The mission carried the weight of NASA’s reputation to the Moon and back.
On April 1970, whilst Apollo 13 was 180,000 nautical miles from Earth, an explosion in the oxygen tanks ended the hopes of a third lunar landing. The astronauts, thanks to the dedication of a team of astronauts, engineers and the crew of mission control, made it home.
Desperate to avoid another catastrophe the entire Apollo program was pushed back, as an investigation was launched and modifications to the spacecraft made.
Nine months later, the crew of Apollo 14 sat above the Saturn V rocket, with the whole world watching.
Apollo 14 commander Alan Shepard. Credits: NASA/Edgar Mitchell
A positive outcome of this delay was that it allowed for more training. In fact no other Apollo crew trained together for as long as the three Apollo 14 astronauts.
The Commander of the mission was Alan Shepard, a man who had already cemented his place in the history books several years earlier by becoming the first American in space.
Shepard’s astronaut career had been halted after his historic flight due to Ménière’s disease, an inner-ear ailment that caused episodes of extreme dizziness and nausea.
After undertaking risky experimental surgery in 1969, Shepard was cleared for spaceflight. He would be joined by Command Module Pilot Stuart Roosa and Lunar Module pilot Ed Mitchell, both of whom were spaceflight rookies. In fact across the whole crew there was only a few minutes of cumulative space time between them, all of which belonged to Shepard.
The 363-foot tall Apollo 14 launch vehicle lifts off. Credits: NASA
Apollo 14 launched from Kennedy Space Center at 21:03 UTC on 31 January 1971, after being delayed for forty minutes due to poor weather, the first time this had happened in the Apollo programme (rules had been tightened after Apollo 12 was struck twice by lightning in launch.)
Upon reaching orbit, the crew attempted to dock together the lunar lander with the command module, but the docking mechanism would not activate.
After two hours attempting the manoeuvre, Mission Control proposed that they try it again with the docking probe retracted, hoping the contact would trigger the latches and that the mission would be able to continue.
It worked, the importance of which was not lost on Mitchell, who later said “We realized that if our mission failed—if we had to turn back—that was probably the end of the Apollo program. There was no way NASA could stand two failures in a row.”
Edgar Mitchell moves across the lunar surface. Credits: NASA/Alan Shepard
Apollo 14 touched down on the Moon on 04 February 1971. Shepard’s first words on the surface, perhaps in relation to his own personal journey to get there, were “It’s been a long way, but we’re here.”
At 47, Shepard is still the oldest person to have ever walked on the Moon.
After planting the American flag, the crew began work on a list of scientific experiments and the collection of lunar samples from the Crone Crater, where geologists believed there could be samples from the Moon’s bedrock after a meteor collision millions of years earlier.
However a combination of the crater rim being nearly 100m above the landing site and further away than maps had predicted, led to the astronaut’s heart rates rapidly increasing which concerned the team monitoring their suits from Earth.
In the end it was decided that they should collect samples where they were and then turn back.
Later analysis estimated that the astronauts were only 20-30m away from the crater. The two men’s struggles played a huge part in the development of the Lunar Rover, which was used on the following three Apollo missions and allowed the astronauts to cover greater distances.
Major League Baseball signed by Ed Mitchell and on display at the National Space Centre.
One element of the mission that captured media interest was a pre-planned stunt by Shepard. He had brought a 6-iron golf club head, which he attached to an excavation tool, and two golf balls, which he proceeded to strike with the makeshift club, the second ball Shepard claimed went “miles and miles and miles” (it actually travelled less than one mile, but nonetheless is much further than it would have travelled on Earth due to the lower lunar gravity.)
Mitchell joined in by creating two makeshift javelins and the two men engaged in what they called the first ever ‘Lunar Olympics.’
An American Major League baseball, signed by Apollo 14 astronaut Ed Mitchell can be seen on display in the Space Oddities gallery at the National Space Centre. He has also written the story of the ‘Lunar Olympics’ on the different faces of the ball.
Shortly after the astronauts left the surface and re-docked with Roosa overhead, who had been performing experiments aboard the Kitty Hawk, orbiting the Moon.
The three men returned home on 09 February, touching down in the South Pacific Ocean. The mission saw the return of the proposed Apollo programme for NASA, and the launch of three further missions to the Moon over the next two years.
About the author: Alex Thompson is a Space Communications Presenter at the National Space Centre.