Apollo Investigation

The Mystery of the Apollo 17 Rover Fenders 

by Derek K. Willis 
 

 


Rover Apollo17

Apollo 17 Rover AS17-143-21933


Apollo 17

Commander Gene Cernan was preparing the Rover for the first Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA-1) of Apollo 17 when the rock hammer sticking out of the shin pocket of his spacesuit caught the lip of the right rear fender. It pulled off the 45cm (17.7”) aft section and Cernan spent ten minutes re-attaching it using duct tape. After this repair Cernan and his fellow astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt began their journey. Then, on the return trip to the Lunar Module (LM) this fender section again fell off.1

In the early-1990s archivists began to compile transcripts of the Apollo missions. Known as the Apollo Flight Journal and the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, these transcripts include notes added by the astronauts and by NASA officials. The following exchange is taken from the Apollo 17 Lunar Surface Journal [ALSJ-17] at the time when the re-attached fender section fell off. The numbers are hours, minutes and seconds into the mission as recorded by the ALSJ-17 editors:

122:47:48 Schmitt: I think you have lost a fender. I keep getting rained on.
122:47:51 Cernan: Oh no!
122:48:03 Schmitt: Sure, look at it.
122:48:04 Cernan: Oh boy, that’s going to be terrible.
122:48:12 Schmitt: I didn’t see it. We probably lost it. I think I know when because I just started to notice it.
122:48:55 Cernan: Look at that fender. Look at the dust it’s produced.
122:49:18 Cernan: Boy, I don’t like losing that fender.

Without a full fender he had reason to be concerned. It could be dangerous for the astronauts and the Rover to be covered in dust. The dark dust reflected less sunlight than both the white spacesuits and the metal surface of the Rover, so that men and machine could overheat, while the dust also clung to their visors, reducing visibility. Yet despite these dangers and Cernan’s vocal concern, the astronauts made no attempt to retrieve the missing fender section. Which is odd, because Schmitt seems sure he knew when it fell off: just before he mentions being “rained on”.

The Rover’s top speed on level ground was 11 km/hr, (6.83mph) so at the point where Cernan says “Boy, I don’t like losing that fender” they had travelled no more than 70 metres (229.6ft). Why didn’t they turn around and retrace the Rover’s tracks? Cernan had initially spent ten minutes re-attaching the broken fender section, because it was an essential component and for the rest of that EVA he kept repeating how much he hated losing it. Yet, when it fell off he did not even consider retrieving it. The following note was added to the ALSJ-17 by Cernan:

[“We didn’t go back to get the piece that fell off. But at the end of EVA-3, I broke off the other three fenders and brought those back to Earth along with the replacement fender that we made when we got back to the LM.”]

CernanGene Cernan in the LM after EVA-3

Well, it wasn’t quite when they got back to the LM. Gene Cernan is referring to the overnight fix that Houston devised. It was cobbled together by the astronauts the next morning prior to EVA-2. Following guidance from Houston, they had taped together spare laminated maps and used small clamps to attach this makeshift replacement fender section onto the existing metal guide rails. This arrangement is said to have held up until shortly before the end of EVA-3, when the laminate succumbed to the heat, started curling up, and failed to prevent the dust raining down onto Schmitt once more.

Other NASA sources ignore this second failure and say that this fix was entirely successful for all of EVA-2 and EVA-3. Furthermore, Cernan’s explanation contradicts another entry by the ALSJ-17 editors. Earlier in the very same section, following Cernan’s completion of his duct tape repair to the damaged fender we have this:

Cernan moves around the rear of the Rover toward his seat. At the end of EVA-3, he will remove two fender sections, albeit not the broken section, and bring them back to Earth. They are on display at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. [emphasis added]

The final element concerning the mystery of the Apollo 17 Rover fenders occurred right at the end of the third EVA, when Cernan had driven the Rover some distance from the LM so that the TV images of the ascent stage lifting off from the Moon could be transmitted to Earth. In this ALSJ-17 extract, the long number is the photograph catalogue reference, and the comments in square brackets were added by the astronauts later.

