Reentry and Return to Earth

The crew of Apollo 15 eventually passed beyond the Moon's sphere of gravitational influence and entered that of the Earth. A minor course correction from the Command Module's reaction control jets placed the spacecraft in the center of the re-entry corridor. The crucial Command Module/Service Module separation took place at 294 hours and 43 minutes, Ground Elapsed Time. The capsule was now less than 6,000 kilometers from Earth, traveling at nearly 8,000 meters per second, and accelerating. As the spacecraft entered the Earth's atmosphere, the crew began to see the orange glow put out by the heat shield through the capsule windows as it built up to 5,000 degrees F. As the capsule continued its blistering re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, the astronauts prepared for the brutal buildup of the gravitational forces on their bodies.

At the completion of EVA-3, Dave Scott drove the LRV several hundred meters away from the LM to permit a good TV image of Falcon's liftoff. This was the last photo Scott took standing on the lunar surface. (NASA)

''It is a kind of physical endurance test,'' Irwin wrote in his memoir, ''a traumatic experience, to go from zero-G to almost 7-G during the entry period, during the fireball. For about four minutes you experience this. You have seven times your weight; you weigh over 1,000 pounds. It is physically impossible to lift an arm up to touch a switch, or move a circuit breaker. It was amazing to me that Dave was able to talk to Mission Control while we were coming in. I couldn't take a breath. I was living on the residual oxygen in my lungs. It felt like an elephant was standing on my chest. I couldn't move the diaphragm. It wasn't painful, just a tremendous force on your body.''

At 3,000 meters, the drogue chutes deployed, followed by the main chutes. One of the main chutes collapsed, but the capsule could safely make an ocean landing on two chutes without injury to the crew. Endeavor splashed down at 295 hours, 11 minutes and 53 seconds GET in the Pacific, within sight of the recovery ship Okinawa. The recovery helicopters dropped their swimmers into the water near the capsule to secure the flotation collar around it. Once the capsule door was opened, life vests were passed to the crew to put on. Scott, then Irwin and finally Worden exited the capsule and tumbled into their raft. They were individually hoisted aboard the helicopter using a recovery basket and taken to the carrier Okinawa. On the helicopter, the crew was given food and some fresh, clean blue flight suits to put on. As the astronauts got off the helicopter, they were greeted by Dr. Robert Gilruth, Director of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. Gilruth had been head of the MSC for ten years, and this was the first recovery he had personally attended. The astronauts were honored and individually gave short speeches before going below decks as Okinawa made for Pearl Harbor. Awaiting the astronauts was a schedule almost as hectic as the mission itself, with debriefings, appearances, meetings, and most of all, family reunions.

At a post-mission press conference, David Scott said, ''I think many people have contributed to this pinnacle we've reached. Some have contributed more than others. And we know of fourteen individuals who contributed all they had. Because of that, we left a small memorial on the Moon about thirty feet from Rover one. In a small subtle crater, there's a simple plaque with fourteen names, and those are the names in alphabetical order of all the astronauts and cosmonauts who have died in the pursuit of exploration of space. Near it is a small figure representing a fallen astronaut.

''We went to the Moon as trained observers in order to gather data,'' Scott said in closing his remarks, ''not only with our instruments on board, but with our minds. I would like to quote a statement from Plutarch which I think expresses our feelings since we've come back. 'The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lighted.' Thank you.''

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