As I write, Russia’s Luna-25 and India’s Chandrayaan-3 spacecraft are both in close orbit around the Moon, scheduled for landings on August 20th-21st and 23rd-24th, respectively. Both are going for difficult targets near the lunar south pole, where Chandrayaan-2 came to grief in 2021, as did the Israeli Beresheet (‘In the Beginning’) in 2019 and Japan’s Hakuto-R earlier this year, though they both went for easier targets, nearer the equator. Those three probes were all on known trajectories and failed at low altitude, so the crash sites were relatively easy for Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to find. But with the USA planning to return people to the Moon within two years, and Russia, ESA, China and Japan all planning crewed landings later, what if one of those similarly comes to grief?
Failure of the first crewed mission to the Moon and Mars was a favourite topic of early space artists. Examples of both were painted by Fred L. Wolff for Martin Caidin’s books Rockets beyond the Earth (McBride, New York, 1952) and Worlds in Space (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1954), respectively. Both showed 2-man crews crawling away from crashed rockets, to die eventually from lack of oxygen. Both rockets were ‘conventional’ spaceships with wings and fins, on fire amidships, presumably due to fuel lines breaking in the impact; but how either had come to be embedded nose-first in the landscape was not apparent.
In 1964, in the Daily Express, Sydney Jordan’s ‘Jeff Hawke’ strip ran a story called ‘Moonstruck’. By that time his characters were wearing Project Gemini-style spacesuits, and the spacecraft were based on early studies of the Apollo Lunar Module which had appeared in the National Geographic Magazine in March that year. Descending to a lunar base on a solo mission, Hawke’s spacecraft is struck by meteors and with his radio and computer out, he’s forced to make an emergency landing. His colleagues on the Orbitboy lunar space station have no idea where he’s come down, “anywhere in a wilderness a fifth the size of Earth” (Fig. 1), i.e. anywhere on the surface of the Moon.
That exaggerates the problem, because he was in polar orbit, descending to a lunar base in the crater Plato, and if he hadn’t been too busy to look outside, he’d have seen that he was passing the Laplace Promontory on the eastern tip of Sinus Iridum, the Bay of Rainbows, a huge flooded crater on the northwest rim of Mare Imbrium (Fig. 2). The same view formed Plate XVIIIb of The Conquest of Space by Willy Ley, illustrated by Chesley Bonestell (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1952). Plato is on the northeast rim; the Bay of Rainbows was the touchdown site, and subsequently the lunar base site, in the 1950s Journey into Space radio serials and novels by Charles Chilton. As Hawke’s within a crater, and he’d already passed Laplace, he’s on the floor of the Bay itself. Unfortunately that’s not precise enough to locate him, even if his radio were working. There was a harrowing case in Australia, years ago, where searchers could hear a young boy, trapped in a car, after his parents had been killed when their car went off the road in the bush. The car was in a gully and the search parties couldn’t get a fix on it, before the walkie-talkie signal eventually faded out.
It’s not obvious in the panorama of Fig. 1 whether Hawke can see the Earth, as we can, but it becomes obvious later. Since the Moon keeps the same face to the Earth, it’s always overhead at Sinus Medii in the centre of the Nearside, drifting only slightly due to the effect known as ‘libration’. Even at Hadley Rille, the Apollo 15 landing site in Mare Imbrium, the Earth is high in the sky. The 1969 US stamp commemorating the Apollo 11 landing had the Earth on the horizon instead of overhead, but that was artistic license. In fact there’s a famous shot of the Earth high in the sky, over the head of Apollo 17 geologist Harrison Schmitt and the US flag, at the end of David R. Scott’s article, ‘What Is It Like to Walk on the Moon?’, National Geographic Magazine, September 1973. From Earth’s nearness to the horizon Hawke is obviously in a high latitude. The phase of the Moon is always the complement of the phase of the Earth – put the two discs together and they’d make a complete circle. So the phase of the Earth and the height of the Sun above the horizon give Hawke his longitude, to a fair approximation. If he could pass that information to Orbitboy, they could pinpoint his location, knowing the exact value of libration at the time. I won’t give away how it happens, since the story has been reprinted with 9 others in The Lunar 10, edited by William Rudling (Jeff Hawke Club, 2007 – Fig. 3), and is available at £26 on their website. I will remark, however, that it’s very fortunate that Hawke’s colleague Maclean is in exactly the right place to land and pick him up, on his last gasp of air, from a close orbit around the Moon which would take 90 minutes.
