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Apollo-14: making up for the failure

Anatoly Zak, Spaceflight Correspondent
Jan 26, 2016, 17:35 UTC

Sen—After the aborted flight of Apollo-13, its planned landing site near the Fra Mauro crater was assigned as a destination for the next crew, because planetary scientists believed that location was important for understanding lunar history.

Alan Shepard, the first pilot of the Mercury spacecraft during its suborbital flight a decade earlier, was given command of the Apollo-14 mission. Rookie astronauts Edgar Mitchell and Stuart Roosa were to pilot the Antares lunar module and the Kitty Hawk command module respectively.

Due to various safety upgrades introduced in the wake of the Apollo-13 accident, the fresh spacecraft gained some weight.

The Saturn-5 rocket carrying the Apollo-14 spacecraft lifted off from Pad 39A at Cape Canaveral on Jan. 31, 1971, after a 40-minute delay due to bad weather.

After setting on a deep-space journey toward the Moon, the crew began "routine" re-arranging of the spacecraft for entering lunar obit, however, the crew of Apollo-14 had to make six attempts to dock with the lunar module, before the secure connection was finally made.

As Shepard and Mitchell were preparing for the final descent to the Moon, an abort command appeared on the flight control system in the lunar module. Mission control frantically searched for the source of the problem, as the Antares was orbiting the Moon. Within a couple of hours, engineers in Houston isolated the culprit and sent a software patch into the computer to bypass the issue. The Antares began its descent, when warnings came in the cockpit indicating invalid altitude and velocity data from the crucial descent radar. Fortunately, a flip of a circuit breaker performed by the crew on the advice from mission control resolved that problem.

Finally, as during previous descents, Shepard found the landing location more inhospitable than survey photos could show. Yet again, the pilots used meager propellant reserves onboard the lunar module to maneuver around potential obstacles toward a more suitable spot. The successful landing took place on February 5, around 112 miles away from the Apollo-12's landing location.

During the first 4-hour 50-minute moon walk, Shepard and Mitchell installed a solar wind experiment, a U.S. flag and scientific equipment from the ALSEP package, including a pair of new experiments. One included a remote-controlled grenade launcher, which was to set off four explosions on the surface to be measured by seismic instruments. Astronauts also picked up a total of 41.6 pounds of moon rocks.

The moon walk was followed by six and a half hours of rest inside the Antares.

On the second excursion, the astronauts employed for the first time a two-wheeled cart, they called rickshaw, which was designed to help carry equipment and samples on a prolonged trek across the lunar landscape. Indeed, the crew's latest destination was located around a mile away and 330 feet higher than their landing spot.

The astronauts headed east to the 1,000-feet wide Cone crater, where scientists believed ancient rocks had been strewn along its rim after a meteor impact eons ago. However their trip proved harder than they expected, mainly due to difficulties in orientation among numerous large boulders and steep terrain. At one point, the heavily breathing moon walkers thought they had finally reached their destination, only to discover that it was another smaller crater.

After some discussion with mission control, the astronauts had to turn back short of their destination. A later analysis indicated that they might've been within 30 feet from the rim of the Cone crater. Some of the rocks picked in the area were later estimated to be around 3.9 billion years old. Peculiarly, it was actually younger than scientists had expected.

At the conclusion of the second outing, Shepard fashioned an improvised golf club out of one of the tools and sent couple of balls flying over the lunar golf course.

After a nearly two-mile walk, the astronauts climbed back into Antares with a total of 94 pounds of samples and a sheet of foil exposed to solar wind. The two astronauts spent a total of nine hours 24 minutes on the surface of the Moon.

In the meantime in orbit, Roosa was taking detailed photos of the Descartes crater, where Apollo-15 was expected to land later in the year. He also found and pictured a seemingly very fresh crater on the far side of the Moon.

After docking and transfer to the Kitty Hawk, the crew undocked the ascent stage of Antares, which was promptly crashed into lunar surface roughly half way between the Apollo-12 and Apollo-14 landing site to make an artificial moonquake. Sensors at both sites were hearing the resulting seismic echo for a surprisingly long one and a half hours.

On the way back to Earth the crew conducted some of the earliest experiments in the new field of space-based material science aimed to test the influence of weightlessness on the behavior of various chemicals, fluids, alloys and crystals.

On Feb. 9, 1971, the command module of the Apollo-14 spacecraft successfully splashed down in the South Pacific Ocean, some 900 miles south of the islands of Samoa and 216 hours and two minutes after leaving Earth. The capsule stayed perfectly upright after the landing.