Apollo 16: 40 Years On

Three years later after the first men walked on the Moon, the Apollo 16 mission, launched 16 April 1972 ,  landed men on the moon successfully for the fifth time and as the second such ‘J’-Mission to have been executed, again utilised the Lunar Roving Vehicle. This mission also took astronauts to a region of the Moon that had not previously been explored.

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John Young working by the Lunar Roving Vehicle (Image credit: NASA)


The Apollo Program was born after President John F. Kennedy famously declared to Congress in 1961: “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” –was to be a major goal for the United States of America. Before the potentially hazardous task of sending humans to the Moon could be attempted however, a number of unmanned experimental missions had to be executed to test the intended spacecraft and to look for possible landing sites on earth’s nearest celestial neighbour. These included the Apollo 2-6 missions. With the launch of the 1966-1968 unmanned Surveyor program, the American unmanned ‘soft landings’ aided the Apollo effort with complete robotic mission rehearsals of actual lunar touchdown. Since President Nixon requested a speechwriter to prepare a condolence speech for use should the first landing astronauts Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin become stranded on the Moon however, lunar missions had come a long way.

Of the manned Apollo Moon missions, the term ‘J’-mission referred to longer-stay lunar visits during which a greater number of scientific experiments could be undertaken. Apollo 15 was the first mission of this type, with astronauts remaining on the Moon for just over 2 days. Although the Apollo 16 overall mission duration was 11 days (i.e. 256 hours in space), this ‘J’-Mission’s actual stay on the Moon lasted 71 hours 2 mins.

The landing site selected was the Descartes Highlands region,  a mountainous area west of the ‘Nectaris Sea’ or Mare Nectaris. Although the Alphonsus crater was also initially considered as a possible landing site for the Apollo 16 mission, the Moon’s hilly region around the Descartes crater was finally selected. The highlands were chosen for the landing craft because this terrain had yet to be explored by any of the Apollo missions to date. The final incentive in visiting the Descartes was provided with the prospect of gathering rock and surface samples thus far unstudied, and of which type the majority of the rest of the Moon’s surface was thought to be composed.

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Apollo 16 mission crew from left to right: Thomas K. Mattingly II; John W. Young; and Charles M. Duke Jr. (Image credit: NASA)


All American pilot astronauts, the primary crew were: John Watts Young, mission commander; Thomas Kenneth Mattingly II, as Command Module pilot; Charles Moss Duke Jr, as Lunar Module pilot. The backup crew were: Fred Wallace ‘Pecky’ Haise Jr (commander); Edgar Dean Mitchell (Lunar Module pilot); Stuart Allen Roosa (Command Module pilot).

Young was lead pilot of the Apollo 16 spacecraft and was responsible for ensuring overall completion of the mission. Mattingly was responsible for piloting the CM 113 lunar spacecraft in orbit around the Moon, all the while carrying out extensive geochemical and photographic mapping around the lunar equator. Duke assisted Young with the flight and landing of LM-11 as well as extra-vehicular activities in and around the landing site.

John W. Young operated a flight computer on Gemini 3 in March 1965, was commander on Gemini 10, and was Command Module pilot of the Apollo 10 Mission.  He was also on the backup space flight crews of Gemini 6, the second Apollo mission and Apollo 7. Thomas K. Mattingly II served on the Apollo 8 and 11 astronaut support crews, was involved in the development and testing of the Apollo spacesuit and backpacks and was the originally selected Command Module pilot for the Apollo 13 flight. Charles M. Duke Jr was a support crew member for the Apollo 10 mission. He was CAPCOM for Apollo 11, and on Apollo 13 he served as backup Lunar Module pilot.

Apollo 16 and its crew were launched from Pad 39A into space in the huge Saturn V SA-511 rocket at the Kennedy Space Centeron on 16April 1972. CSM 113 Casper was the name of the Command (Service) Module on the Apollo 16 mission. LM-11  Orion was the name of the Lunar Module that landed the two landing-astronauts, Duke and Young, on the Moon. The Command Module also housed the scientific instrument module (SIM) bay where inflight experiments were carried out.

