Log of a Moon Expedition (1969)

Luděk Pešek's lunar expedition was intended to alight in Sinus Medii, a relatively flat region NASA would in fact select as an alternate landing site for early Apollo missions. In his book, Pešek generated drama by landing his eight-man crew off-course in rugged, unstable terrain between Reaumur and Flammarion. Image credit: Defense Mapping Agency/U.S. Geological Survey.
In the 1969-1973 period, the post-Apollo era of robotic planetary reconnaissance was only beginning. The National Geographic Society wanted to give its members a preview, so it turned to Luděk Pešek. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1919, Pešek was out of his home country when Warsaw Pact tanks crushed the 1968 Prague Spring. Rather than return home to tyranny, he took up residence in Switzerland and became a Swiss citizen.

Luděk Pešek's photorealistic paintings of planets and moons dominated the August 1970 and February 1973 issues of National Geographic magazine. The 1970 magazine took in the entire Solar System. It bore on its cover Pešek's painting of Saturn as seen from the moon Titan. The 1973 issue celebrated the discoveries scientists had made using cameras on the Mars probe Mariner 9, the first spacecraft to orbit another planet. The magazine included as a supplement an airbrushed map of Mars based on images from Mariner 9 and Earth-based telescopes. The map's reverse side featured Pešek's impression of the surface of Mars during a dust storm. It was probably the last great artistic rendering of the martian surface before Viking 1, the first successful Mars lander, touched down in Chryse Planitia on 20 July 1976.

Though remembered mainly as an artist, Pešek was also a writer. In 1964, as the real-life Moon Race between the Soviet Union and the United States gathered pace, Pešek penned a short novel about a lunar expedition. It was published first in the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) in 1967, then in the United States as Log of a Moon Expedition in 1969, a few months before the Apollo 11 Lunar Module Eagle became the first piloted spacecraft to land on the Moon.

Pešek's account now reads like alternate history. Although billed in the U.S. at the time of its publication as a book for children, it is hard to believe that Log of a Moon Expedition earned much affection from that hard-to-please audience. This might account for the fact that it is not well known today. Pešek's tale reads like a technical paper told through a first-person narrator. Though fiction, its many technical details make it fair game for discussion in this blog.

Pešek described a lunar program that began with several years of hardware development, testing in Earth orbit, and at least four precursor lunar flights. An automated sample-returner collected rocks at the proposed landing site and returned them to Earth for engineering analysis. Meanwhile, at least one automated spacecraft and at least two piloted expeditions (designated KM I and KM II) imaged the Moon's surface from lunar orbit.

Pešek considered the first piloted Moon landing to be the first step in Project Alpha, the intensive exploration of the entire Solar System by astronauts. He did not specify which country or consortium would carry out Project Alpha, nor did he provide a location for "Earth Control," the equivalent of NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston, ESA's European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, or the Flight Control Center near Moscow.

Spacecraft KM III. Image credit: Luděk Pešek/Alfred A. Knopf, Jr.
Pešek dispatched his lunar spacecraft, which he dubbed KM III, to Sinus Medii (Central Bay), a patch of relatively smooth, relatively flat mare ("sea") terrain at the center of the Moon's Earth-facing Nearside hemisphere. KM III was streamlined, with tail fins, short wings, a pointed nose, and at least one tail-mounted chemical-propellant rocket engine. It was designed to land upright, with its nose pointed at the black lunar sky, on "stilts" that extended from its tail fins. Each stilt ended in a large rectangular footpad.

Its pressurized cabin housed padded "anti-gravity" (acceleration) couches for eight men, a communications and meteoroid-monitoring radio/radar station, and an impressive array of stores and equipment, including at least 16 180-pound steel-shelled space suits (two for each expedition member). An airlock led from the cabin to the lunar surface.

Before KM III left Earth, three automated cargo landers landed in Sinus Medii. Designated S 1, S 2, and S 3, they set down in a triangular pattern about 15 miles wide. Fat drums about 50 feet tall with silver-and-gray dome-shaped tops, the cargo landers each contained scientific equipment, tools, sturdy electricity-powered tractors with unpressurized cabins for lunar surface transport, construction materials, a pressurized living volume stocked with air, water, and food, and, most important, 40 tons of Earth-return propellant for KM III, which would land on the Moon with nearly dry tanks. Forty tons of propellant were sufficient to launch KM III off the Moon and place it on course for Earth.

