Young Takes Rover for a Spin | This Week In Space History
by michael shinabery
Editor’s note: This is part two of a three-part story. Read part one.
Astronaut John Young,” according to NASA’s 2008 book “Remembering the Space Age,” is one of only two people to have “made a trip to lunar orbit without landing and a second trip to the lunar surface.” In 1969, Young circled the Moon as the Apollo 10 command module pilot. Three years later he returned aboard Apollo 16, making him the first man to twice orbit the Moon.
Apollo 16 lifted off on April 16, 1972. Young was spacecraft commander on his fourth of six career liftoffs from Earth. Casper was the command module, which Ken Mattingly piloted. Mattingly had “overheard some youngsters say that the astronauts in their suits looked like Casper, the friendly ghost,” Hamish Lindsay wrote in “Tracking Apollo to the Moon” (Springer/2001). The CM, then, was named with a “touch of humour (sic)” for the cartoon spook so “kids could identify with the mission.”
Four days later, Young and Duke climbed into the lunar module Orion, separated from Casper, and flew around the back side of the Moon.
“Casper had to make a burn to change orbit,” Hamish said, and as Mattingly initiated, he radioed Mission Control in Houston “ ‘there is something wrong with the secondary control system in the engine. When I turn it on, it feels as though it is shaking the spacecraft to pieces.’ ”
The astronauts’ “hearts sank down to their boots – two and a half years of training and only (42,322 feet) from their target and now it looked like they would have to abort,” Hamish wrote. “That engine was their ride home!”
Over the radio, Young, after some thought, “ordered” Mattingly to “ ‘delay’ ” the burn.
“ ‘It was a cliff-hanger of a mission from where we were sittin’ in the cockpit,’ Young said. ‘The secondary vector control system on the SPS (service propulsion system) motor wasn’t working right and if they didn’t work right the mission rules said it was no go. The people on the ground did studies at MIT and Rockwell and in the end it worked out just fine.’ ”
The delay, though, cost them six hours. Finally, Orion touched down in the Descartes Region, more than 8,000 feet higher in lunar surface altitude than where Apollo 11 landed.
“ ‘We kind of think of it as landing on top of the Andes Mountains,’ ” Hamish quoted Young.
After being awake and working for nearly 20 hours, the two men settled in to sleep. When they finally stepped onto the surface, they found they were 10 feet from a 25-foot deep crater. Hamish said if they had landed “on the rim … they could have toppled over the edge, and that would mean they couldn’t lift off – they would have been marooned on the Moon forever.’ ”
“ ‘It would have been bad if we had landed in that crater,’ Young said. ‘I saw it for a little when comin’ down, but where we landed it was perfectly flat.’ ”
Young and Duke made three excursions. They spent 20 hours and 14 minutes of their 71 hours on the surface, driving 16-1/2 miles in the Lunar Rover.
According to the website nasa.gov, they picked up and packed up 209 pounds of rocks. They soon discovered climbing out of the Rover to pick up those rocks “ ‘very difficult,’ ” Hamish quoted Young. As a result, a “ ‘scoop to pick up rocks without even stoppin’ the rover’ ” was incorporated on Apollo 17.
“Until the Apollo 16 mission the geologists were able to predict the type of soil the astronauts would bring back,” Hamish said. “The Descartes samples ended this run. Confidently predicting soil and rocks with a volcanic origin, the geologists were taken aback to find the samples turned out to be impact breccias.”
Hamish said “Young put the rover through its paces in front of the movie camera” as Duke gave a running commentary: “ ‘He’s got about two wheels on the ground. It’s a big rooster tail out of all four wheels and as he turns, he skids the back end, breaks loose just like on snow. Come on back, John.’ ”
Both had difficulty drinking from their water and orange juice containers. Duke’s juice leaked; drops tickled his nose and gave him “ ‘a sticky orange juice shampoo,’ ” Hamish quoted him. After their first, seven-hour, excursion, Young said, “ ‘The first thing I wanted was a drink of water.’ ” Previous Apollo astronauts had “suffered … potassium loss,” Hamish said, so “Young and Duke were encouraged to take as much orange juice as they could.” Young, in what he thought was a private conversation, “confided with Duke” that the high consumption had given him gas.
“ ‘I haven’t eaten this much citrus fruit in twenty years,’ ” Young told Duke. “ ‘And I’ll tell you one thing, in another twelve … days, I ain’t never eating any more oranges.’ ”
Mission Control quickly informed Young that he had a “hot mike.”
“ ‘H … How long … how long have we had that?’ ” Young sputtered in response.
Casper splashed down on April 27. Not long after, Young “learned … that a Georgia Tech professor had petitioned the university to erase a D he had given Young some 20 years ago and to replace it with an A,” johnwyoung.org quoted from a story in the Atlanta Journal. “Young wrote to the professor: ‘Thank you for the Mech 302 grade-change consideration. Unfortunately, I can assure you that the D grade was earned fair and square. Therefore I would appreciate it if you would let the grade remain a D. It would grieve me considerably to think that Georgia Tech was getting soft or that Tech professors ever made ‘errors in judgment’ that they would admit to anyone. After all, Georgia Tech is an outstanding –but tough – engineering institute. Yours for keeping it that way. Warm regards, John Young.’ ”
Michael Shinabery is an education specialist and Humanities Scholar with the New Mexico Museum of Space History. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.