An uncertain future

In October 1969, a revised launch schedule had set the Apollo 19 landing back to November 1972 and Apollo 20 to May 1973. Between the Apollo 18 mission (then planned for February 1972) and Apollo 19, three orbital Apollo Applications flights were also tentatively on the manifest - training flights preparatory to the establishment of America's first space station in 1975. At the time, Flight Operations Director Chris Kraft expressed some concern over the busy schedule. ''It's going to be difficult to handle both Apollo and Apollo Applications from an operational point of view, as well as a people point of view in 1972.''10

A further reason for delaying the later Apollo landings was the possibility that they would be made in remote lunar areas such as the large, bright-rayed crater Copernicus just south of Mare Imbrium, and the rim of Tycho, also a relatively young crater (probably of impact origin) in the southern lunar highlands, and rated by scientists as a top-priority landing site.

By 1970, however, NASA was struggling. President Richard Nixon's administration was pouring billions of dollars into the yawning maw of the Vietnam conflict, and ''soft'' programmes such as Apollo were rapidly plummeting down the preferred funding list. It was a quandary for NASA Administrator Tom Paine, who that month told a press conference about the need to align space operations with the Financial Year (FY) 1971 budget.

''We recognise the many important needs and urgent problems we face here on Earth,'' he stated. ''America's space achievements in the 1960s have rightly raised hopes that this country and all mankind can do more to overcome pressing problems of society. The space programme should inspire bolder solutions and suggest new approaches. It has already provided many direct and indirect benefits and is creating new wealth and capabilities.

''However, we recognise that under current fiscal restraints, NASA must find new ways to stretch out current programs and reduce our present operational base. NASA will press forward in 1971 at a reduced level, but in the right direction, with the basic ingredients we need for major achievements in the 1970s and beyond. We will not dissipate the strong teams that sent men to explore the Moon and automated spacecraft to observe the planets.''9 In April that year, the life-or-death flight of Apollo 13 dramatically evinced the colossal risks inherent in manned space flight. But with the crew safely back on Earth, public apathy set in once again.

Juggling the rockets

Following the first three Apollo lunar missions, it soon became abundantly clear to everyone that NASA was going to have to pare Apollo 20 from the flight schedule due to budgetary woes. President Kennedy had been right; landing men on another world was a very costly exercise. Enough Saturn Vs had already been budgeted to see out the lunar landing programme with Apollo 20, but Apollo Applications also needed a Saturn V to launch the massive station into orbit. Shortly after the Apollo 11 launch, and before the landing, Tom Paine had signed off on the decision to switch Apollo Applications to a "dry lab'' concept that would require a Saturn V launch. His announcement did not automatically cancel Apollo 20, as there was still a prevailing hope that there might yet be another Saturn V production batch.

However, it was becoming increasingly clear to Paine that Saturn V production would not recommence, and Saturn 1B production would also be halted. He ultimately had no other option; Apollo 20 was officially cancelled on 4 January 1970. The Saturn rocket now freed up would be allocated instead to the Earth-orbiting programme. Even Apollo 18 and 19 now began to look a little doubtful.

The heat was truly on for NASA, and one factor which weighed heavily was the mounting push to have a geologist on whichever might be the last lunar mission. Schmitt recalls being aware of "various press and informal activities, trying to convince NASA that I should fly on a mission, either 18 or, when that wasn't available, then 17.''8

Then, in the summer of 1970, the axe dropped. On 2 September, Apollo 15 and 19 were officially cancelled. Apollo 16 retained its original lunar destination of Descartes Plain, but was renamed and became the 'new' Apollo 15, together with the original Apollo 15 crew. Apollo 17 now became Apollo 16, while Apollo 18 was renamed Apollo 17 - and was announced as the final manned lunar flight.

After the enforced gutting of the space agency's manned and unmanned programmes by the White House, Administrator Tom Paine resigned from NASA. Unfortunately for the astronauts, there were now too many candidates for too few lunar missions, and most would miss out. The scientific community was also up in arms. Why appoint a group of scientist-astronauts back in 1965, when not even one of them would fly to the Moon?

When Dick Gordon got wind that NASA was considering sending Schmitt to the Moon, he began jockeying to have his entire crew replace Cernan's. There were no holds barred in this last-gasp effort to secure the final lunar flight, and it was left to Chief Astronaut Deke Slayton to make a decision, albeit with extreme pressure being exerted by NASA HQ to get a scientist on the flight.10

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