.

    Military commanders are fond of the maxim that no plan survives contact with the enemy. Gerald Griffin was considering a modification of the maxim to “No autonomous flight survives contact with reality.”

    Shortly after the TLI burn, the Beagle-Olympus stack had begun to drift. In a normal flight, the astronauts on board would have sensed the drift and would have seen the 8-balls slowly turning on their control panel. But the stack had no one on board to see what was happening.

    While Houston could monitor the stack with a great deal of focus on its internal health, the inertial guidance of the stack was not as tightly controlled. For the majority of the lifespan of the stack’s components, navigation and propulsion systems would be passive or off-line. Therefore, lower priority was placed on their initial design.

    A warning was built into the system when the gimbals approached 70 degrees of alignment. At 85 degrees, the IMU would lock the gimbals to prevent total alignment.

    It took only a matter of minutes for the system to move from the 70 degree warning to the 85 degree freeze. There hadn’t been sufficient time to calculate a corrective burn and uplink it to the stripped-down AGC on board.

    If all three gimbals slipped into alignment with one another, independent motion of any of them would be impossible. The lock at 85 degrees was designed to prevent total disaster, but triggering the lock meant that the entire platform would need to be realigned.

    Realigning the AGC platform was a tedious and time-consuming process even with an astronaut on-board the spacecraft. It involved using a sextant and taking starfield readings. For the men of the guidance station in the MOCR trench, it would require a Herculean effort of calculation.

    Armed only with the spacecraft's telemetry and photos that could be transmitted from the Olympus module’s external docking cameras, the Guidance team started to align the platform. It took more than a day, consulting with astronomers and personnel from the contractors who manufactured both vessels.

    The delay from the realignment meant that the flight plan’s schedule had slipped badly. Adjustments would have to be made to the burn parameters on both the course correction burn and the lunar orbit insertion burn. This was a further strain on the already taxed brainpower of the trench.

    In a saga of star charts and slide rules, the Guidance station of the Mission Operations Control Room performed above and beyond the call of duty. But their best work still had led to an unfortunate adjustment to the mission schedule that put the separation of the Cargo LEM from Olympus on the 3rd lunar orbit, rather than the 2nd. As a result, the projected landing site for the Cargo LEM, known as LZ Alpha, had to be discarded in favor of a tertiary site.

    The Cargo LEM had landed using its automated program. It was safe on the ground, but the boys in the trench were still working on exactly where it had come down.

    Which brought Gerald Griffin back to the question of the day. How far off are we? How many kilometers would the Beagle have to drive, over terrain that was rugged and more challenging than anything seen on the first 4 landings? The region known as Marius Hills was selected for its geological interest, not for being an “easy” site. The volcanic domes and boulders were set to provide many interesting facts about lunar history, but for right now, they were obstacles in Beagle’s path to meet the crew of Apollo 16.

    Apollo 16, crewed by Scott Keller and Jack Swigert and commanded by the steady-handed John Young, would be launching just after Christmas. At least that was the plan. While Keller and Young would make a wide (and deep) exploration of the surface, Jack Swigert would rendezvous with the Olympus module and, over the course of a 2-week stay, prepare the station for a longer mission by a 2-man crew on a later flight.

    It was a dynamite plan, on paper. But the numbers on the paper all depended on Young and Keller being able to meet the Beagle on the lunar surface at a nice little flat spot that had long ago been designated in the mission planning phase. The target for Young and Keller, the secondary landing zone, was imaginatively designated LZ Bravo. The intended landing zone for Beagle, LZ Alpha, was approximately half a mile away. The distance being necessary to avoid damage to either spacecraft with the arrival of the LEM.

    The Cargo LEM had put down yesterday afternoon, Houston time, on an automated program. The descent program had been written to automatically adjust the landing point if radar had detected a problem with the LPD from 1000 ft altitude. The 3-second delay from Earth to Moon meant that it was more hazardous to the spacecraft to have ground commands interfering with the landing from that point on.

    One thousand feet above the lunar surface, the radar had confirmed an object at the projected landing point and had begun a rotation of 34 degrees. The computer searched (as frantically as a computer might) for a circular zone of 100 feet in radius that radar did not detect an obstruction larger than 1 meter high within.

    With 85 seconds of remaining fuel, the Cargo LEM had found a suitable site and issued a 10 degree right turn to land there. For the next 70 seconds, mission control was powerless to aid the unmanned ship. The final confirmation of touchdown came not from CAPCOM, but from TELMU, who gave the simple, “Contact light. Engine arm off. Safe. Chassis fault indicator negative. Flight, TELMU, the Beagle has landed.”

