Fifty years ago this month, Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt made the last manned landing on the Moon while Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans kept vigil in Lunar orbit. The mission itself took place December 7-19, 1972, but was the culmination of President John F. Kennedy’s bold statement that the United States should send to and return men from the Moon by the end of the 1960s decade. Kennedy’s speech came only months after the first American astronaut, Alan B. Shepard, had made NASA’s first sub-orbital flight in May of 1962. JFK’s words stunned many who knew how difficult the project would be. As Kennedy said on September 12, 1962, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” History was made with this speech and the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo manned space programs that accomplished Kennedy’s far reaching goal. Sadly JFK did not live to see it all unfold.
Mission Commander Eugene Cernan (March 14, 1934 – January 16, 2017) recounted the Apollo 17 mission in his book The Last Man on the Moon (Eugene Cernan and Don Davis, 1999, St. Martin’s Griffin). Veteran CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite described the book: “Gene Cernan reaches deep into his innermost being to reveal with remarkable candor his reactions to the trials and triumphs of a pioneer astronaut.” Cernan was a Chicago native but spent the summers of his youth on his grandparent’s farm outside Antigo, Wisconsin so we could almost grant him ‘honorary Yooper’ status. Cernan’s historic flight made him the eleventh of the twelve men to trod the Lunar surface. Harrison was the twelfth, but Cernan reentered the Lunar Excursion Module last, hence the book’s title. Eugene (or Gene as he was commonly called) served time as a naval aviator, electrical engineer, aeronautical engineer, and fighter pilot. His astronaut exploits took him into space three times as pilot of Gemini 9A, as lunar module pilot of Apollo 10, and as commander of Apollo 17.
The Gemini 9A mission put astronaut Cernan into space only after a confluence of strange events. The primary crew of Elliot See and Charles Bassett were killed in a T-38 jet trainer crash while on route to inspect their spacecraft at the McDonnell Aircraft plant in St. Louis, Missouri. Cernan and Tom Stafford were their back-ups and thus elevated to the prime crew after the tragic loss of See and Bassett. Gemini 9 gained the ‘A’ when the original launch was scrubbed. Their mission was to practice docking maneuvers with an Agena Target Vehicle. The Agena vehicle was destroyed after a launch failure so they were forced to rendezvous with the Augmented Target Docking Adaptor (ATDA) which was launched as a backup. In the end, they were unable to dock with the ATDA because the nose cone fairing covering the docking target failed to deploy. Space flights without ‘glitches’ were not uncommon, but by the second major failure of the Gemini 9A mission, they were no doubt filling a little snake bit.
The Gemini 9A flight was also an eye opening experience for both the astronauts and the mission controllers back on Earth. The 9A flight’s secondary goal was to test out techniques astronauts would use on Extravehicular Activities (EVAs), more commonly known as ‘space walks’. Working in the vacuum of space would be necessary for humans to live and perform tasks outside of their spacecraft. Cernan would not be the first US spacewalker. That honor went to Ed White whose primary job was to simply test out the suit while attached to the spacecraft with an umbilical cord. White would later be one of the three Apollo 1 astronauts killed when a fire erupted in the cabin of their craft while conducting a ground rehearsal of a mission. Gemini 8 was supposed to have tested more advanced maneuvers, but that flight was terminated early and the walk scrubbed. Cernan’s itinerary was, as he said, “Loaded with experiments and tests. The highlight would come when I strapped on the rocket-powered backpack and scoot around the universe on my own. Good idea, but faulty assumptions, overly ambitious goals, and the hurry-up attitude known as ‘Go-fever’ were about to send me walking into an unknown and dangerous environment.”
As he noted earlier in his book, Gene described what it meant to be an astronaut: “It was the nature of the early astronauts to be cocky and bold, for you cannot strap into a canvas seat atop a monster rocket and be ready, even eager, to ride it into space without having total confidence in yourself and your ability. A bit of arrogance seemed in order. I can do anything!” The 9A spacewalk was about to puncture Cernan’s bubble. In preparation for his EVA, he pressurized his spacesuit to three and a half pounds of pressure per square inch, whereby, “the suit took on a life of its own and became so stiff that it didn’t want to bend at all. It was as if I wore a garment made of hardened plaster of paris, from fingertip to toe.” The suit needed to be his personal spaceship so it isn’t like he had another option. The suit had to protect him from the searing heat of the unfiltered Sun and the freezing temperatures anywhere the Sun wasn’t shining, not to mention providing a breathable atmosphere not available in the vacuum of space.
