Family members of the Apollo 14 crew that landed on the moon in 1971 marked the 50th anniversary of the historic expedition Saturday at Kennedy Space Center.
The three astronauts from Apollo 14 — Alan Shepard, Stuart Roosa and Edgar Mitchell — have died, but their families and several other Apollo-era figures recalled the trip as a triumphant return to the moon after the Apollo 13 accident. They also recounted astronaut Shepard’s surprise golf outing on the moon and how America’s third lunar landing pushed the frontier of lunar science.
Shepard, the oldest man to walk on the moon at age 47, also was the first American in space in 1961.
“We were excited to have Daddy go to the moon,” daughter Laura Shepard recalled in an interview. “Others had already gone to the moon, so we were confident he would make it. We had been more concerned about it when he was the first American to go into space.”
Laura Shepard recalled she had recently graduated from college when she saw her father walking on the moon. The family had no knowledge that he planned to play golf on the lunar surface, she said.
“It was a total surprise. I thought, what the heck is he doing,” Laura Shepard said. “He didn’t tell us in advance.”
Marking the 50th anniversaries of Apollo missions, along with seeing NASA plan for new Artemis moon missions, has been gratifying for astronaut families, she said.
“It’s been a wonderful resurgence of that era, because we don’t think about it every day and yet it’s so important,” she said.
The Roosa family’s Texas-based Back to Space nonprofit venture organized the Saturday gala.
Jaqueline Roosa, Stuart Roosa’s granddaughter, said she founded the organization to spur further interest in Apollo history and more space missions.
“My grandfather was on the Apollo 14 mission and I wanted to bridge my two passions, space exploration and entertainment,” she said in an interview.
Back to Space connects students with astronauts to encourage careers in space. The group plans to build an educational theme park about lunar exploration near Fort Worth, Texas, that would include a lunar landscape experience, she said.
No person has stepped foot on the moon since Apollo 17 in December 1972. NASA is pursuing a goal of 2024 for the next crewed landing.
NASA was confident in the success of Apollo 14 despite the explosion in space that canceled Apollo 13’s moon landing and nearly cost the lives of that mission’s crew in April 1970, said Gerry Griffin, an Apollo flight director, in an interview on Saturday.
Americans today remember that Apollo astronauts took long rides in lunar rovers during the final three missions, but that was still just a notion for the Apollo 14 mission, Griffin said.
“The changes we had to make because of Apollo 13 were very straightforward. Put a battery here, change the wiring, nothing exotic. There were no software changes,” Griffin said. “We had landed twice on the moon already by Apollo 14, and we decided it was time to turn up the volume on the exploration.”
Astronauts on Apollo 11 and Apollo 12, the first two lunar landings, walked short distances to explore geology on the moon. But Apollo 14 crew used a hand-drawn cart to carry equipment to Cone Crater about a mile from the lander, Griffin recalled.
The cart allowed a greater haul of important moon rocks to bring back to scientists on Earth, he said, especially some of the oldest moon rocks that came from Cone Crater.
“Even though they didn’t go as far as we’d planned, the Apollo 14 events set us up to carry the moon buggy (rover) on the next mission,” Griffin said.
Despite Griffin’s confidence in the outcome, many Americans wondered if NASA could pull off another moon landing after Apollo 13, said Brian Odom, acting NASA historian, in an interview.
“I think the success of Apollo 14 was important to reestablishing NASA’s credibility with the public, that they could accomplish these great feats,” Odom said. “It also gave America something to celebrate in the midst of the Vietnam War, economic troubles, etc.”
Ed Mitchell’s travels around the world after Apollo 14 were a great opportunity to connect with different races, cultures and nations, said Anita Mitchell, who accompanied him as his wife at the time.
“More than anything, we (Americans) went to the moon for peace,” Anita Mitchell said. “We would meet people, a Head of State or whatever, and that would just say, ahh, Apollo! It transcended any differences. I would love to have that translated or bottled up somehow, to use that now, especially in today’s world.”