by Catfish Russ
Lunar module pilot Harrison “Jack” Schmidt could hear his own breathing. His pulse pounded in his head. He had tripped on a rock just outside the camera’s view and cursed when he suddenly found himself face downwards in his clunky EVA suit.
“You alright?” Commander Gene Cernan pivoted slightly and bounced around in a tiny circle and watched as the astronaut pushed himself upwards. Small trails of fine dust fell from Schmidt’s gloves.
“Roger that,” Schmidt responded. “I am headed out towards Shorty Crater. Just to take a look at that outcropping we’ve been staring at since we got here. Every now and then I get what looks like a flash or a glint, and if something fell off of the LEM on our way in, I’d like to kind of pick it back up and glue it on before we go. Dad, can I borrow the car?”
“...(static)...far out is it?”
“Over 200 meters. I can’t put anything in visual reference out here.”
“Me neither. You can’t have the Rover. I am using the satellite dish uplink to test the array right now.”
“I could use the walk. I mean, I sat on my derriere all the way from Earth.”
Cernan turned back to the experiment package. “OK, don’t miss dinner, Jack. Try to stay upright. We are T minus 4 hours (static) to depart.”
“I’ll be back in time.” Schmidt checked his Portable Life Support System. The pressure gauge had been on the fritz since yesterday morning, but the pressure seemed fine. He had plenty of battery and enough time, and he was hoping that since the terrain was mostly flat, he wouldn’t have to struggle against his suit or need to bend down and pick up anything. Himself, for example.
He began his walk, or bouncing, more like. Almost like skipping. It was easy in the low gravity, and each pump of the heel would send him about five or six feet farther. He headed out and tried to get a fix on the rock.
There. It flashed again. It was a reflection. Must be a smooth rock surface, but a large, smooth surface given the amount of light the flash returned.
Dr. Jack Schmidt knew rocks. He was in fact the first actual scientist to fly to the Moon. He had graduated from Harvard in 1964 with a Ph.D in geology and never imagined in a million years he would be looking for rocks on another planet.
About halfway to the outcropping, he looked back over his shoulder. Behind a small rise at the landing zone he saw Cernan’s helmet bounce up and down as he tried to finish deploying the particle sensor array. Behind Cernan sat the return module.
Schmidt turned and continued... and tripped again. “Dadgumit,” he spit. He righted himself and continued. The closer he got to the rock outcropping, the less it looked like a rock.
He stopped, pulled his visor shield up and stared at the object. Then he pulled his visor down and closed his eyes and stood still for a minute. He wanted to be sure what he was seeing, because from where he was, it looked like a barrel... or a big compressor or something. It couldn’t be a booster; the last boosters had been jettisoned days before.
“Gene,” Schmidt called into his microphone.
“I’m here, Jack. See anything?”
“Yeah. It looks like a booster or (static).”
“A booster. A rocket booster.”
A mission controller’s voice entered the fray. “Apollo this is Houston. What is our finish time on the Charged Particle Lunar Array?”
Cernan answered. “On time Houston. About another hour. Jack has found something about 250 meters north and wants me to look at it with him.”
There was a pause. After a minute he spoke again: “Houston, Jack has spotted an outcrop and wants me to go look it over with him. I think I will finish the experiment package in time.”
Houston piped in again. This time it was a controller referred to as Goober, with a deep and slow Texas drawl. “...Com is breaking up a bit......(Static).... Roger that, Commander. We’d like you to take the camera please, and the sample grabber. Do you copy?”
“Copy Houston, I’m going to catch up with Jack.” Cernan dropped the panel and let it rest on the box that he unfolded into the charged particle detector. He crab-walked his way back to the command service module and picked up the camera sitting near the S-band antennae storage.
Cernan fastened the back of the camera onto the PLSS unit in front of him. He checked the batteries and picked up the sample grabber and headed out.
As Gene Cernan made it around the dune just below Montes Taures, he saw Jack as a tiny upright figure against some impossibly bright sunshine reflection from the surrounding plain. “I’m coming Jack.”
The outcropping had been sighted in the final seconds of the landing approach to the Taurus-Littrow valley, days earlier. Jack had been too busy to notice anything except that he had 125 seconds of fuel left and still couldn’t find a great spot to land.
This was not to be another flying saucer moment. A year prior, Apollo 16 passed over an antenna array deployed by Apollo 14, and the pilot exclaimed that he saw something flashing at the LEM. The signal broadcast to Mission Control from the array was so powerful that it caused a surge that flipped a single breaker on the radio. The flash was ungrounded static electricity popping inside the cabin.
Gene fought the urge to look at his watch. It was buried under the suit, and one rarely needed to look, because every minute of the mission was planned to a T. You’d think working in gravity one-sixth that of Earth would be a cakewalk. But controllers never forget the time. They do forget how hard one struggles against a space suit, just bending down, or the wear and tear of general anxiety. The fear that you might make a mistake that will cost you and everyone else his own life.
Sometimes it was small mistakes that failed people and missions — exhaustion or bad arithmetic. Or you miss an open circuit breaker and the main thruster doesn’t fire. Soon enough the exhilaration of exploring another planet lost out to the other American pastime: working one’s rear end off.
There was one controller who grated on the their nerves when he pushed the work schedule. Yesterday this controller’s voice just bore an immense arrogance, “We’d like the EVA team to depart immediately if not sooner and take the Rover 15 klicks to the middle edge of Mare Serentatis. Sooooo... let’s get a move on please.”
It aggravated Jack given that he was doing something once considered impossible and he was being monitored by a technician who loved making schedules and loved even more making people follow them. Then again, in the history of things, this controller’s name will never be spoken. Plus you never know how much you need people until you are 248,000 miles from home.