During the coast to the Moon a light-coloured jet was observed coming from the Lunar Module. A subsequent investigation however identified it to only be white particles of shredded thermal paint. The S-IVB stage was found to have a propulsion system leak which produced an unpredictable thrust. This prohibited a concluding targeting manoeuver after it was separated from the CSM. Ultimately this failure resulted in the stage not reaching its intended target location on the Moon. Contact was lost with the instrument by 4:04pm EST on 17 April. Seismometers left on the Moon from previous Apollo missions eventually detected its crash impact 260km northeast of the arranged target point at 4:02pm 19 April. On entering a lunar orbit and after Orion’s attempted separation from Casper, a propulsion irregularity was discovered. Spacecraft separation was delayed 5 3/4hrs until test analyses revealed the system was still safe to use if required.


The Command Service Module Casper in orbit around the Moon seen from the LM’s docking window. (Image credit: NASA)


With an astronaut steering the Lunar Roving Vehicle or LRV, two main terrains were traversed within the lunar highlands. The first was the Cayley Plains, a geological formation which had smooth undulations. The second and the most uneven lunar surface ever to be driven over, was the furrowed highland plateau of  Descartes. In total, the Apollo 16 Rover covered 27 kilometres (16.6 miles) of lunar terrain.

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The Duke Family on the Moon (Image credit: Charles Duke/NASA)


Astronaut Charles Duke’s personal response to the lunar visit was to leave a family photograph in a plastic cover on the Moon’s surface. In response to the accusations that the Apollo landings were a fake, Duke is known for having rebuffed such notions by saying: “We’ve been to the Moon nine times. Why would we fake it nine times, if we faked it?”


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On the rim of the 40m deep Plum crater: Charles M. Duke Jr, Apollo 16 Lunar Module pilot engaged in collecting lunar sample during first EVA. (Image credit: NASA/John Young)


After landing LM-11 Orion on the Moon’s Cayley Plains, Duke and Young commenced three Extra-Vehicular Activities or EVA excursions. They explored lunar features and collected a total of 95.8kg of surface material samples. They also set up and put in motion a number of automated experiments on the lunar surface that would continue to send data after Young, Mattingly and Duke had returned to Earth. On the Moon’s surface astronaut Young tripped over and broke a cable to some heat-flow sensors effectively disabling a lunar experiment. On-board, the crew: took photographs while their spacecraft orbited the Moon; carried out further ‘inflight’ experiments; conducted electrophoresis experiments requiring micro-gravity; completed engineering evaluations of spacecraft and equipment.


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A UFO? Although the bright corner shapes are only window reflections, a flying saucer-like object was captured on a few seconds of film above the Moon as the Apollo 16 crew were commencing their flight home on the Command Module. (Image credit: NASA)


Appearing to be a saucer shape with a dome on top, an UFO above the Moon received no less interest than the attention of an entire analysis team back at NASA when Apollo 16 was complete. Verdict: the mysterious object that briefly swung into the field of view was discovered to be none other than a floodlight jutting out on the end of a boom from the bottom of the crew’s own Command Module.


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With Duke and Young onboard, the Ascent Module blasts off throwing debris everywhere. (Image credit: NASA)


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Apollo 16’s Ascent stage looks a bit the worst for wear during its rendezvous with the CSM (Image credit: NASA)


