Unlike Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldwin, Leonov did not have the world’s spot light cast upon him. He received the expected hero’s parade in Moscow, and was praised by the Soviet press as well as the presses of her vassals, but the only mention in American media was a brief mention of his landing on CBS Nightly News as well as various newspapers. There was a little concern voiced about what would happen if astronauts and cosmonauts were on the moon at the same time, but this was quickly silenced upon it was explained that the moon was a rather large place.
Preparations for Moonlab I continued through the spring of 1974, and the countdown to the first Moonlab launch proceeded much swifter than the countdown leading to Apollo VIII. The Saturn V flew with a near perfect record with the only malfunction being an engine in the first stage of Apollo XIII. NASA’s engineering team was confident that the Saturn Vb would prove just as reliable. This did not stop flight director Gene Krantz, or any other watchmen at mission control in Houston from sweeting. The Saturn V never failed, but with the amount of fuel it carried, it would take only one failure to obliterate a good portion of Cape Canaveral. A similar incident nearly happened with the Soviet’s N-1 rocket, and only a last-minute automated abort prevented it from wiping out their lunar ambitions.
Launch was scheduled for July 4, 1974, which brought mixed feelings from Mission Control. While the Fourth of July was all about launching rockets into the air, those rockets always exploded in dazzling displays. The NASA family was a rather superstitious lot, and worried such analogies would jinx Moonlab I. Their fears were unfounded, for in the morning of July 4, Moonlab I left Florida without a hitch. Real trouble did not occur until July 9, when Moonlab I prepared for its automated landing.
Glitches in the lab’s computer did not occur until after the landing sequence was initiated, thus well past the cancellation report. Engineers rushed frantically to solve the problem, uncertain if the problem were real or if one of Moonlab’s thousands of sensors was faulty. It would not be the first time a mission was placed in jeopardy because of a faulty indicator. Such incidents dated back to John Glenn’s flight, when a faulty sensor told Mission Control that his capsule’s heat shield may be loose. In the case of Moonlab, the sensor in question relayed data back to Houston indicating a dangerous list in the descending HM.
A second sensor gave a more positive report. It reported the HM descending normally and all systems green. Mission Control had to choose which sensor to believe. Redundancies in the HM’s landing program should automatically correct any list. Since no change was detected in the landing, either there was no list, or the software was also malfunctioning. The Moonlab engineering team insisted it was far more likely that the first sensor was malfunctioning than the second one as well as the landing program. Had they decided otherwise, Mission Control could have sent orders to Moonlab to change its trajectory, but remotely operating a landing vehicle with a 2.6 second lag was challenging at best.
Krantz gave the OK for the HM to continue its flight plan, allowing Moonlab I to touch down in the middle of the Ocean of Storms at 1404 on July 9, 1974. The experience was nowhere near as hair-raising as the Apollo XI landing, but it was enough to give the flight controllers a few more gray hairs. Moonlab II, the first of several supply missions, launched on September 12, landing less than a kilometer from the HM five days later. Along with a year’s supply of food, water and oxygen, Moonlab II also included the moon buggy. The mission ended without as much as a glitch in the system. It was almost too perfect for NASA, leaving high level players in Project Moonlab apprehensive about the third mission.
Unlike the two previous missions, Moonlab III would be manned. The mission would take three astronauts to the moon for a six month visit. It would be the first mission to leave a C/SM in orbit around the moon unmanned, virtually stranding the crew on another world. Earlier unmanned Earth orbital tests of the Block III Apollo proved it could remain dormant for up to a year, and be brought back to life without a major problem. All the hardware was proven and designs sound. Whether the capsule would actually awaken after its hibernation, the crew would not know for six months after reaching the surface. If not— contingency plans for a rescue mission were proposed, but by the time the spacecraft could be readied, launched and at the moon, supplies in the LM would have been exhausted.
A misfired Apollo was not the only emergency concern of the mission, though it ranked high. Six months on the moon was enough time for the health of any astronaut to decline. One concern was a sudden onset of appenticidits. With astronauts, being a tough a macho lot, NASA doctors feared that by the time they complained about abdominal pain, the three day return trip might be too long to save the crewman. There was some discussion about preventative surgery, removing the appendix before the astronauts left Earth. For something as long as a Mars mission, it would be a must, but the moon was close enough for alternatives. Moonlab was stocked with emergency antibiotics and other drugs. At the first sign of serious complications, these medicines could be administered before an immediate abort of the mission.
Each of the astronauts for Project Moonlab underwent basic field medicine. The vacuum of the lunar surface was a deadly environment even under the best of conditions. Odds were, that sometime during one of the six month plus missions, one of the astronauts would suffer injury. Astronauts underwent similar training regiments as Army corpsmen, including setting bones and patching wounds. Some of the training was more for a psychological benefit, for if an astronaut’s body received injury great enough to cause bleeding out on the surface then their suit was probably already punctured. Any injury serious enough to require doctors on Earth to talk the astronauts through would result in an immediate mission abort.