Cargo lander S2 with astronaut in open doorway for scale. Image credit: Luděk Pešek/Alfred A. Knopf, Jr.
The expedition was planned to last eight Earth days. KM III was meant to land on level ground at the center of the S 1-S 2-S 3 triangle just after lunar dawn. Pešek wrote that the expedition included enough supplies to remain on the Moon for 14 Earth days (about one lunar daylight period), but that it could not stay past lunar sunset.

This was because the landers and tractors drew electricity from batteries kept charged by dish-shaped solar concentrators. Silver dishes would focus sunlight onto a boiler containing a working fluid that would turn to gas, move through pipes to a turbine generator which would make electricity, pass through radiators to shed heat and return to liquid form, and then return to the boiler to begin the cycle again.

Pešek did not give his intrepid lunar explorers names. Instead, they had three-letter "shortwave radio" designations. CAP was the calm, stoic leader of the expedition, while DOC, the narrator, was the "documenter" and photographer. MEC was the wise-cracking mechanic and navigator, PHY the expedition doctor, and RNT the radio and TV engineer. The expedition included three scientists: GEO, a geologist; AST, an astrophysicist specializing in radiation; and SEL, a selenologist ("Moon scientist").

A lunar expedition crewmember in a Moon suit. The numeral "5" on this suit's backpack identifies its wearer as MEC. Image credit: Luděk Pešek/Alfred A. Knopf, Jr.
Murphy's Law ruled Pešek's lunar expedition. Trouble began even before KM III left Earth. The S 1, S 2, and S 3 landers landed in a triangle as planned, but its center was about 20 miles south of the intended target zone. This placed it uncomfortably close to rocky, rifted terrain between the craters Reaumur and Flammarion. Despite this inexplicable navigational error, Earth Control decided to launch KM III on schedule.

The explorers did not pilot their spacecraft during descent to the Moon. Instead, they strapped into their couches so that they could withstand KM III's rapid deceleration. The spacecraft's guidance system locked automatically onto the cargo lander homing beacons and steered it to a landing.

At touchdown, KM III automatically released a "natrium" (sodium) cloud that fluoresced in lunar dawn light, permitting Earth-based telescopic observers to confirm its location on the lunar surface.

As they waited for the sodium cloud to disperse so that they could see outside, the explorers worried that they had landed off target. Only S 1's homing beacon came in loud and clear. Their radio could not pick up a signal from S 2 and S 3's signal was very weak. In addition, the ground was less stable than anticipated: KM III had an alarming tendency to list to one side. The crew extended the landing stilt on that side to keep their spacecraft level.

When the shadowy landscape around KM III became visible outside the viewports, it was unfamiliar. No elevated surface features should have been visible, yet there was a 190-foot-tall hill a few hundred yards to the north and a taller ridge beyond that. They named the former Revelation Hill. As the gravity of their predicament became clear, they dubbed the latter Disappointment Ridge.

First, however, CAP and DOC donned their cumbersome armored Moon suits and took humankind's first small steps on another world. Pešek wrote that, when they shook hands outside KM III, they felt as though they were "congratulating mankind." They then inspected KM III's landing stilts. All were sunk into the rock deeper than expected. On the side toward which their spacecraft listed, the stilt was extended to half its total length.

Soon after CAP and DOC climbed back inside KM III, Earth Control confirmed that the same navigational error that had affected the cargo landers had caused their spacecraft to land at least 20 miles southwest of its target. This placed KM III entirely outside the triangle formed by the cargo landers. S 3, most northerly of the three, was out of reach at a distance of at least 35 miles.

The expedition got to work. They injected "oxycrete," a specially constituted lunar concrete, under the deeply sunken landing stilt to shore up KM III. Next, they set up a 15-foot-diameter solar concentrator near KM III to charge its batteries. They also erected a 130-foot-tall radio-relay tower atop Revelation Hill to extend their radio range. When they did, they picked up S 2's signal.

The cargo lander was just five miles away and apparently in good condition, but it was beyond Disappointment Ridge, on the far side of a jagged rift up to 65 feet wide and 150 feet deep. The rift, which began close to Reaumur crater, ran for many miles, often through rugged terrain, so could not be circumvented.

The path to S 1, on the other hand, appeared mostly clear, though the lander was about 17 miles away from KM III. A three-man sortie party consisting of DOC, RNT, and AST set out on foot to retrieve S 1's tractor so that the expedition could begin to transfer Earth-return propellant stored in tanks inside the lander to KM III.