170:00:49 Cernan: Well, I think you can see almost everything from here.
170:00:52 Parker: Okay, Geno, And Jack, let me know when you get done scraping the soil away.
170:01:00 Schmitt: I will.
(AS17-143-21923 shows the final Rover parking configuration)
[Cernan – “I sit here and swear that I parked the Rover with the wheels straight. That’s the final parking? Well, we’re behind the LM and it’s about the right distance.”]
[Schmitt: “Why doesn’t it have a fender?”]
[Cernan: “I took it off. Both of them. I took them home.”]

Schmitt
Harrison Schmitt

Cernan may have simply forgotten that he hadn’t parked the rover with the wheels straight. He alludes to fenders in the singular and then in the plural. However, as the Rover clearly does have some parts of the fenders remaining, even Schmitt’s question isn’t technically accurate. It’s all a bit of a fudge.

However, it seems odd that Harrison Schmitt didn’t know what had happened to the missing fender sections, especially as they were such a feature of the mission. For him not to know, he must not have seen the sections during the flight back into lunar orbit, and during the flight back to Earth.

This option seems unlikely because the aft curving fender sections measure 45 cm long by 20 cm wide. How could they have not been noticed in the cramped cabins of the LM and the Command and Service Module? (CSM). Moreover, Cernan must not have mentioned to anyone – either his fellow astronauts or Mission Control – that he had removed the sections and was bringing them home. Nor must he have mentioned anything to Schmitt over the weeks, months, and years after the mission. A note inserted by NASA after the above exchanges reads:

[At some point before he goes back to the LM Gene will remove the replacement fender – which is now at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington. He will also remove the rear section of the left rear fender – which is now on display at the Johnston Space Center.]

“At some point” sounds somewhat vague for the normally precise NASA editors. Note also yet another discrepancy concerning exactly which fender sections really went walkabout. Here, only the makeshift fender and the other rear fender section are mentioned. In the earlier note added by Cernan he says he’d also removed the front fender sections. And a PDF document referenced within the ALSJ not only infers that the fate of these fenders was unknown at the time and for years afterwards. It also shows the Rover parked facing the LM, wheels askew and it appears to have the forward fender section missing from the left front wheel. Although close inspection makes it more likely that this fender is in its original retracted position.

At the end of EVA-3 Schmitt had walked back to the LM, leaving Cernan to drive the Rover back. Cernan had arrived at the location where he parked the Rover at 169:59:13 and left on foot almost half an hour later, at 170:27:16. During this period Cernan gave a running commentary, describing in detail everything he did. He had to aim the Rover’s antenna at the Earth, sweep dust off the batteries, check the TV camera was working, and set an array of switches so that the camera could be operated from Mission Control. After about twenty minutes Cernan took three photographs of the Rover, including the one later discussed back on Earth:

170:17:43 Cernan (to himself): Okay, I’ll get a camera.
A note is added at this point:
[Gene has removed the replacement fender and, from the left side, the rear extension.]

So “at some point” during this twenty-minute period Cernan removed the fender sections. However, in the voice transcripts he doesn’t mention this at all. He mentions everything else he did, but says nothing whatsoever about the fenders.

As Cernan heads back to the LM he is filmed by Bob Fendell at Mission Control remotely operating the Rover’s TV camera:

Fendell finds Gene northeast of the LM, moving with a long, easy skipping stride. He is carrying the replacement fender and the aft section of the left rear fender.

Sample bags

The Apollo 17 geology sample container bags

All Cernan can be seen carrying is a large white bag. He had been asked to bring a dust brush back from the Rover, and mentions retrieving a bag from under one of the seats. Presumably, he put the brush inside the bag. The fender sections may be inside the bag: but despite what the note states, Cernan cannot directly be seen carrying the fender sections. (And there is no mention of the front fender sections.)

After returning to the LM, Cernan uses the brush to dust down Schmitt, and then Schmitt dusts down Cernan. When Cernan took the dust brush out of the bag, he didn’t mention anything to Schmitt about the fender sections. Schmitt then climbs up the ladder to the platform outside of the Ascent Stage hatch, and Cernan passes up the bags containing the rock samples collected on their third EVA.

