This Day in History: Apollo 14 returns from the moon

On this day in 1971, the crew of Apollo 14 splashes down in the Pacific Ocean. The astronauts had just become the third NASA crew to walk on the moon.

NASA had come a long way! Less than one year earlier, Apollo 13 had failed to accomplish the very same mission. Instead, one of its oxygen tanks had exploded, leaving three astronauts in a crippled spaceship about 200,000 miles from Earth.

Those three men aboard Apollo 13 could have been killed in space—or stranded there—and the crew of Apollo 14 would have seen it all. Yet they still agreed to join the new mission, opening themselves up to the very same risks.

Now NASA—and America—were back.

Not that it was easy. The mission was plagued with hiccup after hiccup. Surely Apollo 14’s crew wondered if the mission would ever be completed or if they would be forced to scrub the moon landing, just as their predecessors had done a year earlier.

First, the launch was delayed because of the weather. Then the command service module had trouble docking with the lunar module. Next, the moon landing was nearly disrupted by a fake ABORT signal. Finally, even the landing radar decided to malfunction.

Fortunately, they reset it and got it working just in time. The mission commander, Alan Shepard, then landed the lunar module manually.

But Shepard was up for anything. He’d worked long and hard to be on that flight. The faulty landing radar was nothing compared to the problem he’d already solved to get there.

When NASA tapped Shepard for the mission, he was the oldest U.S. astronaut to go into space. As one of the original Project Mercury astronauts, he’d been around for a while! He was the very first American to go into space in 1961. That suborbital flight had been brief, but it had given Americans confidence at a time when they sorely needed it, in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. The flight “renewed our confidence in our capacity as a nation,” historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. concludes.

Unfortunately, Shepard was grounded not too long after his Project Mercury feats. He’d developed an inner ear problem known as Ménière’s disease. NASA was understandably quick to ground Shepard—but Shepard was equally quick to look for a solution. He finally found a doctor who was willing to attempt a risky surgical cure. It worked, and Shepard muscled his way back onto active flight duty.

“We got all kinds of flak from the guys,” he later said of this time. “In the first place, I hadn’t flown anything since 1961, and here it was 10 years later, and the two guys with me had not flown before at all, so they called us the three rookies.”

The 47-year-old “rookie” not only landed Apollo 14’s lunar module manually, but he managed to land closer to his intended target than any of the other previous moon missions.

The Apollo 14 astronauts spent nearly two days on the moon, conducting experiments and gathering information. Just as they were leaving, Shepard famously took a golf ball and prepared to hit it. “I’m going to try a little sand trap shot here,” he joked. The first shot kicked up lunar dust, but the second shot, Shepard said, went “[s]traight as a dime. Miles and miles and miles.”

Okay, so it really went a few hundred feet. He was joking. But that pioneer surely felt great just standing there, having worked so hard to get the moon in the first place.