Apollo 14: Alan Shepard’s fight for the Moon

Forty years ago, NASA’s Apollo 14 mission landed the fifth and sixth men on the Moon. Apollo 14 was a triumph for one man in particular. Alan Shepard fought debilitating illness for the chance to walk on another world.

image of LM Antares

Antares at Fra Mauro: Apart from some niggles with its avionics, Apollo 14’s LM functioned superbly. (Image credit: NASA)


On 31 January 1971, Alan B. Shepard Jr. was NASA’s oldest and most senior astronaut- but also one of its least experienced. Shepard was one of the Mercury Seven, the United States’ first astronauts. A decade earlier, Shepard (1923-98) had been the first American in space making a 16 minute flight in his Mercury capsule Freedom Seven. Shepard had expected to be the first human in space but this was not to be; his mission took place three weeks after Gagarin’s flight. Shepard ought to have made further flights throughout the sixties but it was not to be. The sudden onset of Ménière’s Syndrome, a rare condition of the inner ear, shortly after his flight had made him prone to hearing loss and attacks of sickening vertigo. His flying career appeared to drawing to a premature close. But to end his career like this, after just one flight would be just… wrong.

Similarly, at that time the Apollo program of lunar exploration was in trouble. Eight months earlier, the crew of Apollo 13 had almost perished when an explosion crippled their Apollo Command and Service Module (CSM). Thanks to amazing human ingenuity and endurance, the trio returned safely to Earth, but at the time the project seemed tainted by this ignominious failure (only much later rewritten as a triumph by Hollywood).  Then in the summer of 1970, budget cuts forced NASA to cancel the Apollo 18 and 19 missions. Apollo needed a morale-boosting success.

Image of apollo-14 crew

Apollo 14’s crew: (Left to right) Mitchell, Shepard and Roosa. (Image credit: NASA)


It is difficult to imagine a tougher, more dedicated and determined breed of men (and only men alas) than that first generation of astronauts. Shepard threw himself into overcoming his medical problems with a steely resolve. After several false hopes, he found a doctor (one Dr House, MD, no less) offering an experimental surgical procedure that would either relieve the symptoms of Ménière’s or render him completely deaf. Shepard signed up for the surgery.  By May 1969, Shepard convinced the very conservative flight surgeons of NASA that he was completely recovered and he began training to command Apollo 13. However, making up for his long medical absence was harder than anyone expected and Shepard was reassigned to command Apollo 14. Shepard settled down to study, exercise and get to know his crew, Stuart A. Roosa (1933-94), the command module pilot and Edgar D. Mitchell, the lunar module pilot. Shepard had a reputation for a chilly and arrogant demeanour, but to those who knew him best he was warm and charming. To some he was “Big Al”, to his crew, he was affectionately known as the “Fearless Leader”.


Image of Fra Mauro

Fra Mauro: Named for the 14th century Venetian monk and cartographer and not Frau Mauro the German housewife. (Image credit: NASA)


The first two Moon landings had been to prove the technology worked, with a little science on the side. Apollo 14 would be a serious exploration of another world. Originally Apollo 14 was to touch down at Taurus-Littrow but this was changed to the planned landing site for Apollo 13. This was the Fra Mauro highlands, a rugged and hilly area (especially compared to the Apollo 11 and 12 landing sites) on the edge of the Mare Imbrium (Sea of Rains). Mare Imbrium is the largest recognisable impact structure on the Moon, formed by a major impact of a large asteroid on the Moon during the period when the Earth and the planets were still forming. The Fra Mauro formation is an ejecta blanket, debris thrown out by the impact over the surrounding landscape, and is fascinating to planetary scientists. There are boulders everywhere; in the minutes after that primordial impact it rained rocks across the plains and they have lain where they fell for the past four billion years or so . Unfortunately, according to several accounts Shepard (and under his influence Mitchell) treated NASA’s scientists with a degree of contempt and neglected the training in geology they were offered. Their knowledge of the landing site was perhaps not as complete as it ought to have been.

So on 31 January 1971, a cloudy and rainy day, a Saturn 5 with Big Al, Roosa and Mitchell on top was launched from Kennedy Space Center after several weather-related delays. The mission continued to encounter niggling problems. For reasons still unexplained it proved very difficult to dock with the Lunar Module (LM) Antares, opening the possibility that the mission would be aborted. However on the sixth attempt Roosa succeeded in locking the CSM Kitty Hawk with the lunar lander. Then after separating from the CSM in lunar orbit, the LM Antares suffered  two serious problems. These began when a faulty switch caused difficulties with the LM’s computer. This was not just an annoyance, potentially the computer could initiate an auto-abort, causing the LM’s Ascent Stage to separate from the Descent Stage and climb back into orbit ending any possibility of a landing. NASA and its software teams at MIT transmitted changes for Mitchell to make to the flight software to ignore the false signal. This worked but had an unforeseen consequence: during the descent, when the LM’s radar altimeter failed to lock onto the Moon’s surface, depriving the navigation computer of vital information on the spacecraft’s altitude and speed. The astronauts cycled the radar on and off until, just in the nick of time, finally the unit responded about 50 000 feet (15,000 m) above the unforgiving grey crags. Shepard manually landed Antares within 50m (160 ft) of the target point, closer to its intended target than any of the other six moon landing missions

