Apologies in advance for not posting much earlier this year, we’ve been rocked here at the Space Collective not only by a personal loss in a family pet, but also, and probably more significant to so many people around the world, the incredibly sad news a few weeks ago, of the death of Gene Cernan.
We like to stay upbeat here at all times though, so we’re going to remind you of some of the amazing and funny stories we have either from well known sources, or from our own personal experiences.
The Space Collective Team have met and spent time with Captain Cernan over the past few years, probably since 2012. Always approachable at any event he may have been asked to speak at, nobody, in our opinion, was a finer ambassador for space flight and a return to real exploration than Gene.
Gene joined the group of NASA astronauts in 1963, having been a pilot with the U.S Navy. No test pilot experience made him quite unique at that time, but most likely his true skill in aviation, combined with charisma like no other person we’ve met, guaranteed him the place he totally deserved.
Gene always said he was the luckiest man alive… you can see why, when you think of the things that either went wrong in his favour or went wrong full stop for him, and yet still he forged forward.
What do we mean?
Well the Gemini program was drawing to its natural close out, and the crew for Gemini 9, Elliot See and Charlie Bassett were selected and ready to go. However a tragic plane crash killed both of these budding astronauts and the backup crew of Cernan and Tom Stafford were put in place instead.
One of the key mission objectives from Gemini 9A (as it was now known) was the ability to work in space. Whilst Leonov et al and Ed White had managed to float free of the capsule on earlier missions, nobody had demonstrated the capability to do active work. Using portable jet packs to get around, moving switches, handles, removing covers…. all of the processes that would be vital on a lunar mission, none of which were understood.
Stepping out of the cramped Gemini capsule, Cernan became the second American to walk in space, something he was as distinctly proud of as being the last man on the Moon or one of only three people to ever visit the moon twice. That sense of pride soon turned to a sense of awe and wonder, with the Earth below… but then, rapidly to one of increasing anxiety as the umbilical “acting like a snake” in the free-fall weightless environment, combined with no footholds or hand restraints, led to Gene, literally bounding all around the module, with precious little Tom Stafford could do to help him.
In fact, had it gone on much longer or worse and Cernan not been able to return inside the capsule, Stafford would most likely have had to leave him out there…. in what form and how, we can only guess.
Cernan’s heart rate went to over 170 bpm, sweat pouring off him, filled his boots, losing literally lbs in weight in a matter of an hour or so. One can only imagine then, how he felt, climbing back in, near exhaustion, but alive.
The feeling on returning to the ground was one of failure. He felt he had failed in his task. But in interviews with non-other than Chris Kraft, head honcho at Mission Control, it is always said that Cernan did a fine job. He did, as he paved the way for himself and Buzz Aldrin to construct the procedures and systems (Neutral Buoyancy Lab) where astronauts, still to this day, train for EVA in a large swimming pool.
His “failure” clearly had little impact on his standing in NASA. With other astronauts, like Wally Schirra and the crew of Apollo 7 being grounded after their flight (and Wally not caring much as he’d already resigned), or the later berating of the Apollo 15 crew for a “stamp” issue that again, should not have impacted other crew members, Kraft and Slayton had the ability to say that these people would never fly again, and they didn’t. Cernan thought he’d messed up, he hadn’t.
Similar experiences on Apollo 10, when the whole world heard Gene cursing (in a more genteel era) when the LEM went into a rapid spin, through pilot error, again could have seen him grounded. Rusty had been a bit sick on Apollo 9, and at best after that got backup crew assignments. Cernan, who apart from that one mishap, flew a close to impeccable mission in Apollo 10, seemed to be blessed with good fortune.
Then there was the Indian River incident…
Two crews in essence were both aiming for Apollo 17. By now, post Apollo 13, it was well known this would be the last Apollo lunar flight. Dick Gordon and his team which included Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, a trained geologist, up against Gene Cernan, Ron Evans and X-15 legend Joe Engle. But NASA were under pressure to ensure a trained Geologist make the flight, so logic would dictate Dick Gordon’s team would succeed, but Cernan’s was the backup crew for Apollo 14, and with the usual Slayton hand on crew rotation, could it be Cernan’s after all?
Gene then managed to crash a helicopter in to the Indian River!
Whatever was said, whatever words were really said apart from “yeah I messed up” something Cernan readily admitted, it must have convinced those in charge he was still the right man for the job.
So history will show, that the final Apollo crew of Evans, Schmitt and Cernan, would forever be immortalised, with Engle never taking on an Apollo flight. Gordon at least had seen the Moon up close on Apollo 12.
But that was Gene… he called himself the luckiest man alive, but was it luck, or charisma, or just true brilliance in both aviation and also in his work as an astronaut?
All we can say is that in the few years we knew him, he shone like a beacon of light, always fighting for a return to human spaceflight to the lunar surface, so that one day he’d not have to carry the mantle of being.
The Last Man on the Moon
Godspeed Gene, we salute you, we miss you…