The same book reprinted an article by Sydney Jordan and myself called ‘If Eagles Fell’, first published in 2001. A few days before Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins lifted off in Apollo 11 the Russians had launched their own unmanned Moonship, designated Luna 15. There was concern that communications between Houston and Apollo might suffer interference from Russian telemetry. Astronaut Frank Borman, who had visited his Russian counterparts a year before, was asked to pass on this concern to the Soviet space administration, and was assured that all precautions had been taken.
Luna 15 went into orbit ahead of Apollo 11, and I debated with the late John Braithwaite (of Braithwaite Telescopes) what its purpose might be. The media were full of speculation that it was a last-ditch attempt to get a lunar sample ahead of the Americans. The Sunday Express published a front-page article titled ‘Has the Red Robot Won by a Short Head?’ (Fig. 4). (The second headline was ‘Edward Kennedy in Death Crash’, and we all know what that was.) But a last-minute sample grab seemed both petty and pointless, even if the randomly selected lunar material was brought to Earth before the US astronauts returned. It would be much more creditable, and more characteristically Russian, to send something that might be helpful, especially if the landing went badly wrong. Luna 15 had been launched by a Proton booster, so it might be a rescue vehicle – perhaps a fuel tanker, but more probably a lunar lander. If it had been a sample-return probe, like the later Luna 16, there seemed no reason for it to remain in lunar orbit, circling the Moon no less than fifty times.
A manned lunar flyby, with the Zond variant of the Soyuz spacecraft, had been cancelled in early December 1968, leaving the honour of first reaching the Moon to Apollo 8. On July 3rd, 1969, another Zond was ready on a Proton booster, along with two N-1 ‘Lenin’ boosters already on their pads. Cosmonauts Filipchenko, Kubason and Shonin were in the Zond, while at least one of the Lenins was carrying a one-man lunar lander, as well as extra fuel to bring the Zond back to Earth. (Peter Pesavento, ‘The Russians Were Coming’, Griffith Observer, July 1978.) All 30 engines on the first Lenin ignited successfully and it lifted off, but it exploded immediately afterwards due to a blocked fuel pump, damaging the second Lenin half a mile away and ending the remote chance of beating Apollo 11 to the Moon. In the end, no Lenin was ever flown successfully.
Luna 15 was deorbited two hours before the Eagle liftoff and crashed into Mare Crisium. That destination was the one which the Soviets had in mind for their Moon landing, but it was also the target for the Luna 16 unmanned soil-sampling mission (Fig. 5). If Luna 15 was a sampler, the timing suggests that there was been a problem with the craft, preventing it from descending earlier. Or had it been waiting? There was still the possibility that the Ascent Stage engine of the Eagle might fail to fire, or fire only briefly and crash back on the lunar surface. If Luna 15 was poised to attempt a rescue, it seems pointless to bring it out of orbit at that stage – unless it was accidental, perhaps an adjustment of the orbit which went wrong after two previous ones had been successful. (Apollo 8 would have crashed into the Moon if its deceleration had lasted only a few seconds too long.) The sample return explanation became accepted as part of the official story that there had never been a Moon race at all and the American public had been deceived. NASA Director James Webb came in for extensive criticism – some congressmen suggested that he should be imprisoned for deceiving the American public – and as the existence of the Lenin booster was still only a rumour outside US intelligence circles, it became derisively known to the US media as ‘Webb’s Giant’.
