To the moon and back from  Albemarle — and my journey with NASA

The Stanly County Historical Society and the Stanly County History Center are bringing Brad Perry and the Apollo Command Module mock-up he built in his basement on Ninth Street in the early 1970s back to Albemarle. His presentation, on April 26, will be in the Fellowship Center of Central United Methodist Church beginning at 6:30 p.m.

Following the presentation attendees will have an opportunity to visit the Stanly County History Center to see his Command Module and other memorabilia related to his Apollo mission simulation.

The event is free, but registration is encouraged. To register call the Stanly County History Center 704-986-3777 or go online to Select the Event Registration tab and be sure to click SUBMIT to complete the online registration.

It was 46 years ago on April 16, 1972 that Apollo 16, the fifth lunar landing mission, launched to fly to the moon with Cmdr. John Young, command module pilot Ken Mattingly and lunar module pilot Charlie Duke.

It was the second of the three advanced “J” missions that carried a lunar rover for expanded surface exploration and also an advanced scientific instrument module for orbital lunar science, and the next to the last Apollo mission to the moon.

Young and Duke would land their lunar module, Orion, in the Descartes Highlands area of the moon four days later and accomplish three highly successful walks before blasting off to rejoin Mattingly in the command module, Casper, for the trip back to Earth. An awesome and successful mission.

Apollo 16 had another, rather unique, aspect that the news media picked up and advertised. A fourth astronaut, or rather junior astronaut, me, who would simulate the actual mission in real time.

So how did all of this come to be?

It all started in the fall of 1968 when I learned of the planned Apollo 8 mission to orbit the moon with humans for the first time. I saw an article on it in National Geographic magazine, and I was mesmerized, hooked and bit by the space bug.

To me, the thought of sending humans to the moon was the spirit of exploration at its best, and I instantly knew that I wanted to learn as much as I could about it and participate in any way that I could. I followed the television coverage as Apollo 8 launched and circled the moon that December, much to my parents’ dismay over the Christmas holiday.

Following Apollo 8, I spent the next several months trying to convince my parents that I should build a full-scale Apollo command module (CM) interior mockup in our basement. They finally agreed, just before the historic Apollo 11 lunar landing mission in July 1969, provided that I finance it. I paid for it using the income from my Stanly News and Press paper route.

Finally, on board with my decision to build the CM mockup, my dad even used his vacation time in June to help me start the construction.

I remember watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin make that first historic walk on the lunar surface after a breathtaking landing in which Armstrong had to manually steer the lunar module, Eagle, clear of a large football field sized crater, landing with just seconds of fuel left before an aborted landing would have ensued. Most of the public watching the landing were unaware of this averted crisis, only hearing, “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed.”

The three TV networks of the day competed in providing approximately 30 hours of continuous coverage of the Apollo 11 landing and moon walk. One of the networks assembled a panel of experts to speculate about the next great human space exploration feat, landing on Mars, and that an attractive launch window would exist in the early 1980s to launch such a mission.

Everyone concurred that we should surely have the technology required by then. What nobody recognized, however, was that the Apollo program was politically motivated as an instrument of the Cold War, and that this would not be the case in the decades to follow. And nobody recognized the potential for a greatly expanded robotic exploration of space, although the initial Mars landing of the Viking spacecraft was then less than seven years away.

Apollo 12 followed with the second lunar landing in November 1969, and then Apollo 13 experienced an explosion in the service module on the way to the moon in April 1970 that forced a hugely heroic effort to get the three astronauts home safely. Their failure scenario had never been simulated on the ground because it was not deemed survivable.

Many people worked around the clock to enable this mission to conclude successfully, and this accomplishment was viewed by many to be as great as the initial Apollo 11 landing. Ron Howard’s 1995 movie of the Apollo 13 mission accurately portrayed the mission’s critical events, enabling the public to see the extremely narrow margin on which those astronauts made it back to Earth.

Somewhere along the path prior to the Apollo 14 mission in early 1971, our neighbor and Stanly News and Press reporter, author and family friend, Fred T. Morgan, learned of our effort and asked to do a story that ran in the newspaper.

The article was picked up by the Charlotte Observer, and much to our surprise ran as a front-page feature article in February 1971. There was subsequently a lot of coverage of my effort to prepare for and simulate the Apollo 15 mission in July 1971, including WBTV coverage with C. J. Underwood that was picked up and carried by the “CBS Evening News.” The Associated Press and United Press International also ran stories covering my plans for simulating Apollo 15.

My dad and I worked continuously for 31 hours to have the CM mockup ready in time for the Apollo 15 launch. By that time we had spent over two years building the CM mockup in the basement of our home, 431 N. Ninth St., Albemarle.

Ultimately too tired and untrained to simulate the complete Apollo 15 mission, I set my sights on the next mission, Apollo 16, that was scheduled to launch in April 1972.

After almost being ready to simulate the Apollo 15 mission, I was fully prepared and ready to simulate the complete Apollo 16 mission. I spent the nine months between Apollo 15 and Apollo 16 training so that I could duplicate the intricate mission details as accurately as possible inside the CM mockup.

I spent many hours inside the mockup and also training at other places including the Morehead Planetarium in Chapel Hill to study celestial navigation as the astronauts did, and the Johnson Space Center (then the Manned Spacecraft Center) in Houston, Texas to study the CM procedures and checklists and other mission details. While at the center, I even had the opportunity to fly the lunar module simulator and land it with Jim Irwin, the Apollo 15 lunar module pilot.

