Comical as these recordings of astronauts falling on the moon may seem, they were actually carried out under mission orders and were of valuable importance to Nasa’s research endeavors.
During Apollo 15, astronauts were conducting experiments on metabolic rates across various types of lunar terrain, and during Apollo 16, the falls took place while testing differences in locomotion on the moon and Earth.
Adding to unexpected seriousness of the footage, one of these falls threatened the life of astronaut Charles Duke, who came close to cracking his suit and exposing himself to the vacuum of space.
Why Astronauts Fall?
Why Astronauts Fall
The haphazard movement of Apollo astronauts on the moon is a product of it having only one sixth of the Earth’s gravity.
While a body weighs less on the moon, it still has the same mass, which means that the body’s inertia, or resistance to changes in motion, stays linked to its mass, rather than changing with the reduced weight.
The experience of walking on the moon therefore feels unreal and uncomfortable for moon walkers In particular.
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin described the experience of putting a foot down on the satellite as walking on “moist talcum powder”.
Even with months of non-stop intensive training, the astronauts struggled not only with the conditions of gravity, but also with their spacesuits, Although the spacesuits no longer weighed the 300 pounds they did on Earth.
They were still stiff and unwieldy.
Many regular actions, such as bending down to pick up an object, would only result in a fall, so the astronauts had to use tools for many simple tasks while wearing them.
Additionally, in order to crouch they would need to hop first and use the landing to compress the suits.
Nasa Investigations Starting with the first moon landing in July of 1969, Nasa became deeply interested in the mobility of men on the moon and for the first time, real data on the matter could be collected.
For the entirety of the Apollo era, Nasa dedicated resources to study and analyze the falls of astronauts on the moon
So it could assess the dexterity of people outside of Earth.
Scientists worried about the flexibility of suits, whether astronauts could handle key equipment while wearing space suits, and which techniques would be best to prepare for before going to the moon.
By studying the movement and the failures of movement on the moon, Nasa scientists could address these concerns.
The subject of moon falls was taken seriously, preserved not only in footage but in detailed documents.
One of the reports on the matter about Commander David Scott from the Apollo 15 mission reads as follows: “ begins moving toward a new area.
As he gives the camera reading and summarizes the description of the area, He steps around a group of rock fragments and then his right foot steps into a small depression and he begins to lose his balance.
As he steps with his left foot, it slides off a small rock and continues sliding on the loose surface soil.
While trying to drive his feet back under his center of gravity, Scott increases his forward velocity.
He then falls forward with both hands extended to break the fall, Landing on his left side, he rolls counterclockwise and on his back and is then out of view of the TV camera”.
The reports for the Apollo 16 mission were even more detailed, including analysis of why the fall happened, how it did and how the astronauts returned to his feet.
An aspect that scientists focused on was how mobility and energy would change with different movements.
One of their findings was that skipping and walking, while requiring vastly different amounts of energy on Earth, required the same amount as each other on the moon.
Another valuable conclusion that Nasa made early on was that, due to the slower falls, the astronauts had time to correct a slip or work on standing back up in case of a fall.
Some of their conclusions were less helpful, such as stating that a number of falls were caused by loss of traction because of loose soil.
One of the astronauts written about in these reports was Charles Duke, who was trying to lift a pair of dropped tongs.
When he stepped on them instead and lost his balance.
Trying to pick them up, He fell face first, ironically, after he was trying to pick up the tongs to then pick up a hammer he had dropped a few moments before.
That fall was relatively harmless, but during the Apollo 16 mission he would take a fall that almost ended his life: Charlie Duke’s fall.
Charlie Duke’s Fall
Charlie Duke and his commander, John Young, were on the moon in 1972, the same year as the Munich Olympics, and they decided they wanted to perform what they called “Moon Olympics”.
Thanks to low lunar gravity when compared to Earth, they hoped to achieve or best athletic Earth records during the last minutes of a spacewalk.
This seemingly innocent decision put Duke at risk, who was only 36 years-old at the time, the youngest person that had walked on the moon.
They began by trying to take the highest jumps possible.
Duke launched himself 4 feet above the lunar surface, an accomplishment he could have been proud of, except for the fact that he decided to straighten his body while in the air.
His space suit weighed 50 pounds on the moon, far less than the 300 on Earth, but still significantly heavy.
More than half of this weight came from the backpack which held his Portable Life Support System.
Any damage to the backpack could prove fatal.
This heavy weight completely changed his balance and pulled him down, with the backpack headed, to take the crash of landing on the ground directly.
As Duke himself has stated, “The backpack weighed as much as I did, So I went over backwards… It’s a fiberglass shell and it contained all your life-support systems.
If it broke, I was dead”.
The astronaut has expressed that he felt extreme distress as soon as he realized the implications of landing with all his weight on the backpack.
Thankfully, as the Nasa studies had recorded, falling on the moon is slow and gives the astronaut time to react before crashing.
Duke rolled to the right, breaking the fall, but the rolling motion did make him bounce.
Commander John Young approached him, knowing that if the life support system failed, he would have to carry an unconscious Duke back to the module, who would likely perish, before making it there.
About the moment, Duke recalled in an interview: “My heart was pounding, John Young, my commander, came over and looked down and says, ‘That wasn’t very smart, Charlie’
And I said, ‘Help me up, John’
And I got real quiet”.
After standing up with assistance, he made sure that everything was in order and still working.
He had endured the fall without damaging his spacesuit.
As entertaining or amusing as footage of falling astronauts may appear, moon falling does carry real risk.