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Fri, Dec 14, 2012

40 years ago; Apollo 17, 'The End Of The Beginning'

Part 3; Perhaps Not Again In Our Lifetime

By Wes Oleszewski

During Apollo 17, no one, other than Gene Cernan himself, saw his first step upon the lunar surface. This was not due to reduced network TV coverage, nor to some systems glitch- it was because the TV camera was simply “not hooked-up.”

All of the previous Apollo landings had carried a TV camera stowed in the Modular Equipment Storage Assembly, called the “MESA.” As the commander exited the LEM, he would pause on the porch and pull a “D” ring which in turn pulled a wire that released the MESA. The pallet, hinged at the bottom, then flopped down allowing the moon-walking astronauts access to the packages and experiments stored on the MESA. On top of that pile of equipment was strapped the TV camera that was aimed at the lower part of the ladder on front leg of the LEM. Once a circuit-breaker inside the LEM cockpit was closed the camera was activated and began broadcasting the images of the crew’s first steps on the moon. On Apollos 11, 12 and 14 that camera was later mounted on a stand in order to broadcast TV images of the EVAs. On Apollos 15 and 16, however, the camera was not only to be used on a stand, but also used on the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), which was deployed about 45 minutes after both astronauts were out of the LEM. Of course once the camera was placed on the LRV, like everything in NASA, it had to be given a name so complex that it needed to be reduced to an acronym. It was officially called the Ground Command Color Television Assembly, or GCTA. Naturally, no one really called it that during the EVAs, as most of the time it was simply called “the TV.” The camera’s time mounted on its stand was critical on Apollo 15, which was the first flight where the LRV was used. The crew, like all of the previous lunar crews, removed the camera from the MESA and set it on its stand; but this time its prime job was to monitor the rover’s deployment. Once the rover was deployed, the camera was un-plugged and mounted on the rover where it could be remotely directed from Mission Control.

On Apollo 16, the plan for the TV camera was supposed to be the same as Apollo 15, but a problem with the Command Service Module’s back-up thrust vector control caused a lengthy delay in the lunar landing. Thus, it was decided to delete the activity with the TV camera prior to it being attached to the LRV. On Apollo 17 they took a lesson from Apollo 16 and simply deleted all TV activity until the rover was set up so that the astronauts would have more time for other activity. Thus, Gene Cernan’s first step onto the lunar surface was not televised. Of course, we in the general public were not told in advance of this change- so we… or in my case… I, was simply left feeling skunked.

Frankly I was skunked overall by the Apollo 17 EVA schedule. Although my parents let me take time off from school to watch lunar EVAs, all three of Apollo 17’s EVAs took place after school! To make matters worse, nearly all of the network TV coverage took place in the very late evening. That meant that after staying up late to watch it, I still had to drag my butt out of bed the next morning and go to school. Of course such details mattered little at the time. I woke up on those mornings energized by the fact that two men were up there on the moon at that moment.

The first EVA started just three and a half hours after the LEM had touched down. No one in the general public heard Cernan’s first words, live, as he stepped down onto the surface because none of the networks carried the event. His words stepping from the LEM footpad were: "… as I step off at the surface at Taurus Littrow, I'd like to dedicate the first step of Apollo 17 to all those who made it possible." It was a terrific tribute… that almost no one heard.

Schmitt joined Cernan on the moon’s surface and they quickly went to work deploying the rover, stocking it with the needed implements of lunar exploration and activating the TV camera. Most of the first EVA was taken up by the deployment of the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package (ALSEP) as well as Cernan’s wrestling match with the drill. “The Drill” was the nemesis of all three crews who used it. On Apollo 15 the original design of the drill failed to expel the cuttings made in the hole and thus got stuck in the moon. Only after two days of efforts did the crew manage to get it out. On Apollo 16 the drill worked much better, but still caused Charlie Duke a great deal of exertion as it kept “boggin’ down.” No one expected that- in fact during Apollo 15 while demonstrating the drill for the TV audience, Apollo 12 moonwalker Al Bean was set up in a hotel lobby with a sand box. When the demonstration got going, Bean started the drill and it rapidly and unexpectedly went way, way down. After the cameras cut off they checked and found that the drill had dug through the sandbox, through the floor, through the concrete foundation and into the lower parking garage! However, on Apollo 17 Gene Cernan discovered what Duke and Scott knew too well- it not the drill that gave out, it was the hands that just give out. Indeed the gloves were, as Cernan put it, “almost like wearing a cast for broken fingers.” By the end of the EVA his hands were blistered, sore and worn. Dave Scott carried bruised fingernails for months after Apollo 15’s drilling activity all due to gloves. Gloves were always the issue- in fact in the later days of the Space Shuttle NASA was still working on improving gloves for the EVA suits. Oddly, some of the early Apollo concept suits used mittens rather than gloves.

