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This Stinks: Gene Cernan dead at 82 January 16, 2017

Posted by Tantumblogo in Four Last Things, General Catholic, history, manhood, sadness, Society, technology, Victory.

The old Apollo guys are going to their reward one by one.  Who is left at this point that walked on the moon?   Buzz Aldrin, Al Bean, Dave Scott, John Young, Charlie Duke, and Jack Schmitt.  All are in their 80s.

But today the last man to walk on the moon died.  Gene Cernan, who lived outside Kerrville, was 82:

Gene Cernan, an early NASA astronaut who was the last man to set foot on the moon, died Monday, NASA announced in a tweet. He was 82.

Cernan was the commander of Apollo 17 in December 1972 – the last lunar mission and one of the final Apollo flights. When Cernan stepped out from lunar module “Challenger” he became the 11th person to walk on the moon. His lunar module pilot, Jack Schmitt, was the 12th. But as commander, Cernan was the last to re-enter the module, making him the last person to walk on the lunar surface.

Cernan had previously served as the lunar module pilot on Apollo 10 and was a pilot on the Gemini IX mission.

Cernan logged 566 hours and 15 minutes in space, of which 73 hours were spent on the surface of the moon, according to NASA.

Cernan was one of only three men to travel to the moon twice.  The other two were Jim Lovell (still alive) and John Young.

There was a big row in NASA in the first half of 1970 when Nixon foolishly decided to gut the Apollo program (although, in his defense, most all of NASA management wanted it gutted, too).  After it was announced that Apollos 18-20 would be cancelled, even though the hardware was already almost entirely built (everything but the LMs for Apollo 19 and 20), the scientific community got all fired up because the then-current crew rotation would mean that no scientist would fly to the moon if Apollo 17 was the last mission.  The first scientist scheduled to go was Jack Schmitt to the Tycho Crater on Apollo 18 with Commander Dick Gordon.  No Apollo 18 meant no scientist on the moon.

But not so fast.  The science guys raised a big enough ruckus that NASA management was “encouraged” to change the crew rotation.  Gordon and Schmitt had been training together for 6 months at that point so Gordon hoped the entire crew for 18 would just replace Gene Cernan’s crew for 17.  That would have left Cernan out in the cold.  But instead, the awesomely skilled former X-15 pilot Joe Engle was bumped as LMP from Apollo 17 in favor of Schmitt, and Dick Gordon had to watch his chance to be the somewhat famous last man on the moon go up in smoke.

Gene Cernan was a bit of an anomaly among early Apollo astronauts in not being a test pilot.  He was an attack aviation guy in the Navy, flying Skyhawks, when he found out he had been accepted into the third round of astronaut selectees.  Cernan was generally viewed as a competent straight shooter who perhaps had the flaw of being a bit aggressive in his self-promotion.  There was quite a bit of that among the Apollo astronauts, of course.  After his time in NASA and almost de rigeuer collapse of his first marriage, Cernan became a bit of a sad creature, a sort of a caricature of his salad days version of himself, always Captain Cernan, always the former astronaut, not Geno or Gene anymore.

Still, they rarely make men like this anymore.  We’re much too soft to produce such steely eyed missile men as those who flew to the moon in a delicate, lowest-cost government-run contraption.  Engineering was done on slide rules back then, with no 3-D solid modeling and with less computing power in the entire NASA basement than one smart phone today.  And yet they did it, and the engineers of back then were probably far, far better than those of today, man for man.

Gene Cernan was at least a nominal Catholic most of his life.  Not sure if he died one.  I pray for the repose of his soul.

Few know Cernans’s most dangerous mission was not Apollo 17, was not on Apollo at all, but was on Gemini 9A.  During the mission he was to perform only America’s second spacewalk, the first since Ed White briefly flew outside Gemini 4.  What most people did not know at that time, is that White barely made it back inside the spacecraft.  His inflated pressure suit did not want to fit in the cramped capsule and he and commander Jim McDivitt struggled mightily to get it closed. As a result, White got quite severely overheated.

Well, White’s walk lasted perhaps 20 minutes, whereas Cernan’s was scheduled to last several hours.  However, he also ran into problems with inadequate cooling in his spacesuit, especially when in the 250 degree temperatures on the sunny side of the world.  Physical exertion, of which there was plenty, made him sweat profusely.  Then, when the capsule went around the night side of the earth, all that moisture inside his suit froze.  His visor was almost completely frosted over and Cernan was blind.  He barely managed to make it back inside the ship, and probably had a heat stroke trying to get the hatch shut.

Cernan and Stafford repeated their two-man team on Apollo 10, when another accident could have killed them both.  An incorrect setting on a guidance computer caused their Lunar Module to tumble out of control while practicing the landing maneuvers that Apollo 11 would perform on the first lunar landing.  The telemetry showed the LM “Snoopy” doing three 360s before Stafford flipped the switch to go from backup abort guidance to the Apollo Guidance Computer.  That fixed it.







