Tag Archives: forgotten heroes

469. Joe Engle, Astronaut

Joe Engle missed his chance to go to the moon when he was bumped from Apollo 17 by Harrison Schmitt. It made sense. Schmitt was a geologist turned astronaut, and became the only one of the scientist-astronauts to get to the moon. He was, in fact, the only scientist to fly in space before the space shuttle program.

Joe Engle never became a household name like John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, but fighter jet crazy and space crazy kids of my generation were already aware of him before Apollo began. Not through the internet, which was decades away, nor from books in the library which were always two generations out of date, but from Popular Mechanics and Popular Science magazines. That was where my generation went to read about what was newer, faster, shinier, and cooler.

Iven Kincheloe, Mel Apt, Chuck Yaeger, Scott Crossfield, Joe Walker — if those names don’t stir your blood, you missed out. They were test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base who flew the newest and the best, especially the X-1, X-2, and most especially the X-15.

Joe Engle was one of them. By the way, so was that other guy, Neil Armstrong.

Engle decided to be a test pilot while in college, where he was in Air Force ROTC. Chuck Yeager recommended him for USAF test pilot school, and he subsequently attended Aerospace Research Pilot School. This was pre-NASA when the Air Force planned to put a man in space in a project called MISS (Man in Space Soonest). MISS morphed into Mercury after NASA took over the space program from the Air Force.

Engle served as a jet test pilot at Edwards and applied to NASA to be an astronaut. Instead, the Air Force chose him for the X-15 program. There he made sixteen flights; the fastest speed he recorded was 3887 mph. His highest altitude was 53.1 miles.

FAI (Fédération aéronautique internationale) in Switzerland maintains world records for human space flight. They set the limit of space at 100 kilometers. That’s 62.1 miles in the measurements Americans still use. In the days of the X-15, the Air Force set 50 miles as the edge of space and awarded an astronaut’s wings to any pilot exceeding that altitude. Engle exceeded fifty miles three times in the X-15.

(Fellow test pilot Joe Walker flew the X-15 above 100 kilometers twice, becoming the eighth American in space by the FAI’s more difficult criterion.)

Joe Engle applied to NASA again and was accepted. He was backup Lunar Module pilot for Apollo 14, and would have landed on the moon in Apollo 17. Engle then elected to transfer to the Space Shuttle program. He commanded one of the crews which flew multiple flight on the unpowered Enterprise. This near-shuttle was carried aloft on a Boeing 747 and dropped for a dead stick landing to evaluate its aerodynamic characteristics. NASA had to determine if the shuttle could land before it would launch it into space.

Engle was backup for the first Space Shuttle flight, and commander of the second flight. He later commanded STS-51-1.

Joe Engle is the only man to have flown two different types of winged vehicle into space. He is also the only remaining pilot of the twelve who flew the X-15, which he still calls his favorite aircraft.


468. Astronauts Left Behind

These poor guys got left behind when Apollo 17 went to the moon, and then I left them behind as well. This and the following post were originally planned for January but life got in the way.

When Apollo missions 18, 19, and 20 were cancelled, ten astronauts lost their chance at the moon. They were:

joe Engle who was scheduled for Apollo 17, but was replaced on that mission by Harrison Schmitt. (see 444. Last Men on the Moon) He will get his own post on Wednesday.

Richard Gordon and Vance Brand, who were scheduled for Apollo 18 along with Schmitt.

Fred Haise, William Pogue, and Gerald Carr who were scheduled for Apollo 19.

Stuart Roosa, Paul Weitz, Jack Lousma, and Don Lind who were on the short list for Apollo 20, although the final choice of three had not been made at the time of cancellation.

Here are their individual stories:

Stuart Roosa had been the Command Module Pilot of Apollo 14, the third moon landing. It was his only mission in space. He did not fly in space after Apollo 18 was cancelled.

Richard Gordon flew first on Gemini 11 where he and Pete Conrad set a record for the highest apogee earth orbit, while Gordon performed two space walks. He was Command Module Pilot of Apollo 12, the second moon landing. He did not fly in space after Apollo 18 was cancelled.

Vance Brand was on the backup crew of Apollo 15 and scheduled for the cancelled Apollo 18. He was then backup on Skylabs 3 and 4, and was on the rescue team held in reserve for a possible Skylab disaster. He finally flew on space on the Apollo-Soyuz mission, and later commanded the first fully operational Space Shuttle mission on the Columbia. He commanded Challenger on the tenth Space Shuttle flight and Columbia again on the thirty-eighth shuttle flight.

Fred Haise had gone around the moon on the ill-fated Apollo 13. On Apollo 19 he would have landed on the moon. He subsequently was a pilot on the ALT program (full title, Space Shuttle Approach and Landing Tests), where he piloted the unpowered Enterprise to three successful landings, after being dropped from a 747. He was scheduled to fly the second Space Shuttle mission to boost Skylab to a higher orbit, but that was cancelled when delays in the shuttle program allowed Skylab to fall.