Standing on his seat with his torso outside of the capsule, Cernan took in the glorious view as he and Tom Stafford sailed around the Earth at 18,000 MPH. His first task was to see if he could maneuver about by pulling himself along his umbilical cord (so called ‘umbilical dynamics’). NASA shrinks had warned that the sight of the Earth rushing by below could cause a feeling of ‘space euphoria’ but Gene’s reference point was the capsule – he would experience no such feelings. He did learn quickly that Newton’s Laws of Motion were very much in effect. Each time Cernan tugged at his umbilical, it sent a ripple of motion that would jostle the spacecraft – sort of like a cosmic game of crack-the-whip. Every motion Gene made sent him tumbling every which way and when he hit the end of the umbilical, he would, “rebound like a Bungee jumper. I hadn’t even done anything yet and was already losing the battle. There had been no advanced warning about the difficulties I was having because no one had tried any of these maneuvers before. I felt like I was wrestling an octopus.” After fighting with ‘the snake’ (as he called the umbilical cord) for about thirty minutes, “I decided that this snake was perhaps the most malicious serpent since the one Eve met in the Garden of Eden.”
After working himself to near exhaustion, he conveyed to mission control that future astronauts would need more handholds and a self propulsion system to compensate for the ‘action/reaction’ forces he was battling. The next big chore was to move to the rear of the spacecraft and strap on the astronaut maneuvering unit (AMU). Wearing the AMU he would test if he could use the life support system to move about like a mini spaceship (while still attached to the Gemini by a thin nylon cord). With Cenan’s heartbeat soring to 180 beats per minute, his environmental settings were overwhelmed by his perspiration and his visor fogged over. NASA rightly told the exhausted (and now blinded) astronaut to scrub the AMU test and get back inside. Had he worked himself into such a state that he could not re-enter the capsule, his partner would have had to cut him loose to close the hatch. When this scenario had been explained to them during training, both astronauts had the same thought: “Nope, neither one of us would do that to the other so we would both die.” Fortunately, it never came to that.
Gene’s next flight took him all the way to the Moon aboard Apollo 10. As the LEM pilot, he and Stafford would test fly their craft (code named Snoopy) within 47,000 feet of the Moon’s surface without actually landing. This version was still too heavy to land so they used Snoopy to test everything possible short of a landing before reconnecting with the command module Charlie Brown. This was the important last test flight before Apollo 11 accomplished the first manned landing on July 20, 1969. The test run with the LM nearly ended in disaster when Cernan switched the navigation mode from a setting called ‘Ags’ to a more sophisticated one called ‘Pngs’ (or Pings). Having done this many times in the simulator, they didn’t even need to look at the switch, just reach out and flip it by muscle memory. Unfortunately, Stafford reached over a few seconds later and flipped the same switch, unaware that his partner had already made the change. When they exploded the four bolts holding the upper section of the LM to the lower section (that would have served as a launch pad had they actually landed on the Moon), the craft began bouncing, weaving, and spinning all over the place just eight miles above the surface. With the computer guided radar system totally confused, Stafford finally flipped to manual control to right the craft. It was the actions of a skilled pilot that ended the crisis and NASA learned another valuable lesson about astronauts paying attention to detail and not taking things for granted.
One would think being seconds from being the first humans to crash on the Moon would give an astronaut second thoughts. For Cernan, it was a practice run that proved they could handle such an emergency. If anything, it gave him more confidence when he returned to the Moon on Apollo 17. He and geologist Harrison Schmitdt would ride the LM Challenger to the surface with much less excitment than Gene experienced on Apollo 10. Ron Evans remained in orbit aboard the CSM America but he was not totally alone. Five mice nicknamed Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum, and Phooey were also on board but they, unfortunately, did not get to land on the Moon.
