As NASA’s darkest disasters come around again in January’s last week, there is joy in the celebration of the life of America’s last moonwalker.
Gene Cernan died last week at age 82, and his footprints are the last to touch the dusty world of the Moon in December 1972.
With him also passes the days when Americans knew their space heroes by name as Cernan is one of the last astronauts known in everyday households. Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin and Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell might be the only other astronauts that Joe and Jane America can recall by name. How about you?
Twelve men walked and camped out on our nearest alien world during six separate Apollo landings from 1969-1972, ending the Moon Race with Russia. As the year 2017 begins, six moonwalkers are alive. Gone are Pete Conrad, Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, James Irwin and, forever in history as the first, Neil Armstrong.
The celebration of Cernan’s life will coincide with the week when three fatal accidents took the lives of 17 astronauts, the memories of which are frozen in America’s consciousness.
Three of Cernan’s colleagues died Jan. 27, 1967 in a flash fire inside the Apollo 1 spacecraft, on the
Cape Kennedy launch pad during a dress rehearsal. Also etched on the minds of several generations is the explosion of Space Shuttle Challenger before a horrified national audience on Jan. 28, 1986, and the reentry destruction of Shuttle Columbia on Saturday morning, Feb. 1, 2003.
Gus Grissom and Ed White competed in the two-man Gemini program with Cernan for those cherished astronaut seats. Roger Chaffee was a rookie on a fast track for a lunar mission. They died when faulty wiring caused a spark and consumed the Apollo 1 astronauts testing their spaceship.
It could just as easily have been Cernan inside the doomed Apollo 1 sitting on the launch pad. Cernan, in fact, was lucky to escape with his life during a Gemini 9 space walk that went bad.
Time gives a unique perspective—and the revelation of facts—when it comes to space history. The Soviet Union hid their failures and exaggerated their successes, while America operated in the open for the world to see.
But when something went bad, NASA didn’t always say just how bad. Such is the story of Gemini 9 with Cernan and his best friend, Commander Tom Stafford.
Back in 1965, leaving a spaceship for a free-floating journey was fraught with unknowns. The first spacewalker was Russian Alexi Leonov when he ventured outside his Voskhod 2 spacecraft for just 12 minutes. He nearly lost his life, though it was not revealed for nearly 20 years.
Leonov, now 82, recounts in books that he had trouble getting back inside a deployed, temporary tunnel. He had to let air out of his spacesuit to squeeze inside, a close call for Leonov and his crewmate.
America’s first spacewalks soon followed in 1965 when Ed White floated outside the Gemini IV spaceship, with Jim McDivitt watching inside. That brief, 22-minute Extravehicular Activity (EVA) in outer space was in a fortified Gemini space suit, and White had little control of his motions as a Buck Rogers-style hand jet quickly ran out of gas. The images are iconic, but White, too, had trouble squeezing back inside the spaceship.
The next scheduled spacewalk with a new moon-style space suit was scrubbed when Gemini 8 had a close call after performing the first docking in space with a rocket for a target. A stuck thruster on Gemini put astronauts Neil Armstrong and David Scott in a dangerous end-over-end tumble while attached to the Agena rocket. Undocking they discovered the Gemini was tumbling once a second, and they got control of the spacecraft just before the threshold of losing consciousness. THAT save from a space disaster possibly punched Armstrong’s ticket to the first moon landing.
So it was up to Gemini 9 and Gene Cernan to test the new EVA suit and a maneuvering backpack. When Tom Stafford watched Cernan go out the hatch, it was the beginning of a tense two hours when little went right. Cernan described the spacesuit as rigid as a knight’s armor, and he had few handholds. Hooking up to the maneuvering backpack at the rear of Gemini, he was overcome by the exhaustion. Cernan’s cooling system began malfunctioning and his faceplate fogged over leaving him blind while clutching to a spaceship travelling 17,500 mph at 125 miles above the ground.
Miraculously Cernan felt his way back to the cockpit while Stafford watched helplessly; his spacesuit wasn’t rated for space walks and the harmful Sun’s radiation. Stafford held Cernan’s legs for several minutes letting him compose himself from a 190 beat heart rate while watching the Earth outside the spacecraft. It was a close call.
On the next two Gemini flights, astronauts Michael Collins and Dick Gordon made their spacewalks count for good, but not without some difficulty. But it would not be until the last Gemini XII that Buzz Aldrin would master the techniques needed for future moonwalkers, like him. He trained underwater for the first time, a standard procedure for future EVA’s.
When all the hardware for the moon landing was tested in Earth orbit by Apollo 9 and deemed worthy, one full dress rehearsal was planned to do everything but descend the final two miles to the surface. That important mission of Apollo 10 fell to Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan in the moonship dubbed “Snoopy,” with their Command Module pilot John Young remaining in orbit aboard “Charlie Brown.”
The mission of Apollo 10 in May 1969 was not without its share of drama. When the moon lander Snoopy was about 10,000 miles above the surface, the astronauts were to stage a blast off from the landing leg platform while in flight instead of resting on the surface.
The separation went without a hitch, but a computer command was entered wrong and sent Snoopy tumbling eight times, tossing the two astronauts inside a bucking bronco of a moonship. In fact, the pair could be heard cussing on the live television broadcast of the event.
The moonship was stabilized by Stafford and Cernan’s quick action just seconds before losing the needed momentum to achieve lunar orbit and crash into a mountain. Snoopy successfully rendezvoused with Charlie Brown and the stage was set for Apollo 11’s July attempted landing.
Cernan had proven his worth in two space events that needed quick, life-saving action. So when Apollo 17 was announced as the last Moon mission, many insiders knew Gene deserved the command.
After the close-call on the aborted Apollo 13 mission, NASA executives held their breath each mission fearing the worst public relations nightmare: dead astronauts forever on the Moon or in orbit. It is a tribute to the safety constraints of manned spaceflight that a human hasn’t been killed in orbit and left there as irretrievable.
NASA was sending Cernan, its best astronaut, to command two rookies: moonwalker geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, and orbiter Ron Evans on the Apollo 17 mission to the Moon. They camped out for three days, rode a moon buggy and found orange soil!
It’s all there in Cernan’s excellent autobiographical book, “The Last Man on the Moon.” The mission was near perfect and ended safely, leaving the Moon all to itself and free from human intervention since that December 1972.
Cernan’s life as one of the 12 elite moonwalkers was filled with the continued dream of space exploration. On the big 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 triumph, Armstrong and Cernan were touted as the alpha and omega of the moon landers, the first and last.
Cernan is reflective in a 2014 documentary “The Last Man on the Moon.” The last photo he took on the surface was Earth rising over the lunar landscape. “It’s too beautiful to be an accident,” he would say.
The years ahead will continue to thin out the remaining moonwalkers down to the last Moon man standing on Earth.
All in their 80s, they are: Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, David Scott, John Young, Charlie Duke and Harrison Schmitt.
These Apollo astronauts are like national treasures. They are the only humans who can speak about standing on an alien world and looking up at their home planet.
Learn what you can from these unique souls, and be open to sharing their dreams of space travel and the first, tentative exploration of the Moon. For these moonwalkers’ stories are ones that can never be told again.