    After a long moment of exultation and back-slapping congratulations, the work began of analyzing the final descent to determine where Beagle had set down. Almost 12 hours later, the work had nearly finished.

    “Flight, Guidance.”

    “Go, Guidance,” the room held its collective breath.

    “Flight, we have the position now. We calculate 23 miles to LZ Bravo.”

    “Copy, confirm 23?”

    “Technically 23 and about a quarter, direct line, flight.”

    “Copy understand. Does local terrain provide a good path from Beagle to LZ Alpha?”

    This was Griffin’s attempt to generate a bit of optimism. In truth, without seeing it on the ground, it would be difficult to know whether the terrain was suitable for driving a 12 foot tall buggy… without an actual driver at the controls… on a 3-second delay… from a quarter of a million miles away.

    “Roger, Flight. We’re consulting with geology, but at the moment, we’ve plotted an initial course that appears to be clean. We project the path through the day 2 stop by the 16 flight plan. Total path distance to Bravo is 27 miles.”

    “And geology is happy with the plot?”

    One of the geologists who had joined the Guidance team in the trench stood up and turned towards the back of the room. He had the semi-delighted look of a man who loved what he was doing and was good at it, despite the challenges. Someone had given him a headset and he seemed excited to be issuing his first call on the loop, “Flight, Geology. We have confidence in the plotted course from the orbital photography on 15. We don’t expect any showstoppers from here to Alpha.”

    Griffin issued a simple, “Copy that,” and nodded at the man, who sat back down. He continued, turning towards the second row, “Control, Telmu, are you happy with what you’re seeing on getting Beagle unloaded?”

    The Control station came on without looking up, “Affirmative, Flight. We are go for dismount and traverse.”

    Griffin’s smile was returning. “Guido-Geology,” he said, amused at the fusion of the two groups for this little road trip. “What’s your projected time of traverse to Alpha, assuming all standard protocols?”

    Those protocols were critical. The original plan was for Beagle to be unpacked on the first EVA and only driven by the astronauts. After Young and Keller departed, Beagle was to be remotely driven and observations made from its cameras, but that was a bonus program, to be done only after the astronauts were safely back in orbit. Still, the driving protocols had been written with the understanding that the current situation was possible. The protocols could be condensed down to, “Go slow. Look where you’re going. Don’t do anything stupid.”

    “We’re still running the numbers, Flight. Early projections put us at around 200 hours.”

    Griffin nodded and rubbed his head, “Roger.”

    A beat passed as everyone did the math in their heads. The lunar day was approximately 28 days on Earth. Meaning that for every 28 days, a single spot, such as Beagle’s current position, would have 14 days of daylight, followed by 14 days of darkness. Daylight was a commodity on the Moon. Young and Keller would have to land in daylight. Their explorations would have to be done in daylight. Their launch off the surface was scheduled near lunar sunset to maximize that exploration time.

    Navigating Beagle over the surface would require daylight.

    Griffin let the silence hang over the room for a moment, then knocked on the top of his console to get every eye on him. “Okay, people! We have 2 weeks to drive to Bravo. We’re going to need every last bit of them. Take 5 minutes, get some coffee, whatever you need. We’re going to dismount Beagle from the LEM and have it ready for White Team to start the traverse in 5 hours. I hope you’ve all finished your Christmas shopping, because we’re going to be very busy for the next 2 weeks. We’re going on a road trip. Get packed.”

    The grins of engineers in their element met his display of geek bravado. The men of the MOCR knew what was about to happen. They were ready.

    Griffin turned to his assistant flight director and put his hand over his headset mike, “Tell John that we’ll have to put a few miles on the odometer, but Beagle will be waiting for him at Alpha next month.”
    Last edited:
    XVI: The Great Unknown
  • The Great Unknown

    1 January 1972

    Apollo 16

    MET: 260:12:27

    Marius Hills

    Callsign: Beagle

    “The extent and magnitude of the system of canyons is astounding. The plateau is cut into shreds by these gigantic chasms, and resembles a vast ruin. Belts of country miles in width have been swept away, leaving only isolated mountains standing in the gap.” - Joseph Christmas Ives – Report Upon the Colorado River of the West, Explored in 1857 & 1858

    The first priority for the EVA was checking the brakes. At this point, it was routine, but today it had a special significance.

