03 November 2015

Dreaming a Different Apollo, Part Three: Circumnavigation

Image credit: NASA
Had anyone told him on 4 January 1964 that he'd be standing on the moon on 4 January 1974, he'd probably have punched whoever that was in the nose. That was the day Al burned and they lost the race. They'd stumbled, taken too long to get up again, and so had emboldened their adversary.

The Soviets had taken a different approach to piloted moon-flight; one less costly, safer, and more likely to succeed than the American Apollo plan. They never tired of saying that. They had used their converted R-7 missiles, the same rockets that had launched Sputnik and Laika and Gagarin and Leonov. They had ignored their captured Germans, they said, had gone with native Russian wisdom.

Five launches, five pieces orbiting Earth, with the last one carrying two men. They had chased down the other four, docked with them. Those four payloads turned out to be rocket stages; by the time the next-to-last exhausted its propellants and was cast off, the two cosmonauts were on course for the moon.

No one expected them to land. Everyone thought it was a fly-around circumlunar mission - which would have been bad enough, as far as American prestige was concerned. Yet land they did. 8 October 1968 - the date that men, products of the superior Soviet system, stood for the first time on another world. Even after almost six years, he could not quite believe that it had happened.

The two cosmonauts spent their last rocket stage and most of the propellants in their tiny lander to set down not far from a robot lander launched a month before. They hadn't said much about that lander after they launched it, so everyone thought it had crashed. Suddenly, though, its purpose became clear: besides providing a landing beacon for the manned lander, it was tanker.

After they'd planted and saluted their flag, the first thing they did was drive the tubby tanker, with its eight little wheels, to within hose length of their lander. Then they fastened on the hoses and pumped across the propellants.

The Russians called the place they landed Tranquility Base. Of course it wasn't a real "base" - that came later. They picked up a few rocks and saluted their flag a second time for the camera. Then, five hours after they landed, they blasted off for home.

"Charlie, you daydreaming over there?" The voice from his headphones gave him a start. He cleared his throat. "No, boss. Keepin' an eye on things." He heard Young chuckle, then his commander appeared out of the long shadow Lander-2 cast on the stark gray plain.

Beyond stood three more landers, L-1, L-3, and L-4, scattered off into the distance. L-1 was short, empty, abandoned. L-3 and L-4, with their pointy Earth-Return Vehicles on top, were the tallest things for a hundred miles around.

Native Russian wisdom, Duke thought, snorting. No way the Russians could do what they were about to do, even with the Proton and Salyut rockets they had used to win the second moon race, the race to establish a permanent lunar outpost.

The pressurized rover Endurance was already unloaded from L-1, powered up, and checked out. Argo, its near-twin, still stood atop L-2, its front windows pointed at the sky. Argo's four cleated wheels glinted in stark sunlight; its roof was in shadow, but visible by light reflected from the lunar surface. The wheels were locked onto the ramp Argo would roll down to reach the ground.

Now the ramp and Argo's rounded nose began to tip slowly - ever so slowly - off vertical, toward the rising lunar Sun. "Gene-o," Duke said, "tip start looks good from this side. Do you copy?" Cernan, commander of Endurance, spoke up after a moment. "Yeah, Charlie - looks nice and straight here, too. Over."

"Good resistance on the motors," said Evans, Cernan's pilot. He stood close by L-2, reading the lighted display on the flip-down rover-release control panel. Argo was now tilted about 30 degrees from vertical. "Stand by for the drop," Evans said.

Argo continued to tip, passing horizontal. As its nose began to angle downward, the ladder-like lower ramp slid out and touched the surface in two puffs of dust. "Ramp is locked," Evans reported.

Duke moved forward to watch the wheel locks disengage. "Ready for wheel lock release," said Evans. "Go ahead, Ron," said Young. Duke saw the three locking mechanisms disengage and tip out of the way. On Earth, there'd been three rapid loud bangs - pyros cutting the locks. Here, in lunar vacuum, utter silence.

Argo rolled the last yard to the surface, bounced a little on its suspension and stirred up some dust. As it rolled to a stop, the umbilical linking it to L-2 pulled free and, after a moment, the rover's low-gain antenna tilted and slewed automatically and found Earth.

"Rover boys, this is Houston." That was Ken Mattingly on Capcom. Mission Control shift had changed from White to Maroon. A long, crackling pause. "We are receiving Argo telemetry. Looks good."

"Whew-ee! That's two for two," said Cernan.

"Can't wait to get behind the wheel," said Young as he circled Argo, video recording its exterior for the engineers back on Earth. "Ken - how are we on the timeline? Over."

A pause. "John, you're about 10 minutes behind. Not yet into your PLSS reserve. No one is worried here. Over." "Roger that," said Young, as he stowed his recorder in his hip bag.

Mattingly spoke again after a moment. "Rover control says - he says, 'no racing once you're behind the wheel.' He keeps saying that. He's worried about you hotshots. Over." Young and Cernan both chuckled.

Cernan spoke. "John, Charlie, Ken - Ron and me, we're headed back to Endurance. We're hungry. Over."

"Go ahead, get your dinner," Young said, hopping past Duke, toward their lander. "Charlie and I will return to L-4 in a coupla minutes. That OK, Ken?"

A pause. "Gene, John - you are go to close out EVA-1. Over."

Duke hopped over to Young. He turned, minding his footing, and looked back at Argo, glittering on the surface of the moon, and at the retreating PLSS backpacks of Cernan and Evans, who followed the trail of footprints leading to Endurance. Argo had light blue painted highlights and Endurance had red ones. They matched the red stripes on Cernan's suit and the blue stripes on Young's.

"All right, Charlie, let's get inside," Young said. "Tomorrow we test-drive our new ride. Can you believe it?"

Duke felt a lump in his throat. They had come so far, and now they were ready to make history. The first lunar surface circumnavigation. They'd follow the route the engineers and scientists had so carefully plotted for them using the high-res images from the Apollo 12 and Apollo 14 lunar polar orbiters. They'd cross the north pole and drive south over the high center of Farside, then cross the south pole and drive north. They'd rendezvous with Surveyor-derived cargo landers every couple hundred miles or so to take on supplies and refuel.

If all came off as planned, in two months they'd all be back here, in Sinus Medii, ready to power up L-3 and L-4 and return to Earth. And it would all come off as planned, Duke was sure of it. It was time America scored a victory on the moon.

After that, other astronauts - most likely Jack and Karl doing science, plus Dick and Ken in command - would drive around the moon along its equator. If all went as planned, the second circumnavigation would be under way during the U. S. Bicentennial.

"We're on our way, John," said Duke, as he hopped toward L-4's ladder. "It feels real good."

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