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This Day in History: Apollo 16

On this day in 1972, astronauts from Apollo 16 splash down in the Pacific Ocean. They’d just become the fifth NASA crew to successfully land men on the moon.


Nevertheless, one Apollo 16 astronaut is perhaps more often remembered for the flight he did not make to the moon. Ken Mattingly was supposed to serve as command module pilot on Apollo 13. Instead, a case of measles got in his way.


Mattingly had been exposed, and NASA worried he’d catch measles in space. With hours to go before launch, he was yanked from the mission.


He found out from a breaking news report while he was in his car.

“I just kind of pulled over to the side of the road and sat there for a while,” he later said. “If this is a practical joke, it’s really well done, but I don’t think this is a joke.”


Was it a blessing in disguise that Mattingly was on the ground? Apollo 13 famously suffered an explosion in its service module as it traveled to the moon. Mattingly was on the ground and played a significant role in bringing those astronauts safely home.


Now, Mattingly was aboard Apollo 16 as it launched from Cape Canaveral on April 16, 1972—almost two years, to the day, after Apollo 13’s near tragedy.


“Sitting on top of that critter are three very nervous people,” mission commander John Young joked. “Charlie Duke, Ken Mattingly, and me. People said that, when that vehicle left the ground, it shook so much that the ground vibrated. . . . I was sitting in the top of it, and I think my knees were shaking, but then again, it was vibrating so much I couldn’t tell.”


Trouble struck as the trio entered lunar orbit and attempted to separate the lunar module from the rest of the spacecraft (CSM).


The CSM began shaking violently. Would the astronauts be forced to go back?


“It looked like we were going to abort,” Duke later explained, “and you can imagine the disappointment we had at this point . . . . We’d come through 240,000 miles and we’d been training for three years almost and here we are eight miles away from the landing site. We can see it, and they’re about ready to tell us to come home.”


But Mattingly, who’d already missed Apollo 13, was still in the CSM working with Mission Control to solve the problem. With his help, the problem was identified, and it was determined that Mattingly retained enough control to proceed with the mission.


The astronauts completed important work during their nearly three days at the moon, although their mission gets lost in the shadow of Apollo 11.


They obtained the first photographs ever made of deep space, using a telescope on the moon without the interference of Earth’s atmosphere. Young and Duke, in the lunar module, would also visit lunar highlands previously unexplored. In the meantime, Mattingly remained in the command module taking his own photos and conducting his own experiments.


He left the CSM just once, making a space walk during the return journey to Earth. It was Mattingly’s job to retrieve film from the service module.


In an unusual twist, that space walk enabled him to find the wedding ring he’d lost during the mission.


“[Normally], I could find things after a long period of time—they’d collect on the air filters. But it never showed up,” Mattingly smiled. The mystery was solved, just as the space hatch opened. “And there was my wedding ring floating out the door. I grabbed it, and we put it in the pocket. We had the chances of a gazillion to one.”


The astronauts splashed into the ocean on April 27, little knowing that they’d just completed the second-to-last Apollo mission. Apollos 18-20 would be canceled.


Naturally, that is a story for another day.

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