Apollo 14 at Forty: Shepard, crew return America to the moon

America’s first man in space, Alan B. Shepard, stood on the dusty soil of the moon. His white space suit made it hard to move freely as he hopped across the plains at Fra Mauro, the landing site for Shepard and fellow moon walker Edgar Mitchell.

As the lunar journey neared its end, Shepard took his handle from a rock collection tool and fastened a six iron wedge at the end of it, dropped a small white ball onto the dry soil and made the first golf shot on another celestial surface.

The ball shot into a nearby crater, and he thought to himself, “A hole in one.”

Shepard then perfected his back swing for the second and last golf ball. “There it goes… miles and miles and miles!” he exclaimed as the second ball soared and arced out into the solid black sky.

It had been a long journey for America’s fifth human to reach the moon. As NASA worked to return America back to space following the Apollo One fire, the space agency’s senior astronaut was loosing his hearing in his left ear and his balance. His equilibrium was gone by autumn of 1968.

A secret ear operation suggested by fellow astronaut Tom Stafford was then performed by a Los Angeles doctor which allowed the astronaut to return to flight status a year later.

He was ready to now aim for a moon flight, particularly Apollo 13 and the Fra Mauro region.

However, crew rotation by chief astronaut Deke Slayton put Shepard on board Apollo 14, and when the preceding flight aborted it’s lunar landing due to a blown oxygen tank, Fourteen set it’s mission sights on Fra Mauro.

Apollo 14 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center on January 31, 1971, at 4:03:02 pm EST, forty minutes late due to rain over launch pad 39-A, to begin a nine day voyage upon the ocean of space.

Once the crew reached space and left earth orbit for the moon, they ran into a problem with the docking latches which connect the lunar module Antares with their command module Kitty Hawk.

For one hour, Kitty Hawk’s pilot Stuart Roosa brought the command module in slowly to dock it perfectly on four tries, however the capture latches would not latch. Kitty Hawk’s fuel was running lower than had been planned at this point in the flight as well.

If the latches could not dock the two craft together, the mission would have to be aborted.

As the crafts moved past a distance of 20,000 miles away from earth, the idea was discussed to go in at a faster rate to awake those latches and dock the module. It worked and the crew sped on toward lunar orbit.

The three day journey to lunar orbit was quiet.

Antares trip down to the lunar surface was not.

Software issues with the lunar module’s landing computer, and later with the landing radar caused big concerns for both the crew and in mission control.

Once the control center sent up new commands to the computer, they were given a go for landing.

Antares single engine fired to bring the craft down and land. It was human kinds third landing upon the moon.

Landing at Fra Mauro on the eastern edge of the Ocean of Storms occurred on February 5 at 4:18:11 a.m., just 130 feet shy from the target site.

“Okay, we made a good landing,” the 47-year-old Shepard said upon landing Antares.

Hours later, he became the fifth human to set foot upon the moon and radioed to mission control on what it took for him to reach this point, “Al is on the surface. It’s been a long way, but we’re here.”

To which Slayton replied, “Not bad for an old man.” Shepard would be the only Mercury astronaut to reach the moon.

Shepard and Mitchell collected nearly ninety-three pounds of lunar rocks during their nearly five hour set of two moon walks.

This week marks the fortieth anniversary of Shepard and his crew’s flight aboard Apollo 14, the mission which returned America to the moon following the odyssey of the Apollo 13 flight the following spring.

In October 1995, I enjoyed a candid conversation with Alan Shepard on his thoughts about the space program of the time. And, although it has been fifteen years, his words echo true in 2011 as it did then.

Charles Atkeison: How does the space program today differ from what you experienced during the 1960’s and into the early 1970’s? Do we still have a focus for what we want to do at NASA?

Alan Shepard: I think as far as NASA’s concerned, yes. The difference as far as the general public’s concerned is that the pure excitement of the early days is gone because, “so we’ve done that. What do we do tomorrow?”, kind of routine. The fact that the public in general is excited about exploration made the lunar mission a very well recognized, well appreciated phase.

The folks that are flying today are just as dedicated as we were even knowing ahead of time that they are not going to receive the same kind of appreciation and recognition that those of us did in the early days.

Charles: Do you consider yourself the Christopher Columbus of the modern age?

Alan: I really don’t. I consider myself very fortunate to have been allowed to make a couple of space flights for the United States. I recognize a few of us get a lot of attention, but literally hundreds of our close associates are the ones that did all the work. I remember saying in May of 1961 at the White House, when I received a medal from President Kennedy acknowledging that these hundreds, yes thousands of dedicated individuals on the ground are the ones to whom the accolades of the day should go. And I still feel that very strongly.

Charles: I remember the scene, Kennedy drops your medal during the presentation. What went through your head right then?

Alan: Well, we almost banged heads ’cause both of us (Shepard laughs) … it was kind of cute. ‘Cause Jack said, “Here,” and Jackie (Kennedy) said, “No. No, Jack, pin it on.” So then he recovered and pinned it on. So we had a lot of fun with that.

Charles: Thank you.

During a visit to the Kennedy Space Center’s Saturn V center, guests can walk up to and study the moon craft, Kitty Hawk.

Commander Shepard passed away while at his home in California following a two year bout with leukemia in July 1998. Crew mate Roosa passed away three years earlier due to an inflammation of the pancreas. Ed Mitchell is now eighty and lives near West Palm Beach, Florida.

In May, America will once again recall the Christopher Columbus of the space age in Shepard, as we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of America’s first trip into space, Freedom 7.

Story by
Charles Atkeison