The process of bringing rock samples back to Earth followed strict rules so that they didn’t become mixed-up or cross-contaminated. As soon as samples were collected they were immediately put into small bags with serial numbers. When the astronauts returned to the Rover, the small bags were put inside one or more larger bags, depending on how many samples had been collected. When the astronauts were back inside the LM, the large bags were weighed so that Mission Control could calculate the launch trajectory.

The bags were then stowed on a rack inside the cabin. After returning from their final EVA, Cernan and Schmitt weighed five large bags, ranging from 10 kg to 30 kg. There is no mention of the bag containing the fender sections. There is the possibility that Cernan had transferred them into one of the five other bags before handing these up to Schmitt. If he did, he says nothing about it.

When Cernan and Schmitt were back up in lunar orbit the samples were transferred to the CSM. Again, there were strict rules. Ron Evans, the pilot of the CSM, handed three metal boxes to Cernan and Schmitt. Working together, Cernan and Schmitt removed the small bags from the large bags and, making notes of the serial numbers, placed these in the metal boxes. The metal boxes were handed back to Evans, who stowed them in the CSM.

It seems impossible that the makeshift fender section and the three other fender sections could have been placed inside one of the metal boxes without Schmitt seeing them. If the fender sections were in a separate large bag, this would have had to have been transferred into the CSM and stowed. Surely both Schmitt and Evans would have seen this and asked what was in the bag.

* * *

Whichever way the “fenders mystery” is looked at, something doesn’t add up. Either Jack Schmitt genuinely didn’t know Gene Cernan had brought the fenders back to Earth, or he had forgotten about it. The unlikelihood of the former case has been described above. In the latter case, would a highly competent and highly trained astronaut have such a poor memory that he couldn’t remember seeing the fender sections during the journey home, or recall any conversations about them? This is especially unlikely when in 2012 – on the fortieth anniversary of Apollo 17 – Schmitt described his memory of the mission as “extremely vivid”. There is, however, a scenario that may explain the “fenders mystery”.

Introducing a Spot of Drama

The Apollo missions were planned down to the very last detail. So in effect, it could be said that the the astronauts were following prepared scripts. By 2018 increasing numbers of people assert that the Apollo missions were acted out in a studio – or in NASA’s lunar surface simulator. If this was indeed the case, then the “lost fender” incident could have been written into the script of Apollo 17 in order to add an element of danger. Especially since, by the time of Apollo 17 the public had become bored and were not watching these missions. At the time, the fact that NASA had to pay the major TV networks to provide live coverage of the Apollo 17 EVAs was kept a close in-house secret .2

Hypothetically, some visual drama and tension from the start of EVA-1 might have encouraged the TV companies to stick with the mission, along with potentially increased viewing figures. If this was the case, then the storyline was that the success of Apollo 17 would be seriously compromised if the Rover overheated and broke down due to being covered in dust: worse, the astronauts might even die. So the script included a scene in which Gene Cernan “accidentally” pulls off the fender section. His initial “fix” doesn’t work, and the fender is lost halfway through the first EVA. The astronauts then have a risky drive back to the LM.

However, the mission and the astronauts’ lives are saved by Houston "we don’t have a problem" using good ol' American ingenuity, maps and duct tape. When the Apollo 17 Lunar Surface Journal is read in this light, the whole situation of the fender section being damaged, repaired, (using the same ‘ingredients’ as for the Apollo 13 filter repair) lost, worried over by the astronauts, and finally their lives "saved" by a makeshift replacement, it comes across rather like a fictional storyline being acted out – indeed, overacted – for dramatic effect. And Cernan’s litany of regret over the fender loss during EVA-1 now fits neatly into place.

If the “faked mission” scenario has validity, then one might speculate that it was after the astronauts returned to Earth that things started to go wrong. Perhaps soon after the mission NASA’s public relations department had decided to add some “physical evidence” to the storyline by claiming the fender sections had been brought home and were going to be put in museums. To make this appear true, another photograph of the Rover was taken “on the Moon”, but this time with all the relevant fender sections removed.

However, for some reason – no doubt an oversight – Jack Schmitt hadn’t been told about this update to the script. So, years later when he asked: “Why doesn’t it have a fender?” he genuinely had no idea what was going on. Houston now really did have a problem when the archivists realised that Schmitt didn’t know the fender sections had been “brought back home” by Gene Cernan.

