After the landing of the third supply mission, many at NASA wondered at all the possible applications used on the hardware. Reinforced shelters and addition laboratory space aside, sending landing packed full of supplies on one-way trips to the moon were beginning to take a bite out of the budget. One proposal included a recently developed accordion passage to link the landers together for a future outpost. Renovating the interior of the supply ships would be a technical challenge, but that would pale in comparison to moving the landers close enough for the passageways to work. NASA lacks the capacity to launch any vehicle large enough to move spent supply landers. Even assembling such a machine on the lunar surface would require multiple launches and that meant additional Saturn Vb rockets. As one can imagine, the aerospace industry was in favor of continued launches and production of the Saturn series.
NASA placed salvaging material from Moonlab into planning its first, true outpost on the moon, which still lay off in the future. For the present, the landers would soon lose their usefulness as shelters and extra lab space. For Moonlab VII, the first Inflatable Habitat Module would be deployed in the trench dug by the moon dozer. The IHM appeared little more than a giant balloon on the surface. The first obvious difference is material; the IHM’s skin was comprised of Kevlar. Since it was to be buried after deployment, the skin was thinner than that of a Kevlar vest. In fact, the use of the material was more for preventing punctures from within the IHM than from without. The biggest challenge in construction the IHM would be in inflating the structure. Even using an atmospheric mix of 50/50 oxygen-nitrogen at 400 millibars, it would still require a large supply of air to inflate the structure. Moonlab VI arrived at the moon with a surplus of canned air, and the Moonlab VII LM would carry its maximum capacity to the surface in canisters of compress oxygen and nitrogen.
The IHM would provide Moonlab crews with a floor space of almost the same as the pit excavated to house it. The total living area of the IHM topped out at 510 square meters. The only part of the new module to be exposed to the surface would be the six square meter airlock. Once deployed, experiments from the supply modules and the Moonlab HM would be transferred to the more spacious IHM. The HM would retain its original function and would still act as living quarters for the crew, but with a new module buried beneath the regolith, astronauts now had near perfect protection against solar flares. One reporter commented on the ‘near perfect’ aspect, to which a NASA engineer replied that no matter how hard one tries, they cannot plan perfectly and there that the lunar environment was still full of unknown variables.
Astronauts had a slightly different attitude; the only guaranteed outcome on the moon was death if anything should go wrong. As two-thirds of the Moonlab crew came from test pilot stock, looking death in the eyes was nothing new. As for the other one-third; not a single scientist would dream of passing up the change to study the moon in person. For Moonlab VII, the mission specialist would be geologist John Maroni, the first “Italian” in space. Maroni was born to parents who left Italy shortly after Mussolini took power. He was born in New York, but as a youth his parents, like so many generations of immigrants, headed west. His father was not a farmer, but an engineer who managed to land a job in constructing the dams along the Columbia River. It was along this great river that Maroni developed an interest in geology. After earning a degree in geology, Maroni went to work in the oil industry, using what he learned to track down deposits of fossil fuels. When word went around in the 1960s that NASA was searching for geologists to send to the moon, Maroni jumped at the chance to be one of the first to study a new world. Of course he was not the only one to apply for the limited position of mission specialists.
Maroni was not the only John on Moonlab VII. Mission Commander John Young already visited the moon twice, first as command module pilot of Apollo X and later as mission commander for Apollo XVI. Like Maroni, Young developed an interest towards geology. Unlike the specialists, Young’s interest developed while preparing for Apollo XVI. Young’s career began in the Navy as a fire control office onboard the USS Laws. Not a promising start for an astronaut, but following the Korean War, Young entered flight training and ended up spending four years flying off careers before moving on to being a test pilot. He entered NASA as one of the Gemini Nine in 1962, making his first flight on Gemini III with Gus Grissom. His NASA career was almost derailed when he smuggled a sandwich onboard Gemini III, a feat that earned him a reprimand from the very rigid NASA brass.
The third man for Moonlab VII had the distinction of making his first flight into space on Apollo XIV, spending the time at the moon in orbit while Al Shepard and Ed Mitchell ventured to the surface. Steward Roosa served as an Air Force test pilot before being selected as one of the nineteen astronauts of Astronaut Group 5 in 1966, which called itself the Original Nineteen. Like with so many of the C/SM pilots so close to the moon, Roosa was more than ready to make the landing.
