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Earth in 2013

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Moonlab, final chapter

V) Last Flight

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.

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.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Moonlab, part four

IV) Rescue
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.