Forty-years ago this month, the United States successfully conducted the next-to-last Apollo lunar landing mission with the flight of Apollo 16. The lunar landing occurred in the densely-cratered Descartes Highlands region located near the Descartes crater.
On Sunday, 16 April 1972, Commander John W. Young, Command Module Pilot Thomas K. Mattingly II, and Lunar Module Pilot Charles M. Duke, Jr. lifted-off from Cape Canaveral’s LC-39A at 17:54:00 UTC. Apollo 16’s goal was to land in the lunar highlands whose surface material was older than that of the previously-visited lunar maria landing sites.
Apollo 16 entered lunar orbit in the 75th hour of the outbound flight. Young and Duke undocked their Lunar Module Orion from the Command Module Casper piloted by Mattingly just short of 96.5 hours into the mission. Slightly more than 8 hours later, Orion safely touched-down near Descartes crater at 2:23:35 UTC on Friday, 21 April 1972.
During their 71-hour lunar stay, Young and Duke conducted a trio of surface EVA’s to explore the Descartes region. Totaling more than 20 hours, these exploratory jaunts were facilitated by use of the motorized Lunar Rover that allowed the crew to venture as far as 2.7 miles from the Lunar Module.
Although too extensive to adequately report here, the astronauts’ exploratory discoveries were truly phenomenal and ultimately changed our understanding of the Moon’s geology. Young and Duke collected roughly 211 lbs of lunar surface samples. At 1:25:47 UTC on Monday, 24 April 1972, Orion and her crew lifted-off from the lunar surface and docked with Casper a little more than 2 hours later.
Following transfer of crew and cargo to Casper, Orion was jettisoned, and the 3-man crew remained in lunar orbit for almost a full earth day conducting experiments and surface observations before being rocketed back to Earth. The trip home and earth atmospheric entry were uneventful in the main.
Command Module splashdown took place at 19:45:05 UTC on Thursday, 27 April 1972 in the South Pacific Ocean. Crew, lunar cargo and spacecraft were safely recovered aboard the USS Ticonderoga some 37 minutes later.
Apollo 16 was a grand achievement both scientifically and technologically. Along with the other Apollo lunar landing missions, Apollo 16 reminds us what be accomplished when vision, commitment and hard work are brought to bear. Today, the lone Apollo 16 spacecraft component to return to Earth, the Command Module Casper, is on public display at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.