    Scott knew it was more superstition than precaution that made him do it; but no one that he knew had ever died from being too careful. After Beagle’s brakes had been double-checked, he found four relatively large rocks scattered near the rim of the skylight and wedged them in front of each wheel. Chocks to ensure that his anchor wouldn’t be shifting during his descent into the unknown.

    As Keller finished with the wheels, he looked over at the rim. John Young was already there, assembling the spool mount. He followed the steel cable from the front of the Beagle over to where John was working. He stopped a few feet from the edge of the hole and stared into the abyss for a long moment.

    Officially, he wasn’t nervous. Nerves were for lesser men. Men who hadn’t risen through the Naval Academy, hadn’t landed on a tossing aircraft carrier deck at night, hadn’t ridden the largest rocket built by mankind to a world a quarter of a million miles away. Certainly men such as this wouldn’t be afraid of the dark.

    Unofficially, the dark was the worst of it. He stood at the precipice of this pit and could not see the bottom, and, like any man who had walked on the Earth or the Moon, he feared what he did not know.

    The crackle that accompanied John’s voice over the radio brought him out of his contemplation.

    “All set back there?” asked John, turning to take another look at the MOLEM. Even with the world watching back on Earth, they felt comfortable enough to be casual in their tone as they started the day.

    “Yeah, just wanted to give the brakes some help.”

    “It’s a good idea. I was gonna mention it if you hadn’t.”

    “Yeah. You’re good here? Checklist has me getting the low-SEP ready.”

    “Yeah, I’m fine. Go ahead.”

    Keller walked over to the Subsurface Experiment Package, or “Low-SEP”. Low-SEP wasn’t much different from the standard ALSEP packages that had been left at the other landing sites, including three miles from here where he and John had landed in Adventure a few days ago. The biggest difference was in what the package would look for and how it would communicate with Earth.

    Low-SEP would be lowered into the pit first. Once Keller reached it, he would activate the package and a data cable would be winched down to him. The small antennae left at the rim of the hole would relay the findings back to Earth. The biggest question Low-SEP had to answer was with regards to the latent levels of radiation in the hole. If the underground cavern had a significantly lower level of cosmic rays, then this collapsed lava tube, and others like it scattered randomly around the Moon, could possibly become ideal sites for the first permanent lunar outposts.

    Scott Keller ran a quick diagnostic of the experiment package. Houston confirmed the incoming data, then he shut down the experiments and carried the box to the rim of the pit.

    The pit had been discovered during the analysis of the photography from Apollo 14. This was one of four that had been found in various spots on the Moon. There were likely to be others that were simply not as prominent. The most likely hypothesis was that this pit was the collapsed ceiling of a lava tube where magma had flowed millions of years ago. This was the consensus of every geologist in NASA’s employ back on Earth.

    But where was the fun in that?

    To the uneducated masses back on Earth, the pit had been a potential source for all manner of science-fiction wonder and mischief. After all, this was a big, dark hole on the moon. It had a diameter of more than 50 meters and was nearly as deep. In the eyes of the public (and a few opportunistic sci-fi writers) that was certainly large enough to hold a pyramid, or an alien spacecraft, or the remnants of a lunar civilization, or spider-women from Mars…

    Surely it had to have something more interesting inside than the super-cooled remnants of lunar magma.

    Keller cracked a smile as they lowered the Low-SEP into the hole. He had enough confidence in the relative simplicity of the universe that he wasn’t worried about encountering anything dangerous, or even alive at the bottom of this hole. Still, it was a challenge not to think about some of the more grizzly possibilities. After all, he was only the tenth man to walk on this world. There was so much that they didn’t know. And it was so dark down there.

    Twenty minutes later, Keller and Young both eagerly leaned over the lip of the pit as the Low-SEP deployed its most important feature.

    Attached to the top of the equipment was a telescoping rod, 3 meters tall at its full length. At the top of the rod was a hardened light fixture, lovingly called “the lamppost” that would provide illumination to Scott Keller during his exploration of the pit.

    As they peered into the hole, lit for the first time ever, Young asked his LMP, “What was your bet again?”

    “I had 50 bucks on a UFO.” Keller replied.

    “Right, I said 4-armed monster that eats humans. Jack had the race of green-skinned girls from Star Trek.”

    “Well, what do you expect from a bachelor?”

    Young laughed, “The thing is, if we find one, he’s gonna insist we bring her back with us.”

    “Sarah told me if that’s the case, Jack has dibs.”

    They laughed as they stared down into the abyss.

