Apollo 16 – Landing in the Descartes Highlands

On this day, April 16th, Apollo 16 was launched 50 years ago. This was the fifth exploratory mission to the surface of the moon. The mission was crewed by Command Module Pilot Ken Mattingly, Lunar Module Pilot Charles Duke, and Commander John Young.

January 12, 1972: Apollo 16 crew Thomas K. Mattingly II (CMP), John W. Young (CMDR) and Charles M. Duke, Jr. (LMP)

Mattingly had been scheduled to fly as Command Module Pilot on Apollo 13 mission almost to the day two years earlier. He was moved from the primary crew on that mission and replaced by his back up, Jack Swigert due to exposure to German measles just three days prior to launch. It turns out he never had the measles but safety first for himself and the Thirteen crew and had to stay back on Earth. Mattingly would play a key role in helping that crew solve its power conservation problem during re-entry. For more on Apollo 13, see my previous article.

The Moon for centuries, has intrigued us with its light side and dark side and what might be hidden in its shadows; its surface both fierce and forgiving. Even before telescopes, one was able to see both light and darkness on the Moon, drawing us ever so near to it. Apollo 16’s landing site was in the Descartes Highlands, near the crater of the same name, which in turn was named after the French philosopher: René Descartes. One well known philosophy of René was Cartesian Dualism, which deals with the dual existence of man. Interestingly, Sixteen’s landing site contrasted differently from the previous landing sites, which all of them landing in the Lunar Mare. The Highlands, scientist hoped, would give a sample of the dichotomy of the Lunar surface.

April 20, 1972: Apollo 16 Commander John Young jumps and salutes the flag

Young and Duke chose “Orion” for the lunar module’s call sign, and according to Duke, he and Young chose it for because they wanted something connected with the stars. Mattingly said he chose “Casper”, evoking Casper the Friendly Ghost, because “there are enough serious things in this flight, so I picked a non-serious name.”

View of the CSM Casper, and Earthrise, as seen from the LM Orion.

The successful Apollo 16 manned lunar landing mission was the second in a series of three science-oriented J-series missions planned for the Apollo program. Once again, the Lunar Rover was deployed and helped the astronauts cover allot of ground. It was supposedly faster than the previous vehicle, so they had to be sure to buckle up. Deployed too was the Ultra-Violet camera and spectroscope, the UVC, the first space-based camera on the Moon. The instrument was placed in the Lunar Module’s shadow and pointed at nebulae and other astronomical objects as well as Earth. For the first time our planet was studied at such a far distance. The UVC yielded views of the Earth’s hydrogen atmosphere, the polar auroras, and the tropical airglow belt.

Meanwhile, back to Command Module with Ken Mattingly. He had lost his wedding ring somewhere in the spacecraft on the outbound trip the Moon. In between searching for his ring, he conducted Lunar photography while orbiting the Moon for some 81 hours. On the return trip, Mattingly was charged with retrieving the camera on the side of the Service Module, the vehicle that powered the crew to the Moon. While outside the spacecraft on an EVA, Duke saw the wedding ring float out of the spacecraft and tried to grab it but missed. It hit Mattingly’s helmet and bounced right back to Duke, waiting to catch it with half his body poking out of the hatchway. The crew returned to Earth on April 27th without incident.

Mattingly went on to a career at the Lockheed corporation in the developing and designing the X-33 spacecraft. Charlie Duke became a businessman in civilian life; but John Young would continue his astronaut career and become the first to pilot and command the first Space Shuttle flight: STS-1 in 1981. Mattingly also commanded Shuttle missions, STS-4 (1982) and STS-51-C (1985) before retiring from NASA in 1985. Only Duke and Mattingly are still living in their ripe old age as Octogenarians. Family photos were left on the Moon with written personal messages.