1. Richard Malcolm - January 16, 2017

I was about to say that Apollo 10 proved to be at least as dangerous as Gemini 9A – but you qualified it enough to beat me to the punch.

It’s a shame that Joe Engle (who went on to fly the Shuttle) did not get his chance to go to the Moon. But even Cernan was forced to admit that while Engle was (obviously) a much better and more natural pilot, Schmitt had trained so hard that he turned out to have a better mastery of the Lunar Module than Engle. And not for a moment would Deke have signed off on assigning him if he had the slightest doubt that Schmitt couldn’t do every aspect of the job – and not just the geologist parts.

I think you’re right to assign the greater blame to Nixon for making the cuts that forced NASA’s hand on Apollo 17’s crew in the first place. Nixon actually wanted to cancel all flights after Apollo 15 (partly out of fear of losing a crew on the Moon after the near-disaster of Apollo 13), but then-OMB Director Cap Weinberger talked him out of it. But Tom Paine got the message, and still chopped two missions (Apollo 15 and 19) as sacrificial offerings, saving all of about $40 million, as all the hardware was already built. It all ended up becoming the world’s most expensive museum exhibits. Gene lucked out squeezing in his moonwalk on the very final mission to the Moon – and he knew it. And so he will remain, for the foreseeable future, as The Last Man On The Moon.

R.I.P., Gene.

Richard Malcolm - January 17, 2017

Here, we go – I tracked down Gene Cernan’s thoughts on Engle, Schmitt, and what it takes to make a military (or NASA) pilot, over at the Apollo 17 Lunar Surface Journal:

“Anyway, I know that there were people who thought that Jack had a lot to prove. He got the Apollo 17 assignment because he was a geologist and there were some people saying he wasn’t an aviator, that he shouldn’t fly, that he couldn’t handle it. So Jack probably had a little cross to bear in proving to those people that, not only could he handle the geology – which came natural – but also that he could handle the other requirements of being a Lunar Module Pilot.

“Some time ago I told you that Jack was an ‘adequate’ pilot, and I want to clarify that. Jack in a T-38 was an adequate (airplane) pilot. He wasn’t a great pilot, but he didn’t have the experience to be a great pilot. And, quite frankly, I don’t think he had the aptitude or the desire to be a great pilot. Jack flew airplanes in NASA because he had to fly. That was one of the squares to fill to get on the Moon. And that’s not a knock. I flew with Jack in T-38’s, and I think Jack was a safe and an adequate pilot. I don’t think Jack thought he was the greatest pilot in the world. Most people who want to fly big-time or fly off aircraft carriers, if they’re not a little arrogant and don’t think they’re the best pilot in the world, they should get in some other business. And, since we came back, Jack hasn’t flown. To be a great pilot, you’ve got to think you can do it better than it had ever been done before. You know your limitations, but you have to be a little arrogant. I used to say, ‘I dare the guidance system on the Apollo Saturn V to fail, because I can get us into orbit.’ And if I didn’t think I could get us into orbit, then I shouldn’t have been there. And I knew I could land that lunar module closer than anybody else had done to their desired landing point. Whether I’m a few feet long or short, really didn’t matter, but I had to go into that mission thinking that. It’s the kind of arrogance – not egotism – that you have to have. And Jack didn’t have that when it came to flying an airplane. Adequate is the word I used.

“Now, when it came to flying the lunar module, ‘adequate’ does not describe Jack’s ability to fly in the right-hand seat of the lunar module. He was outstanding.

“Jack knew the systems. He knew the AGS computer. He knew the PGNS computer. He knew the dynamics. He knew what we were going to be looking at. Now, when I say ‘fly’, Jack didn’t have much of a chance to land it (in the simulators) and Jack didn’t have much of a chance to fly the rendezvous, but that wasn’t his job. He trained hard. He studied hard; and he worked hard. Jack was not an ‘adequate’ lunar module pilot; he jumped in with both feet and was an outstanding lunar module pilot. Now, contrast that with Joe Engle. Joe was born with a stick and rudder in his hand. Joe Engle is probably the finest stick and rudder aviator that I’ve ever flown with in my entire life. He could make an airplane do things that I don’t have guts enough to make it do. So Joe was an outstanding aviator. In contrast, Joe was only an adequate lunar module pilot.

“The bottom line was that you had Deke’s endorsement, you didn’t need anybody else’s. Period. I think the simulator instructors, and the flight controllers, and all those guys had a direct influence and input into everybody being selected to fly. Because that was your on-going, dynamic test. And if they didn’t think you were cutting the mustard, they could see it from there and a lot easier than anyone else could. I’m sure that Deke used that input. Deke would have fought to his death against flying somebody if he thought he wasn’t qualified. So Jack can sit back and relax. When you have Deke’s endorsement, you don’t need anybody else’s. Period.”

