Apollo 14 lifted off on Jan. 31, 1971, with high hopes following the near-disaster that was the previous mission. This fourth manned moon shot is most famous as the mission where an astronaut played golf, but there were other adventures the crew encountered along the way. They searched for evidence of an asteroid that carved a large crater in the moon, and fought glitches and false alarms as they made their way to the Fra Mauro highlands.
Some at NASA good-naturedly referred to the Apollo 14 crew as "the three rookies." They had just a few minutes of accumulated space experience among them,
Naval astronaut and commander Alan Shepard was the first American in space, making a 15-minute, 28-second suborbital hop in 1961. NASA assigned him to the first Gemini mission, but Shepard developed symptoms of Meniere's disease, a disorder of the middle ear, and had to stop flying on doctor's orders. In 1968, Shepard underwent risky surgery to alleviate his symptoms; afterwards, he was successfully reassigned to flight status.
Edgar Mitchell was one of the few astronauts at the time who had a doctorate. In the Navy, he not only flew planes but also gave advanced mathematics and navigational lessons to aviators who were astronaut candidates. After five years at NASA, Mitchell's knowledge of the lunar landing module got accolades from his peers, likely factoring in to the decision to put him on Apollo 14.
Stuart Roosa, a former Air Force fighter pilot, was the command module pilot for Apollo 14. He served as CapCom for the Apollo 9 mission, impressing NASA with his ability to help the astronauts after crew member Rusty Schweickart fell ill. Roosa then became the first Apollo astronaut assigned to a flying crew without doing a backup assignment first.
The three men were initially supposed to fly on Apollo 13, but they were pushed back a mission to give everyone extra training, especially Shepard, who had just resumed active duty.
A launch glitch
Apollo 14 launched smoothly, aiming for the Fra Mauro highlands that Apollo 13 had hoped to reach. However, the astronauts ran into trouble as they were preparing to leave Earth orbit. One of their required tasks was to dock the command module Kitty Hawk against the lunar lander Antares to fly the two craft to the moon. Trouble was, the docking latches didn't work initially. After a suggestion from Mission Control to fire Kitty Hawk's thrusters hard and push the ships together, the latches locked successfully.
Landing on the moon didn't come easily for the astronauts, either. Antares' radar did not work until almost the last minute; it would violate NASA's rules if Antares could not calculate its distance to the moon. Once that was sorted out, Shepard made an on-target landing.
Shepard's first words when he walked on the surface were, "It's been a long way, but we're here." Mitchell scrambled down after him and the two got busy setting up experiments on the surface of the moon.
To help them carry more rocks and equipment, for the first time the crew had a small handcart that they carefully wheeled around the surface. Sixty-nine miles above Mitchell and Shepard, Roosa took pictures of the moon, working through his assigned list of scientific targets.
Hitting golf balls
Apollo 14's prime geologic target was Cone Crater. The crew planned to climb the slope, reach the rim — which was 300 feet (91 meters) above the landing site — and then look for rocks that could have flown up from the moon's bedrock after a meteor smashed into the surface millions of years before.
The astronauts found the climb harder than expected. Rocks littering the slope forced them to carry the cart, and the steep climb meant they had to rest often. Mission Control asked the astronauts for updates on how close they were to the rim; the astronauts guessed they were nearby, but it was hard to say for sure with the lack of landmarks to steer by.
Eventually they ran out of time and needed to move on. When the pictures were analyzed later, geologists estimated the astronauts missed the rim by a mere 100 feet.
Shepard had a small gotcha for the television audience watching them just before Apollo 14 prepared to head home. He had brought a six-iron with him to the moon as well as a "little white pellet that's familiar to millions of Americans."
In front of the camera, he hit one ball into a nearby crater and a second one that went "miles and miles and miles!"
Apollo 14 splashed down on Earth Feb. 9. After the ruckus Apollo 13 caused, Apollo 14 helped the program regain its confidence ahead of the most challenging missions yet: those with a lunar rover.