But in 1990, a group of American scientists from MIT and Caltech visited the Moscow Aviation Institute and were staggered to be shown Russia’s manned Moon-landing hardware, confirming that the race had been real. (Daniel James Gauthier, ‘A Bold Plan that Was Not to Be’, Ad Astra, February 1990). The landing vehicle is now known as the LK (Lunniy korabl, ‘lunar craft’). Had its Lenin booster functioned as hoped, it was still possible that a Russian might have been first to step on to the Moon. But the programme was in difficulties – the manned Zond launch in December 1968 was frustrated by an electrical failure, and later failed in an unmanned launch. The lunar landing had originally been scheduled for February 1969, so the attempt in July seems to have been made in desperation rather than because the vehicles were ready and reliable.
However, it was revealed that the ‘Luna 15’ designation had been applied, at least temporarily, to the lunar landing module which was to be placed in lunar orbit in February (Fig. 6); and it amazes me that I seem to be the only writer who’s seen the implications. The lander on the Lenin booster destroyed in July was lifted clear of the explosion by an escape tower, and there may well have been a backup ready for the second booster. Either could have been transferred to the unused Proton, replacing the Zond, and despatched to the Moon. That doesn’t guarantee that the Luna 15 we know was a rescue vehicle, but if it was, the history of lunar exploration might have taken a very different course.
We know now that President Nixon had been given a prepared speech to deliver if Armstrong and Aldrin could not get off the Moon, and that all communications between Mission Control and the doomed astronauts would have been cut off. Chilling as that scenario is, if it resulted in a Russian rescue (Fig. 7) then the subsequent history of the Nixon administration could have been very different, while the Soviets could never have denied the Moon race and the two lunar programmes might have achieved cooperation. But they would still have been overshadowed by tragedy: the LK was never designed to carry more than one occupant.
For Artemis 3, when it lands the first new American crew on the Moon in 2025, there will be no backup vehicle of any kind. Their only chance would be if there were already a pressurised module on the Moon to act as a temporary base, as there is in Hank Searls’s novel The Pilgrim Project (Fig. 8) and Countdown, the 1968 James Caan film version of it (Fig. 9). When I was in the Junior Chamber of Commerce in Irvine, in the late 1970s, I was asked to referee a management exercise, supposedly formulated by NASA but actually by a management consultant called Belbin, which the members undertook at one of their meetings. Each participating team was supposedly stranded on the Moon by a forced landing and had to walk 100 miles to the nearest Moonbase. Out of a list of items in the ship, only 12 could be taken. Most of the items in the survival pack had been intended for emergency landing on Earth: “I’ll tell you one thing, that rubber dinghy’s no use without the oars!” But actually you were supposed to give it priority because the other items could be dragged in it, which made the limit of twelve a bit arbitrary. If it could be inflated without bursting, things could be carried in it, which would be even more useful.
The items included a pistol, which the team was supposed to retain in order to shoot their way backwards across chasms; quite how the second person was to get across wasn’t explained. But the late David Proffitt, RN, reckoned it would nevertheless be useful: “I’d point it at you lot and tell you what to pick up and carry!”
Another item was a compass, but the Chamber members didn’t know whether the Moon had a magnetic field and as a referee, I wasn’t allowed to tell them. It might give warning of an approaching solar flare stream, but it would be highly unreliable for direction: although the Moon has no overall magnetic field, individual craters have fields generated by shock forces in the rock. Shielding your eyes from the glare of the landscape would let you see the stars, which would be more of a help, as long as you remember that the Moon’s pole star is Zeta Draconis and not Polaris (Fig. 10).
Zeta Draconis is a faint star, as its designation implies, but in the permanent clarity of lunar skies it should be easy enough to find – particularly at night, when the Earth, four times the apparent diameter of the Moon seen from here, and twelve times the area, would give light bright enough to read and to walk by; though that great ‘clock in the sky’ wouldn’t be visible on the Farside, of course. In January/February 1974 the cover story in Worlds of If was ‘Mistaken for Granted’ by Hal Clement, illustrated by Rick Sternbach (Fig. 11), in which a Boy Scout, trying for a Lunar Orienteering badge, follows Polaris instead of Zeta Draconis, realising he’s gone wrong only when he happens upon the camera of Ranger 8, hurled far from its point of impact and flagged as a historical artefact. By then his radio is broken and he’s down to his last hour of spacesuit air, so he’s in real trouble – I don’t remember what the ending was, but something turned up.
