DECEMBER 2006 / JANUARY 2007 – NO. 11

Fourteen men, a plaque, and a mission, on Apollo 15

by David Scott


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"Schon guten Tag. Wie gehts Euch? [Very good day. How are you?]?" Joe Allen woke us at 160:01 GET at the start of our third and final day on the surface of the Moon.

"Guten Morgen, mein Herr. Ist gut [Good morning, sir. Everything's fine]," I replied. This was Joe and my way of paying a small tribute to Wernher von Braun and his Huntsville team, many of whom were also German, who had given birth to the giant Saturn V that had delivered us to the Moon.

Taunting us once more before we could set off on our third day of lunar exploration, however, was the drill. Jim and I were determined it would not defeat us this time. Our first approach was to grip the base of the drill housing, but when it didn't move we knelt down and put our shoulders underneath the horizontal handle. As we fought our way upright, the drill at last yielded and the ten-foot core of the crust grated out of the ground. We then had carefully to break the rocky column — in which it turned out were locked 57 layers of material and millions of years of history — into segments for storage later in the LM. But here again a tool wrongly assembled before launch cost us extra time and effort.

The time we had to spend on extracting this unique treasure, however, had taken its toll on the plan for that day. We were working 18 or so hours a day, with sleep periods of six hours or less. But still we could not extend the time we spent on the lunar surface beyond the time our oxygen, water, and other supplies would last. And on that last day, approaching the depletion of all our "consumables," everyone wanted to be very conservative in case we had a problem with the remaining part of the EVA or preparing the LM for lift-off.

The original plan had been for us first to drive west to Hadley Rille and then to progress toward a group of hills and craters named North Complex, which particularly fascinated me since it was believed they might be the remains of a cluster of ancient volcanoes. But our tribulations with the drill meant it had to be dropped from our program. It was a huge disappointment. In the years that followed I often wondered if the unique data revealed from the lunar core had been worth abandoning those that beckoned us in the North Complex.

Fortunately, the revelations that awaited us at Hadley Rille more than made up for our disappointment at the time. The traverse to the site took us over unexpectedly rough, undulating terrain, almost like lunar sand dunes; up and down we went. For the first time during our lunar explorations we lost sight of the LM before we reached the horizon. But as we drew closer to this vast gouge in the surface of the Moon we saw striking evidence of volcanic activity in the clear layers that lined the far upper wall of the valley.  When we dismounted from the rover and began to take samples, we found that the lip of the Rille was a far gentler slope than we had expected and the footing was firm, though this was not how it seemed to those following our progress in Houston.

Ours was the first mission during which Mission Control could monitor our nearly every move via the television camera on the rover; the TV on previous missions was fixed near the Lunar Module, where the landscape of the Moon was inevitably much smoother. So those on the ground were seeing new vistas for the first time, and there was a distinct edge of nervousness in Joe Allen's voice when we left the rover to explore the area for rock samples. From Houston's perspective we seemed to be "standing on the edge of a precipice". In fact, the slope down which we descended was only about five to ten degrees and the maximum slope of the Rille was only 25 degrees — not steep for such a canyon-like formation. And it was easier to negotiate than the slope at the base of Mt. Hadley Delta the previous day, when we had been so determined to bag a sample of the mysterious green rock. The footing was much firmer.

The Rille's rim and upper slopes were covered in hard-packed regolith and small rocks, compared with the much softer and unconsolidated lunar soil we had encountered at the base of the mountains. The deep Rille held no fear as far as we were concerned. We did two hours' intensive work collecting rock samples at the site. But Houston was clearly relieved when we neared the end of our scheduled time there.

"Get ready to move out, Dave," came Joe Allen's slightly concerned-but-confident-sounding voice through our headsets.

As we were finishing up at the Rille we were then told that the North Complex had been cancelled, and so we reluctantly made our way back to the LM. We could not afford to fall behind schedule on that of all days. At 1:11 pm Eastern Daylight Time on August 2, 1971, we were due to bring our stay on the lunar surface to a close, to lift away from the Moon and rendezvous with Endeavour. As we rocked and rolled our way back to base camp, with the majestic mountains ahead of us, Jim revealed, for the first and only time on the lunar surface, his deeply held religious belief.

"Dave, I'm reminded of a favorite Biblical passage from Psalms. 'I look unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.'"

