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The Frustrations of Fra Mauro: Part II

from the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal
edited by Eric M. Jones and Ken Glover
Copyright © 1995 by Eric M. Jones.
All rights reserved.
last revised 13 September 2006.

The Landing at Fra Mauro

When all was said and done, the Apollo 13 accident caused only about a four-month slip of the next mission. Apollo 14 was launched on January 31, 1971. Four days later, Commander Alan Shepard and Lunar Module Pilot Ed Mitchell landed at Fra Mauro. During the final approach, they recognized Cone Crater right at pitchover and, soon thereafter, picked up the familiar pattern of smaller craters near their aim-point another mile or so to the west. There wasn't, Shepard said later, any really flat ground close at hand; there were either craters or sloping ground wherever he looked; but he had no trouble finding a crater-free, LM-sized patch that was only 30 meters from his target.

The only problem with the landing spot was that it was on an eight degree slope; and, for 24 of the next 33 hours, the astronauts had to contend with a tilting floor that threatened to dump Shepard over onto Mitchell's side of the spacecraft. In addition, the tilt contributed to a sleepless night between the two EVAs; but, otherwise, the LM attitude had no effect on the mission. No one had yet had a good sleep on the Moon and Shepard and Mitchell were to be no exception. But they were down, virtually on target, and otherwise were in great shape.

Within about three hours of the landing, after reconfiguring the LM for takeoff and after taking time out to have lunch and to pass along some excellent descriptions of the view out the window, Shepard and Mitchell started to don their backpacks. They were getting ready, as Shepard said, "to go out and play in the snow." The mental picture came easily. Outside the window, the soft, rounded forms of the craters gave the look of snow-covered ground and, although the color wasn't quite right - it was "mouse-brown or mouse-gray" depending on where they looked in relation to the Sun - the black lunar sky made it easy to think of a snowy winter's night back home. And to top off the image, Shepard and Mitchell only had to look at each other, standing there in their cumbersome spacesuits, donning the thick gloves, eager to get outside. Play in the snow, indeed!

Deploying the ALSEP

The first EVA was, by now, part of the routine. First, climb out and take a look around. Could they pick out the summit of Cone Crater? Yes; there it was, a low, conical hill off to the east, almost under the Sun, with boulders easily visible near the top. Then set up the TV camera (now equipped with a lens cap), then the portable high-gain antenna and the flag. Collect a contingency sample and take pictures, get the experiment package down off the LM (the fuel element slid easily out of its cask this time), and head off for the ALSEP site about 200 meters to the west-northwest.

During the first EVA, there were a couple of differences from Apollo 12. One was a handcart - called, in NASA-ese, the Modular Equipment Transporter or MET - for hauling some of the equipment - an addition to the mission made possible by the post-accident delay. The MET didn't provide the mobility of the Rover planned for the later missions, but it did give the astronauts the ability to carry far more samples, containers and tools than they could have carried in their hands and on their backpacks. And the other difference from Apollo 12 was a healthy TV camera. Shepard pointed it toward the ALSEP site before they left the LM so that those of us at home could watch them as they made the traverse - sometimes dropping out of view as they crossed low spots in the terrain. Throughout much of the ALSEP deployment they were both in full view of the camera.

The traverse took a bit longer than anticipated, in part because the rolling terrain forced Mitchell, who was carrying the ALSEP package, to take a couple of breathers. But basically, as Mitchell remarked during the traverse, the rolling terrain wasn't so much "difficult" as "unexpected". They'd trained on a flatter surface, and the constant rolling forced a bit longer period of adaptation. Once they reached the ALSEP site, the stiff suits and gloves got in the way as usual, causing Mitchell to comment in a moment of mild exasperation that "it takes two of us to do what half of us can (normally) do". Nonetheless, with the exception of some small seismic charges which wouldn't all fire, Shepard and Mitchell had no particular problems. By the time they were ready to head back to the LM, they had only lost about a half hour to the planned timeline.