The touchdown occurred at 0837 GMT, 5 February 1971 on a boulder-strewn landscape, testimony to the violent impact that had formed it. The first extravehicular activity (EVA) began nearly five and a half hours after touchdown. As he bounced away from Antares’ ladder, Shepard’s first words were “And it’s been a long way, but we’re here.” He was overawed by the ancient majesty of the desolate wilderness in which he walked and by the tiny Earth lost in a huge black sky but he left these sombre thoughts unvoiced.


image of Shepard and MET

Shepard unloads the MET. (Image credit: NASA)


Shepard and Mitchell deployed the U.S. flag, a solar-wind composition experiment, erected the large dish-shaped S-band antenna, the laser ranging retroreflector (still in use today) and the Apollo Lunar-Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP). On this mission, the ALSEP included a remarkable device called the Active Seismic Experiment. This was intended to provide calibrated “Moonquakes” by firing rocket-propelled grenades up to 5000 ft (about 1.5 km) from Antares’ position. This alarming instrument was to be triggered by radio control from Earth after the crew’s departure, but this was never done lest the debris contaminate other experiments and it sits to this day on the lunar surface (Robert Godwin has suggested, with tongue in cheek, that anyone with a suitable dish could transmit the appropriate codes and set it off today).

Apollo 14 carried the first wheeled vehicle to the Moon. This was a glorified wheelbarrow called the MET (Modular Equipment Transporter). Designed to carry the astronauts ‘ geological tools and cameras, this contrivance was a two-wheeled handcart with a tubular structure and a single handle for towing . The astronauts found the MET useful up to a point, it was handy for transporting their gear but its low weight in lunar gravity meant it bounced as they hauled it over the rocky landscape and it constantly shed items which they had to stop to pick up.


Image of Apollo14 landing site

So near and yet so far: Apollo 14’s landing site imaged by the LRO in 2009. You can see how close the crew were to Cone crater. (Image credit: NASA)


Their second EVA was planned as a prolonged geological exploration of the rim of the 300m wide Cone Crater. Important samples would be taken and there would be a spectacular view (Mitchell planned to throw a rock into it)! It sounded easy on paper but disappointingly the pair was not able to find the rim amid the undulating landscape of the crater’s slopes. You can see the frustration in transcripts of their dialogue (also frustrated were some of the scientists who saw this failure as an inevitable result of the astronauts’ lackadaisical preparation) . Mission Control finally ordered the exhausted explorers to return to their spacecraft which sat like a tiny model in the distance. Decades later images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter showed the tracks of the astronauts and their MET go within 30 m of the rim. This EVA lasted 4 hours and 20 minutes, during which time the astronauts travelled approximately 3 km.

At the end of the EVA came an act which depending on your viewpoint can be seen as a bit of light-hearted fun celebrating the human spirit or a silly stunt which trivialised the exploration of space. Shepard briefly took a moment to set down the film canisters of images taken during the EVA to swipe a golf ball with a makeshift club. Often claimed to have flown a vast distance across the airless wasteland, the ball in fact could be seen from the LM’s windows. It had travelled about 50ft (15m). Shepard forgot to pick the film canisters up again, so they are still lying there today.

Antares took off at 1848 GMT, 6 February, after 33 hours on the lunar surface and shortly after Shepard and Mitchell were reunited with Roosa who had spent his solitary time in lunar orbit performing scientific experiments and photographing the surface in exquisite detail. Kittyhawk splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on 9 February  1971. On board were a priceless 42kg of lunar samples. Despite the doubts about the crew’s commitment to science, these samples have delighted geologists ever since. By any standards, Apollo 14 had been a hugely successful mission.

None of Apollo 14’s crew ever flew in space again. Stuart Roosa would probably have commanded one of the later, cancelled  Apollo missions but that was not to be. Roosa was instead assigned to the Space Shuttle project but never flew it. After retiring from NASA he developed a successful business career. Ed Mitchell has had a lifelong interest in the paranormal (controversially, he conducted private experiments in extrasensory perception during the mission) after he retired from NASA in 1972 he founded an organisation to promote parapsychology. A few years ago he raised eyebrows by stating his opinion the US government was concealing contact with alien beings (he acknowledged that he had no evidence to confirm this).  I had the privilege of meeting him once in the 1990s. Alan Shepard retired from NASA in 1974 and applied his considerable talents to business. He was the only astronaut from the original Mercury Seven to reach the Moon.

(Article by Colin Johnston, Science Education Director)