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Eugene Cernan passed away last month at the age of 82. (credit: Airport Journals)

Remembering Eugene Cernan

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At 3:00 am on December 6, 1972, Jim Sisson was jarred awake by the phone at his bedside in his Cape Canaveral motel room. Sisson was acting project manager for the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. He was at the Cape to ensure mission readiness of the LRV stowed on the Apollo 17 Lunar Module Challenger. The call came from the Manned Spacecraft Operations Building (MSOB) at Kennedy Space Center.

“Commander Cernan wants to talk with you,” the caller said.

“OK,” Sisson replied, and waited for Cernan to get on the phone.

Apollo 17 would be the last human mission to the Moon in the 20th century, and Cernan wanted his lunar rover to perform perfectly on the scheduled EVAs.

“He wants you out here,” was the reply. Sisson had had only three hours sleep at that point, having worked to nearly midnight. He hung up, threw cold water on his face, got dressed and drove over to the MSOB. He was escorted to the crew quarters for the Apollo 17 prime crew of Eugene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt, and Ron Evans. Cernan wanted a definitive answer regarding the LRV.

“Are the batteries OK?” Cernan asked pointedly.

“Yes, the batteries are OK,” Sisson answered with total confidence.

“That’s all I wanted to know,” Cernan came back. Undoubtedly, Eugene Cernan had performed similar polling on other spacecraft equipment he wanted assurance of. Apollo 17 would be the last human mission to the Moon in the 20th century, and Cernan wanted his LRV to perform perfectly on the scheduled EVAs.

Capt. Eugene Cernan, the last astronaut to step off the surface of the Moon, acquired much the same mythos among Apollo astronauts as had Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon. Cernan pass away on January 16, 2017, at the age of 82. The twelve astronauts who landed on and explored the Moon became national heroes. Most of them spent the years after their missions talking of their experience. Cernan most certainly did; Armstrong decidedly did not.

Gemini 9

In the summer of 1963, Eugene Cernan was working to complete his naval post-graduate studies and an internship at Aerojet General in Sacramento, California, when he received a phone call that changed his life. A commander from the US Navy Special Projects Office spoke, asking Cernan if he wanted to be considered as a potential astronaut in NASA’s Apollo program. Cernan enthusiastically said yes.

The rigors of the astronaut candidate evaluation program were already legend. Cernan went on to be selected for the third group of astronauts, announced by NASA in October 1963. He immediate began formal training for Project Gemini that would prepare some of those astronauts for possible Apollo missions.

With no means of controlling his movements, Cernan tumbled out of control.

Cernan and Thomas Stafford were training as the backup crew for Gemini 9. The prime crew for that flight was Elliot See and Charlie Bassett. In February 1966, See and Bassett, along with Stafford and Cernan, flew their twin-seat T-38s to St. Louis, Missouri, to visit the McDonnell Douglas plant, inspect their spacecraft, and conduct simulator training. On the approach to Lambert Field in extremely poor weather conditions, Bassett and See’s jet crashed into one of the buildings and the two astronauts were killed. Several hours later, Deke Slayton called Stafford and Cernan to say they were now the prime crew for the mission.

Gemini 9 crews
The prime and backup crews of Gemini 9 included Thomas Stafford and Eugene Cernan (standing) and Elliot See and Charlie Bassett. (credit: NASA)

Mission training continued up to the launch of Gemini 9A on June 3, 1966. A target spacecraft had been launched by an Atlas rocket with an Augmented Target Docking Adapter (ATDA). Stafford and Cernan would rendezvous and attempt docking during the mission and perform other mission milestones.

After two launch scrubs, the Gemini-Titan with Stafford and Cernan was launched on June 3, 1966. Neil Armstrong was the initial capcom. The capsule quickly caught up to the ATDA spacecraft after several orbits, but its clamshell shroud had failed to properly jettison. The crew could not perform mechanical docking. Instead, mission controllers redirected the astronauts to perform two other rendezvous. The last rendezvous would simulate a scenario in lunar orbit.

Cernan had trained to conduct a spacewalk on this mission—the second for Gemini—and test an Auxiliary Maneuvering Unit (AMU). Cernan did not, however, have the benefit of the handheld maneuvering unit Ed White took with him on his spacewalk. Once outside the capsule, Cernan immediately encountered Newton’s third law of motion that would plague him during the entire spacewalk.

