Apollo 18: the truth about the lost Moon missions

Apollo 18 is a SF/Horror movie presented as newly-found film footage taken by the fictional crew of a lost 1970s lunar landing mission.  The Apollo 18 film uses real NASA movie footage from the Moon (some of it doctored with CGI) and new studio-shot footage with actors and special effects to tell its story. In reality there really was a planned Apollo 18 mission but it never left the ground. Let us examine Apollo 18 and other lost Moon voyages.

(NB if you are looking for a discussion of the realism of the movie Apollo 18, see my review.)

Project Apollo dominating the ‘70’s like a bloodless war, was to pass into history…After that nothing would ever be the same again. When men raised their eyes to the Moon they would know that their comrades were looking down at them.

These words were written by Arthur C. Clarke in 1964 in an early draft of what later became 2001: a Space Odyssey. At the time it seemed a plausible vision of the future. NASA officials and most space buffs expected dozens or more Apollo missions to the Moon in the next decades including the founding of bases on the Moon. However only a minority of taxpayers were enthusiastic about grand space adventures (a fact which is even more true today) and public support for the project faded. As early as 1967 NASA’s budget began to shrink while the US struggled to waste money and lives in Vietnam.

A mere six months after the triumph of Apollo 11, NASA abandoned its plans for Apollo 20 in January 1970.Worse was to come:Apollos 18 and 19 were officially cancelled in September 1970 because of planned cuts to NASA’s budget for 1971.Public interest in the exploration of another world had dropped sharply after Buzz and Neil’s excellent adventure with minimal attention paid to Apollo 12. Newspaper editorials and public figures were calling for the following flights to be cancelled and the money allocated for them spent to eliminate poverty instead. It is said NASA chiefs were not wholly unhappy with the decision to terminate the lunar missions; the Agency had achieved the goal of landing men on the Moon and returning them by John F. Kennedy’s deadline, and they feared a fatal accident would eventually occur if the program continued. Losing an Apollo crew might have damaged NASA so severely as to destroy the Agency, ending American crewed spaceflight.


Image of Apollo-18-Poster

The Last Man on the Moon: Eugene Cernan poses by the flag in his A7L spacesuit in December 1972.(Image Credit:NASA)


All three cancelled missions were so-called ‘J-series’ missions like Apollos 1517 (Apollo missions were originally planned in lettered series, becoming more ambitious as they proceeded through the alphabet). These missions called for astronauts to stay on the lunar surface for three days or so and make three moonwalks. They would take advantage of improved procedures and technology developed with the experience of the earlier landings, for example on these missions the crews wore upgraded spacesuits permitting greater comfort and mobility and they rolled over the Moon’s terrain in Lunar Roving Vehicles to increase the area explored. The Lunar Modules used were of an updated design allowing heavier loads of gear to be carried to the surface. The last three Apollo missions delivered substantial scientific returns, and one can only speculate on what the cancelled missions would have found.

Apollos 18-20 were intended to visit a couple of large impact craters, the hope being that the samples returned would include ancient rocks from deep inside the Moon.This was expected to be essentially unchanged since the Moon formed. Such primordial material is buried beyond our reach on Earth and studying it would have provided a bonanza of data on the early Solar System.

An important character in the story of the lost Apollo missions is astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt (b1935), a professional geologist. Schmitt was one of the ‘scientist-astronauts’ selected in 1965 for their academic and research skills rather than their piloting proficiency. When it became clear that the moonlandings would cease in the mid-1970s, NASA was pressured into ensuring that at least one of these scientists flew on a mission, leading to Schmitt’s selection for a place on Apollo 18. Schmitt lobbied for his mission to visit the crater Tsiolkovsky on the lunar farside. This would require a dedicated communication satellite to relay the crew’s transmissions to Earth and Schmitt costed the use of surplus Telstars in his proposals. However NASA’s management rejected this plan for its expense and greater risk. No human being has yet walked on the Moon’s farside.

Apollo 18 was intended to take place in July 1973.It would have seen the mission’s Commander (CDR) Richard Gordon (a veteran of Apollo 12) and Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) Harrison Schmitt descend to a landing in the crater Gassendi on the northern edge of Mare Humorum. Left behind in lunar orbit would have been Command Module Pilot (CMP) Vance Brand (note that astronauts Benjamin Anderson,  Nathan Walker and John Grey, the crew members named in the movie Apollo 18 are completely fictitious; no real astronauts of these names ever existed). In the event, Schmitt did make it to the Moon despite the cancellation of Apollo 18. He was reassigned to Apollo 17 to explore Taurus-Littrow, replacing Joe Engle as LMP on that mission so that a scientist did get to the Moon’s surface before the project was terminated. Schmitt was the first and so far only scientist to carry out research on another world. Today, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project’s CSM is occasionally referred to as Apollo 18, but this not correct. The Saturn 5 intended for this mission is on display at the Johnson Space Center in Texas.

