Suggested Searches

8 min read

50 Years Ago: Three Months Until Apollo 15

In April 1971, the Apollo 15 prime crew of Commander David R. Scott, Command Module Pilot Alfred M. Worden, and Lunar Module Pilot James B. Irwin and their backups Richard F. Gordon, Vance D. Brand, and Harrison H. “Jack” Schmitt continued to train for their mission to explore the Hadley-Apennine area of the Moon, landing near a sinuous canyon called Hadley Rille. Three months before their scheduled July 26, 1971 launch, the astronauts continued to focus on geology training – an area of increased emphasis for their mission, as well as testing their spacecraft. They also tested a new addition to their mission, a lunar rover to increase the range of their lunar surface excursions. The astronauts tested the spacecraft in preparation for ground crews to stack it atop the Saturn V rocket.

apollo_15_l-3_months_1_crew_posing_w_rover_mar_1971 apollo_15_l-3_months_2_apr_21_1971 apollo_15_l-3_months_3_usgs_traverse_map
Left: Apollo 15 astronauts James B. Irwin, left, David R. Scott, and Alfred M. Worden pose with mockups of a Lunar Module (LM), a Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), and a particle & fields subsatellite. Middle: The Apollo 15 LRV sits in front of the LM at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center prior to integration. Right: The Apollo 15 landing site at Hadley-Apennine, with the three traverses marked in red.

After three successful lunar landings, NASA demonstrated not only the safe landing and return of astronauts but also achieving pinpoint accurate touchdowns to allow for exploration of scientifically interesting sites. The final three Apollo missions, Apollo 15, 16, and 17, represented a dramatic increase in science capability over the earlier lunar flights. Improvements to the spacecraft not only enabled longer stays on the lunar surface but also an increased payload capacity, allowing Apollo 15 to carry 1,200 pounds of scientific experiments, six times more than on Apollo 11 and twice that on Apollo 14. Perhaps the most significant improvement involved the development by the Boeing Company in Kent, Washington, of the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), providing the astronauts with a much greater range to conduct their geologic explorations. A Scientific Instrument Module bay (SIM-bay) added to the Service Module enabled a variety of observations of the surface from lunar orbit not possible on earlier flights. The SIM-bay instruments included a Particle and Fields Subsatellite the astronauts deployed into lunar orbit to conduct long-term studies of the plasma, particle, and magnetic field environment around the Moon. And finally, improvements to the Saturn V launch vehicle enabled the heavier spacecraft to achieve orbit.

apollo_15_l-3_months_4_taos_geol_training_mar_11_1971 apollo_15_l-3_months_5_taos_geol_training_mar_11_1971
Left: Apollo 15 astronauts James B. Irwin, left, and David R. Scott during a geology training field trip near Taos, New Mexico, with the Grover Lunar Roving Vehicle simulator parked at left. Right: Apollo 15 backup astronauts Harrison H. “Jack” Schmitt, left, and Richard F. Gordon driving the Grover during a geology field trip near Taos, New Mexico.

The increased emphasis on science meant the Apollo 15 crew spent significant time learning about geology, attending numerous lectures by geologists and examining Moon rocks returned by the earlier crews. In 1970, Moonwalkers Scott and Irwin and their backups Gordon and Schmitt, the only geologist in the astronaut corps, took part in 12 field trips, the training coordinated by U.S. Geologic Survey (USGS) geologist Leon T. “Lee” Silver, with other geologists participating. To improve the fidelity of the simulations, the USGS developed a ground-based version of the LRV called Grover. During some of the training exercises, technicians established a simulated science support room in the Mission Control Center at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC), now NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, with the participation of scientist astronauts acting as capsule communicators, as they would during the actual mission’s surface activities. Several flight directors, including Gerald D. “Gerry” Griffin, Glynn S. Lunney, Eugene F. “Gene” Kranz, and M.P. “Pete” Frank, attended at least one of the geology field trips. Worden and Brand, who had responsibility for the lunar orbit observations, practiced those skills during flyovers of geologically interesting locations.   

Apollo 15 astronauts David R. Scott, left, and James B. Irwin stand on the edge of the Rio Grande Canyon near Taos, New Mexico, during a geology training field trip.