Tantumblogo - January 18, 2017

Awesome. Joe Engle is often compared to Chuck Yeager as just a natural stick and rudder guy. Amazing intuitive ability to fly. But few people know Yeager faced heavy criticism for his inability to properly fly the NF-104A, with which he wanted to set an altitude record. That machine was part airplane, part spacecraft, and he never mastered the spacecraft part. At least, that’s according to the main project pilot on the NF-104A, Bob Smith. Check out http://www.nf-104.com. He attributes Yeager’s severe accident in the NF-104 to inability to comprehend and attain proper aircraft/spacecraft flight profiles for the mission.

2. Baseballmom - January 16, 2017

Eternal Rest grant unto him Oh Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him. May he Rest In Peace. Amen.

3. David - January 17, 2017


Thanks for covering this. I heard this on the morning news. I was glad to see he was outspoken about the demise of the space program, and was not happy to see the exploration of space be greatly reduced.

I grew up on NASA’s back gate in the mid 70s through the 80s, mostly during the early days of the shuttle development and the early days of the shuttle flights – yes, I remember Challenger, and Colonel Bobko, who piloted the maiden voyage of Challenger, attended my old parish weekly. Bobko is actually a very quiet man, like a Chesley Sullenberger.

Cernan left NASA in 1976 (he got his 20 in the Navy by then), mostly because he wasn’t interested in waiting around three to five years for an early shuttle flight – Al Bean, Charlie Duke, and a few others had a similar mentality, and were eligible to retire from the military by that time.

I never met Cernan (I do know where his old house is in Nassau Bay), but in 2000, I read his memoir, The Last Man on the Moon. One of the most interesting stories was how he and Stafford became the Prime Crew for Gemini 9. It was the only time in NASA history where a backup crew (hence the 9A designation) replaced the entire prime crew. There was also the reaction discussed when the T-38 crashed in St. Louis on January 28, 1966, which was how he and Stafford became the Prime Crew. With Stafford and Cernan becoming Prime Crew for Gemini 9, a new crew was needed for Gemini 12, which was how Buzz Aldrin got his first flight (he and Lovell were the Gemini 10 backup crew, which would have made them the prime crew for Gemini 13, but there wasn’t a Gemini 13).

About Engle – I read Deke Slayton’s memoir and Deke does mention that he nearly kicked Ed Mitchell off Apollo 14, because after 18-20 were cancelled, Deke figured it was unfair to have new guys be backup pilots for 16 and 17. Mitchell balked at being a backup on 16, and told him if he refused the assignment, he would have been replaced. Deke penned in his memoir that if he would have known Engle wouldn’t have been on Apollo 17, he would have tried hard to have had Engle placed on Apollo 14. I’ve never met Engle (I have met his son) who did get two stars, that he is a level headed and laid back guy – one of the newer Shuttle astronauts who grew up in Nebraska had a great discussion with him about growing up in Kansas.

Cernan also discusses in his memoir about how many of the Apollo guys were working 80+ hour work weeks that their families suffered. He blames that for tearing apart his marriage – he spoke very highly of his first wife Barbara, and lamented his divorce. Although he remarried, I don’t know if his second marriage was sacramental, but when he was in the Clear Lake area I heard he would attend Mass.

Again, thanks for covering this – Cernan will be missed, and I agree that today’s engineers are not as good as the ones of yesteryear.

Richard Malcolm - January 17, 2017

Apollo destroyed a lot of astronaut marriages – and, come to that, a fair number of engineer marriages, too. That program was running flat out, trying to beat the Russians as well as Kennedy’s deadline…and as Tantum says, they had to do it with slide rulers, not cloud computing. I am not sure it could have been any other way, at least not without spending even more money or insisting on hiring only bachelors.

I think it was hard on men like Cernan who made such a massive sacrifice to see the entire effort wound down, hardware discarded, the whole thing reduced to the one-off publicity stunt it really was seen as by those in the Beltway who greenlighted it. Especially given just how good NASA was getting at by the time of Apollo 17. And yet it remains, very arguably, the most impressive feat of human exploration in history, one that will be very difficult to top, no matter how far afield we travel.

David - January 17, 2017

Richard Malcolm:

I believe Chris Kraft said in some interviews that the majority of the public doesn’t remember Apollo 17 because no one died up there – it was a near flawless mission. Kraft also said in interviews that America quit going to the moon when America was just getting good at it.

As for the wives, Cernan mentioned in his memoirs, “those wives should be in the history books.”

Richard Malcolm - January 17, 2017

Correct on every point. And that was part of the reason why Nixon wanted to wind down Apollo (and why more than a few people in NASA were not unsupportive of that notion): As good as NASA was getting at it, every Apollo lunar mission was a very high risk proposition, leveraging the heck out of technology just barely adequate to the task (as Apollo 13 rudely reminded everyone). What would happen if we had lost a crew on the Moon, or around it? Even Chris Kraft worried about that.

But it’s still a shame that we left all that hardware on the table. The savings from cancelling Apollo 15 and 19 (Apollo 20 had to go to free up a Saturn V for Skylab) were negligible, and marginal risk an extra two missions over what was already being run with the other missions probably was not that much more.

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