The launch of Moonlab XI met with delay following the mishaps of Moonlab X. By April 1978, there was serious talk in Congress about ending the program. Popular support of lunar exploration hit a wall as the economic situation in America began to slide. Soring fuel costs and the making of a recession on the horizon made many Americans ask if Moonlab was worth the risk. Would it not be better to spend that money to improve lives on Earth?
When Buzz Aldrin was asked that question, he responded that if their ancestors had the same mind-set, then we would all still be in Europe. One of the more cynical members of the Science Corps, who chose to remain anonymous, posted a retort to Aldrin’s statement, saying that if their ancestors had that mind-set, they would all still be in trees. It was announced before Moonlab X returned home that Moonlab XII would be the final flight. Moonlab XI would effectively be the last mission devoted solely to exploration. While the next crew would continue, and wrap up experiments, a great deal of their time would be spent decommissioning Moonlab.
Command of Moonlab XI was given to Charles Conrad, known as Pete by just about everybody and former commander of Apollo XII, the mission that brought germs back from the moon. Conrad was also one of the Gemini Nine, serving on Gemini V and Gemini XI, as well as a naval aviator who just missed action in the Korean War. The mission’s pilot was another of the second group of astronauts. Air Force pilot James McDivitt started out as a mission commander on Gemini IV, where his pilot, Ed White, made the first EVA. He acted as commander again of Apollo IX, testing the LM in Earth orbit. Following his Apollo flight, McDivitt acted as Apollo Spacecraft Program Manager. He was not an astronaut used to playing second fiddle, but when offered the slot on Moonlab XI, he said that he could endure the indignity for a chance to work on the moon.
The mission specialists, George Patterson earned his degree while serving in the Arizona National Guard. The war in Korea interrupted his studies as he, and over a hundred thousand other militiamen were called up for duty. After serving his tour in Korea, he returned home and finished his degree at the University of Arizona. Fellow astronauts often gave Patterson a hard time for being an enlisted man, as well as a ground pounder. Patterson gave as good as he got, and whenever McDivitt or Conrad complained about walking through the Southwest’s deserts during geology training he would mention how consistent soft beds and warm meals made pilots such wimps, and if they thought this was bad, they should have tried a winter on the front line in Korea.
Moonlab XI left Earth on April 29, 1978, to one of the smallest crowd of spectators to date. Over the years, people far and wide travelled to the Cape to witness the launch of a moon rocket. Apollo XI still held the record for largest crowd. When Moonlab XI launched, the crowd was so small that traffic jams were nonexistent. For the American public, going to the moon was becoming routine. There were mishaps and unforeseen scenarios, but no matter the disaster, the astronauts flew to the moon, did their work and returned home. Nobody expected this mission to be any different. At first, it was not.
Mold was still a problem in the HM, though not as severe as with the pervious mission. As with previous mission, astronauts inspected the HM and IHM before moving in. The HM showed slight pitting on its side where high-speed dust slammed into it. A small crater was discovered in one of the HM’s legs, caused by a meteor less than a millimeter across. Had it been much larger, it would have smashed through the leg, toppling the HM. Patterson discovered a new fist-sized crater fifty meters from the IHM.
It was one of the advantageous of studying the moon from a fixed location. While Apollo had the advantage of taking samples from across the face of the moon, Moonlab was able to track to development of the landscape of a given area. A handful of craters were discovered in the vicinity, far less than some astronomers predicted. Before man set foot on the moon, the frequency of impacts was unknown. Did meteors hit once in a great while, or was there a constant peppering of the moon.
Both answers were correct. Large impacts were rare, but dust constantly rained down on the moon, as it did on Earth. When they hit Earth’s atmosphere they were seen as shooting stars in the night sky. On the moon, they simply came to an abrupt stop on the surface. While not conclusive of the whole moon, especially the Far Side, the area around Moonlab showed minimal impact frequency. Meteors, along with radiation, were two worries at the top of NASA’s risk. Today, solar forecasting and modeling can give warning to possible solar flares, and thus far NASA was lucky. Cosmic rays, atomic and subatomic particles traveling at relativistic speeds did not need forecasting for it was a constant bombardment of particles. Eventually four of the Moonlab astronauts would die of cancer, but whether or not that was caused directly by cosmic rays.