To command Moonlab III, NASA turned to one its more experienced moon hands, James Lovell. Lovell visited the moon twice during Apollo; first with the first trip to the moon on Apollo VIII and later for a landing on the Frau Mauru Highlands on Apollo XIII. Lovell intended to retire from NASA following Apollo XIII, but many in management and mission planning, including long time boss Donald Slayton, convinced Lovell to stay on for one more mission. He agreed, “as long as I don’t have to go with Frank again.” The Frank he referred to was Frank Borman, fellow astronaut, partner on Gemini VII and Apollo VIII, and good friend. Bormann retired from the program not long after Apollo VIII.
NASA would draw upon its experienced Apollo crewmen to command all of the Moonlab missions, with all commanders having already once walked on the moon. For pilot, NASA tapped Apollo XVI LM pilot Charles Duke, who has even more time on the surface than Lovell. The role of C/SM pilot would be a short one for all Moonlab missions, and all pilots would find their mission parameters to be broad and vague. Most of his time on the surface would be spent operating the moon buggy, attending experiments and assisting the mission specialists.
The first mission specialist of Moonlab was geologist Harrison Schmidt. The Science Corps astronauts were the envy of their fields. Unlike so many other geologists around the world, who would study lunar samples in ultra-clean laboratories, Moonlab scientists would get the chance to study the samples in their natural environment. Initial studies showed high amounts of light elements in the regolith and a low heavy metal content, disproving the co-accretion hypothesis. The moon also lacked volatiles, gases like nitrogen, carbon dioxide, etc. though its rock contained a great many of oxides. If a source of hydrogen could be found, then water could be produced on the moon, cutting back on the cost of supply missions.
Moonlab III sat on the launch pad in the early morning light of December 6, 1974. It was a chilly day at the Cape, though not so cold as to threaten any of the thousands of parts of the Saturn Vb. The only company the three astronauts had as they climbed the tower and entered the capsule were a few technicians who were eager to get as far away from the two thousand tonnes worth of high explosives that was the Saturn Vb as possible. Each Saturn launch cost far greater than any other booster, for unlike the Titans and Atlases that carried nuclear warheads, if one of the Saturn V family were to explode, it would have the yield of a small atom bomb. NASA could not afford to have a single Saturn explode on the ground. Should that happen, the manned space program would be shut down for an undetermined length of time.
At 1005, Moonlab III cleared the launch tower and began its three day voyage to the moon. Unlike other missions, the weightless period of Moonlab III did not give any of the astronauts space sickness. The lack of gravity has an adverse effect on the stomach, and half of the people to ever travel in space suffered from it while acclimatizing. After the third stage cleared Earth orbit and slid into a trans-lunar injection, the C/SM separated and deployed its solar panels before turning around and docking with the LM. Even after factoring in a third man for the landing, the Moonlab LM proved far more spacious than its ancestor.
Moonlab III entered lunar orbit on December 9, only slightly of course. A minor correction in orbit brought the spacecraft over the Moonlab HM by the sixth orbit. By the eighth orbit, it was time to land. Moonlab III’s crew had a long hike across the barren lunar wilderness to reach the HM. To avoid any possibly collision, Moonlab standard operating procedures called for LMs to touch down at least one-point-six kilometers (one mile) from the Habitat Module. The SOP applies to both manned and unmanned landings. After reaching the surface and hiking to the first supply lander, the crew unpacked the moon buggy and loaded it with as many supplies from the cargo module. Weekly schedules called for one run on the supply lander.
After spending their careers in Gemini and Apollo Command/Service Modules, as well as Lunar Excursion Modules, the HM was almost luxurious. In camping terms, the previous craft were tents while the HM was an RV by comparison. Comparisons aside, living in Moonlab would be no mere camping trip. Much of the time spent awake would either be spent outside or on experiments indoors. The latter was saved for the lunar night, when temperatures dropped well below -200 degrees. Environmental suits were designed for daytime operations and to radiate excess heat and keep the astronaut cool. While they could function briefly in the lunar night, long-term exposure would result in hypothermia.
Many of the Moonlab experiments would see whether or not man could survive on the moon for extended periods of time. It was hoped at the time that Moonlab would pave the way for a permanent American presence on the moon, similar to research stations in Antarctica. One of the biggest experiments for Project Moonlab involved living off the land. High-powered ovens were used to bake out elements from regolith, most notably oxygen. The ovens produced a small quantity of oxygen. Not enough to keep the astronauts alive on its own, but more than enough to prove the process worked.
