Saturday, November 22, 2008

Lunokhod 1 ends its first lunar day

When Apollo 12 left the Moon, we didn't know that the next moonwalker would not be a human. The Soviets launched Luna 17 to the Moon on November 10, 1970. After achieving a parking orbit, the probe descended to the surface on November 17 and deployed the first roving vehicle on another planet, Lunokhod 1 (literally "moon walker"). The solar-powered Lunokhod 1 drove about 650 feet in its first lunar day, until local sunset on November 22. Over the next 10 months, the rover drove nearly 7 miles.

It's hard for people nowadays to understand the shock that the Soviet space program inflicted on the American psyche. The closest analogy I can make is that it was like a terrorist attack on our sensibilities. Everything the Soviets did was completely cloaked in secrecy until the event happened, and it was always timed to take the wind out of the US's sails. For instance, the West would not find out until after the fall of the Soviet Union that the USSR had been working on this program since 1966, and had attempted to launch a Lunokhod to the moon in February 1969. Had the launch vehicle not exploded shortly after liftoff, the USSR would have been "walking" on the Moon 5 months before Apollo 11 got there.

This Lunokhod 1 commemorative watch is obviously a modern creation, but I thought it was interesting. One doesn't often find watches with 24-hour dials, for example. These watches were apparently made by Raketa in St. Petersburg in the 1990s. The Cyrillic writing on the dial includes the vehicles Luna-17, Lunokhod 1, and the Russian name of Mare Ibrium, the Sea of Rains, where the vehicle landed.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Apollo 12 footprints on the Moon

After 31-1/2 hours on the Moon, Intrepid left the Ocean of Storms on November 20, 1969. Intrepid rendezvoused with the Yankee Clipper, and the crew of Apollo 12 headed for home. We now had four men's footprints in the dust of the Moon. The next landing was scheduled for April the following year. I had gotten used to the fast pace of launches between Apollo 7 and Apollo 12, and the idea of waiting 5 months for the next mission was almost too much to take. Little did I (or anyone) know that Apollo 13's close call would mean that we would not land on the Moon again until February 1971.

This Apollo 12 commemorative plaque was designed by artist John Sims of Jacksonville, Florida. John, who goes by the handle "moonwalkerjohn" on collectSpace, has a replica of the Apollo moon boots, which he presses into Sculpy as the basis for his plaques. He has also added a replica of the aluminum plaque from Intrepid's landing gear, which simply says, "Apollo 12/November 1969." This simple wording was used on the plaques for Apollos 12-16.

I obtained this presentation directly from John in September 2008.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Alan Bean at Surveyor 3

On the second of their two Apollo 12 moon walks, Pete Conrad and Al Bean visited the Surveyor 3 spacecraft, which landed 3 years beforehand. Pete and Al's planned prank, of using a shutter timer on their camera to photograph both of them at the Surveyor, fell through when they couldn't find the timer in the rock box. So, they had to settle for "super tourist photos" of them individually at the Surveyor.

Back home, the TV networks scrambled to salvage what they could from what was supposed to be a prime time, full-color TV broadcast from the moon. NBC used marionettes to try to illustrate what was going on during the moonwalk. I took this picture of the TV - as you will see from the caption, we were hearing "astronaut voices live from the moon" but only watching a puppet show. It was decidedly low tech, but at least the moonwalk was covered. In subsequent missions, it became increasingly more difficult to find a network that would cover the moonwalks live. This was due both to waning public interest as well as much longer excursions. The Apollo 11 EVA was just over 2 hours, while Apollo 17 astronauts spent 22 hours walking on the moon over three days.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Apollo 12 on the Moon

Apollo 12 landed on the Moon 39 years ago today. Unlike the Apollo 11 landing, which we watched on a Sunday afternoon, this landing was late at night for us on the US East Cost, after midnight on Tuesday.

Perhaps the biggest contrast was the completely different feeling we got about the landing as we listened to the ground to air conversation. Apollo 11 had been all tension, from the moment the LM rounded the Moon's limb, with communications dropouts, computer alarms, and then the low fuel warnings. On Apollo 12, we were treated to Pete and Al's ecstatic and jubilant exclamations all the way down. "There it is! There it is! Son of a gun - right down the middle of the road!!" And just after landing, there was Al's, "Good landing, Pete! Outstanding, man!" You never would have heard that from Neil and Buzz. It was so much fun to listen to.

