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Apollo 18 in fiction and fact

Ian A. Duncan

A lunar module on display at the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island, N.Y., could have been used for an Apollo 18 mission if it hadn't been canceled. (Learn more from the museum website and Flyian.net.)

The secret moon mission depicted in the movie "Apollo 18" is a totally bogus Hollywood invention — but if NASA ever wanted to redo the Apollo program, the Cradle of Aviation Museum has just the thing: the lunar lander that would have flown during Apollo 18.

"We like to say that it's fully loaded to go to the moon if they want to use it," quipped Andrew Parton, executive director of the Long Island museum.

The lunar module, designated LM-13, is just a small part of the hardware that was left behind when the Apollo moon program was canceled earlier than originally scheduled due to budgetary constraints. The last manned moon mission, Apollo 17, went to the Taurus-Littrow valley in December 1972. The Hollywood version of Apollo 18 was supposedly flown to investigate a spooky, "Blair Witchy" mystery on the moon — but the actual Apollo 18, 19 and 20 moonshots were aimed at widening lunar exploration and  scoping out sites for future moon bases. (This report goes into what would have happened if the Apollo program were extended.) 

After the first moon landing in 1969, Washington began pulling back on NASA's Apollo ambitions, having concluded that the space race was won. By the end of 1970, Apollo 18 was scrapped — and so was millions of dollars worth of Apollo hardware, including the Cradle of Aviation Museum's lunar lander.

Some of the leftover Apollo spaceships and Saturn V rocket stages were converted for use on the Skylab space station project in 1973 and the historic Apollo-Soyuz linkup in 1975. Other pieces were parceled out to museums, including NASA's Johnson Space Center and Kennedy Space Center, as well as the Smithsonian in Washington, the Franklin Institute in Philadelpha and the Cradle of Aviation Museum. For an exhaustive list of what happened to NASA's hardware, check out "A Field Guide to American Spacecraft."

The LM-13 lander was an unfinished shell when it came to the Long Island museum, Parton said. "We had our volunteer restoration crew, many of whom worked on the program at Grumman, work on it," he told me.

The lunar module has already had a turn in the Hollywood spotlight, as a prop for the 1998 HBO miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon." Today it's set up as an exhibit with a mannequin in a spacesuit, making as if it's about to step on the lunar surface for Apollo 18. Parton says "a fair amount of folks from NASA" come up to see the display, and he's expecting traffic to increase after the movie makes its debut.

"They'll see the movie, and then probably come out to see the exhibit," he said.

From scrap yard to backyard
In addition to the big pieces, lots of little pieces from the tail end of the Apollo program were sold off as surplus in the 1970s. Some of them weren't so little: Dale W. Cox Jr., a retired naval officer and a semifinalist for NASA's Mercury space program, happened to be driving by a scrap yard in California in 1970 when he noticed an array of titanium tanks and pipes sitting out for display.

"I learned that Apollo 18 had been canceled, and that all the titanium work in progress was being scrapped," Cox, now 90, told me today. "And there it was, so I just bought the whole thing for 10 cents a pound."

Cox's wife, Patricia, is an artist — and it wasn't long before she and another artist, Jae Carmichael, embellished the shimmery hardware with artistic touches and put the assemblages on display. "It would have been pretty dull if she hadn't put all the pieces together," Dale Cox said. "She transformed them into space junk as an art form."

Cox tried putting one of the tanks, measuring 15 feet high and weighing about 95 pounds, up for sale on eBay with an asking price of $104,000. "I got one bid at $7,500, which I rejected," he said. That offer still would have made Cox a healthy profit, assuming he paid $9.50 for the metal in 1970. But instead, he shipped the tank and other space hardware up to his son in the Seattle area, Dale Cox III.

Alan Boyle / msnbc.com

Half of a titanium tank that was once destined to go inside a lunar module now sits beside a 600-year-old yew tree in the front yard of Dale Cox III's house in the Seattle area. See more titanium artwork.

The younger Cox showed me around the displays in his backyard this week. Two lunar module fuel tanks look as if they're ready to load up, while another tank is still in pieces. When Cox banged on the 15-footer, which may have been built for the Saturn V rocket, it bonged like a Tibetan bell.

"Titanium never changes color, and it doesn't corrode," Dale Cox III told me. "It's been outside since my dad bought it, and it's basically never changed."

Murky mysteries in history
Were all those tanks destined for Apollo 18? The Coxes like to think so, but there's really no way to say definitively where particular components might have gone if the moon program were extended. "The most reliable way to say it would be to say that the hardware was for a canceled mission, but that final assignments weren't made," said Robert Pearlman, editor of the CollectSpace website for space history and collectibles.