Cernan Rover
Gene Cernan in the lunar Rover

The only way NASA could get round this problem was to make additions to the Apollo 17 Lunar Surface Journal so as to include references to Cernan removing the fender sections and carrying them back to the LM. Of course, because the original script and filming didn’t include Cernan removing the fender sections, there are no references in the voice tapes of him doing this, nor any footage of him carrying them. If Jack Schmitt was ever asked why he didn’t know the fender sections had been brought home, he could always say it was something Cernan had decided to do and, being the Mission Commander, had simply opted not to tell his fellow astronauts.

Except that Jack Schmitt didn’t say that – he said he didn’t know about the fenders. There are several examples of astronauts apparently mucking up ‘the scripts’. For example, during their ’lunar stop-over’, these two Apollo 17 astronauts seemed not to know whether they were in zero-g or 6g – but opined that Houston knew where they were. While Chris Kraft is not appreciated by certain astronauts for other revelations which have put a heavy boot into the Apollo record.3

So from the point of view of those who consider there is something very wrong with the Apollo record, there is another possibility: the internet is the perfect tool for the ALSJ to maintain an ever-changing journal capable of mopping up the errors of the past. In this scenario, Eric Jones and the other archivists would likely be in the loop. However, when Schmitt professes not to know about the fenders he might be whistle-blowing, deliberately alerting us all to the anomalies in these scripts. This also applies to all involved with the space program who are now contradicting their original statements and actions.

The scenario described above is given further credence through Gene Cernan also having “memory lapses”. For instance, when referring to the fender sections he said: “I took it off. Both of them. I took them home.” However, he also said: “I broke off the other three fenders and brought those back to Earth along with the replacement fender.” Oh what a tangled web we weave … Moreover, the “faked mission” scenario explains Cernan’s confusion when he said: “I sit here and swear that I parked the Rover with the wheels straight.” Obviously, when he had parked the Rover whilst acting-out the mission, he had straightened the wheels. However, when the second photograph was taken some time later, the stage hands left the wheels at an angle – a classic example of a movie continuity error! Or more whistle-blowing.

* * *

It is appropriate to conclude with two photographs of the exhibited makeshift fender, because they are in themselves a mystery. In the first photograph below AS17-137-20979, the details of the four spare laminated maps used to assemble the fender can be seen on the outside of the curved surface. However, in the second photograph the details of the map are on the inside of the curved surface. Perhaps the curators at the Smithsonian made a mistake and curved the maps the wrong way. It seems odd that no one took the trouble to correctly display such an important item that had been brought back from the Moon.

fender AS17-137-20979

Apollo 17 Rover fender AS17-137-20979

Rover Repair

Apollo 17 replacement fender maps at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington

The Apollo 17 “Apollo 17 fender mystery” may seem rather trivial. However, detectives know it is often the trivial details that prove a suspect’s statement doesn’t add up. In an attempt to “prove” Apollo 17 really went to the Moon, NASA said the makeshift fender and the other fender sections had been brought home by Gene Cernan. But the agency messed up its story by not telling Jack Schmitt. The irony is that proof of this is in the very document NASA presents on its website as the official record of Project Apollo.

There are likely many more trivial details hidden in the Apollo Flight Journal and the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal which, when properly analysed, could further prove that Project Apollo was faked. For instance – and I haven’t yet completed a thorough analysis – in the photograph of the Rover at the beginning of this paper AS17-143-21933 it is immediately obvious that the antenna of the Rover is at too low an angle to be pointing towards the Earth. From the location at which Apollo 17 was on the Moon, the Earth was at an angle of 52 degrees above the horizontal (how high it was above the horizon depended on the local topography).

A reference for the angle is the antenna’s upright support, which was attached perpendicular to the Rover’s chassis. The antenna is measured as being 40 degrees relative to the support, and so is pointing at an angle of 50 degrees above the chassis. This is pretty close to the 52 degrees. However, it is not as simple as that. Firstly, the Rover may not be parked on horizontal ground; and secondly the perspective of the photograph hasn’t been taken into account.