Orion commenced lunar lift-off at 8:26pm EST on 23 April, and docked with the CSM as it continued to orbit the Moon. The landing astronauts transferred themselves, equipment, film, and lunar samples to the Command Module before jettisoning Orion the next day. Just before the concluding phase of the Apollo 16 mission commenced, a faulty engine was discovered on the CM-113 spacecraft. The crew took it around the far side of the Moon and to everyone’s relief succeeded in firing it. After re-establishing radio contact with Earth, Young and Mattingly set Casper on a course for home. Mattingly ventured out of the Command Module while it was in its trans-earth coast to collect tapes from the panoramic and mapping cameras in Casper’s SIM-bay. The 1hr 13min Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA) put this aspect of the Apollo 16 mission into the record books. Apart from an initial engine glitch, the Apollo 16 journey home ran smoothly and without incident. ‘Splashdown’ was in the Pacific Ocean, north of Christmas Island at 1945 (Universal Time/GMT) 27 April 1972. Young, Mattingly and Duke were picked up by the USS Ticonderoga.


Apollo 16 patch: the yellow chevron is a design element borrowed from the NASA insignia, which itself was derived from the official NASA seal designed in 1959. The chevron itself is based on a windtunnel model of a high-speed bomber concept (and not a lot of people know that!) (Image credit: NASA)


In 1981 Young flew into space for the fifth time as commander of the first space shuttle mission, STS-1 and so became the only astronaut who would have flown Gemini, Apollo and Shuttle spacecraft. In 1983 he was again placed in the command seat of the first Spacelab mission, STS-9 and was on the backup crew of Apollo 17. Between the years 1974 and 2004 Young served as: Chief of the Astronaut Office, Special Assistant to the Director for Engineering, Operations, and Safety of the Johnson Space Centre; Associate Director (Technical). After a long and distinguished career at the helm of mankind’s exploration of space and having set a space speed record for flying at 11 107 metres per second, Young retired from NASA in 2004. From 1973 Mattingly fulfilled a number of roles within the astronaut office before becoming head of Astronaut Office DOD Support Group in 1983. He was appointed backup commander for the second and third test flights of the Columbia shuttle STS-2 and STS-3, and was spacecraft commander for the final orbital test flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia (STS-4) in 1982. In 1985 Mattingly was commander of the STS-51C Discovery. He resigned from NASA the same year and served as Chief of US Navy Space Command (NAVSPACECOM) before retiring at the rank of Rear Admiral, U.S.N. in 1986. Mattingly became Director of Utilization and Operations at Grumman Space Station Office and then of the X-33 program with Lockheed-Martin. Admiral Mattingly was also Chairman of Universal Space Network, Universal Space Lines, Inc. until 1999 and subsequently headed the Atlas booster program for General Dynamics, Inc. in California. Duke again fulfilled the role of lunar module backup pilot for the Apollo 17 mission. In 1975 he retired from the astronaut program to pursue private business. He owns Duke Investments, is President of Charlie Duke Enterprises and Duke Ministry for Christ. He is an active speaker, Christian lay witness and is chairman of the board of directors of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.

Bar one, the 11 day Apollo 16 space mission was the final mission to land men on the Moon but the first to land in the lunar highlands. Likewise it was the first Apollo mission to see an ultraviolet camera or spectrograph used on the Moon, this ‘J’-Mission succeeded in its objective, attaining surface samples that completed a large part of man’s exploratory lunar jigsaw. Apollo 16 is notable for: having placed the heaviest total spacecraft load in lunar orbit, 34 522kg; having driven the Lunar Rover over the roughest terrain discovered on the Moon; the longest space activity (Extra-Vehicular Activity) by an astronaut outside a Command Module while the spacecraft was on its return flight to Earth; first Cosmic Ray Detector deployed on Moon and to use the Moon as an astronomical observatory.


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The landing site imaged recently by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. The RTG is a radioisotope thermoelectric generator used to power the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP). (Image credit: NASA)


The next mission would be Apollo 17, the final planned mission to land men on the Moon followed a pause in lunar exploration for a few years (or so everyone at the time thought) .

(Article by Nick Parke, Education Support Officer)



Apollo 16: Nothing So Hidden… from NASA Lunar Science Institute on Vimeo.


CORRECTION: This article originally included an image of Apollo 15’s CSM rather than Apollo 16’s. The article has been corrected.