The Apollo 17 mission started with a minor glitch – one of the fuel tanks was not properly pressurized and the error caused the launch to be delayed about three hours. The mission was the only Apollo flight to be launched at night. Harrison’s training as a geologist afforded him the honor of being the first scientist to be able to study the Moon first hand. Cernan and Schmitt landed in an area known as the Taurus-Littrow site. It was so named as it was situated on the edge of the Mare Serenitatis (the Sea of Serenity) between the Taurus Mountains and the Littrow Crater. They landed the LEM within 200 feet of the targeted landing point. After the terrifying moments caused when Apollo 10’s Snoopy LM tumbled out of control, the Challenger landing was as smooth as silk. Once he recognized the landmark craters on their approach, Cernan adjusted to fly past a house-sized boulder and a deep depression they had not seen in their training photos. When he spotted the area dubbed ‘Camelot’ he knew he had to put the ship down to avoid the plain beyond that was littered with massive chunks of rock jutting out of the surface like sharp spears.
Cernan recalled, “I scanned for an empty space in a parking lot of boulders as big as automobiles and was concerned the powerful LM engine might kick up a cloud of black dust that would blot my view. Instead, there was very little, and I was able to eyeball the landing site. The sheer North Massif to our right stood as tall as eight-and-a-half Eiffel Towers and to the left, the wretched slab of the South Massif would equal the height of about seven Empire State Buildings stacked one atop the other. [After they had finally landed] I paused for a moment and slowly exhaled after making one of the smoothest landings of my career. Above the South Massife, the Earth stood still in the inky southwestern sky, my silent guardian star.”
Once Cernan and Harrison actually set foot on the lunar surface, they had three days to accomplish the most ambitious schedule of activities ever outlined for an Apollo mission. First off, they had a lunar rover strapped to the side of the LM like a piano being hauled by a truck. The rigidness of their inflated spacesuits made every task more difficult than the practice runs they had performed back on Earth. Once they dusted themselves off with one of their most important tools (a paint brush), they crawled back into the LM to rest at the end of the first day’s EVA. Gene described their activities once they had pressurized their home away from home: “Stripping off my gloves was a painful process and I wasn’t surprised to discover the knuckles and backs of my hands were blistered with a fiery red rawness. My fingers felt almost broken and I had to flex them to see if they still worked. The gloves were thick, with multiple layers, and when pressurized after we suited up had become as rigid as the cast on a broken arm, Every time we grabbed something, we fought their stiffness, scraping our knuckles and skin against the unyielding inside layer.” Watching the EVAs on film today, one does not sense the struggle they had just to try and keep on track, and then repeat it for two more days.
Things did not always go smoothly. Cernan caught the rock hammer hanging on his belt on the fender of the lunar rover and broke part of the fender off. The first day runs showed it had to be fixed so the ground team directed them through a fix involving folded up geology maps and fasteners. Harrison took several tumbles trying to pick up rocks which worried Cernan – if he punctured his suit, Gene said, “It certainly would have ruined both of our day.” One experiment required drilling three eight foot holes for subsurface probes but the lunar surface proved harder to crack than anticipated. The more difficult things got on the Moon, the more advice they got from the scientists back on Earth who did not want to see their particular experiment fail. One can only imagine how hard it was sleeping on two hammocks, one strung near the floor and the other above the engine bay, with the environmental system humming along and the vacuum of space just beyond the unimaginably thin walls of the LM.
The details of their full stay on the lunar surface are too long to include here. If you would like more information on this historic mission, there is a copy of Cernan’s book at the Ontonagon Township Library. With that in mind, we will turn our attention to the astronaut’s departure from the Moon. Before the mission, everyone wanted to know what Cernan would say. He truthfully told them, “I do not have any idea!” He scribbled a few notes on the pad attached to the sleeve of his spacesuit in hopes that something profound would come out of his mouth when the time came.
In the end, Cernan said, “I ignored the notes on my cuff checklist and spontaneously spoke from my heart: ‘As we leave the Moon and Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came, and God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. As I take these last steps from the surface for some time to come, I’d just like to record that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow.’ As I turned, I again saw the small sign posted beneath the ladder by some unknown well-wishing worker; a phrase that I repeated every time I entered or left the Challenger. ‘Godspeed the crew of Apollo Seventeen,’ I said, and climbed on board.
Cernan’s footprints would be man’s last on the Moon up to this fiftieth anniversary. For the record, Cernan’s last words were indeed as profound as those that Neil Armstrong had spoken upon the first manned landing with Apollo 11. As the countdown to the ignition of their LM ascent engine neared, Gene spoke the last words any man would speak on the Moon for more than a half century: “Okay, Jack, let’s get this mutha outta here.” One would expect nothing less from a pilot at the conclusion of a successful mission.
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