    “Okay, Houston, just seeing rocks so far. Looks like a good scattering of boulders. Low-SEP is sitting on a relatively clear point. I think it’ll be fine if we put Scott down right next to it.”

    Elliott See was CAPCOM for today. His voice came through 5 by 5. “Roger, copy Beagle. We’d like you to get a couple of panoramic shots on the camera so we can take a look before giving the go.”

    “Copy, Houston. Here we go.”

    Young tilted the lens down and did a few sweeping pans. The live audience, significantly increased from the numbers that had watched Apollo 15, got their first look into the hole.

    Broken boulders and the same tepid gray that had marked the rest of lunar explorations. No grand structures. No great skeleton. No alien monolith. Just a dry pit of rock, older than human civilization.

    Thirty minutes later, after the harness had been checked four times, John Young took his suit radio off VOX. Keller saw his movements and did the same.


    “It’s fine. I’m ready. There’s not going to be a problem. I trust the rig and I trust you.”

    “I just wanted to give you a chance to…”

    Keller shook his head under his space helmet, then felt ridiculous for doing so, “John, if the worst happens, take me off relay and finish the work. If I don’t come back, I’ve got no regrets.”

    Young smiled tightly and felt the same ridiculousness, knowing his visor made the expression moot, “I still say we should’ve sent Jack.”

    Keller gave a good laugh and turned his radio back to voice-activated transmissions, “Okay, Houston. My feet are on the rim now. Winch is ready and we’re good to go.”

    “Copy that, Scott. You are go for powered descent.”

    Scott Keller, father, husband, naval aviator, leaned over the rim of the Marius pit and began his descent into the grand unknown.

    As he descended, he tried to describe the striations and layering that he saw in the pit walls. It was quickly apparent that this was indeed a lava tube with a collapsed ceiling. About 10 meters from the rim, the hole expanded in two opposite directions. He could see a gentle curve in the wall that eventually blocked his line of site. The winch cable did not twist or rotate, so he could only assume that a similar site was directly behind him. When he reached the bottom, his first task was to take a series of photo and video that would show as much of this new terrain as possible.

    About 10 feet from the bottom, Keller was relieved to find that his fears were subsiding. The lamppost was performing wonderfully and he felt no fear as his feet reached the floor of the pit. Mankind had managed to do what the sun never would, illuminate the deep recesses of this lava tube and look upon rocks that had never been exposed to light.

    With all the joy of Columbus, the Wright Brothers, and Frank Borman, Scott Keller began the first of 5 hours of activities in this vast lunar sinkhole. The first order of the day was connecting a cable to allow for the data to be relayed from the Low-SEP to an antenna left on the surface near Beagle’s parking spot.

    Soon, his explorations found him climbing up a pair of tilted, broken off sections of collapsed rock. He proceeded more than 200 yards down the lava tube, until the line-of-sight with John Young was broken and he had to turn back. The exploration of this area made him feel like an ant in a subway tunnel, but he could not deny the grandeur of this palace of geologic majesty.

    With an hour remaining in his PLSS backpack’s oxygen supply, he was commanded by Houston and John to return to his drop-off point so that he could be raised from the floor of the pit. During his return walk, a stroll of about 50 meters from one side of the pit to the other, he finally confronted the unspoken possibility that he and John had acknowledged before.

    The Apollo program had served as a great reminder, for those who were paying attention, of the limitless fallibility of human engineering. Despite the great accomplishments of the program and the men and women who made it possible, there were many situations where the creations of mankind had been less than cooperative during the forays into this new territory.

    Scott Keller had, perhaps, trusted human engineering more than any other astronaut before him. He had ridden a Saturn V rocket. He had relied on the SPS of the Service Module to bring him into a stable lunar orbit. He had landed in a spindly Lunar Excursion Module and he had made a home out of the MOLEM mobile laboratory. Now, Keller found himself at the bottom of a hole, trusting a winch and cable as his only recourse to bring him out again.

    It was completely understood, though never spoken of, that, should the worst happen during this particular exploration, John Young would, with a heartbreaking stiff upper lip, abandon Scott Keller in this sinkhole, to die a coughing death as his oxygen ran out at the end of the PLSS’s reserves. Commander Young was fully capable of driving the Beagle alone, continuing the explorations of this region, and flying the Adventure back to lunar orbit to meet up with Jack Swigert.