During this phase, he was to see how he could move about using only his umbilical. The lifeline to the capsule seemed to have a mind of its own and came alive. With no means of controlling his movements, Cernan tumbled out of control. Very quickly it became evident a maneuvering unit would be essential for an astronaut’s spacewalk away from the spacecraft.

Cernan managed to pull his way back to the capsule and then work his way back to the adapter module. This contained equipment vital to long duration missions for the Gemini capsule. It was here the AMU was stored. Cernan learned that the Gemini flight suit inside the capsule was fairly flexible. However, once pressurized and outside the capsule, it was extraordinarily stiff and restricted his movements.

By the time he had reached the back of the adapter module, his heart rate was up to 155 beats per minute and he was becoming exhausted. His rapid breathing was fogging up his helmet visor. There was no lighting inside the adapter; Cernan had to rely on a weak light on his suit that proved inadequate. He struggled to prepare the AMU. Every step proved difficult and took longer to perform than in training. There was little tactile sensation through his gloves. Every force he performed moved him away from the AMU.

By the time he had wrestled into the backpack, his heartrate had climbed to 180 beats per minute. Cernan had lost clear voice communication with Stafford when he disconnected the umbilical. Now he was relying on a poor signal from the AMU. Things were not going according to plan or the mission timeline. Stafford got garbled words from Cernan regarding his status, but was still willing to test the AMU. After conferring with mission controllers and getting their concurrence, Stafford cancelled the test of the AMU.

Cernan felt he had failed a key portion of the mission, but his physical condition helped to assuage his disappointment. He removed himself from the AMU after reconnecting the umbilical. He could barely see anything through his visor, and had to return to the capsule hatch more by feel than by sight. Stafford pushed the capsule hatch open, but then another ordeal began.

“I got the Moon’s reflected surface in the LM window,” Cernan declared as he looked out a command module window. “God, that Moon is beautiful. We’re right on top of it.”

Cernan could not bend easily at the waist or knees and had difficulty positioning his feet to start the ingress. Stafford had to grab Cernan’s left foot to get his legs into the capsule. Lowering himself into the seat was a struggle with the pressurized suit in weightlessness. Cernan experienced extreme pain forcing his legs to bend, fighting to get all the way into the seat. When they pulled the lanyard to close the hatch, it would not close because of Cernan’s helmet. At six feet, Cernan was one of the tallest astronauts in NASA.

Stafford managed to the hook the first latch in the mechanism designed to close the hatch. Cernan worked the handle to lower the hatch, putting extreme pressure on his neck and spine. The hatch had to be completely closed and locked before the capsule could be repressurized. Training had never prepared him for this. With one final push on the handle, he succeeded in completely closing and locking the hatch.

Stafford immediately repressurized the cabin and Cernan’s suit was vented. Cernan opened his helmet visor; his face was beet red. Stafford doused Cernan’s face with water and gradually his heart rate and breathing returned to normal. The two rested for the next eight hours. In preparation for reentry, the AMU was first jettisoned, then the adapter section. The retrorocket pack slowed the spacecraft to begin its descent into the atmosphere. Their capsule splashed down in the Atlantic three days and 21 minutes after liftoff. Now both Stafford and Cernan would begin their training for Apollo.

Apollo 10

Cernan was selected for the backup crew of Apollo 7. He had to wait and watch the crew of Apollo 8 perform its circumlunar mission, and then the crew of Apollo 9 conduct its Earth orbit mission to test the rendezvous and docking capability of the lunar module with the command module. Cernan was selected as the lunar module pilot for Apollo 10. This was an “all up” mission that duplicated every mission milestone except landing on the lunar surface.

The mission commander was his crewmate on Gemini 9, Thomas P. Stafford. John Young was chosen as the command module pilot. Their Saturn V was launched on May 18, 1969. Their outbound journey to the Moon was uneventful.

Lunar orbit insertion and orbit of the Moon was timed to replicate that of Apollo 11. Once in lunar orbit, Cernan commented on the view out the spacecraft window.

“I got the Moon’s reflected surface in the LM window,” Cernan declared as he looked out a command module window. “God, that Moon is beautiful. We’re right on top of it.”

Stafford and Cernan transferred to the lunar module, conducted all necessary checks, then undocked from the command module. The descent stage was fired and the lunar module began its descent trajectory toward the Mare Tranquillitatis landing site of Apollo 11. The spacecraft reached its nearest point to the lunar surface passing over the Sea of Tranquility. Stafford and Cernan marveled at the stark beauty of the Moon, able to even identify boulders. They made another orbit of the Moon.

