Apollo 14 Mission: Return to the Moon after Apollo 13

apollo 14
The crew of Apollo 14: (L-R) Stuart Roosa, Alan Shepard, and Edgar Mitchell. They traveled to the Moon and back in early 1971. NASA

If you experienced the movie Apollo 13, you know the story of the mission's three astronauts battling a broken spacecraft to get to the Moon and back. Luckily, they landed safely back on Earth, but not before some harrowing moments. They never got to land on the Moon and pursue their primary mission of collecting lunar samples. That task was left for the crew of Apollo 14, led by Alan B. Shepard, Jr, Edgar D.

Mitchell, and Stuart A. Roosa. Their mission followed the famous Apollo 11 mission by just over 1.5 years and extended its goals of lunar exploration. The Apollo 14 backup commander was Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

Apollo 14's Ambitious Goals

The Apollo 14 mission crew already had an ambitious program before they left, and some of the Apollo 13 tasks were put on their schedule before they left. The primary objectives were to explore the Fra Mauro region on the Moon. That's an ancient lunar crater that has debris from the giant impact that created the Mare Imbrium basin. To do this, they had to deploy the Apollo Lunar Surface Scientific Experiments Package, or ALSEP. The crew was also trained to do lunar field geology, and collect samples of what's called "breccia" — broken fragments of rock scattered on the lava-rich plains in the crater.

 

Other goals were the photography of deep-space objects, lunar surface photography for future mission sites, communications tests and deploying and testing new hardware. It was an ambitious mission and the astronauts had only a few days to accomplish a lot.

Troubles on the Way to the Moon

Apollo 14 launched on January 31, 1971.

The entire mission consisted of orbiting Earth while the two-piece spacecraft docked, followed by a three-day passage to the Moon, two days on the Moon, and three days back to Earth. They packed a lot of activity into that time, and it didn't happen without a few problems. Right after launch, astronauts worked through several issues as they tried to dock the control module (called Kitty Hawk) to the landing module (called Antares). 

Once the combined Kitty Hawk and Antares reached the Moon, and Antares separated from the control module to begin its descent, more problems cropped up. A continued abort signal from the computer was later traced to a broken switch. The astronauts (aided by ground crew) reprogrammed the flight software to pay no attention to the signal.

Then, the Antares landing module landing radar failed to lock onto the lunar surface. This was very serious, since that information told the computer the altitude and descent rate of the landing module. Eventually, the astronauts were able to work around the problem, and Shepard ended up landing the module "by hand".  

Walking on the Moon

After their successful landing and a short delay in the first extravehicular activity (EVA), the astronauts went to work.

First, they named their landing spot "Fra Mauro Base", after the crater in which it lay. Then they set to work. 

The two men had a lot to accomplish in 33.5 hours. They made two EVAs, where they deployed their scientific instruments and collected 42.8 kg (94.35 pounds) of Moon rocks. They set the record for the longest distance traveled across the Moon on foot when they went on the hunt for the rim of the nearby Cone Crater. They came within a few yards of the rim, but turned back when they started to run out of oxygen. Walking across the surface was quite fatiguing in heavy spacesuits!

On the lighter side, Alan Shepard became the first lunar golfer when he used a crude golf club to put a couple of golf balls across the surface. He estimated that they traveled somewhere between 200 and 400 yards.

Not to be outdone, Mitchell did a little javelin practice using a lunar scoop handle. While these may have been light-hearted attempts at fun, they did help demonstrate how objects traveled under the influence of the weak lunar gravity.

Orbital Command

While Shepard and Mitchell were doing the heavy lifting on the lunar surface, command module pilot Stuart Roosa was busy taking images of the Moon and deep-sky objects from the command service module Kitty Hawk. His job was also to maintain a safe haven for the lunar lander pilots to return to once they finished their surface mission. Roosa, who had always been interested in forestry, had hundreds of tree seeds with him on the trip. They were later returned to labs in the U.S., germinated, and planted. These "Moon Trees" are scattered around the United States, Brazil, Switzerland, and other places. One was also given as a gift to the late Emperor Hirohito, of Japan. Today, these trees seem no different from their earth-based counterparts.

A Triumphant Return

At the end of their stay on the Moon, the astronauts climbed aboard the Antares and blasted off for a return to Roosa and the Kitty Hawk. It took them just over two hours to meet up with and dock with the command module. After that, the trio spent three days on the return to Earth. Splashdown occurred in the South Pacific Ocean on February 9, and the astronauts and their precious cargo were hauled to safety and a period of quarantine common for returning Apollo astronauts. The command module Kitty Hawk that they flew to the Moon and back is on display at the Kennedy Space Center visitor's center.