There was a situation akin to the Belbin exercise in ‘A Handful of Hours’, episode 16 of the 1959-60 TV series Men into Space, starring William Lundigan (Fig. 12). Four men are stranded after a crash landing and have to walk to a moonbase, carrying a tank of oxygen which is enough to replenish their spacesuits on the way. But it has a faulty valve which could be fixed by the engineer, except that the spanner (called a wrench, throughout) is on the inside of his suit. Eventually he accepts the Captain Oates solution, giving up his life for his colleagues, but again this is an exaggeration.
Soviet spacecraft were pressurised with air at Normal Temperature and Pressure (NTP, as we called it in school chemistry notes). When Alexei Leonov did the first walk in space from Voshkod 2 in March 1965 (Fig. 13), his spacesuit ballooned and he had to depressurise it, at risk of The Bends, to get back inside. In an explosive decompression, a human has only 15 seconds of consciousness. The astronauts of 2001, A Space Odyssey are breathing air at NTP, and Bowman’s transfer from Pod to Discovery without a helmet takes 13.5 seconds, by my count. US spacecraft used pure oxygen at 5 pounds per square inch, which carried a risk of fire (fatally in the over-pressurisation of Apollo 1), but allowed for a much lighter structure, would not decompress explosively, and allowed reasonable mobility in spacesuits. A special airlock module was needed for transfer between spacecraft on the Apollo-Soyuz mission (Fig. 14), and was modified for use in Space Shuttle docking with the Mir space station.
The Space Shuttle cabin had ordinary air, so for Extra-Vehicular Activity the astronauts had to wait in the airlock, breathing pure oxygen, until the nitrogen was flushed out of their bloodstreams. The same procedure is followed on the International Space Station. In that situation, with the blood saturated with oxygen, a human could theoretically remain conscious for 15-30 minutes in vacuum. Blisters would form under the skin, but the head wouldn’t explode or the blood boil as in the Sean Connery movie Outland. The biggest risk would be to the eyes, whose moisture would evaporate or freeze, depending whether they were in sunlight or shadow. The Men into Space engineer could simply have kept his eyes closed for the time it took to depressurise and open his suit to hand over the wrench. Even if his eyes were damaged, his colleagues could have sealed up and repressurised the suit, and in lunar gravity, could easily have helped or carried him the remaining miles to safety.
Safety still depends on knowing where you are, and having somewhere to go. The first issue is being addressed: in June 2022 NASA launched CAPSTONE, the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, into lunar polar orbit for position-finding experiments, and the unmanned Artemis 1 mission spent most of its time in rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon, which will be used by the Lunar Gateway space station and establish continuous communication and navigational references over the lunar Nearside. China already has a similar satellite, Queqiao. which is maintaining communication with Chang’e-4 and the Yutu-2 rover, still happily exploring the Farside crater Van de Graaf four years after launch (Fig. 15). Experiments are under way to extend the terrestrial GPS system for use on the Moon.
Still, if Artemis 3 piles up on landing, the crew will have nowhere to go. Ideally, throughout the project there should be a backup Starship lander permanently at the Lunar Gateway, because it may often be easier to rescue a stranded crew by rocket from there than to drive out to them from a lunar base, once there is one. Whether the budget will stretch to that remains to be seen, but as Elon Musk is building the Starship landers, I’m reasonably hopeful.
Whatever precautions are taken, eventually there will be casualties. The statuette which the Apollo 15 crew placed in the lunar dust was called The Fallen Astronaut, representing the astronauts and cosmonauts who had died in training or in flight up till then. Inevitably, somewhere along the way, real astronauts will join him. Describing talks to schools in one of his essays, Arthur C. Clarke wondered how many of those young men and women he was sending to ‘strange and lonely deaths, far from their native world’. In The Challenge of the Spaceship, he wrote,
Arthur had a way with words, and in this case, unfortunately, he wasn’t making a prophecy but stating a fact.
Duncan Lunan’s books are available on Amazon, including his collections of space-travel stories, From the Moon to the Stars and The Other Side of the Interface. For more details see his website, www.duncanlunan.com.