Image of copernicus_apollo17

Copernicus Crater photographed from Apollo 17.(Image Credit:NASA)


Apollo 19 was penciled in for December 1973. The landing site would have been the floor of the prominent crater Copernicus. The crew would have been Apollo 13’s LMP Fred Haise (CDR), William Pogue (CMP) and Gerard Carr (LMP).

At the time of its cancellation, a crew had not been selected for Apollo 20. If it had gone ahead in the summer of 1974, the astronauts would have explored the volcanic domes in the Marius Hills on the Oceanus Procellarum, or possibly the rim of the bright crater Tycho. Tycho was considered a slightly risky landing site, and going there would have needed relaxation of some of the rules, but as a relatively young crater (possibly less than 200 million years old) it was intriguing to geologists. Apollo 20’s Saturn 5 was modified and used to place the Skylab space station into orbit in 1973.

Image of Tycho crater

The rim of Tycho imaged by the Kaguya mission.In an alternate universe Apollo 20 could have landed there in 1974 (and found that black monolith 27 years early!) (Image credit:JAXA)


Strangely starting in 2007 an elaborate hoax has been created around Apollo 20. Someone calling himself William Rutledge (or sometimes Routledge) claims in telephone interviews with European journalists to have actually flown on this mission as the LMP in August 1976. Launched from Vandenberg AFB in California, this secret US-Soviet mission was allegedly commanded by veteran cosmonaut Alexei Leonov while the CMP was a lady called Leona Snyder (who would have been both the second woman in space and first African-American astronaut were she not entirely fictitious). “Rutledge” says the secret US-Soviet mission was an exploration of a derelict alien vessel and a city on the farside of the Moon. The mission allegedly brought back the preserved body of a female alien! A lot of work has gone into supporting this fabrication, including the creation of elaborate movies including real (but sometimes doctored) imagery from Apollo missions, (unconvincing) CGI sequences and even a sculpted alien corpse, but the story is accepted as fact only by those who prefer fantasy to reality (and, unsurprisingly, this hoax is claimed to be genuine by some who decry Apollos 11-17 as fakes!)


Could the US have launched an Apollo lunar mission in secret? The answer, unsurprisingly is no. All the Saturn 5 rockets ordered are accounted for. Even if an additional one had been built, where did it go? Moving individual stages of this cyclopean booster was a major task. For example, the 42m long S-1C stage of each rocket was built in New Orleans before being loaded into a barge and shipped along a public waterway to the Gulf of Mexico on the way to Florida. It would be hard to miss that. Even harder to explain would be how a 3000 tonne rocket could be launched without anyone noticing! Apollo launches were spectacular enough to send vibrations through the Earth’s crust, geologists world wide would have noticed!

By the way, secretly assembling and launching an Apollo mission from the US Air Force’s Vandenberg AFB launch site in California is impossible for many reasons. Even today this site lacks the facilities to launch so large a rocket, nor is it as isolated from public gaze as some suggest. The colossal sound and fury of a Saturn 5 launch would have drawn attention from across the state. Apollo lunar missions had to be launched west to east (to gain the advantage of the Earth’s spin)  so an Apollo mission taking off from California would have had to cross the continental United States and been seen by thousands if not millions of people. Discarded lower stages from a Saturn 5 falling on land would have been hard to miss too!

Image of Apollo_8_first_stage_in_the_Vehicle_Assembly_Building

Apollo 8’s S-1C stage being erected.It would impossible to conceal engineering on this scale. (Image credit:NASA)


There were other cancelled Moon missions on the other side of the Iron Curtain.I have written elsewhere about the USSR’s abortive plans to reach the Moon. Nine cosmonauts trained for landings but their missions were cancelled after Apollo 11 (if these had gone ahead Leonov would have been the first cosmonaut to climb the ladder down to the lunar surface). If you watch the Apollo 18 movie, a Soviet LK lander plays a major role in the plot.

The Saturn 5 rockets and Apollo spacecraft were already paid for and under construction when their missions were cancelled. The Apollo components became museum exhibits and two of the rockets were transformed into the world’s biggest and most expensive lawn ornaments. Alas, despite the premature ending of Apollo, the poor are still with us. After years of training, the disappointed astronauts assigned to these flights retired or were reassigned to the Skylab or Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.Some even flew in the Shuttle in the 1980s. It is hard to believe that some evenings they do not stand in the silvery moonlight and wonder about what might have been.
(You can read my opinions on other Apollo movies here.

UPDATE:my review of Apollo 18)


(Article by Colin Johnston, Science Education Director)