On Sunday morning, April 16, 1972, I entered the CM mockup for the full Apollo 16 mission. I replicated the astronauts’ duties inside the CM on a real-time basis, to my best ability. I say that because some of the mission details, such as lunar orbit insertion and trans-Earth injection occurred on the back side of the moon and out of contact with Mission Control (and me).

One of these backside events, a deferred command/service module orbit circularization adjustment using the service propulsion system caught Mission Control in Houston (and me) by surprise after I had already accomplished mine.

Upon learning this when Casper, the Apollo 16 CM, resumed contact with Mission Control on the front side of the moon, I had to recycle and assume a negative orbit adjustment. The problem was ultimately resolved, and the circularization orbit adjustment made on the real mission six hours and three orbits later.

But until it was resolved, this problem was precluding a “go” decision for the lunar landing of Orion, the Apollo 16 lunar module, on this mission. After this crisis was averted, the Apollo 16 mission (and my simulation of it) went very successfully. I emerged from my CM mockup following splashdown, on April 27, 11 days, 1 hour and 51 minutes after launch.

A short three and a half years after the initial Apollo 11 landing, the United States (and the world) concluded the first epoch of human exploration of the Moon with the highly successful Apollo 17 mission in December 1972 that visited the Taurus-Littrow Valley area of the moon. Cmdr. Gene Cernan’s last words from the surface of the moon were, “As I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come — but we believe not too long into the future — I’d like to just (say) what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”

He later frequently remarked that he never thought it would take so long for humans to return to the moon, and sadly he passed away in January 2017 without seeing humans return to deep space exploration. John Young of Apollo 16 passed away early this year, leaving only five of the 12 moonwalkers still alive.

Next year we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon. It is hard for me to believe that nearly half a century has passed, and we have not resumed human deep space exploration beyond low Earth orbit.

But much has happened in the intervening years, with many successes in both human spaceflight in the Space Shuttle and International Space Station programs, and also many successes in robotic space exploration that have fundamentally changed our perception of the solar system and universe.

We have visited all of the planets robotically and also Pluto, even though Pluto was still classified as a planet when the New Horizons mission was launched in January 2006. Other robotic missions, such as the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) mission, dedicated to cosmology, have investigated the cosmic background radiation of the universe and shaped our understanding of the cosmos and proven the Big Bang theory for the universe’s beginning. The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has been successful beyond our wildest imagination in showing us the beauty and grandeur of the universe. HST has also showed us the vastness of the universe though such campaigns as the Hubble Deep Field, Hubble Ultra-Deep Field and Extreme Deep Field that have imaged thousands of galaxies within a small area of the sky, looking back in time approximately 13 billion years to show us some of the universe’s oldest galaxies.

Today we have advanced mobile communications devices like the television series “Star Trek,” called smartphones, although we are no closer to transporting humans instantaneously as the show routinely did. We also have a highly successful International Space Station, similar to space station scenes depicted in the epic movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But we have not yet visited Jupiter with humans as the movie did (Saturn in Arthur C. Clarke’s book), and we may never make such a close human voyage to Jupiter due to the inherent deadly radiation in the Jovian environment.

I believe that radiation presents the biggest challenge to sending humans to Mars, due to the unpredictability of the solar weather. The sun has coronal mass ejections, or proton events, that send a lethal dose of radiation into deep space. Whereas the astronauts on board the Space Station in low Earth orbit are shielded from this radiation by the van Allen Radiation belts that surround the Earth at a much higher altitude, the Apollo astronauts did not have this protection. The Apollo missions fortunately missed a period of extreme solar radiation with the flares and coronal mass ejections recorded in August 1972. Such an event during an Apollo mission could have had a disastrous consequence, and James Michener used this theme in developing his plot for his novel, “Space.”

After a long period of discussion of the private commercialization of space, today we are seeing significant progress as several billionaires, most notably Elon Musk and SpaceX, are competing to provide private citizens (with enough cash and courage) a trip into space.

SpaceX has accomplished 50 Falcon launches as of this writing, including the recent Falcon Heavy Rocket launch on Feb. 6 that placed a dummy payload (his Tesla sports car with Starman) into an elliptical orbit that stretches beyond the orbit of Mars. Musk is looking to build and launch a rocket with the capability to take humans to Mars in the not distant future, a role that only NASA was working just a few years ago.

We are indeed fortunate to be living in an exciting era of developing human space exploration that will hopefully again enable humans to leave LEO (low Earth orbit) in the not distant future for destinations far away — the moon, Mars, asteroids and beyond.

Looking back on my almost life-long interest in space and NASA, I am certainly fortunate to have had parents that encouraged me to pursue my interest. Did I become an astronaut and fly in space? No. But did I have an amazing career that exceeded my imagination? Most definitely yes.

What did I do in my career? My NASA career started with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975, spanned the Space Shuttle in the 1980s and the design of the International Space Station in the 1990s, and even included 11 years working on NASA’s robotic space missions of the 21st Century.

I have had many exciting moments and opportunities in my NASA career, so please join me at 6:30 p.m. April 26 at Central United Methodist Church Fellowship Center to hear more about them. I will also provide a look back in time at my Apollo CM mockup and simulation of the Apollo 16 mission.

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