Hidden Histories: Cancelled Apollo Missions
Updated: May 31
Author's note: This post will be covering what would have been the last three lunar landings, Apollo's 18, 19, and 20. It will not cover the original flight plans of early missions before they were changed after the Apollo 1 fire.
It was July 1969 and the United States had just landed men on the moon. It would be the Apollo Program's biggest victory but not its last: Nine more manned lunar landings were planned to take place between 1969 and 1972. The federal government did not feel the same way, though, and by the beginning of 1970, the 400,000 people employed at NASA or its contractors shrunk to 190,000. In the coming years, another 50,000 people would lose their jobs as well. As for the public, overall interest in moon missions declined after Apollo 11 fulfilled the late President Kennedy's goal and declared the US the winner of the Moon Race. After Apollo 13, people had heightened concerns about the risks of both lunar exploration and spaceflight in general. There was a feeling that NASA risked having its entire manned space program cancelled if a crew was lost on another mission. The benefits to science brought about by lunar exploration did nothing to ensure political and bureaucratic support and the discoveries made by the astronauts on the moon were paid attention to only by scientists. Within NASA, there was competition among the agency's priorities. A Saturn V rocket was needed to put the Skylab space station into orbit and Apollo hardware would be needed for manned flights. Moreover, the studies into the possibility of what would become the Space Shuttle began in 1969 made non-reusable spacecraft, such as traditional capsules, obsolete.
On January 4, 1970, the Apollo 20 mission was cancelled. This caused the launch and landing dates of remaining missions to be pushed back. On September 2, Apollo's 18 and 19 were cancelled as well. Since the spacecraft needed for missions to Skylab were already built, the total savings of cancelling both missions was only $42.1 million in 1970 dollars. Changes to the mission profiles of other Apollo missions were made as well, most notably Apollo 15's. Apollo 15 was originally an H-class mission, which according to Apollo Program Summary Report included "precision manned lunar landing demonstration and systematic lunar exploration," but after the cancellation of 18 and 19, it became the first of three J-class missions. All three of these missions included the lunar roving vehicle and had longer stays on the moon than the H-class and G-class Apollo 11 flights, as well as extensive scientific exploration of the surface. It was given a new lunar module and since its original one was flight-worthy, it was salvaged after the program was cancelled.
Apollo 18 was originally planned to launch and land on the moon in February 1972. Its crew consisted of commander (CDR) Dick Gordon, command module pilot (CMP) Vance Brand, and lunar module pilot (LMP) Jack Schmitt, a geologist. Gordon was a veteran of two previous flights, Gemini 11 and Apollo 12. Brand would not make his first flight until 1975 as part of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project and would go on to command three Space Shuttle missions. Schmitt replaced Joe Engle as LMP of Apollo 17 to meet with the demands of both Congress and the science community. After the cancellation of Apollo 20, Apollo 18's landing date was pushed back into 1973. Jack Schmitt wanted an ambitious landing site, such as Tycho or the Tsiolkovskiy crater on the far side of the moon. There had been no plans to land on the far side due to its increased risk; in fact, a communication satellite beyond the moon would have been needed to maintain a radio link with Earth. The mission was originally supposed to land in Schroter's Valley, an area of riverlike channel-ways, and was later changed to the crater Gassendi.
Jack Schmitt on the lunar surface, December 1972
Apollo 19 was planned to launch and land in July 1972. When Apollo 20 was cancelled, that date was pushed back to December 1973. Its crew would have consisted of CDR Fred Haise, CMP Bill Pogue, and LMP Jerry Carr. Haise was the LMP of Apollo 13 and went to fly Space Shuttle Enterprise approach and landing test flights. Both Pogue and Carr went on to fly Skylab 4 in 1974 and spent a record-breaking 84 days in space. The mission's original landing site was in the Hyginus Rille region to study lunar linear rilles and craters. The crater Copernicus was later chosen. It and Apollo 18 were cancelled on September 2, 1970.
CDR John Young saluting the flag during Apollo 16. Haise served as his backup for this mission
Apollo 20 was planned to launch and land in December 1972. Over time, that date was pushed back to sometime in 1974. No crew assignments were made but normal crew rotation placed Pete Conrad as CDR, Paul Weitz and CMP, and Jack Lousma as LMP. Conrad and Weitz transferred to the Skylab program to prepare for the first crewed launch to the station in 1973, Skylab 2. Ed Mitchell possibly would have taken Conrad's place as commander, but since both he and Conrad would have already walked on the lunar surface, Mitchell's crewmate Stuart Roosa claimed that spot (Conrad was commander of Apollo 12 and Mitchell was LMP of Apollo 14). Jack Lousma was moved to CMP and Don Lind was chosen as LMP. Even though he was both a military pilot and nuclear physicist, Lind was not a test pilot and was always treated as scientist-astronaut. It is the general consensus that the final crew of Apollo 20 was Roosa as CDR, Lousma as CMP, and Lind as LMP. The mission was to land in Copernicus but that site was given to Apollo 19. Instead, Apollo 20 was going to land in either the Marius Hills or Tycho.
Not all remaining hardware was used for Skylab, though, and we can accredit the exhibits in museums all over the country to the early termination of the Apollo Program. Two complete Saturn V rockets are on display at the Apollo/Saturn V Center at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Johnson Space Center in Texas. The CSM used for Apollo 19 is also on display at the Johnson Space Center and the mission's LM was used as a prop for the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon. The LM originally designated for Apollo 15 is also on display at the Apollo/Saturn V Center and is the only flight-worthy LM in existence. Surplus Saturn IB rockets are on display around the country and the CSM originally designated for Apollo 15 was flown on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.
Apollo 15's LM-9 on display at the Apollo/Saturn V Center in 2019
(image credit: Aeryn A.)
Although it can be nice to imagine how these three cancelled missions would have played out and what kinds of discoveries the crews would have made, their termination gives future generations the chance to look at the history of the American space program first-hand and the inspiration to make the next giant leaps in space exploration.
Author's Note: Thanks for reading and be sure to like and share this post!
Johnson Space Center, 1975, Apollo Program Summary Report.
Silber, Kenneth. “Down to Earth: The Apollo Moon Missions That Never Were.” Scientific American, Scientific American, 16 July 2009, www.scientificamerican.com/article/canceled-apollo-missions/.
Williams, David R. “Apollo 18 through 20.” NASA, NASA, 11 Dec. 2003, nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/lunar/apollo_18_20.html.
All images come from NASA unless stated otherwise