In my living room I saw just a few short blips of that activity on the network evening news. Later they came back on for a brief half-hour broadcast at 7:30 pm Eastern time in order to catch the deployment of the flag by the crew. That flag had flown in the Mission Operations Control Room (MOCR) throughout the Apollo Program and was now left on the lunar surface.

Once again, the networks came on at 11:30 pm with their second, and final coverage of the first EVA. This time slot was selected not due to the lunar surface activity itself, but rather it was scheduled to not interfere with local news in the Eastern time zone. They found the crew working at “station number 1” showed them gathering samples and taking photos. Then they cut away to earlier video tape of about the only surprising moment in the EVA when Cernan, while working to load up the rover exclaimed “What’s that flying overhead?!” He thought that something had impacted the lunar surface nearby and he was seeing ejecta flying past. Of course UFO enthusiasts would take just those few words and use them out of context as proof that the astronauts on the moon saw UFOs. In reality, it was some Styrofoam packing that had been used in packing the rover’s high-gain antenna. In the vacuum of space and the direct heat of the sun at nearly 200 degrees, the leftover foam simply exploded. The same thing had happened on Apollo 16.

There was, however, a major loss early in the EVA. As Cernan was working around the rover, his rock hammer, which had been stowed in his pocket, snagged the rear right fender on the rover and broke the fender in half. What that meant was that as the crew drove along, “rooster tails” of lunar dust kicked up by that wheel would spray all over them. It was the type of problem that could grind the entire mission to a halt. Cernan attempted to tape the fender back together by using some tape similar to duct tape. However, there was already so much dust on everything that the repair only lasted about as far as station number 1. It was lost somewhere along the way. By the time that the EVA concluded it was very apparent that Mission Control had to come up with some sort of repair that would hold because the showers of dust upon the astronauts and their equipment was actually posing a hazard to the mission. Fenders were clearly a very critical component to any sort of wheeled lunar transportation. Oddly, 30 years later when the Constellation Program’s plans for lunar exploration were depicted, almost all of the wheeled equipment were shown missing one thing; fenders. Apparently NASA’s technical illustrators had learned nothing from Apollo 17.

Considering that the crew had completed a lunar landing, done a seven hour EVA and had gone nearly 24 hours without sleep, the efforts of the Apollo 17 crew on the lunar surface that first day were nothing short of super-human. They reentered the LEM, Challenger, covered with dust and nearly exhausted. Almost an hour earlier, when the networks had dropped their coverage of the EVA, I had turned in for the night as well. I recall looking out of my bedroom window trying without success to see the moon. It was a December overcast in Michigan and the sky black above with the ever-present orange glow from the foundries and factories at the horizon. Still I went to sleep with the constant thought that those two guys were really up there- right now, at this moment. It was a thought that kept me awake- for at least a minute or two.

Coverage for EVA number two began at 6:30 pm Eastern time as the astronauts began reloading the rover. The networks, again had two brief blurbs during the evening news broadcasts, a couple of two minute or so “bulletins” and then picked up coverage at 11:30 pm. It just happened that the coverage had picked up at station number four where the crew famously discovered the “orange soil.” The trip in the rover had been made far more comfortable by the fact that the engineers at NASA had come up with a fix for the LEV’s broken fender. They had the crew take four lunar surface maps and tape them together into a wide rectangle. Those maps were then clamped in place on the fender instead of being taped. The result was that the connection would then hold in spite of the dust. The fix actually worked quite well.