The first moonwalk of the mission started later that morning. My parents let me stay home from school to watch it on our brand new color TV. Unfortunately, Al Bean accidentally pointed the camera at the sun when he was setting it on a tripod, and it burned out the camera's vidicon tube, completely ruining the picture. The networks still carried the audio of the moon walks.

This litho is one of my favorites of Al Bean's work, "Heavenly Reflections." I think Al's description of the work is almost as beautiful as his painting.

I have painted Pete Conrad and myself 239,000 miles from Earth, standing on the Ocean of Storms, looking homeward. Pete and I had come a long way together. We had met some ten years before. I was a student in Navy test pilot school and Pete was one of my instructors. I admired him for his professional skills and for his relaxed, colorful attitude. He is the best astronaut I have ever known. It was incredible to be standing on the Moon with him. It was good to take a moment to reflect on all the dedicated people it took to get us here for America. We were the lucky ones.

The stars were not visible because the sunlight reflecting from the bright lunar surface caused the irises of our eyes to contract, just as they do on Earth at night when standing on a brightly lit patio. As we looked up, the sky was a deep, shiny black. I guessed that deep, shiny black was the color one sees looking into infinity.

As I touched Pete's shoulder I thought, can all the people we know, all the people we love, who we've seen on TV, or read about in the newspapers, all be up there on that tiny blue and white marble? Earth is small but so lovely. It is easily the most beautiful object we could see from the Moon. It was a wondrous moment. If there is a God in heaven, this must be what he sees as he looks toward his children on the good Earth.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Happy 85th birthday, Alan Shepard

Today would have been Alan Shepard's 85th birthday. I never got to meet the man, but I certainly remember watching his launch aboard Freedom 7 in May 1961. It's among my earliest memories. We were living on "The Farm" near Williamsburg, Virginia. I recall being called in to the TV room just before he blasted off. Watching that pencil-thin Redstone rocket lift off made quite an impression on me. Looking back now at films of the launch, it certainly paled in comparison to the smoke and fury of Apollo and Shuttle launches. But at the time, it was amazing to think that there was really a man on that rocket.

Shepard didn't fly again until he commanded Apollo 14 in 1971, as the oldest astronaut in the US program. He died of leukemia in July 1998.

Happy birthday, Old Man!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Pieces of Kapton foil from LM-6, "Intrepid" and LM-2

This Lucite display purports to contain a piece of foil trimmed from LM-6, which was the Apollo 12 lunar module "Intrepid." It was not uncommon for workers in the space program to save bits and pieces of foil and other unusable leftover fragments from the vehicles they were assembling or working with, as mementos of their connection to the great events of the time. We, the average collectors of space memorabilia, are happy that they did! Of course, it is pretty much impossible to prove that any given piece of Kapton foil, which must have been used by the square mile during the Apollo program, is really from one vehicle or another. We must rely on the word of the worker who originally saved the piece, and whoever they then gave it to.

I have a similar piece of foil which came from LM-2, the lunar module at the National Air and Space Museum. I was personally given this 1" square piece of Kapton in the summer of 1971 by a museum curator who was making some adjustments to the LM as displayed. trimming off some bits of the foil. He gave several pieces of the foil to the tour guides (including me) on duty that day. I have no pictures to prove that the item came from there, other than photos I had taken of this item as far back as 1972. So I have to say: trust me, I know this one is real - even if I can't directly prove it 37 years later.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Apollo tin toy

Apollo 11 was a worldwide sensation. It seemed like the whole world had Apollo 11 fever in 1969. There was a collectible or memento of just about any kind you could imagine with the Apollo 11 label on it, whether or not the item actually had anything to do with the moon landings. Surely wanting to do Apollo 11 one better, this Japanese tin toy from the time bears the designation Apollo 12.

I suppose we'll see a mild echo of Moon Fever in 2009, for the 40th anniversary of the landing. I'm sure it will be a bigger deal in 2019, for the 50th anniversary of the landing...but at that time, the people who were alive in 1969 will be a relatively small portion of the population. Today, fewer than half of America's people were alive in 1969!