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Earth in 2013

Friday, April 19, 2013

Moonlab, part 5

V) Unlucky X

Moonlab X started out like any other Moonlab mission. Its crew underwent lengthy training. Commanding the mission was the mission commander of Apollo XVII, Eugene Cernan. He already visited the moon twice; as LM pilot on Apollo X and landing with XVII. His first mission, Gemini IX, nearly ended in disaster for him. Originally, he and Tom Stafford were the backup crew for Gemini IX, but when the original commander Elliot See and pilot Charles Bassett died when their T-38 crashed, Cernan and Stafford were moved to the front of the line. Cernan’s role in the mission involved extravehicular activity before any astronaut really figured out how to do so properly. Cernan nearly passed out from exhaustion as he wrestled his way through weightlessness to re-enter the spacecraft. Apollo X and XVII ended on much better notes, with Cernan being the last of the Apollo astronauts to walk on the moon. Six years later, Moonlab X would return him to the surface.

He would work with fellow astronaut Alan Bean and specialist Sam Black. Bean served on Apollo XII as LM pilot, accompanying Charles Conrad to the surface for a near perfect landing. Apollo XII’s crew was the first humans to witness a solar eclipse involving Earth instead of the moon, though they were not the last. Pictures from previous Moonlab missions showed the world that eclipses of the sun by Earth were not as impressive as those caused by the moon. Earth’s relative size totally blocks out the sun and its corona, leaving little off the sun to study. Black held degrees in both paleontological and geological studies, with a doctorate in Earth sciences. His paleontology background brought him endless jokes from fellow astronauts about searching for dinosaurs on the moon.

Moonlab X left Earth on September 20, 1977, and right out of the gate the mission ran into problems. A glitch caused the shutdown of the center engine on the Saturn’s first stage. It was not a show stopper, nor did it adversely affect the launch. It was not the first time an engine shut itself off either; a similar incident occurred during the launch of Apollo XIII. Cernan announced to his crew that they just suffered their glitch of the mission. Unlike Apollo XIII, the engine shutdown was just the start.

Once at the moon, the crew nearly found itself back in orbit before they even touched down. The LM’s guidance computer suffered its own errors, primarily in the form of information backing up in the slow computer. Even with the improved hardware of the second generation lunar module, computing power of the 1970s still left a lot to desire. Both Cernan and Bean piloted the earlier model LM, and both were well trained in manual operation. Moonlab X touched down slightly outside the nominal landing zone of one mile, allowing for a longer hike that originally planned.

Just reaching Moonlab was the start of Moonlab X’s problems. Previous concerns over mold growing proved to be vastly underestimated by the people on Earth. The plan was simply to disinfect surfaces in the HM with chemicals brought by the next crew. Upon cycling through the airlock, Cernan discovered that not only did the previous crew not scrape away all of the mold, but the colony expanded to cover new surfaces.

Mold was not just unsightly, but a potential health hazard, especially if any astronaut had an allergy to it. Mold spores can cause serious health problems. Fortunately for the crew of Moonlab X, the mold in question was not one of the toxic species found in bathrooms on Earth. After running down the operational check list, and insuring mold had not infested any of the systems, the crew spent the better part of two days disinfecting the HM. Though the crew was not affected, the mold did take a number of casualties in the plant specimens left growing over the life of Project Moonlab.

Battling the mold proved an easier task then the other ‘glitches’ that plagued the mission. Upon entering the IHM, the crew discovered the interior pressure was at 390mb and slowly falling. Exactly what caused the leak had never been determined and will not be until the site is dug up and the IHM thoroughly tested, though it is believed a small meteor impacting on the regolith above the module cracked the IHM, causing this slow leak. Re-establishing the optimal pressure proved no challenge in skill, though it did cut into the air reserves.

Inspection of the exterior regolith armor discovered several craters ranging from the size of dimes to the size of a softball. Since the regolith was recently disturbed by construction work, all of the craters formed within the past two years. It caused some worry to officials back on Earth, but the fresh impacts excited Black, who took the opportunity to measure and study the new craters. Unfortunately for the primary task of plugging the leak, none of the craters’ locations coincided with outgassing from the IHM.

The IHM was originally intended to be spacious and comfortable for astronauts working within its confines. Because of the leak, and its uncertain nature, new protocol dictated that astronauts remain in their suits while in the lab. Visors on their helmet could be open, and the helmets could even be removed, but NASA insisted the astronauts be able to seal themselves in minutes in the event of a catastrophic failure. The only good news for the first month of Moonlab X was that the leak did not get worse. It was eventually located and sealed, but not before making headlines across Earth.