Although Shepard and Mitchell could have used a good sleep before making the climb up to Cone Crater, both of them were too keyed up to make full use of the scheduled rest period. In the interest of getting in a full second EVA, they talked Houston into cutting the rest period by an hour and, naturally, spent a good deal of the time lying awake. Anticipation was a major contributor to their sleeplessness; but, as with Apollo 12, the mission simply wasn't going to be long enough for them to get out of the suits. Unpressurized, the suits were uncomfortable and irritating and, in part because of the neckrings, the astronauts felt that there was no place to rest their heads comfortably. And as a final factor, once they were stretched out in the hammocks, the tilt of the spacecraft became more and more obvious. Rationally, they knew they were okay; but, at intervals through the night they awoke from a half sleep and, in the light lunar gravity, had the uncomfortable feeling that the LM was tipping over. Several times during the night, one or the other of them felt that they had to push aside the window covers and, just to be certain, take a look outside. In the morning, it was they who called Houston - a half hour before the agreed on wake-up time. They reported getting about four hours of sleep apiece, but that was certainly a generous estimate. The flight surgeons concluded that neither of them had slept much at all and, like the crew of Apollo 12, Shepard and Mitchell had to draw on mental and physical reserves to get them through the second day.

The Search for Cone Crater

Because they had purposefully landed well beyond the foot of the Cone Crater ridge, the first part of the traverse was rather easy. The rolling terrain that surrounded the LM continued for a considerable distance to the east. On the first leg of the jaunt they moved off about 200 meters from the LM - about the length of a longish par-3 golf hole - and then stopped for about a half hour to collect samples, take pictures, and make a measurement of the lunar magnetic field with a portable magnetometer. Beyond Station A, they made a few other brief stops and, by the end of the first hour, had gotten about 650 meters from the spacecraft. It was here that it became apparent that they'd crossed onto Cone ejecta blanket. Although they noticed no obvious change in soil color or texture, they were climbing and were seeing more and more rocks on the surface, some big enough to be called boulders. The pace had been leisurely up to this point, a series of short walks and short stops. But now the real work was about to begin and they were running a bit short of time.

In comparison with some of the desperate, heroic treks of bygone eras - Shackleton's march across South Georgia Island with Worsley and Crean in 1916, for example - the tale of Shepard and Mitchell's climb to Cone Crater falls far short of high adventure. If the LM had been parked at the bottom of the crater - with the crew running short of oxygen - it would have been a different matter. But then, no self-respecting Apollo astronaut would have gotten himself in such a situation. NASA and the astronauts knew exactly what the operational limits were and weren't about to stretch those limits unnecessarily. Shepard and Mitchell were out to collect bedrock samples from the rim of Cone and, in the process, to see how difficult it was to climb the hill. From an operational point of view, it didn't matter a great deal if they didn't quite make it all the way to the rim. But there was pride at stake and, as long as they didn't spend too much time at it, reaching the rim was an important psychological goal. As they began to climb, they were only halfway to the rim and were about sixty meters below it; and they were also running about fifteen minutes behind the timeline. Both they and Houston expected that they'd be given a thirty minute extension, but even that would give them only about half an hour to reach the rim. On level ground they would have been able to cover the 650 meters in no more than 15 minutes - less without the cart - but, here, their ability to climb was a real unknown. Consequently, they planned to spend as much of the time walking as they could, making only the briefest of stops to collect samples and take photos. As it turned out, they needed the whole half hour and a little more besides.

During the early stages of the climb, they made good time, Shepard usually in the lead pulling the cart, Mitchell trailing along trying to identify landmarks with the map. Mitchell did a fine job as a narrator, providing Houston with descriptions of such things as the color and texture of the surface and, from time to time, trying to make sure that he got a turn at cart pulling.

Before long, the grade was getting quite steep - about a ten-percent slope - and they were both breathing hard enough to hear back in Houston. The surface was soft and was littered with enough fist-sized rocks that, at one point when Mitchell was pulling, Shepard came up behind the cart, picked up the back end, and helped carry it along. It seemed to let them move faster. Shepard counted cadence: "Left. Right. Left. Right."

The march only lasted for a minute or so before Shepard had to call for a halt. His heart rate was getting up to 140 beats a minute and he needed a rest. As on Apollo 12, the stiff waist joint of the suits worn by the early crews was probably making itself felt. Shepard and Mitchell stopped for a couple of minutes at the first really good-sized boulder they'd come to - one about 12 feet long, four wide, and about four high. Sitting was out of the question; but they could at least stand at ease for a couple of minutes while they took a panoramic sequence of photos and some close-ups of the boulder.

