As long as I can remember, I have always had an interest in the space program. In the summer of 1971, the Apollo Moon program was in full swing. My all-time favorite mission was Apollo 15 as it was the first true scientific and exploratory mission of that program. Although Apollo 15 added a new dimension to Luna exploration; it was not getting much prime-time television coverage as I can recall. These particular lunar excursions or EVA’s seem to have always taken place at unreasonable hours of the night.
Launched on July 26, 1971, it was the first of the J missions, which promised longer stays on the lunar surface. Also added to the Lunar arsenal was a Lunar Rover Vehicle or LRV’s to what was described as an 8 million dollar beach buggy. The LRV’s operations were confined to a 5 km radius to make sure that the Astronauts could walk back to the Lunar Module (or LEM) should the rover vehicle break down.
The scientific content of the Apollo program rose sharply particularly with this mission as the starting point for these ambitious J missions which only two subsequent missions survived. Apollo 18, 19 and 20 were ultimately cut in favor of the Sky Lab program to start in 1973. It is unfortunate that television viewing figures dropped by the increase in lunar exploration never before seen or since. Author Lunan Duncan would write, “It seems heartbreaking that the Apollo program should’ve been cut short apparently because of these [television viewing] results materializing this way.”
Apollo 15‘s landing at Hadley Rille was supposed to answer questions like is the moon a cold dead world and how did it form? Probably the most significant find was what has been dubbed the Genesis rock found during the second EVA (or extravehicular activity) at a nearby crater. The rock is an anorthosite, but it is only 4.1 billion years old which is younger than the Moon itself. So, it didn’t exactly qualify as a rock from the primordial crust which would have had to have formed nearly 4.5 billion years ago.
Introducing our gallant Lunar explorers, we have Apollo 9 veteran and Commander Dave Scott, who flew on Gemini 8 with Neil Armstrong. Accompanying Scott on the Moon’s surface was Lunar Module pilot James Irwin. Meanwhile, Al Worden was in the Command Service Module (CMS) orbiting above, carrying out a major program of moon mapping during which he reported volcanic domes or cinder cones in the valley of Taurus-Littrow. This area was later explored by Apollo 17 to which that crew encountered orange soil on the moon.
The newest exploration tool, the LRV proved its worth, by covering 17 1/2 miles with over 18 1/2 hours of EVA on the surface from July 31 to August 2, 1971. The LRV had the advantage of having a remote-controlled camera giving it a ride range of television coverage capability throughout the mission. The camera videoed the launch of the LEM ascent stage and had an expected 80-hour life span when the astronauts departed the lunar surface. Unfortunately, the camera didn’t keep working long enough to capture a subsequent Solar eclipse from the Moon to be seen in color which would have been an amazing sight to see for a terrestrial television audience. For the people of Earth, it would have been the Aug. 6th Total Lunar Eclipse of 1971.
All three astronauts would later join up in lunar orbit for the return home and splashdown on August 7th in the Pacific Ocean. Only two of three parachutes deployed but they still landed safely in water as the capsule was designed to do.
Apollo 15 set several new records for crewed spaceflight including the first driven vehicle on an alien world. Also, maximum distance away from their LEM. The most lunar surface EVAs (three) and longest total of duration for lunar surface EVA’s. Longest time in lunar orbit (about 145 hours; only two hours less than the entire Apollo 8 mission), and the first satellite placed in lunar orbit by a crewed spacecraft, as well as the first “deep spacewalk” (EVA) away from the home planet.
Apollo 15 was a complete scientific success! Achieving all of the mission objectives. This was the mission that made everyone begin to realize the Apollo program’s potential for scientific exploration. What a shame that the program would be cut short its prime.
Don’t forget! to check out our Friendly Neighborhood Astronomer (FNA) Irene Pease, former past president of the AAA, for a stroll around our celestial neighborhood. Irene enjoys sharing views through her telescope with her fellow New Yorkers as their Friendly Neighborhood Astronomer. She currently hosts a weekly livestream tour of the local universe and the current night skies. She is also a frequent presenter/ co-host of Astronomy on Tap NYC, and the pilot of Hayden Planetarium’s Zeiss Mark IX Universarium.
This past month for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 15 mission, she took us on a ride around Hadley Rille. The live virtual presentation was hosted on July 29th on FaceBook titled: Mission of the Month: Apollo 15 (https://www.facebook.com/465028123666541/posts/2029173857251952/ ) it also can be viewed on YouTube (YT) titled: July 2021 Mission of the Month: Apollo 15 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Kg3bFHxyQ8
Apollo 15 in Video Media: Many years ago, I received this wonderful gift from my wife, a DVD from Spacecraft Films. It’s what I believe is the nearly complete video package of the Apollo 15 mission. This six-disc DVD has been taken from the master tapes, but one still has to realize that these images were taken in 1971 with regards to the TV image quality. https://www.amazon.com/Apollo-15-Man-Must-Explore/dp/B000HOJ3J8 There is the mention in the package-guide about the possibility of the Aug. 6th Lunar Eclipse to be recorded a couple days past their departure.
HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon 12-part mini-series hosted by Tom Hanks is still a superb dramatization of the Lunar expeditions, particularly Apollo 15 https://www.hbo.com/from-the-earth-to-the-moon
Astronomy Magazine (on Youtube) presents: “Apollo 15 was the most ambitious and most advanced Apollo mission to date. The landing site was also geologically spectacular, hemmed in by the mighty Apennine Mountains and the Hadley Rille.” [a short 17 minute video] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J22hKd8SZp8
Sources for this article:
New Worlds for Old by Duncan Lunan © 1979 – Westbridge publishing
Sky and Telescope, October, 1971 issue, Volume 42 #4 Apollo 15’s Mission Pictorial.
A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by by Andrew Chaikin © 1994 – Viking publishing. This classic book became the basis for the HBO 12-hour miniseries, “From the Earth to the Moon.”
https://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a15/a15det11603.jpg shows Jim and the Rover. Mt. Hadley, in all its glory, is in the background.
https://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a15/ap15-launch-noID.jpg Apollo 15 liftoff. 26 July 1971. Scans by J.L. Pickering.