Two months into the mission, the supply lander not only arrived off target, but landed on uneven ground. Not only was the ground uneven, but it was unstable as well. The weight of the lander caused the ground to crack, giving the lander a dangerous list. Fifty minutes after landing, and before the astronauts could arrive for a visual inspection, one of the landing struts gave way, toppling the lander. Some supplies were damaged, but the astronauts managed to salvage a majority of the goods. Water and air canisters fractured by the collapses immediately evaporated in the lunar vacuum. Freeze-dried foodstuffs proved more resilient.

Moonlab X’s problems were picked up by the media back on Earth. Not since the rescue mission of Moonlab VII did the news outlets pay such attention to the happenings on another world. It was attention NASA could do without. CBS News anchor Dan Rather gave the mission the name Unlucky Ten, a name that was picked up by other networks and major newspapers. A number of editorial columnists began to ask what was going wrong at NASA and if it was time for the astronauts to come home before one of them was killed.

Politicians began to question Moonlab, as did many voters. The biggest question on their lips was what was Moonlab doing for them? With billions of dollars invested in the program, the voters expected to see some return. The same questions were asked about Apollo. In the long-term, both projects benefited the American economy greatly. The technology used to cram a computer into a command module led the way for the microcomputer to make its way to desk tops as well as eventually sparked off the Information Revolution. Revenue taken from corporate taxes from IBM, Microsoft and other tech companies, as well as personal income taxes of all their employees paid for Apollo and Moonlab several times over in the forty years since Apollo XI first touched down.

Even before the first Moonlab mission, the United States Air Force, along with aerospace giants, lobbied NASA and Congress for its Space Shuttle Project. The argued that it was wasteful to launch one-shot space capsules, and instead the money spent on the moon should be diverted to developing a reusable spacecraft that would lower costs and eventually allow the average person access to space. Pan-American Airways even had plans for sub-orbital flights using these new space planes.

As we have discovered in the 1980s and 1990s, all the promises of the Space Shuttle failed to appear. It was a rebuildable spacecraft, not reusable; after each launch, its heat shield was replaced, and every other year one of the shuttles was taken offline for upgrades. When all these extra costs were factored into the equation, shuttle launches were nowhere near as cheap as first promised. All of these were unknown in 1978. What was known was that the shuttle’s military applications were far greater than any other spacecraft. It could launch, retrieve or deploy payloads, and de-orbit before the Soviets knew what was happening. With rumors in the international intelligence field circulating that the Soviets were planning a shuttle, well that just meant American had to have two.

The scientific community and the astronaut corps both lobbied for continuation of Moonlab, denouncing any idea of retreating from mankind’s toehold on a new world. Moon veteran Charles Duke said that if NASA retreated now, then they would be like the Viking explorers who reached North America only to turn around and go home. In other words, centuries from now, they would be just as forgotten as some other nation reached out and took the moon for its own. The moon is, of course, somewhat different from Vinland. International agreements made in the 1970s gave the moon the same Terra Nullis status as Antarctica.

Moonlab X nearly ended in disaster. As the crew prepared to board the LM and return to orbit, they failed to get any signal from the orbiting Apollo craft. The first thought was that the C/SM was damaged or destroyed by a meteor impact. The idea generated apprehension but was immediately dismissed as Houston still retained telemetry on the capsule. Sometime during the stay on the moon, the orbiting spacecraft’s antennae drifted out of alignment with the astronauts on the ground. The drift would have occurred within the past few days as it mission SOP required periodic checking on the dormant Apollo. Cernan had to relay orders to the C/SM through Houston, where a clear line of communication with the sleeping capsule remained.

NASA downplayed the problem when it reached the media, saying the astronauts were never in any real danger. In a sense, it was true; Houston had a quick fix for the problem. What they did not say was that had they not been able to communicate with the Apollo, then they would have a serious problem. They would not necessarily have three dead astronauts on their hands, for a rescue mission could have been launched, though that would have taken weeks to prepare. Supplies could continue to flow to Moonlab and the crew could hunker down until rescued.

The media did provide nearly live coverage of the docking of LM and C/SM, and restarting of the Apollo. Coverage from liftoff to docking to powering up of the Apollo cast some doom and gloom upon the Moonlab program. Had docking failed, Cernan was prepared to go EVA and manually pull both spacecraft together. Whether or not it would have helped, it is probably best we never had to learn, but it spoke volumes of Cernan’s determination to not let any technical difficulties get between him and completing the mission.

Moonlab X’s luck changed for the better on March 8, 1978, when the capsule made a successful re-entry and splashed down only two miles from the recovery ship. Despite all the misfortune the astronauts faced during the mission, when all three were asked if they would go to the moon again given the chance, all three astronauts would not hesitate. Cernan said that he hoped a lunar colony was established by the turn of the century so he could retire to the moon. His wife was not amused. Like the crews of previous Moonlab missions, this was their final trip into space.

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