Part of the mission was to also conduct an abort of the landing, with stage separation of the lunar module and the ascent stage returning to lunar orbit for rendezvous. For staging to simulate an abort, the navigation computer was mistakenly set in the Primary Navigation Guidance System position instead of the Abort Guidance System position.

The moment the explosive bolts fired, the spacecraft attitude control thrusters began firing and the lunar module began gyrating. This anomaly had never been conducted in trainer simulations. The LM began spinning out of control. This continued for 15 seconds as Stafford and Cernan tried to determine the problem. Stafford finally overrode the navigation computer and took manual control of the spacecraft less than 16 kilometers above the surface of the Moon.

It was a heart-stopping moment in the mission, but they were still on schedule for the “fire in the hole” abort—the stage separation and firing of the ascent stage engine. Stafford aligned the lunar module for the ascent stage engine burn and the ascent stage fired.

“Geno, are you turning down a chance to walk on the Moon?” Cernan recalled Slayton asking him.

This was the first attempt of this critical procedure in lunar orbit, and the engine performed perfectly. Another first was about to take place: the first rendezvous of the lunar module with the command and service module in lunar orbit. Young in the command module was closely monitoring the approach of the distant lunar module, and radar tracking in both spacecraft was crucial to this successful phase of the mission.

As the two spacecraft went behind the Moon, the lunar module continued to close the gap. When the lunar module was within several meters of the command and service module, Young performed the alignment and docking procedure. The reassuring sound of the locking latches told the crew they had achieved capture. The good news was transmitted to mission control in Houston. After Stafford and Cernan transferred to the command module, the lunar module was jettisoned and its trajectory eventually sent it into orbit around the Sun.

During the 31st orbit of the Moon, the service module engine would fire for two minutes and 44 seconds to perform the Trans Earth Injection. This had been done with Apollo 8. Nevertheless, Stafford, Young, and Cernan counted the seconds after ignition. The engine shut down precisely on time. The crew of Apollo 10 was on their way home and all the mission milestones had been achieved (see “Apollo 10: “To sort out the unknowns” for Apollo 11”, The Space Review, May 16, 2016).

Their Apollo capsule splashed down in in the Pacific Ocean on May 26, 1969. The Apollo 11 Saturn V launch vehicle was at the launch complex undergoing checkout prior to its scheduled launch in July. Eugene Cernan was already thinking of how he could return to the Moon and explore its mysteries.

Apollo 11 was a spectacular success and was followed by the longer duration Apollo 12. Deke Slayton established his preferred primary and backup crew selections for Apollo 13. Slayton scheduled a meeting with Cernan to discuss his selection as part of the backup crew of Apollo 13. The Apollo crew rotation would then move Cernan three missions later to prime crew of Apollo 16.

Cernan had given serious thought to what he would say to Slayton. When Slayton offered him the role of Apollo 13 backup crew lunar module pilot, Cernan paused before speaking. This was the same role he had held on Apollo 10 and would have as the prime crew of Apollo 16. Cernan told Slayton he felt he had earned the right to command an Apollo mission. If he could not be Commander, he would have to pass on the offer of Apollo 13, and eventually Apollo 16. Slayton was incredulous.

“Geno, are you turning down a chance to walk on the Moon?” Cernan recalled Slayton asking him in his autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon.

“Yes, sir, Deke. I’d love to walk on the Moon but I want to do it from the left seat.”

Cernan was not selected for the backup crew of Apollo 13. Slayton must have admired Cernan’s audacity and truly respected his ability, because he gave Cernan the role of commander for the backup crew of Apollo 14. Cernan would fly in the left seat of the command module, and occupy the left seat of the lunar roving vehicle for what would ultimately be the last Apollo mission to the Moon.

Apollo 17

Two months after the aborted Apollo 13 mission, NASA announced the cancellation of Apollo 20. Budget negotiations resulted in the cancellation of Apollo 18 and 19. Cernan’s backup crew members on Apollo 14 were command module pilot Ron Evans and lunar module pilot Joe Engle. This would have been the prime crew of Apollo 17.

However, high-level discussions involving the scientific community and NASA resulted in a change of crew member. In August 1971, Engle was replaced with Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, who had trained as backup lunar module pilot for Apollo 15. Schmitt was also an educated and trained geologist, one of NASA’s scientist-astronauts.