Cernan skipped towards Jack. This was the first time it was manly to skip, he thought. Cernan wasn’t just any astronaut. He had over 200 carrier traps. He had gone from ROTC to flight school. His whole life was surrounded by the culture of warfare and history and the U.S. Navy; men mostly, doing famously dangerous things.
This was Cernan’s second trip to the Moon. He had piloted Apollo 10, essentially a test rehearsal of just the Lunar Module, the lunar orbit insertion and a sort of dress rehearsal of the actual man on the Moon mission some years earlier.
Cernan looked up and thought he was about 30 meters from Jack. He stared past him at the outcropping. It liked like a small overturned water tower next to some old propane tanks. This was no rock. He caught up to Jack and together they headed towards it.
It lay beside an outcropping whose crescent shape hid the full glory of the vessel. It was definitely a craft and definitely from Russia. As they walked around silently, they could see this was a crash site: retrorocket nozzles were scattered around the site all the way to another higher dune about another 200 meters farther north.
The main cabin lay sideways in the fine lunar dust beside solid rocket fuel canisters — spheres as on the Luna robot missions. A tangle of support scaffolding that once held the propellant tanks in place sat twisted on top of the crescent-shaped rocks around the site.
Jack faced Gene and held up two gloved fingers. A signal to shut off their radios in the case they had reason to hide from Mission Control. It was the only thing they could do for privacy. Once they decided to talk to each other, Houston controllers would hear every word.
They quietly walked around the detritus of a Luna mission. These were the scattered remains of a craft that was literally riveted together. “CCCP” was visible on the cabin lying against the lunar soil.
Gene and Jack quietly drew the same conclusion. There was no return vehicle that detached and launched back, like early Russian probes. The cabin itself probably was big enough to support a single cosmonaut for a month.
Perhaps to the Soviet explorers this was a worthwhile scientific endeavor. The Politburo saw Moon launches basically as stunts, PR efforts to steal thunder from the Americans. The Russians were the first in space; the first to put a man in space; the first to put a woman in space; the first to space-walk; the first to put probes on the Moon and Venus; and the first to orbit the Moon and return.
This was a one-way mission. This pilot was not slated to return home ever — only to be the first. And staring through a tiny window, Gene saw the mummified remains of the Soviet Commander lying prone, in his pressure suit, against the tiny observation window. Ruptures in the side of the main cabin indicated there had been no air when he crashed. The Russian pilot spent his last moments in his own spacesuit.
The module window looked like it had blown outwards, still hinged to the spacecraft. The air inside the Russian spacecraft must have acted like an accordion, blasting out any weak point in the vessel upon impact.
Cernan stood upright and bounced around the command module to the other side of the craft. He saw a perfectly square piece of metal lying on the Lunar surface about an arm’s length from a window that had blown out on his side.
He leaned down and looked in and could see the other side of the Cosmonaut’s prone figure lying silent, motionless, almost proud. Gene reflexively picked up the piece of metal. It was fairly heavy. He turned it over. It was a plaque. Not blown out of the window; pushed out of the window.
Gene waved to Jack to come and see it. Jack bounced over and went prone in a push-up position to see it. Then he righted himself and stood for a moment. Neither he nor Gene could read the plaque, but one line on it told them all they needed to know:
Gene held the plaque in one gloved hand and pointed back to their return module. Jack held his arms up as if to shrug. Gene went prone and scratched into the dust.
“Soviet business. Not ours.”
Jack signaled agreement. He turned and headed back to their landing site. After a moment he stopped and discovered that Gene wasn’t behind him. Gene was laying the plaque exactly where he had found it, in between the crescent-shape outcropping and the main cabin. Face down. They looked at each other. Gene stood, and then joined Jack. They turned their radios back on.
Immediately Gene and Jack heard: “...Apollo, this is Houston... do you copy?”
Gene answered: “ There you are, Houston....(static).... the transmitter went out for a few moments.”
“Apollo there are people up here turning blue because they haven’t breathed in 15 minutes.”
“We’re on our way back to finish the experiment package. It was just a bunch of funny-colored rocks, a trick of the light.”
“Did you (static) bring the grabber?”
Jack answered, “Roger that, Houston, the sample load is already at 62 kilograms, and we estimated the only rock we could dislodge was around 21 kilograms. So all we brought back is the grabber.”
Another long pause and Goober responded, “Roger that, Apollo. Be advised ascent phase is scheduled (static) five fifty-four Greenwich Mean Time. You have about 92 minutes to fire main engine for liftoff.”
The Apollo 17 return went flawlessly and unusually quietly. Controllers back at Houston Control called it ‘Godsmack’, the reverential silence that overtakes you when you see Earth from space, when you sense how small you are and how petty all your problems seem in the vastness of space.
During the trans-lunar trajectory, while Evans was sleeping, Jack turned down the gain on the radio and quietly spoke to Gene. “You know, when the pilot crashed here, his radio probably went inoperative.”
“He didn’t mean much to them unless he succeeded and stole our thunder,” said Gene. “Imagine treating a pilot like that. He made it from the Earth to the Moon; and for one accident, he doesn’t exist.”
Jack looked out the rear cabin port. “Someone else will find him. Eventually. That poor guy, dying alone in his suit, trapped in his cabin. He was a Viking.”
“How do you mean?” Jack asked.
“Like the first Vikings to the New World, long before Christopher Columbus,” Gene answered.
The USS Ticonderoga recovered the Command Module at latitude 17.88° south and longitude 166.11°. The President called and students watched the astronauts on their black and white televisions in classrooms around the world.
Copyright © 2008 by Catfish Russ