At 170:20:41 Gene Cernan said he had “… parked a little on a down slope.” In that case, the antenna ought to be at a higher angle relative to the chassis to take into account the angle of the slope. A reasonable estimate for the slope is 5 degrees or more. So, the antenna is at least 5 degrees lower than it ought to be. Added to this is the fact that the antenna isn’t being viewed side-on. If the antenna were being viewed side-on, then the actual angle is about 5 degrees lower than it appears on the photograph.

As an illustration of the effect of perspective, fold a square of paper diagonally. When viewed side on, the diagonal is seen to be 45 degrees. When viewed obliquely, the diagonal is greater than 45 degrees.) In all – and this is no more than an estimate – the antenna is pointing 10 or more degrees too low. In the light of the “faked mission” scenario, perhaps Cernan did set the antenna at the correct angle, but when the photograph was retaken at a later date, the stagehands weren’t so precise.

An interesting point to conclude is that in the first photograph the weight of the Rover and the astronaut has pushed the wheel down slightly into the soft lunar surface. The footprints of the astronaut taking the photograph can also be seen. But why had the Rover’s wheels not left any tracks?

That, as they say, is another story . . .

Derek K. Willis

Aulis Online, July, 2018


About the Author

Derek K. Willis, who was born in 1960, has a Certificate in Astronomy from the University of Central Lancashire UK. He began his career as a Research Associate at Northumbria University, and has since worked in private industry and as a Department of Trade and Industry Advisor. Derek Willis is currently a freelance Innovation Consultant.


Footnotes

1. Each of the Rover fenders is a two-part assembly. A portion extending from a point over the axle toward the center of the chassis is fixed in place, while a second portion is mounted on rails over the fixed piece. After unpacking the Rover, the astronauts pulled these extensions fore and aft (for the front and rear wheels, respectively), sliding them along the rails until they locked in place. The first fender ‘Hammer Accident’ occurred well after this operation.

2. Lunar Roving Vehicle Missing Fender Extension Saga – Script editor required: In this NASA-published document, the caption relative to these fender incidents accompanies an Apollo 17 image, AS17-143-21933 – the one at the head of this article. The description in the NASA document is inaccurate, the photo was taken after most of the fender extensions had been removed. The text asserts that we can see right rear the fender map fix – which we can’t. (Nor can we see the right front fender at all.)

More discrepancies concerning fenders are within this document. It states that the forward portion of Apollo 15 Rover’s left front fender extension was discovered missing after EVA-1. The relevant ALSJ-17 transcripts (from Rover start-up, EVA-1 through to EVA-2 departure) make no mention of this loss of a fender portion at all. The subsequent commentary of Apollo 15 astronauts mention the subsequent ‘fender accidents’ of Apollo 16 & 17 but still do not say anything regarding any loss of their own.

3. Harry Hurt III, writing of the Apollo missions in his 1989 book For All Mankind recounts how the famous MSC director had later revealed the fact that NASA had paid for this TV coverage. Astronaut Al Worden, referring to a different statement made by Kraft, had this to say: "Chris Kraft is a bad guy. If we could feed him to a bomb, we would.” Col. Alfred M. Worden – Autographica, September 2014.

Rover fenders

Apollo 16 AS16-106-17390 ----------------Apollo 17 AS17-137-20979

Additional note: All three Rovers lost parts of their fenders. Apollo 15 Rover’s left front fender extension was discovered missing after EVA-1, see Footnote 2 above. The Apollo 16 Rover lost part of its right rear fender – but it was not repaired. The Apollo 17 Rover also lost part of its right rear fender – and it was repaired.

Rover oil leak

Apollo 15 AS15-88-11901 (left)-----Apollo 16 AS16-107-17445 (cent)---Apollo17 AS17-146-22296 (right)

Interestingly, the Rover used on Apollo 15, 16 and 17 had an oil leak from the left rear wheel (observed by Scott Henderson) that resulted in the left rear wheel hub of each mission becoming very oily and therefore caked in dirt and dust. Either all three missions had a very similar oil leak from the left rear wheel, or the same Rover was used for the photo shoots for all three missions.


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