By now they were climbing about one meter up for every five meters forward and they were only able to move for about a minute before they had to stop again. They rested, climbed a bit more, and then it was Houston's turn to call for a halt.

"Okay, Al and Ed," said Fred Haise, the CapCom. "They'd like you to take another stop here."

Shepard didn't argue. "Okay. We're really going up a pretty steep slope here."

"We kind of figured that," said Haise, "from listening to you."

Shepard took stock of the situation. They'd been out from the LM for about two hours and had perhaps another fifteen to twenty minutes before they would have to stop to take the bedrock samples and then head back to the LM. Although neither of them had much faith in their ability to judge distance, Shepard estimated that, at the present pace, it would be at least another half hour to the rim. It was time, he thought, to pick out some likely boulders - there were a few not far above them - and start sampling.

The two of them talked about it for awhile - Mitchell being particularly eager to press on - and then Haise broke in.

"Okay, Al and Ed. In view of your location and how long it's going to take to get to Cone, the word from the Backroom (the geology support staff) is they'd like you to consider where you are (to be) the edge of Cone Crater."

Mitchell wasn't ready to give in. "(I) think you're finks," he said.

Haise backed off just a little. "Okay. That decision, I guess, was based on Al's estimate of another, at least, 30 minutes and, of course, we cannot see that from here. It's kind of your judgment on that."

Houston's quick retreat gave Mitchell some encouragement. "Well, we're three quarters there," he told Haise. Then he turned his attention to Shepard. "Why don't we lose our bet, Al, and leave the MET and get on up there? We could make it a lot faster without it."

The backup crew had bet them that they would have to abandon the MET before they reached the top of the ridge; and Shepard wouldn't hear of it. A dash to the rim, simply for the sake of it, wouldn't look good. And besides, they were both tired. "No. I think what we're looking at right here in this boulder field, Ed, is the stuff that's ejected from Cone."

Mitchell saw his opening. "But not the lowermost part, which is what we're interested in." If they pressed on toward the rim - he was reminding Shepard - they'd be more likely to get samples of the ejecta that had been dug out from the greatest depths. It didn't matter that the Backroom geologists would have been perfectly happy with slightly suboptimum samples. They could continue the climb toward the rim in the interest of science, rather than astronaut pride.

Shepard decided to buy into the argument. "Okay, We'll press on a little farther, Houston. And keep your eye on the time."

A few minutes later, Haise reported that Deke Slayton, the former Mercury astronaut who had become head of the Astronaut Office, had volunteered to cover the bet if they decided to drop the MET. Mitchell backed off quickly.

"It's not that hard with the MET," he said. "We need those tools. No, the MET's not slowing us down, Houston. It's just a question of time. We'll get there."

Another few minutes later, they came to the top of a rise. It looked, Shepard said, like they'd reached maximum elevation. "It's leveled out a little bit. And it looks like we'll be approaching the rim here very shortly." But he couldn't be sure. Indeed, Mitchell was now fairly certain that they were south of where they wanted to be and that they needed to angle toward the north, but he wasn't willing to press the issue. They couldn't be certain exactly where they were - not to within several tens of meters. Any of the little hills and ridges ahead of them - or off to the side - might be hiding the crater. They had to be fairly close, certainly within a hundred meters or less, but now it really was time to stop.

Haise passed on the Flight Director's decision. "Ed and Al, we've already eaten our thirty-minute extension and we're past that now. I think we'd better proceed with the sampling and continue with the EVA."

As it turned out, they had already gone by the southernmost point on the rim, missing it by about 100 meters. As it turned out, a contributing cause of their inability to recognize the rim was the unexpected fact that the north rim of Cone is actually lower than the south rim and, to see the crater, they would have had to be standing virtually on the rim. During a half hour of sampling, they actually got within about 30 meters of the rim, without ever recognizing it.

Return to the LM

Like the other early landing crews, Shepard and Mitchell had spent most of their training time on flight operations and on basic EVA techniques. Indeed, for various reasons, the 14 crew may have been less well prepared, geologically, than any of the other crews. Nonetheless, they had been exposed to a certain amount of geology over the years and had been briefed about things to look for and, ultimately, did a conscientious job of collecting a representative set of samples - keeping their eyes open for anything out of the ordinary - and took the requisite documentation photos. After about a half hour of sampling and picture taking, they were ready to head back down the hill.