The LRV was a critical component of the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 missions. Cernan and Schmitt performed shirtsleeve field training in the 1-G trainer called Grover. They also trained with a fully-configured and strengthened LRV in their EVA suits both indoors and out at Kennedy Space Center.

“I don’t think we could have gotten 30 percent done of what we eventually did get done, without the rover. It was just a phenomenal asset.”

After a hold of several hours, Apollo 17 was launched in the early morning minutes of December 7, 1972. Cernan and Schmitt landed their lunar module in the valley of Taurus-Littrow four days later. After four hours of preparation, Cernan descended the lunar module ladder and stepped onto the lunar surface. That electric moment of realization they are standing on the surface of the Moon and in a place no one has explored is a private moment few Apollo astronauts ever shared with anyone. Cernan had achieved his dream.

Schmitt followed soon thereafter, and amusingly complained someone had disturbed his lunar soil. Together they deployed the LRV, Cernan mounted the left seat, and he took the rover for a drive around Challenger to check its operation. They were in business. Taurus-Littrow would be explored.

After deploying the ALSEP and during the first EVA, Cernan inadvertently broke off one of the LRV’s rear fender extensions. This was the same problem that occurred on Apollo 16. Mission Control searched for a solution and had one ready after Cernan and Schmitt completed their first sleep period. They were instructed to fashion an expedient fender extension from plastic-covered maps that would be held in place with clamps; it worked.

EVA 2 was spent driving toward the base of the South Massif first and then methodically working their way back. With the new fender extension clamped in place and the LRV ready to go, Cernan and Schmitt reveled in the view before them in the valley. Schmitt had a new sampling tool, the LRV Sampler. About one meter in length, Schmitt could collect small samples at desired stops without leaving the LRV.

Station stops occurred at Nansen crater at the base of the South Massif, then the craters Lara and Shorty. Along this traverse Schmitt used the LRV Sampler numerous times. It was at the station stop, near the dangerously steep walls of Shorty crater, Schmitt made his startling discovery of what he called “orange soil.” The Station 5 stop was near the rim of the 600-meter-diameter Camelot crater, before heading back to the lunar module to close out EVA 2.

Capt. Eugene Cernan next to the lunar roving vehicle in the valley of Taurus-Littrow. (credit: NASA)

Their third and last EVA would take them to the North Massif. Large boulders were visible along their route, which had tumbled down from the massif or had landed there from the debris of impact craters. Among the most intriguing boulders the two astronauts examined during the third EVA was the large split boulder at Station 6, and the location of one of the most iconic photos of the Apollo era. They explored, sampled and took photographs at Shakespeare, Bowen, Cochise and Van Serg craters.

The three EVAs totaled more than 22 hours on the lunar surface. Cernan spoke moving and appropriate words as he stepped off the lunar surface for the last time. He would not admit America had abandoned its exploration of the Moon, but said a new generation would one day return.

This writer had the opportunity to interview Capt. Cernan in 2003 for my history of the Lunar Roving Vehicle (see “Review: Lunar and Planetary Rovers”, The Space Review, January 29, 2007). He explained to me how the LRV contributed to the mission of Apollo 17 in exploring the Taurus Littrow valley.

“The rover allowed us to explore the entirety of this valley of which I spoke, literally from one end to the other,” he recalled. “North to south, to climb up hills we never would have been able to climb up on foot. It just would have been too tiring and too difficult. It’s very tough on the [lunar] surface. You can’t really judge inclines and distances and sizes very well.”

We remember the Apollo lunar explorers today because there were so few of them, and their bold missions of exploration on another world captured the imagination of the world.

“The rover allowed us,” Cernan continued, “to cover this entire valley from both a scientific and a geologic point of view, bring back samples and get pictures from places we never would have been able to get them from. It was just so versatile and gave us so much additional advantage within the time frame that we had on the Moon. I don’t think we could have gotten 30 percent done of what we eventually did get done, without the rover. It was just a phenomenal asset.”

Life for Eugene Cernan after Apollo 17 was anticlimactic. What mission or career could he perform that could possibly top it? For that reason, he chose not to become involved in Skylab or the Space Shuttle programs. He co-authored his life story with Don Davis and The Last Man on the Moon was published in 1999. A documentary film by the same name on Cernan’s career was released several years ago (see “Review: The Last Man on the Moon”, The Space Review, March 7, 2016).

We remember the Apollo lunar explorers today because there were so few of them, and their bold missions of exploration on another world captured the imagination of the world. We will remember Eugene Cernan because he was, indeed, the last man on the Moon.