Cutbacks In The Program

To meet its 1971 budget of US$3.33 billion proposed to Congress in 1970, NASA would have to cancel Apollo 20, stop production of the Saturn V and related hardware, mothball or close certain facilities and make other agency-wide cuts. Apollo 13 was launched on 11 April 1970 destined for the Fra Mauro Highlands. The catastrophic explosion of one of the cryogenic oxygen tanks in the Service Module fifty-six hours into the flight imperiled the lives of the crew and made Apollo 13 front-page news around the world. Although the crew returned to Earth safely, no Apollo flights took place for the rest of the year while problems with the Service Module were investigated. The failed Apollo 13 mission put further budgetary pressure on NASA.

In September 1970, NASA Administrator Thomas Paine dropped another bombshell. Apollo 15 and 19 would be cancelled and the remaining missions redesignated Apollo 14 through 17. The launch schedule for these remaining missions was stretched from four to six months. Apollo 14 would launch sometime during the first quarter of 1971 with its destination now changed to the one Apollo 13 failed to reach. Apollo 15 would launch during the summer, targeted at the Hadley-Apennine region.

Apollo 16 Commander Capt. John Young gives a classic lunar jump salute for Lunar Module Pilot Charles Duke at their landing site on the Descartes Highlands. (NASA)

Deke Slayton announced the prime and backup crews for Apollo 16 on 3 March 1971. Mission Commander would be veteran Capt. John Young. He had been Pilot on Gemini 3, backup Pilot for Gemini 6, Command Pilot on Gemini 10, backup Command Module Pilot for Apollo 7, Command Module Pilot for Apollo 10, and backup Commander for Apollo 13. He was finally getting his opportunity to command a lunar landing mission.

Slayton selected Charles Duke to be the Lunar Module Pilot. He had been a member of the astronaut support group for Apollo 10 and backup Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo 13, but had never flown in space before. Crew selection was as much a mystery to the astronauts as the initial astronaut selection process itself was to the men who would fly in space. In April 1966, Duke had sat before an astronaut selection committee made up of John Young, Mike Collins, Deke Slayton and Warren North. Duke's undeniable qualifications, coupled with his self-effacing manner, made a favorable impression. He was selected as one of nineteen new astronauts for the Apollo program that year, and three years later was selected for the coveted position of Capsule Communicator (CapCom) for Apollo 11. It was Duke's voice that millions heard as Neil Armstrong and "Buzz" Aldrin brought the Eagle to Tranquility Base on 20 July 1969.

"We copy you down, Eagle," Duke radioed to Armstrong and Aldrin seconds after they touched down on the Moon that historic day.

"Houston," Armstrong finally responded, "Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.''

"Roger, Tranquility," Duke exhaled. "We copy you on the ground. You've got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We're breathing again.''

As Command Module Pilot of Apollo 16, Slayton chose Ken Mattingly. He, too, was a space rookie and had been among the nineteen astronauts selected in April 1966. Mattingly had been scheduled to fly on Apollo 13, but he had been exposed to German measles and the flight surgeons grounded him, although he never actually suffered from the illness. Slayton gave Mattingly his lunar opportunity on Apollo 16. The backup crew for this mission included Fred Haise as Commander, Stuart Roosa as Command Module Pilot, and Edgar Mitchell as Lunar Module Pilot. They were all veterans of previous Apollo missions.

However, the assault against NASA and its Apollo missions was not over. Despite the resounding success of Apollo 15, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) proposed to the Nixon administration during the summer of 1971 that the last two Apollo missions, 16 and 17, should also be cancelled and NASA's proposed Space Shuttle program denied. This would effectively mean the end of manned space flight for NASA, which was now fighting for its life. Caspar Weinberger was deputy director of the OMB, however, and he objected vigorously to further cuts at NASA, claiming it would send a message that "... our best years are behind us, that we are turning inward . . . and voluntarily starting to give up our superpower status and our desire to maintain world superiority.'' President Nixon mulled over the implications and sided with Weinberger. Apollo 16 and 17 were saved, and NASA received the green light to proceed with the Space Shuttle.

When the crew of Apollo 15 returned to Earth on 7 August 1971, the debriefings

Apollo 16 prime and backup crews study lunar maps and photographs with Dr. Fredrich Horz (left) of NASA's Planetary and Earth Sciences Division within the Geology Branch, and Dr. Stanley Zisk (MIT) at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, Texas. (NASA)

and meetings began, including meetings with the Apollo 16 prime and backup crews. David Scott and Jim Irwin had nothing but glowing reports for the LRV, commenting that the only item they felt needed work based on their experience on the Moon was a minor change to the seatbelts. Both Scott and Irwin emphasized that the seatbelts more than once kept them from ejecting from the vehicle; the design change suggested simply required making the belts more accessible and longer for when the astronauts buckled themselves in.

"We had a big debriefing about Apollo 15,'' Duke remembered. "One of the things we learned was that the seatbelt was unacceptable, so we changed the seatbelt so it would be easier to buckle and tighten. That was the only change to the rover between Apollo 15 and 16.''


The Apollo Site Selection Board considered two potential landing sites for Apollo 16. The first was Alphonsus Crater, roughly 480 km south of the Moon's center. The second was the Descartes highlands surrounding the Cayley plains. Discussions over

John Young takes the LRV 1-G trainer around the Lunar Topographic Simulation area at the Manned Spacecraft Center. With him is John Omstead of General Electric. (NASA/MSC)

the Apollo 16 landing site took place between March and May of 1971 and, as was usually the case, the scientists and geologists involved in those discussions were not in unanimous agreement over which to select. It was believed, indeed it was hoped by some of the scientists, that Descartes had been volcanic, and was thus an excellent choice for exploration, but the decision was not made any easier due to the failure of the shutter on the Hycon topographic mapping camera flown on Apollo 14 that orbited over the Descartes region.

Dr. William R. Muehlberger was Principal Investigator for the Apollo Field Geology Investigations Team for Apollo 16 and 17. He was assisted by veterans from the USGS, as well as NASA geologists, in the EVA planning for sampling and photography, most of whom had participated in previous lunar surface exploration planning as well as astronaut field geologic training.

"We were supposed to have better photography than we got,'' Muehlberger confessed in an interview with this author, "but just before the Apollo 14 Command Module went over the Apollo 16 landing site, their big mapping camera failed. So they took a 70 mm Hasselblad and photographed the proposed landing site as best they could. We had a sequence of events based on the photo-interpretation of telescope pictures, which meant we had a resolution of about one kilometer. All landing sites for Apollo 11 through 16 were picked from telescope geology. They all had other photography to use prior to landing - usually about 20-meter resolution. [The landing site for] Apollo 17 was picked using the high resolution cameras flown on Apollo 15.''

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