Regolith would also be used in more conventional and familiar means. Along with a small hydroponics garden, the astronauts experimented with growing various crops directly in the regolith. Early experiments on Moonlab produced simple cement when water was added to the regolith. The lunar dirt lacked many nutrients plants required to live, forcing the addition of fertilizer to the mix. The only available manure on the moon came from the astronauts themselves, creating a long list of jokes among the Moonlab crews about “night soil”.
Water used for these small gardens, really little more than a few potted plants, came from another Moonlab experiment. Waste water produced by the astronauts went through an intense filtration and purification regiment, coming out of the machines as clean as it went into the astronauts. The crews were rather reluctant to drink water reclaimed from their own urine, and instead used this recycled water in the garden. The Moonlab water reclamation system was never 100%, and no matter how often water was recycled, there was always a loss and a need for more water to be introduced to the life-support systems.
Producing water from lunar oxygen and hydrogen was one possible solution, but the relative lack of hydrogen near Procellarum Base made it an expensive proposal in terms of energy. Schmidt, as well as other Moonlab mission specialists, proposed sending a probe into polar orbit of the moon to investigate the craters at the poles. Some craters at the North and South Poles were deep enough that their floors never saw the light of day. Billions of years of bombardment by comets and other icy debris may have left residue in these places “were the sun don’t shine”. Any raw ice that may exist in these locations would not only provide drinking water, but oxygen to breath and oxygen-hydrogen for fuel.
One of the many goals of Moonlab was to determine whether or not a permanent base could be established using local resources. If NASA, or any earthbound organization attempted to establish such a base without using materials from Earth would require a budget that runs in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Aside from concrete, the moon has an abundance of elements that could be used to produce solar cells as well as enough batteries to hold the charge for the lunar night. The batteries were largely a political decision. A fission reactor could provide ample power for the nights, but environmentalist concerns of launching that much fission fuel into space would spark protests far greater than Moonlab’s RTG, which was designed to last the seven year mission. A nuclear reactor for a full research base would likely run on the same fuel for more than twenty years, before requiring refueling.
With all the thought and effort that went into the experiments, one major detail of life on the moon was overlooked; the dust. With even a slight static charge, lunar dust would stick to any surface. Vacuum hoses in Moonlab’s airlock were thought to be enough to remove the fine powder that claim to everything. The dust would form concrete when coming into contact with moisture, proving a very serious health problem for anybody who inhaled a small amount. NASA doctors decorated each of the crewmen with a number of medical sensors, but had no way to examine the lungs directly. Each Moonlab astronaut had some exposure to the dust but none at a level high enough to cause permanent damage.
One incident early in the mission, happening on January 2, 1975, involved an involuntary reaction to sweat on the brow. Charles Duke’s dust covered hand smeared moon dust across his visor, seriously compromising visibility. Fortunately for Duke, it occurred during a routine outing to inspect the surface experiments littering the surface around Moonlab. As per Moonlab SOP, Duke was not alone on the surface, and Schmidt guided him back to the airlock where his helmet underwent a thorough cleaning and he retrieved his sweatband from inside. After that, he never forgot to wear the band around his forehead. NASA doctors would continue to badger all Moonlab astronauts for the remainder of the program, reminding them that sweat operated the same on the moon as it does on Earth, and thus nothing like in a microgravity setting.
The lunar nights proved to be long and trying. It was not that the astronauts had nothing to do, far from it. Many experiments were ran inside Moonlab. The real challenge came from having three egos locked in a volume the same as a small apartment some four hundred thousand kilometers from home. For the most part, the military discipline of most astronauts’ pre-NASA days held strong. Moonlab even had some advantages over capsules in that it was large enough that crewmen could grab small doses of privacy during the fourteen day confinements. EVAs occurred only when absolutely necessary as the suits were designed for the Apollo landings, which all happened in broad daylight. Lessons learned from Moonlab III were implemented in later missions in the form of redesigned environmental suits.
The term space suit was thrown out during the Moonlab Program since, as many individuals in NASA, the Press and so on pointed out that they are not in space, but on the moon. The new “E-suit” as it was dubbed was not that different from the other soft-bodied suits. The largest difference was in life-support; the new suits heated as well as cooled. Hard-shell suit development began even before Moonlab III touched down. The hard-shells would not require extended periods of prebreathing low pressure air mixes before EVA. Even with the lower pressure interior of spacecraft (running with less overall pressure but a higher O2 content), some adjustment was required. The hard-shells would allow occupants of a future outpost to live in a standard pressure interior and go EVA without the need of pre-breathing, since the hard-shell suits would hold the same pressure as the habitat.