He noted that lots of space hardware was being shifted around during the 1970s, for a variety of missions that may or may not have happened. The first stage of a Saturn V rocket that was at one time destined for Apollo 18 serves as a typical case: Testing on the rocket stage was completed in 1971. Then it was put in storage. Then it was pulled out of storage as a backup for the Skylab first stage. Then it was put back in storage. Then, in 1977, it was moved to Johnson Space Center to become an inert part of its rocket display.

"Its assignment was for Apollo 18, but its testing was completed after 18 was already canceled," Pearlman observed. "So by the time it was ready for a mission, there was no moon mission to fly."

Even before it was canceled, the plans for Apollo 18 were similarly murky. Most accounts say it was destined to explore the moon's Copernicus Crater, but Tycho Crater and the lunar farside were also mentioned as potential (and potentially riskier) destinations. Pearlman owns a 1970 globe of the moon that shows Apollo 18 going to Tycho, near the landing site of the Surveyor 7 probe.

By most accounts, Apollo 12 command module pilot Dick Gordon would have been the commander of Apollo 18, with Vance Brand and Harrison Schmitt serving as crewmates. But in the waning days of the moon program, Schmitt's assignment was switched to Apollo 17, which made him the only professional scientist to set foot on the moon. Joe Engle, who was bumped from Apollo 17, might have flown on Apollo 18 — but who knows?

"The Apollo 18 crew, whoever they were supposed to be, never got far enough to name a spacecraft or design a mission patch," Pearlman said. Sure, you might see some Apollo 18 patches floating around, but Pearlman said "those patches are complete fabrications, they're alternate histories that have no relation to actual fact."

Gordon retired from NASA in 1972, even before Apollo was finished. Brand, meanwhile, became the command module pilot for the Apollo-Soyuz mission (which is sometimes referred to as Apollo 18) and went on to fly three space shuttle missions. Engle helped test the space shuttle and flew on two orbital missions.

Future fiction and fact
Aside from the fact that there are scary monsters in the "Apollo 18" movie, how close does Hollywood come to the Apollo reality? That's hard to judge at this point, because the studio hasn't made the film available for advance screenings. But based on the trailer, Pearlman is intrigued.

Official NASA records say that 1972's Apollo 17 was the last manned mission to the moon, but newly uncovered footage of a secret Defense Department flight may explain why we haven't gone back. Watch the trailer from "Apollo 18."

"The look of the lunar module and the spacesuits and the other equipment seems to be surprisingly accurate for this type of film, more accurate than for bigger-budget films like 'Transformers,'" he told me.

That verisimilitude may be due to NASA's collaboration on the production. Now that the space shuttle program is over, the space agency is trying harder to stay engaged with the public and the media world. Its recently announced partnerships with Tor-Forge Books on sci-fi novels and with the National Institute of Aerospace on the "Innovation Now" radio program serve as prime examples. When it comes to "Apollo 18," however, NASA may be having second thoughts. The Los Angeles Times reported today that NASA has begun to back away from its association with the movie.

Strangely enough, we're heading into a month when real-life moon missions are taking on more prominence: A week from today, NASA is due to launch its twin Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory spacecraft toward the moon to study its gravity field. The $496 million GRAIL mission is due to last several months.

Also next week, the science team for NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is scheduled to unveil new high-resolution images of Apollo landing sites. The pictures won't reveal that there are Hollywood monsters on the moon, but they will be useful to wave in the faces of those who still question whether the Apollo moon landings really happened.

The moon has even come back into the discussions of potential destinations for international deep-space voyages, after a period during which NASA turned its back on going back to the moon. We may be hearing more about the debate over future space exploration in the weeks to come. Maybe someday, we'll be able to follow in Apollo's footsteps for real.

Are you planning to see "Apollo 18"? I'd love to hear what you thought of the movie, or other fictional moon flicks such as "Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon," "Fly Me to the Moon" or plain old "Moon." Share your mini-reviews in the comment space below.

More on Apollo 18 in fiction and fact:

Thanks to Ian A. Duncan for sharing his picture of the lunar module at the Cradle of Aviation Museum.

For a fictionalized treatment of the U.S. space program, check out the 1982 novel "Space" by James Michener, which includes its own version of an Apollo 18 mission. I'm officially designating "Space" as the latest selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which highlights books with cosmic themes that you can find at your favorite library or used-book outlet. Check out this archive for nine years' worth of CLUB Club selections.

If you're looking for a brand-new book to read, look into "Selecting the Mercury Seven: The Search for America's First Astronauts" by Colin Burgess. The book tells the story behind the selection process for the Mercury 7, and it turns out that Dale Cox Jr. is the book's principal character. "Dale Cox has led a truly amazing life, and it is fully covered in 'Selecting the Mercury Seven,'" Burgess says.

Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding me to your Google+ circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.