For a moment before they started, Shepard and Mitchell paused to get their bearings and to admire the view. Although they were looking down-Sun - that is, away from the Sun - they were high enough up that they could see shadows in the larger craters, shadows that gave the landscape a bit of texture. The landmarks that they'd used during the final landing approach were clearly visible around the LM; and out beyond it, the ALSEP package sparkled in the Sun like a "little jewel." All day they'd had trouble judging distance because there were no familiar objects to provide scale, no color differences to break up the scene, and no haze to help differentiate smaller, relatively nearby craters from larger ones in the distance. With experience, they might have used the presence or absence of boulders on crater rims as an indication of crater diameter and hence of distance. But to their untrained eye, only the LM provided scale. It was about a mile away and looked it.

The trip back was quick and uneventful - a minute downhill for every two minutes up. As they descended, the shadows gradually disappeared and they had to keep close watch on the ground ahead of them. Once they got back on relatively level ground, small craters seemed to appear almost without warning, but at walking speed they had no trouble making their way. A few hundred meters from the LM they made another long science stop before they got busy with closeout.

By this time, the combined effects of the sleepless night and the hard, and ultimately frustrating, climb were beginning to show. They were getting irritable and, during the final stages of the traverse, Houston heard a few "damns" and "hells" that indicated how tired Shepard and Mitchell were getting. The Apollo crews generally avoided profanity, at least when they were using open microphones. Consciously or subconsciously, they all chose words to suit their audience and it was only in stressful situations that any of them broke the unspoken agreement against cursing into a live microphone. Shepard and Mitchell were tired. They were feeling rushed and were a little worried that they wouldn't get everything done. Shepard may have been thinking that he wouldn't have time for the little surprise he'd planned; and, certainly, he and Mitchell were annoyed that they hadn't found the rim of Cone. In any case, as they were nearing the LM, Shepard let out a heartfelt "son-of-a bitch", and, in hindsight, it almost seems as though he was giving both of them permission to relax a bit

Once back in the LM, having stowed their gear and the 45 kilograms of samples, the astronauts answered a few questions for the geologists and then took a few minutes to talk with Haise about the experience. Shepard started with some words of thanks for the people back home, words that hinted at the underlying frustration he was still feeling. The folks back in Houston, he said, had done "a good job of getting us sorted out...when we got behind the timeline; and we appreciated that help."

Haise was quick to offer reassurance. "Well, we thank you again for doing a great job, Al and Ed. I think we have picked up everything we needed there."

"Gee, I sure hope so," said Mitchell. "It sure...(he paused to find the word)...sure was a panic from our point of view."

"Well," said Haise with a bit more re-assurance, " we kind of knew that before we got there."

"There were so many things we'd like to have done," continued Mitchell (inadvertently overlapping Haise because of the two-and-a-half-second communications lag), "so many things to do; so many interesting things to look at here - and we didn't even have a chance to scratch the surface. We hope we've brought back something that you can sort out as time goes on."

Then Haise tried to put things in perspective. Surely, he said, "it's a little better than the sandpile out behind the training building."

"Oh, man!" agreed Shepard.

"Don't you know it," said Mitchell.

"It really is," said Shepard. "It's fantastic up here."

The Apollo missions were so short - the first three in particular - that all the astronauts really had time to do was make an intelligent selection of samples that emphasized variety. And in the case of Apollo 14, the crew was particularly pressed for time. During their climb up to Cone there hadn't been time to do much more than grab samples. However, in the process, they demonstrated that it was possible to make long walking traverses over moderately difficult terrain. Perhaps if they had snaked their way up the hillside rather than making a frontal assault, the climb might not have been so arduous. But, in any event, Shepard and Mitchell had succeeded in climbing the hill and, although the Lunar Rover would provide a far more efficient way of doing geology, it was clear that, with some care taken in avoiding steep, uphill climbs, the later crews would be able to walk back to the LM from a Rover breakdown.

Apollo 14 was an important bit of preparation for the sophisticated Rover missions with which the Apollo series ended. It was a confidence builder. And it was also one for the record books. Al Shepard got a chance to take a few swings at a golf ball he'd brought along. The stiff suit forced him to swing one-handed and he fanned on the first two tries. But with the third he connected and the ball went "miles and miles and miles", he said. The truth wasn't quite so spectacular, but it was the first lunar golf shot.


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