Scott, Irwin, Gordon, and Schmitt began the new year of 1971 with a Jan. 18 visit to Kilbourne Hole, New Mexico, where they completed a walking traverse in the volcanic area with capsule communicators and science back rooms providing support. Worden and Brand completed an aerial geologic survey around the El Paso, Texas, area the next day, to train for lunar orbital observations. In February, the Moonwalkers and their backups visited the Ubehebe crater, a large volcanic feature in California’s Death Valley, conducting several walking traverses. During their March 11-12 visit to the Rio Grande Canyon near Taos, New Mexico, an area that most closely resembled the Hadley-Apennine landing site, Scott, Irwin, Gordon, and Schmitt completed two traverses using the Grover, the ground-based version of the LRV. All six astronauts participated in the April 28-30 geology training in the Coso Hills volcanic area near China Lake, California. Worden and Brand conducted aerial surveys, and Scott, Irwin, Gordon, and Schmitt completed two walking traverses, collecting rock and soil samples. The Apollo 15 astronauts continued monthly geology field trips until shortly before their launch.

apollo_15_l-3_months_7_cm_alt_chamber_sea_level_ksc apollo_15_l-3_months
Left: Apollo 15 astronaut Alfred M. Worden, center, prepares to exit the Command Module (CM) following a simulated altitude chamber run, with fellow crew members David R. Scott, left, and James B. Irwin, at right, partially obstructed. Right: Apollo 15 backup astronaut Richard F. Gordon, left, entering the CM in preparation for an altitude chamber run, as fellow crew members Vance D. Brand, left, and Harrison H. “Jack” Schmitt await their turn.

apollo_15_l-3_months_9 apollo_15_l-3_months_10 apollo_15_l-3_months_11
Left: Apollo 15 astronauts James B. Irwin, left, and David R. Scott about to enter their Lunar Module (LM) prior to an altitude chamber run. Middle: Apollo 15 backup astronaut Richard F. Gordon, right, about to enter the LM for an altitude chamber run as his crewmate Vance D. Brand looks on. Right: Apollo 15 backup astronaut Harrison H. “Jack” Schmitt prepares to enter the LM for an altitude chamber run.

When not on geology field trips, the astronauts found themselves at KSC testing their spacecraft. The LM had arrived at KSC in November 1970 and the Command and Service Module (CSM) in January 1971. Beginning in March, the prime and backup crews tested the LM and the CSM in the altitude chambers in KSC’s Manned Spacecraft Operations Building (MSOB).

apollo_15_l-3_months_12_as15-0182c-71p-203-lrv_arrival_at_ksc apollo_15_l-3_months_13 apollo_15_l-3_months_14
Left: The aircraft carrying the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) for Apollo 15 arrives at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. Middle: The Apollo 15 LRV still in its folded configuration after arriving at KSC’s Manned Spacecraft Operations Building. Right: The Apollo 15 LRV after its deployment.

apollo_15_l-3_months_15 apollo_15_l-3_months_16 apollo_15_l-3_months_17
Left: Apollo 15 astronauts James B. Irwin, left, and David R. Scott, both with yellow stripes on their overalls, during a fit check of their Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV). Middle: Irwin, left, and Scott during a suited fit check with their LRV. Right: The LRV being installed on the Apollo 15 Lunar Module.

The LRV arrived in KSC’s MSOB from the Boeing plant in Kent, Washington, on March 15, and Scott and Irwin conducted crew fit checks including donning their spacesuits for a test on April 21. One week later, technicians installed the LRV onto the LM in preparation for moving the entire spacecraft to the Vehicle Assembly Building for stacking onto the Saturn V rocket in early May.

The Apollo 15 crew received good news on April 28 when NASA announced the decision to discontinue the 21-day postflight quarantine mandated for previous Moon landing crews. Acting NASA Administrator George M. Low stated that the analysis of lunar material returned by the Apollo 11, 12, and 14 missions revealed no potential pathogenic microorganisms that could pose a threat to humans or other terrestrial life. Following their splashdown at the end of the mission, the Apollo 15 astronauts would not have to enter a strict quarantine regimen beginning with the Mobile Quarantine Facility aboard the prime recovery ship and ending in the Lunar Receiving Laboratory at MSC. 

To be continued…

World events in April 1971:

April 3 – The Temptations song “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” hits number 1

April 5 – Canadian Frances Phipps becomes the first woman to reach the North Pole

April 5 – Mt. Etna on the Italian Island of Sicily erupts

April 5 – US Army Lt. William Calley is sentenced for his role in the My Lai massacre of Vietnamese civilians

April 10 – U.S. table tennis team arrives in the People’s Republic of China

April 19 – The Soviet Union launches Salyut, the world’s first space station

April 20 – U.S. Supreme Court upholds busing as a means of achieving racial desegregation

April 28 – Samuel L. Gravely becomes the first African-American U.S. Navy admiral

John Uri
NASA Johnson Space Center