Unfortunately, the terrain was not as easily navigated as expected. The sortie party became trapped in a labyrinth of small craters and rifts. After hiking at least 20 miles, they were still more than five miles from S 1. Uncertain that they could reach S 1 in time to refill their Moon suit oxygen tanks, they reluctantly turned back toward KM III.

On the way home, the radio signal from KM III abruptly stopped. The party feared the worst — that the spacecraft had fallen over or suffered some other sudden calamity.

AST's Moon suit oxygen system then malfunctioned, so that he became exhausted and had to be carried. The trio abandoned a large camera and other equipment. Fearing for the lives of his companions, AST begged to be left behind, too.

Fortunately, DOC spotted a signal flare on the horizon. Shortly after that, the sortie party resumed radio contact with KM III. The main radio transmitter had been down for four hours; repair had been slowed by RNT's absence.

Soon after the exhausted sortie party returned to KM III, the expedition abandoned all thought of scientific research so that its members could concentrate on saving themselves. This was discouraging to all the expedition members, not only the three scientists.

Pešek displayed his artistic bent when he described the shadows the glaring Sun cast on the lunar surface as it climbed toward the zenith, then began its slow fall toward the horizon and eventual nightfall at the KM III landing site. He described the effect the lengthening shadows had on the crew's morale as their expedition became a desperate race against time.

To help ensure that the KM III crew could reach at least one cargo lander, Earth Control hurriedly dispatched two backups designated S 4 and S 5. After flights lasting 70 hours, they alighted south of KM III on the same side of the rift and ridges as the piloted lander. This should have made them easy to reach; however, they landed in terrain even more treacherous than that separating KM III from S 1 and S 2.

Meanwhile, Pešek's brave crew climbed and found a pass through Disappointment Ridge, then found places where they could enter the long rift and, after hiking some distance along its rocky, shadowed floor, climb out on its far side using ropes. They marked their way with red metal disks mounted on rods. At last reaching S 2, they activated its living quarters and unloaded tractor TK 2.

They were plagued by Moon suit oxygen regulators that had functioned flawlessly during tests on Earth and in Earth orbit, but which failed inexplicably whenever they passed into cold shadow on the Moon. The curious malfunction was at first life-threatening — it allowed exhaled carbon dioxide to build up in the suits, which probably accounted for AST's difficulties during the unsuccessful hike to S 1 — but through trial-and-error the crew made the oxygen regulator problem a mere persistent annoyance.

AST and CAP suffered injuries that left them unfit for heavy work, and all the men suffered rashes and sores from wearing their Moon suits for far longer than originally planned. As they hiked and labored for long hours, they were obliged to try to sleep in their suits on the lunar surface.

DOC was part of the three-man team that reached S 5 after a grueling hike through 10 miles of boulders and steep hillocks. They barely managed to unload tractor TK 5 before S 5 tilted on unsteady ground and toppled into an "abyss" beneath the lunar surface. Soon after their close brush with catastrophe, DOC called the Moon "a world of death" that could "not be underestimated for a minute."

Nevertheless, retrieval of TK 5 marked a turning point for the Moon explorers. Availability of TK 5 on the same side of the rift as KM III permitted the crew at last to devise a plan for refueling their spacecraft.

They would load 650-pound, six-foot-long propellant tanks from S 2 onto TK 2 by hand and transport them to the rift, then transfer the tanks to buckets hanging from an aerial tramway intended originally for unspecified selenological studies. After the tramway carried the propellant tanks over the rift, they would load them onto TK 5 for the slow, slippery climb over Disappointment Ridge to KM III.

TK 2 and TK 5 could each carry up to 20 propellant tanks at a time, and the tramway buckets could move 20 tanks across the rift in one hour. Twenty tanks had a mass of about 6.5 tons, so about six trips were required to transfer from S 2 the 40 tons of propellants KM III needed for return to Earth.

The challenges did not end - TK 2 became stuck, a rain of meteoroids damaged KM III's solar concentrator, the aerial tramway nearly collapsed into the rift and had to be moved, and KM III began again to list to one side as propellants filled its tanks - yet Pešek's intrepid lunar explorers won through. With the glaring Sun touching the horizon and small features of the landscape casting long shadows, KM III lifted off with just hours to spare.

It is worth noting that, in some respects, Pešek's lunar expedition plan in Log of a Moon Expedition resembles the Lunar Surface Rendezvous (LSR) Apollo mission mode the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) proposed in 1961-1962. Pešek's plan was, however, on a much larger scale. LSR aimed to accomplish Apollo lunar landings using technology derived from JPL's automated Surveyor soft-lander, which was under development at the time.