Said landing went flawlessly. Moonlab VII touched down on June 8. After running routine checkups on the HM’s systems and various experiments, the crew began the long task of deploying the IHM. The combination of its thin skin and the low gravity were almost not enough to allow for its deployment. All three astronauts were required to remove the container from the LM. Great care went into spreading the module into its pit. Despite promises of the fabric’s strength, nobody was willing to put its theoretical threshold to the test. One tear in the fabric and the IHM would be all but useless. Several days were required to unfold and inflate the structure.
During the course of its construction, NASA faced one of its most serious problems to date when the mission commander received a warning that his environmental suit’s integrity was compromised. His suit was obviously not torn open, for had that happened he would be dead in short order. A slow, steady leak began, most likely caused during construction work on the surface. Such an eventuality was not unseen, and within the HM there sat kits able to repair minor suit damage. As mentioned before, there was little that could be done for major malfunctions, but leaking seals could be patched.
With Young out of work until his suit was repaired, it was left to Roosa and Maroni to finish pitching the tent. Young’s suit was patched, and then filled to twice the HM’s interior pressure to test for further leaks. With the EVA workforce reduced to two-thirds, the mission schedule was effectively derailed. A shuffling of experiments and tasks planned later in Moonlab VII’s mission rippled through Houston, with lower priority events cancelled. Even early tasks requiring all three astronauts were postponed. The laying out of power cables between the IHM and the HM’s reactor had to wait until Young’s suit was cleared for EVA.
The most time consuming of the IHM’s construction came when the structure had to be inflated. Mission specifications called for a 50/50 mixture of oxygen and nitrogen and 400 millibars, but even at that deduced pressure, it took a great deal of time, to say nothing of canisters of air, to inflate the inflatable habitat. Before the IHM was buried, the crew orbited the structure several times, carefully checking for any leaks. A leak in such a structure would be worse than in the HM. If the original habitat suffered a leak, it would simply run out of air. If the IHM suffered one, it would run out of air and collapse. Even with reinforcing beams, NASA was not willing to risk a collapse while the crew slept, and thus the crew retained the original habitat as their living quarters. In the event of a solar flare, however, the IHM would offer superior protection from the lead-lined shelters of the supply landers.
Once construction and testing were completed, Moonlab VII’s crew began the process of burying the IHM. Burying the inflatable module was not as easy of a task as it sounds. The moon dozer could not simply drive over the top of the IHM, for its weight may cause the structure to collapse. The safety precaution caused a serious embarrassment when it became obvious that the entire structure could not be buried by the moon dozer. A two meter wide strip of exposed IHM sat in the middle of the compound. To fill this gap, engineers in Houston and the astronauts on the moon put their heads together and developed a low-tech solution. The last two meters would have to be buried by hand. With little more than buckets and scoops, the three crewmen spent two weeks of work finishing the last stretch of covering their new lab.
Once buried, the IHM was ready for business. It was not until late September that lab equipment was fully transferred from the HM and various supply landers to the IHM. Even with internal partitions, the new lab was far more spacious than the old. So much so, Maroni suggested that the next crew bring up a ping pong table. His suggestion was dismissed of course, but not because they lacked sufficient room. Moonlab VIII, as well as future supply missions, would transport more than enough equipment to the moon to fill any spacious gaps.
Less than a month into the operations of the IHM, Moonlab was again visited by its rivals from the other side of the Iron Curtain. On October 3, Soyuz 18 entered lunar orbit. As with previous Soviet missions, Moonlab was alerted in advance. Soyuz 18’s LM would land well outside any zone of concern for Moonlab at a distance of 112 kilometers. It was assumed the mission would be like any other landing; the Soviet flag would be planted, experiments and equipment deployed and some samples scooped up and taken back to Earth. The mission cruised along as planned until Pytor Klimuk re-entered the LM for his trip back to the Soyuz C/SM.
On October 4, after five hours on the surface, Klimuk fired up the LM’s systems and prepared for launch. All systems were in the green, but when the order to ignite was given, Klimuk was greeted with silence. The ascent engine did not fire. Klimuk soon found himself standing on top of a bomb, wondering if and when the engine would explode. Moonlab learned about the malfunction when the orbiting Apollo reflected signals back to Moonlab, which meant Houston learned about the incident around the same time that engineers back in the Soviet Union.
