293. The Last Man on the Moon

600px-nasa_apollo_17_lunar_roving_vehicleOn one side is cynicism.

On the other, political correctness, a stiff upper lip, wearing your game face, or whatever is the most current version of refusing to acknowledge defeat or failure even while it is kicking your ass.

Somewhere in between is the truth.

I’ve been reading astronaut biographies for the last decade. You don’t really understand the American space program that made my youth so exciting until you have seen the same events through many different – sometimes sharply disagreeing – viewpoints. All of the biographies have been in that truthful middle ground, but some suffered from too much emotional distance and some from too much optimism. They all share bitterness at some contractors whose spacecraft were substandard, and ultimately deadly.

Of all these biographies, two stand out, Grissom’s Gemini (see 87. Gemini) and Cernan’s The Last Man on the Moon. I have long planned a post on Cernan’s book, but the timing of his death caught me tangled up in other matters and delayed it these last two weeks.

Cernan flew on Gemini 9, Apollo 10, and Apollo 17. He flew within 10 miles of the lunar surface, without landing on May 22, 1969. He landed the Apollo 17 craft three and a half years later, on December 11, 1972. When he stepped back aboard for the final time, he became the last man to walk on the moon, making the title of his memoir inevitable.

Unlike Glenn, Shepard, and Armstrong, Cernan didn’t become a household name, but he should have.

Cernan’s first flight was Gemini 9. Their first task was rendezvous and docking, which had been a pain in NASA’s side. Gemini 6 had been scrubbed when it docking target failed, and had flown later, using Gemini 7 as a rendezvous target, but without docking. Then Gemini 8 achieved rendezvous and docking with a subsequent Agena, only to be nearly torn apart by a thruster failure in the Gemini. Only Neil Armstrong’s skill saved the day.

When Cernan and Stafford on Gemini 9 rendezvoused with their Agena target vehicle they found that the shroud covering the docking target had only partially retracted. Docking was once again impossible. They succeeded in making three separate rendezvouses then set out to perform an ambitious EVA, or, as Cernan titled chapter 13 of his book, “The Spacewalk From Hell”.

I’ll save that story for later, when I give a full post of the trials of early spacewalks.

Three years later Stafford and Cernan were together again, along with John Young, on Apollo 10. When I taught the space program to eighth graders, I called this the most frustrating mission in the history of exploration. Leaving Young in the Command Module, Stafford and Cernan took their Lunar Lander down to about ten miles above the moon’s surface, did not land, and returned to lunar orbit to rendezvous with Young and return to Earth. Aside from de Sade level cruelty, it all seems so pointless from our perspective.

Of course, it was neither cruel nor pointless. It was necessary to calibrate the instruments which would calculate the vectors necessary to land accurately. It would be impossible to overemphasize how crude instruments were in 1969. Even with the help of Apollo 10, Apollo 11 did not land exactly where it was supposed to and nearly crashed in a rubble field.

By one number Stafford and Cernan missed being first on the moon. Stafford did not fly another mission until the Apollo-Soyusz mission of 1975. Cernan became commander of Apollo 17 which, because of funding cuts, became the last Apollo flight to land on the moon.

Back in Indiana, Purdue University holds bragging rights to having produced the first (Armstrong) and last (Cernan) astronauts to land on the moon.


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