A robot lander transfers the last of three solid-propellant rocket motors to the Earth-return crew capsule lander using the extendible bridge truss method. The first lander to reach the site, equipped with a homing beacon and a TV camera, sits in the background at upper right. The cargo lander at lower left has transferred its rocket motor and withdrawn its extendible bridge truss, as has another cargo lander out of view to the right. Image credit: Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA.
In the LSR mode, several automated landers would touch down on the Moon tens of feet apart before any humans arrived. The first lander to reach the chosen landing site would carry science instruments, a TV camera, and a homing beacon.

After engineers and scientists used its data to certify the site as safe for further landings, a series of Surveyor-derived cargo landers would arrive. Three or four would each carry as cargo a solid-propellant rocket motor. After the last landed successfully, another lander, this time carrying an unmanned pressurized Earth-return crew capsule, would touch down at the site. The capsule would include seating for up to three astronauts, an Earth-atmosphere reentry heat shield, and parachutes.

Controllers on Earth would guide a small rover as it collected each solid-propellant rocket motor in turn and attached it to the lander bearing the crew capsule. Alternately, they would extend a bridge truss from each cargo lander in turn to transfer the solid-propellant motors. The rover method was considered more likely to succeed.

After JPL's lander/crew capsule combination was ready, an identical crew capsule on a Surveyor-derived lander would depart Earth bearing up to three astronauts. It would slow its descent by firing solid-propellant rocket motors identical to those attached to the lander/crew capsule on the Moon. With help from homing beacons, it would then use chemical-propellant vernier rockets to land near the waiting lander/crew capsule.

Following touchdown, the astronauts would transfer to their ride home and ignite its solid-propellant rocket motors to begin their return to Earth. Nearing Earth, they would cast off the lander and spent rocket motors and position their capsule for reentry.


Log of a Moon Expedition, Luděk Pešek, Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, 1969.

Man-to-the-Moon and Return Mission Utilizing Lunar-Surface Rendezvous, Technical Memorandum No. 33-53, P. Buwalda, W. Downhower, P. Eckman, E. Pounder, R. Rieder, and F. Sola, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, 3 August 1961.

"Man-on-the-Moon and Return Mission Utilizing Lunar-Surface Rendezvous," J. Small & W. Downhower, Jet Propulsion Laboratory; paper presented at the American Rocket Society Lunar Missions Meeting Held in Cleveland, Ohio, 17-19 July 1962.

Ludek Pesek: Space Artist (http://www.ludekpesek.ch/index.php - accessed 10 April 2018).

More Information

Space Race: The Notorious 1962 Proposal to Launch an Astronaut on a One-Way Trip to the Moon

Plush Bug, Economy Bug, Shoestring Bug (1961)

Around the Moon in 80 Hours (1958)


  1. Fascinating 'alternate history,' written while the real history was unfolding! Thanks for posting that link to Ludek Pesek: Space Artist; I hadn't known about that (nor of Pešek's novel) until reading this post. I've enjoyed his artwork for decades, and have those old National Geographic magazines you mentioned.

    As an aside, I own a copy of Pešek's 1963 book "The Moon and the Planets," which I found in a second-hand bookstore for only $15 (US). I still peruse that book's fold-out planetscapes, even though the paintings are somewhat outdated nowdays. Trivia point: four of the paintings from that book appeared as wall art in the Moonbase Alpha sets from the TV series Space: 1999. I guess that's a case of life imitating art (or perhaps--since it was a TV show--art imitating art).

    Craig R

    1. FYI found the book listed by the name of the “text” author, Josef Sadil, with Pesek listed second as responsible for illustrations.

    2. A:

      That's odd - the copy I have lists Pesek as artist and author. I wonder if Sadil was the translator? That's just a guess.


  2. Craig:

    I carried around the 1970 National Geographic until it fell apart! They really understood what was up with the US space program - that robots would break free of their role as Apollo precursors and begin exploring beyond the Moon. Unfortunately, we flew Voyager instead of the Grand Tour - had the latter gone ahead, we'd have reached Pluto in the 1980s.

    I'm curious about Pesek's book The Earth is Near. Funny thing about old space books - sometimes they can be purchased for a very low price, perhaps because they are considered "out of date," but other times they can cost a pretty penny. I found my first three Von Braun books based on the Collier's articles for next to nothing - $25 total? - but to get the last one paid $75, and it wasn't in good condition. Then I found that same book in great condition for $15 only a few weeks later.

    Glad you enjoyed the post. And thanks for the SPACE: 1999 trivia - hand't noticed that!



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