I was too focused on keeping the rover on track to reply. But then Jim did that for himself:  "Of course, we get quite a bit of help from Houston, too!"

After making sure all our equipment was safely stored and ready for lift off, I had a few items of more personal business to attend to. I wanted to conduct a simple scientific experiment solely for the enjoyment of all those back home tuning into our transmissions from the lunar surface. I wanted to prove the law, proposed more than three centuries before by the Italian astronomer and mathematician Galileo Galilei, that all objects fall with equal speed in a vacuum. Taking in one hand a falcon feather I had brought along for the purpose and in the other my trusty aluminum geology hammer, I positioned myself in front of the cameras, raised my arms, and let both objects fall. Sure enough, they settled into the lunar dust at the same time. On the Moon there was no atmosphere to cause drag and slow the fall of the feather.

"How about that!" I said as applause erupted at Mission Control. No one there, except Joe Allen, had known I was going to do it. It was a little moment of levity, a nice visual image for those, especially the kids, watching back home. But it demonstrated an important scientific point, too.

"Proves Mr. Galileo was right!" I said.

"Superb," Joe replied with satisfaction.

That falcon feather is sure to be still in the same place on the surface of the Moon in that spot that I dropped it over three decades ago. It remains as an example of Earthly fauna, together with a four-leaf clover we left to illustrate our planet's flora and a copy of the Bible we placed on the hand controller of the rover — evidence of one aspect of our culture on Planet Earth. With her battery re-charged and no atmospheric conditions to have caused her to rust or deteriorate, I see no reason why the rover would not run like new were anyone to revisit the Moon in future.

The next deviation from the checklist wasn't captured on camera, though I took photographs to mark the event. After informing Mission Control that I needed to do a little cleaning up back at the rover, I wanted to perform a more private ceremony. It had a much sadder note. Amid the euphoria surrounding the success of the Apollo program and our feeling of great personal accomplishment at having achieved what had once seemed such an elusive goal, we wanted time to reflect for a moment on the human cost of the race to the Moon.

In a small depression near the rover I placed a small statue and plaque dedicated to the 14 American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts who had lost their lives in pursuit of that goal. The 14 names listed in alphabetical order on that plaque are:  Charlie Bassett, Pavel Belyayev, Roger Chaffee, Gyorgy Dobrovolsky, Ted Freeman, Yuri Gagarin, Edward Givens, Gus Grissom, Vladimir Komarov, Viktor Patsayev, Elliot See, Vladislav Volkov, Ed White, and CC Williams. (Sadly, two names are missing, those of Valentin Bondarenko and Grigory Nelyubov. But at the time, because of the secrecy surrounding the Soviet space program, we were not aware of their deaths.)

Reflecting on their loss, I felt a strong sense of brotherhood with those men. Some had been close friends, some I had only seen in formal photographs alongside a brief announcement of their deaths in the Soviet press.

After positioning the rover and its camera far enough from the LM to be able to record our lift-off — the first time such an event would be televised — I made my way back to join Jim in the LM. As I pulled myself up the ladder and on to Falcon's "front-porch" for the last time, I felt certain no other experience in my life would ever compare with these three days on the Moon.

My nature has always been to look for new challenges and I knew I would continue to do that. So I was sure there would be other great opportunities ahead. But I knew, even then, that I would never be coming back to the Moon. Only four more astronauts were due to make that journey. The Apollo program was winding down. I had no idea then just how definite an end to manned lunar exploration this would be — certainly in my lifetime, and who knows how far into the future? All I knew in those moments was that I had come to feel a great affection for this distant and strangely beautiful celestial body — in effect a small planet — constantly circling our own. It had provided me with a peaceful, if temporary, home. But it was time to return to my own home back on Earth.

Just before I climbed the ladder to reenter the LM and begin the final countdown to lift-off, Joe Allen transmitted to us a fitting summary of a poem written by one of the characters in Robert Heinlein's popular science fiction novels. It helped ease the pangs I felt as our spacecraft lifted away from the surface of the Moon.

As Rysling, the blind poet of the spaceways wrote, "We pray for one last landing on the globe that gave us birth, To rest our eyes on fleecy skies and the cool green hills of Earth."

From Two Sides of the Moon, by David Scott and Alexei Leonov, published by St. Martin's Press. Copyright © 2004 by the authors and reprinted by permission of the authors.