Several brilliant ideas on how to fix the LM’s engine circulated through the Soviet program, but none could be accomplished with the tools on hand. Nobody foresaw the engine simply not firing. Exploding, yes, but that was a situation they did not worry terribly about, for if it occurred the cosmonaut would be dead and the craft destroyed. A mad scramble by engineers in the Kazakh SSR to prepare a rescue mission ended almost before it began. Klimuk had with him not enough oxygen to survive, even if the rescue lander launched immediately. The Soviets faced facts that they would have a dead cosmonaut on the moon. Normally this would not be an issue, but thanks to Moonlab, NASA was already aware of the situation.
What happened next was something straight out of the movies. In 1969, a movie called Marooned hit the theaters. In it, an Apollo spacecraft was stranding in orbit when its retrorockets failed to fire. NASA scrambled to launch a rescue mission, which arrived the same time as a Soyuz capsule. The cosmonaut was not able to return them to Earth, but he did deliver enough oxygen for two of the crewmen to hold out until saved. Obviously in the case of the moon, delivering enough oxygen would not help much.
NASA management, as well as politicians at the highest levels of the Federal Government mused over what they should do. Old time Cold Warriors wanted to just leave the cosmonaut to his fate, but the soon-to-be outgoing Ford administration gave the order to retrieve the cosmonaut. Astronauts saving the cosmonaut would not only be the neighborly thing to do, it would also elevate the opinion of the United States around the world. At least that was what President Ford believed, and he hoped it would help him in the upcoming election as well.
Soyuz 18’s LM was just at the limit of the moon buggy’s endurance. A 112 kilometer trip would take twenty-six hours, and it would be every bit as epic as the voyage of the James Caird from the Shackleton Antarctic expedition. . Since they would be bringing the cosmonaut back to Moonlab, only two astronauts could make the trip. Young and Maroni would make the attempt. Roosa volunteered, but was overruled. If anything should happen to the other two astronauts, then Roosa would have to end the Moonlab mission and return to Earth. Maroni was trained to land the LM and fly the Apollo, but he was a geologist at heart, not a veteran pilot.
Communication between Washington and Moscow made it clear that the astronauts were coming to help, and the cosmonaut would be returned when Moonlab VII returned home in December. The order was given for Soyuz 18 to leave the moon and his comrade in the hands of their American rivals. That did not bode well for Vitaly Sevastyanov, who was leaving a comrade behind. There were those in Houston who were equally displeased, though for different reasons. Planners of the Moonlab program always made certain the station had a surplus of oxygen, and there was no risk of four people suffocating in the next two months. However, that did not mean everyone was happy that American oxygen was going to be wasted on a Red.
A more practical concern arose immediately as to what precisely they were supposed to do with Klimuk. They could ill-afford to have a body simply sit around until Moonlab VII departed. He had some knowledge of English, and anything that could not be communicated on site had to wait for the maddening three-second delay when dealing through a translator back on Earth. He proved to be an able assistant to Maroni, who often referred to him as a grad student; somebody to do the grunt work while the professor finished important tasks. He was a far better engineer than geologist. He earth science experience extended only as far as he was trained to find certain rocks. On other experiments and projects he pulled his weight.
He was familiarized with most of Moonlab’s systems, both in the HM and IHM. The only part off-limits was the lab’s power supply, a highly classified nuclear reactor. That did not stop Klimuk from trying to learn everything he could for his impending debriefing. In response to his curiosity, Young made the joke that he thought the accident was staged so the KGB could infiltrate Moonlab. While the cosmonaut worked away on the moon, the Soviets prepared a Soyuz to bring their man back.
On December 16, twelve hours after Moonlab VIII landed to relive the previous crew, as well as set a new record for how many men were on the moon at once, Moonlab VII headed for orbit. Because they were carrying Klimuk to a waiting Soyuz that was making its way to rendezvous with the Apollo, Moonlab VII could return only a handful of samples to Houston. At 1304, the LM docked with the Apollo spacecraft, which powered up without problems. At 1354, the Soyuz, carrying one cosmonaut, rendezvoused with Moonlab VII.
The Soviet moon program called for cosmonauts to go EVA in order to reach their landers and return to the mothership. This event that Klimuk trained for made transfer to the Soyuz easy. Neither Soyuz nor Apollo had compatible docking mechanisms, so he would have to make the leap one way or another. A guide line was thrown between the Soyuz and the LM, allowing Klimuk to climb away after saying his farewells and giving his thanks. Though risk of collision was negligible, Soyuz 19 gave the Moonlab astronauts a three hour head start before igniting their own engine and returning home. Klimuk received a hero’s welcoming upon landing, but the Soviets mad certain he never flew again.