The astronaut who almost lost his wedding ring in space

NASA prides itself on its ability to train its astronauts to respond to every possible scenario that might arise during a mission into space.

A lost wedding ring, however, is not one of those scenarios.

It was 1972, and Project Apollo was winding down. Apollo 16 was the penultimate mission of the series, and launched on 16th April.

Commander of the mission was veteran John Young, who already had three spaceflights under his belt, with rookie Charlie Duke as the lunar module pilot. Ken Mattingly, who had been pulled from Apollo 13 days before launch because he had been exposed to the measles through Duke, was finally making his first spaceflight and acted as command module pilot.

L-R: Mattingly, Young, Duke | Credit: NASA

Two days into the mission, Mattingly realised that at some point his wedding ring had floated free of his finger and had vanished.

The cone-shaped Apollo command module may have only been thirteen feet in diameter at its widest and less than eleven feet in height, but it was filled with so many nooks and crannies and compartments that it was easy to misplace even relatively large objects.

A search ensued, but to no avail.

Time passed, and as day four of the mission began, Young and Duke departed in lunar module Orion to head down to the lunar surface, leaving Mattingly in command module Casper to orbit the Moon on his own.

Three days and three moonwalks later, Young and Duke returned to re-dock with Casper. Mattingly was still without his ring.

Day eight turned into day nine. Mattingly was scheduled to perform an EVA to retrieve an experiment installed on the outside of the service module.

Credit: NASA

Duke was standing in Casper’s open hatch and monitoring his crew-mate’s progress when something caught his eye, floating out of the hatch in front of him and glinting in the light of the sun.

It was Mattingly’s ring.

Duke stretched out, but he was still partially wedged inside the command module and his fingers only grazed the piece of jewellery. He could only watch as it continued to float away from him as if in slow-motion.

But, Duke soon realised that it was floating directly towards Mattingly, who had his back turned and was oblivious to what was happening.

Duke watched in amazement as the ring collided with the rear of Mattingly’s helmet and rebounded, now heading straight back towards the open hatch of the command module.

A few minutes later, Duke was able to reach out and firmly grab the ring, triumphantly presenting it to Mattingly when his EVA was over.

It may have been pure fluke that caused the ring to bounce back in the exact direction it had come from, but that didn’t matter to Mattingly. He had been spared from having to explain to his wife how he had become the first person to lose his wedding ring in the void of space.

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