On their down time, crews were able to call home. Calls were limited and scheduled at certain times as not to interfere with transmission of data or other communication needs vital to the mission. One of the more frustrating aspects of working on the moon was the time lag in communication. At one-point-three light-seconds distance, the round trip of a message ran at two-point-six seconds. It was small, but the hesitation was very noticeable. Crews of any potential future Mars mission might look back on the inconvenience and scoff at anyone complaining about a lag of less than three seconds. Two-way communication from any object beyond the moon would be all but impractical. Lovell commented on “having a conversation with a two-and-a-half second delay” when he was interviewed on CBS News from the moon.
Three decks of playing cards were smuggled on to the Moonlab HM before its launch. One engineer suggested smuggling a copy of Monopoly instead, but the idea was vetoed over concerns of how a heated match might affect the crew. Anything that could possibly cause a rise in tension was discouraged. Books were an addition to the crew quarter section of the HM, including a complete copy of Edward Gibson’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Somebody at Mission Control remarked that by the time anybody was finished reading the collection, it would be time to return home. In January, the Super Bowl was transmitted to Moonlab, where the crew took the day off to watch. Media outlets across the country were interested to know the crew’s favorites.
Moonlab went on alert on March 2, 1975, when a second Soviet moon mission entered lunar orbit. Moscow gave all notice to Washington on where it planned to land, as to not cause any interplanetary incident with the United States. Soyuz 15’s target was the Copernicus Crater, well away from Moonlab. The Soviets would make their closest landing to Moonlab in 1976, with an estimated distance between one hundred and one hundred fifty kilometers away, somewhere on the Ocean of Storms. While they had no contact with the cosmonaut on the moon, the Soyuz pilot entered into good natured banter with the crew when his capsule flew overhead. The Soviets would not bomb them, and if they did, the cosmonaut assured them that Moscow would let them know in advance.
A real bombardment occurred on April 9, though fortunately for Earth it was a natural assault upon the moon. A small meteor slammed into the ground fifteen kilometers away from Moonlab, excavating a seven meter wide crater. One of the many experiments ran during the Program was a moon-based radar designed to track threats such as this. What exactly the astronauts were to do if a meteor was on a collision course with them was not clear. Hours after the impact, Schmidt and Lovell were on site, collecting samples and taking pictures of the moon’s newest crater.
The moon buggy took the astronauts further away than the Apollo rovers. The furthest excursion of Moonlab II was to one of the Apollo landing sites. Apollo XII landed close to Surveyor 3, and Lovell and Duke inspected both objects during the February 21-22 drive. Pieces of XII’s LM were removed and sealed in sample cases for study on Earth, but unlike pieces of Surveyor 3 there were no bacteria discovered hiding in the shadows. The origin of the bacteria brought back by Apollo XII is still debated, with a growing number of scientists believing the samples were contaminated after Apollo XII left the moon, and not proof of life surviving in vacuum for years on end. Experiments delivered to the moon on supply missions attempted to duplicate conditions on Surveyor 3’s camera. None of the bacteria samples in the experiment survived exposure to the lunar environment for a three month period.
Moonlab III ended on May 10, 1975, without as much as an injury to any of the crewmen. After spending approximately six months on the moon, the crew was eager to return home. Even after returning to Earth, their mission would not be totally complete. One of the long-term experiments of the Moonlab Program was conducted on the crewmen themselves. Doctors would give all three astronauts a thorough check-up once they return to Houston, as well as extensive examination to see how well and how fast their bodies re-adapt to life on Earth. Any astronaut spending time on the moon is required to exercise on a daily basis. Often this involves simple EVAs in a suit with a heavy life-support package. Carrying it on Earth took a great deal of effort, but in the moon’s lower gravity is almost brought their absolute weight back to where it was on Earth.
Each astronaut suffered a degree of bone loss in the lower gravity, but nothing life-threating. Spending six months weightless was a far greater health hazard than simply weighing less. Six months also happened to be the estimated transit time for a Mars mission. Thoughts on and designs for “artificial gravity” argued over whether a Mars mission should have Earth gravity, Mars gravity or lunar gravity. Rotating living quarters at a lower rate would reduce to stress on the spacecraft, and Moonlab III proved that six months at one-sixth Earth’s gravity would still allow the astronauts to function upon reaching Mars. It was useful data, even if a Mars mission would eventually lay decades in the futures.
Upon return, Lovell retired from NASA and the Navy, returning to civilian life. Mission specialists Schmidt continued studying lunar samples for years after Moonlab III, though he too retired from NASA and returned to the lab. Charles Duke continued to serve with NASA for two more years, though he would never return to space. For almost all of the astronauts, their Moonlab mission would be their final mission. The test pilot spirit of the astronaut corps always pushed them for higher, faster and farther, and how could one top a mission to the moon? The obvious question would be to land on another planet, a feat that none of the crewmen of the Moonlab Program would live to see.