Coming from Station number 5 heading back to the LEM the rover intercepted its own outbound tracks and Cernan quipped “Hey, there’s rover tracks.” Schmitt sarcastically replied, “Somebody’s been here before.” He had no idea that his simple, joking, comment would be used by Apollo hoax crackpots for decades to come as proof that they were doing a second take of the rover scene. Some even took Apollo 16 Data Acquisition Camera film of a similar inbound encounter with a rover’s outbound tracks and dubbed the Apollo 17 comments into it; disgusting.

EVA number two was covered in less than a news thumbnail. In fact my own tapes of the time show that of the full seven hours and 30 minutes of EVA number two, less than 50 minutes were broadcast live on the networks. I went to bed that night highly disappointed and somewhat bewildered by the manner in which the so-called “newsrooms” were treating this amazing adventure. Oddly, it would be more than three decades before the general public would have ready access to the mission. It was not until Apogee Books and Spacecraft Films came along and reproduced the material that the EVAs could be watched in full.

Man’s final venture upon the lunar surface, perhaps in our lifetime, began at 4:30 in the afternoon on Wednesday, December 13, 1972. Again- no one in the general public heard, or saw those first few hours of lunar activity because the networks did not cover it. Effectively, the news media were doing their best to sweep Apollo and NASA under the rug as fast as possible. It is said that the first greatest power of the news media is to report- but the second greatest power of the news media is to ignore. With Apollo 17 I witnessed that second greatest power being demonstrated. NBC did, however, did break into scheduled programming as the crew were supposed to be at station number seven near the base of the North Massif, but since the crew were running about 20 minutes behind schedule and were, at that moment, in transit aboard the rover, NBC  was forced to run video tape of the station number six stop. When the crew stopped and re-activated the rovers camera we got about nine minutes of live TV. Thereafter, we got more video tape as the rover’s camera was again turned off. Overall, the coverage bounced between live and video tape.

Most of the rocks and surface in the Taurus-Littrow valley were covered in a layer of lunar dust. Although they had seen “Very little dust” on descent the crew later found that nearly every single rock seemed to have some amount of dust covering it. Schmitt’s well trained geologist’s eye had selected the most important samples to return to earth. Cernan, meanwhile, had himself become a trained geologist and made a great deal of scientifically priceless observations as well as gathering important samples. All too soon, however, Mission Control was pressing the two to end the EVA and “get back in.”

Leaving the rover parked a short distance behind the LEM, Cernan left the TV camera on so it could capture the LEM’s ascent from the moon. The networks stayed on for a change broadcasting the astronaut’s voices and the image of the distant LEM squatting in the Taurus-Littrow valley. It was after 11:00 in the evening and they wanted to get the last words spoken from the surface of the moon. So, there we sat looking at that stagnant image after so much live and dynamic television had simply been ignored over the last three days in favor of fictional drama and situation comedy programming. Oddly, that was the longest segment of live TV from the moon that had been broadcast during the entire mission.

As Cernan left the surface of the moon his final words were "… as I take these last steps from the surface, back home for some time to come, but we believe not too long into the future, I’d just like to list what I believe history will record, that America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And as we leave the moon and Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and God willing as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. God speed the crew of Apollo 17."

Looking at the clock above our living room TV I saw that it was 12:03 am on December 14, 1972. Humanity’s exploration of the lunar surface had ended.

Following the final EVA of Apollo 17, NBC’s John Chancellor, perhaps speaking for many of those commentators who had covered Apollo and America’s manned space program said, with touches of sadness, regret and perhaps some embarrassment that, “Images such as that may not be seen again in our lifetime.” At that moment I thought that he was being highly pessimistic, after all, von Braun himself, in an interview with Walter Cronkite during the Apollo 17 launch had predicted that we would return to the moon in the next 10 to 15 years by way of our re-usable Space Shuttle and a space-tug, so Chancellor must be way off in his prediction. Of course, John Chancellor died on July 12, 1996, Jules Bergman died on February 11, 1987, Roy Neil died on August 11, 2003, Frank McGee died on April 17, 1974 and Walter Cronkite died on July 17, 2009; all without again being able to host live images of humans walking on the lunar surface. John Chancellor’s supposition was correct for all of them and perhaps for us too.

(Images provided by NASA)

FMI: www.nasa.gov

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