The moon was a deadly environment, and a fatality was bound to happen. At 1107, on June 3, 1978, Patterson and Conrad made their routine rounds in inspecting equipment and experiments when the inevitable happened. Patterson was reporting back to Houston on the state of the moon buggy when he was cut-off midsentence. At first, NASA dismissed it as a communication glitch; they certainly racked up an impressive score of those over the years. When Conrad continuing to communicate, management began to worry. The first alarm came when the mission doctor keeping tabs on life signs saw that Patterson’s fluctuated and ceased.
If his suit had a faulty transmitter, that would explain the lack of communication and lifesigns. Capcom relayed a request for a visual inspection on Patterson to Conrad, who reported back that he was nowhere in sight. As he was just checking the ‘buggy, Conrad walked over to find his comrade lying face down in the regolith, his suit deflated. Conrad called back to Earth, “Houston, we have an emergency here,” as he drug Patterson back to the closest of the habs, the IHM. Conrad tried in vain to resuscitate Patterson, and mission control was brought to a standstill by the message “He’s dead Houston.”
What killed Patterson was rather clear upon inspection. His shoulder sported a brutal wound where a micrometeor punctured his suit. Where a routine launch spurred little interest, the media ate up news on the death of an astronaut. Patterson was not the first astronaut to die. Apollo I claimed the lives of three astronauts on the ground, and a routine flight in a T-38 claimed the lives of Bassett and See, and Soyuz I claimed its pilot upon crashing into the ground. Patterson earned the distinction of being the first astronaut killed off Earth. His death set off an immediate abort to Moonlab XI and to bring Patterson home.
It sounded like a simple enough order, however, Patterson left a will behind in the event of his own death, and in it, he requested that should he die on the moon, he wanted to be buried there. Conrad and McDivitt were conflicted; they wanted to bring him home, but did not relish riding back to earth with a corpse. His own family was divided on the issue, but NASA’s management was not. There was no way they were going to leave an astronaut behind. To bury anyone on the moon would forever change how people viewed the moon, at least which was how NASA saw it. Patterson’s children lobbied NASA to honor their father’s wish.
Attempts by PR to keep a cork in the will issue failed, and the evening news picked up on Patterson’s ‘dying wish’. It also brought the same question back to the forefront; is exploring space worth the danger? Every astronaut would answer that it absolutely was worth it. Patterson’s death was also brought before a Congressional committee. Many members of Congress used this death to score points for their own programs, which needed funding badly. They said that not only was the moon a waste of money, but it was dangerous too. Clearly these politicians lacked the pioneering spirit that historically reigned over the United States.
Even before the accident, engineers working with NASA poured their effort into developing a hard-shell suit. The main reason had to do with pressure differences, and attempts to remove the need for pre-breathing before an EVA. Their projects were not widely known. A reporter from the New York Times asked about the suits during one of NASA’s many press conferences, and wanted to know why the suits were not deployed on the moon. PR gave the usually long-winded response, but to the engineers, the question of protection against micrometeors was laughable; you simply could not stop a pellet travelling twenty-five thousand miles an hour.
A declining economy added another nail to the Moonlab Project’s coffin. The public was not pleased by the cost of each mission, and where that money could have been spent to begin with. The Air Force stepped up its lobbying for a shuttle, and many politicians jumped on board the ban wagon. Contracts and subcontracts would be parceled out to companies in several States, and Congressmen can return to their constituents proudly proclaiming they created new jobs.
While popular history views the death of an astronaut as the end of lunar exploration during the 20th Century, it really came down to economic times on Earth. Moonlab employed tens of thousands of people directly and as support, but the Space Shuttle promised to create five times as many. If the shuttle succeeded, then a new chapter would open in the aerospace industry as hypersonic transports replaced the subsonic jumbo jets. More than three decades after the end of Project Moonlab and the public still awaits the arrival of superfast air transports.
After three decades of cost overruns and limited return on investment, NASA sought out a replacement for its aging shuttle fleet. Currently there is debate in the halls of Houston as whether or not NASA should develop a new spacecraft or contract out to the private sector. The Dragon and Silver Dart spacecraft are promising candidates, though they are from small, startup companies. Giants like Boeing are developing their own spacecraft and lobbying for NASA contracts.
NASA has yet to return to the moon following the last Moonlab mission, but in 2011, venture capitalist Robert Bigalow had the first of his inflatable hotel modules lofted into orbit. Lessons learned from Moonlab’s own IHM lead to an improved design now orbiting Earth. Bigalow entered negotiations with NASA over the status of the abandoned Moonlab modules, wanting to use the sight as part of his grown space tourism empire, with plans for constructing a hotel on the moon made from inflatable modules. Moonlab itself would be little more than a tourist destination, not unlike ghost towns in the western States.