    There would be no daring rappelling into the hole to retrieve Keller (or his corpse). The mission protocols were absolute in minimizing the risk to the astronaut who did not make the descent. Every astronaut since Gagarin has understood that rescue is a near-unheard of concept in spaceflight. Keller had made his peace with the idea long before he accepted the assignment to lower himself into the pit at Marius Hills.

    Samples were raised up to the surface. His equipment bag was next and both operations proceeded without a hitch. With little thought to the matter, Keller secured the cable to his own harness and said a few final words for posterity from the bottom of the pit. With a confident smile, he felt the slack take up the 1/6th of his weight that had anchored him to this world. The winch began pulling him up and mind he began thinking of the tasks left to do before he and John would return to…

    Suddenly, just as he’d feared, there was a jolt and Scott Keller’s ascent stopped twenty meters off of the floor of the cave.

    As his heart began to pound, Scott heard the voice of John Young over the radio, “Houston, this is Young. I’ve stopped the cable retraction, over.”

    Scott Keller felt free enough to be direct, what with his communications with the ground being filtered through his commander, “John, what the hell is going on?”

    Young continued, “Houston, I’ve got an eye on the cable. It’s slipping off of the spool. I want to get it realigned before we finish the retraction. I’m afraid if it slips off the roller…” Young let the thought hang unfinished. The implications were terrifying. If the cable slipped it could hit the surface. If it hit the surface, the cable could shear. If it sheared, then Scott Keller would plunge to a cold, painful death a quarter of a million miles from home.

    Keller did not hear Houston’s end of the conversation. He was listening intently to Commander Young’s words though.

    “Roger that, Houston. We’ll lower Scott down and try again. I think it was just the speed difference from the descent with the equipment versus lowering Scott. Let me rethread the spinner once he’s down and we’ll try again.”

    With an edge of panic, Scott felt himself being lowered back to the bottom of the pit. He dutifully cooperated by unhooking the cable from his harness and, like a drowning man watching a life preserver float away, he watched the cable retract much faster than it had pulled him up. He knew that there was still more than 45 minutes of air in his supplies, but for the first time he began to wonder if he would make it out of this hole.

    John Young was all business as he rethreaded the steel cable around the winch’s spool. He spoke to Scott as he proceeded through the repair. “It’s fine, I’ve got this. Just need another minute to get it reset.”

    With a bravado that is found only in fighter pilots, Keller maintained a nonchalance about his peril, “Sure, no problem. Just whenever you’re ready up there.”

    “I don’t think we’ll need the backup, or to use Beagle as a tow. I see the trouble.”

    In the event of a failure in the winch system, the mission plans called for Young to unpack and assemble a backup that had been brought along on the Beagle. If, bizarrely, that system failed as well, the protocol was to board the Beagle and drive (slowly) away from the hole, thus pulling LMP Keller out of the pit with the MOLEM’s drivetrain, rather than the winch motor.

    After a delay of only a few minutes, John Young lowered the carabiner down once more and Scott Keller hooked his harness up.

    Back on Earth, it was the flight surgeon, of all people, who was the first to know that Keller had completed his ascent out of the sinkhole. The telemetry from the biomonitors on Keller’s skin had informed the surgeon that the line of sight between Keller and the Beagle had been restored. On the monitor at the front of the MOCR and in the homes of millions of Americans, Keller’s outstretched hand could be seen reaching for, and then finding, the hand of John Young. This “handshake on the moon” became a popular photograph for the year 1972, and even found a place on the cover of Time, bumping potential cover stories about the upcoming New Hampshire primary.

    Two hours later, Keller and Young were finishing their evening meal, comfortable and secure inside the MOLEM’s cabin.

    Young was the first to ask Keller the question that he would be fielding for years to come, “You think it has the potential to be a base?”

    “Sure. We clear out the rocks, it’s pretty nice down there. Betting the rads were lower too. It’ll be a good choice if they go for it.” Despite his words, Keller’s tone was almost somber.


    Keller shrugged, “After that fiasco with the winch, they’ll never let anyone else down that hole, or any place like it ever again.”

    NASA had scrubbed the second descent into the hole which had been tentatively scheduled for the next day. Keller’s pessimism was understandable, but not infectious.

    John Young tried to buck up his LMP, “Oh you never know…”

    Keller nodded, “I bet it’d be kinda perfect to set up something more permanent though.”

    "The region is, of course, altogether valueless. It can be approached only from the south, and after entering it there is nothing to do but leave. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality.” - Joseph Christmas Ives – Report Upon the Colorado River of the West, Explored in 1857 & 1858