On the afternoon of 31 January 1971, Apollo 14’s Saturn V was ready to launch from its pad at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.
On board were mission commander Alan Shepard, making his second spaceflight since becoming America’s first man in space in 1961 and two first-timers: lunar module pilot Ed Mitchell and command module pilot Stewart Roosa.
Dark storm clouds passed overhead, delaying lift-off by more than an hour, but Apollo 14 eventually got under way, much to Shepard’s relief.
Problems with his inner ear had grounded him throughout most of the ’60s, but he’d used those years constructively.
He’d become the hard-driving chief of NASA’s Astronaut Office in Houston and put himself through countless medical checks to regain his flight status at the grand old age – for an Apollo astronaut – of 47.
The last thing he wanted now was for anything to block his path to the Moon.
A problem overcome
Unfortunately, just three hours into the mission, with the Saturn S-IVB upper stage and Apollo modules heading for the Moon at the start of the three-day journey, it looked like Shepard might have his hopes dashed after all.
Try as he might, Roosa couldn’t get Kitty Hawk, the command module, to dock with lunar module Antares.
This point in the mission, when the mothership was to turn its nose around and pluck the lander out of the Saturn V rocket’s upper stage, was normally when a command module pilot showed off his flying skills.
Five times Roosa eased the tip of the Kitty Hawk onto the roof of Antares and five times the two ships slid apart.
Mission control advised him to dock for a sixth time, and instead of shutting off his thrusters, to keep firing them to really ram home the docking probe on Kitty Hawk’s tip. It worked.
Later, when the crew opened the hatches and looked at all the mechanisms, nothing seemed wrong with them.
Tense moments in lunar orbit
Yet more drama was to come upon reaching lunar orbit.
After separating from the command module and leaving Roosa in lunar orbit, the lunar module Antares – with Shepard and Mitchell aboard – had some unsettling moments.
The guidance computer indicated that an automatic ‘abort’ might be triggered at any moment.
In a tense re-run of similar false warnings during Apollo 11’s descent, mission controllers gambled correctly that the computer was giving false readings, possibly because of a loose switch.
Antares finally touched down safely in the Fra Mauro highlands, the area that Apollo 13 had been destined for.
On the Moon
The terrain was littered with debris from the ancient impact that created the Imbrium Basin.Heat and pressure had fused countless rock fragments into new rocks, called breccias.
In some cases, the breccias themselves were formed from even earlier breccias. Apollo 14’s moonwalkers confirmed Fra Mauro’s violent history.
Shepard and Mitchell conducted two moonwalks totalling more than nine hours, using NASA’s first wheeled lunar equipment – a collapsible handcart loaded with tools and cameras nicknamed the lunar rickshaw.
Their only disappointment came when they failed to reach Cone Crater, an interesting target that had seemed accessible from the landing-site maps. But the slopes leading up to its edge were too steep to climb safely.
Low gravity golf
A few minutes before clambering back up the lunar module’s ladder for the last time, Shepard gave mission control a surprise.
Wielding the handle from one of the rock sampling tools, he announced:
“It just so happens to have a genuine six iron on the bottom of it.
In my left hand, I have a little white pellet that’s familiar to millions of Americans. I’ll drop it down.”
He then indulged in his favourite sport, becoming the first person in history to play golf on the Moon.
His drives were one-handed because “the suit is so stiff, I can’t do this with two hands”. His first shot simply gouged out a puff of lunar dust. Mitchell goaded him:
“You got more dirt than ball there, Al.”
And his second attempt wasn’t much good either. Back at mission control, Apollo 13 veteran Fred Haise in the CapCom seat also lost no time in having a gentle dig at Shepard:
“That looked like a slice to me, Al.”
The third shot was better.
“Here we go. Straight as a die,” Shepard said.
“Miles and miles and miles.”
Actually, the ball travelled no more than about 20m, but Shepard, at long last, was happy.
A longer version of this article appeared in issue 68 of Sky at Night Magazine, January 2011