Skylab plays a role in the stories of several of these astronauts. For details, go to posts 297   298  and  299.

William Pogue and Gerald Carr both shifted from Apollo to Skylab after the cancellation of Apollo 19. They were part of the Skylab 4 crew which spent 84 days in space.

Paul Weitz also shifted to the Skylab project, where he was on the crew of Skylab 2, the first manned mission. Skylab was badly damaged during its unmanned launch, a mission that was called Skylab 1. Weitz along with Pete Conrad and Joseph Kerwin spent much of their mission doing repairs.  Weitz retired from NASA, then returned to fly the maiden voyage of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Jack Lousma was on the crew of Skylab 3, where he spent 60 days in space. He subsequently was commander of STS-3, the third orbital test flight of Space Shuttle Columbia.

Don Lind once said he was “in the right place at the wrong time.” He was one of the scientist-astronauts brought into Apollo and would most likely have followed Schmitt in rotation had Apollo 20 not been cancelled. He moved to Skylab, where he was backup for Skylabs 3 and 4, on standby for a rescue mission that didn’t happen, and was scheduled for Skylab 5 mission, which also didn’t happen. He was under consideration for Skylab B, a second Skylab space station that was cancelled. He was under consideration for the Apollo-Soyuz mission, but was not chosen. He finally flew on STS-51-B in 1985 aboard Spacelab-3. Spacelab was a space lab, in module form, carried in the payload bay of a space shuttle. Lind had served nineteen years as an astronaut before his first and only spaceflight.

460. White World

“Welcome to Black History Month,” said the old white guy.

You might wonder what I know about black history. The answer is, actually, quite a bit. I was a teenager during the height of the civil rights movement. I wasn’t involved, but I was watching and learning.

I grew up in Oklahoma in the fifties. That isn’t the South, but it’s close enough. We didn’t have blacks-only facilities in my town, because we didn’t have blacks. There were blacks in Tulsa where we shopped, and a few in Claremore, the county seat, but not in the rural areas I inhabited.

We called them negroes in polite conversation, but niggers most of the time. Sorry. It hurts my fingers to type that word, but I’m not going to lie to you. Nowadays, I use the term blacks because that is what they chose for themselves in the sixties. African-American came later, along with Native American. Both those terms sound to me like something made up by embarrassed white guys. I’ll stick with blacks, because that is what blacks wanted to be called when I first became fully aware of them as real people.

When I was very young, I didn’t have much of an opinion. I had never met a black person. There was one black man who farmed somewhere in the area. I saw him go by in his pickup once in a while, but that was as close to a black person as I had been.

I had also never met a Jew. I had never met a Spanish speaker, nor an Italian, nor a Mormon. Certainly not a Muslim; actually, I had never heard of Muslims. There was one Catholic boy who attended our school briefly. He wasn’t well treated and he didn’t stay long.

We didn’t have segregation. We had apartheid. I just didn’t know it at the time.

You get the picture. Not just white — WHITE. And not just Protestant, but Southern Baptist. And not just Southern Baptist, but small-town-Southern-Baptist; not like those liberals down in Tulsa. There were so many Baptists in town that the local high school didn’t have a prom.

That’s who I was when I was at ten. That’s not who I was by the time I was fifteen.

When those black people down south went marching, and were met with clubs and dogs and firehoses — when my father (and everybody else’s father) said it was their own fault, I couldn’t buy it. When I saw them bloodied and beaten, yet standing firm for freedom and dignity, I knew they were right and we were wrong.

When they fought for their own freedom, they also gave this Oklahoma white boy his freedom. They gave me a new way of looking at the world, and I am grateful to this day.

So the first year I was blogging, I wrote a month’s worth of posts on civil rights. Check any post between January 18, 2016 and February 18, 2016 if you want to see them. Last year I didn’t try to repeat myself. I had said everything I had to say.

This year, everybody who doesn’t look like me is in jeopardy all over again.

I’m an American white male. I have all the civil rights in the world. I also have an obligation to see that I am not the only one who has them.

So here I go again. Welcome to Black History Month.


444. Last Men on the Moon

left to right: Schmitt, Cernan (seated), and Evens

The last Apollo mission occurred forty-five years ago this week, with final departure from the moon on December 14th..

The three men who went to the moon on Apollo 17 were not the original choice. Astronaut crews during Apollo were selected well in advance, with primary and backup crews for each mission. The backup crew, as a unit, was supposed to fly on a subsequent mission, but not the very next one. That plan was frequently disrupted by events. Everyone probably remembers from the movie Apollo 13 that Mattingly was originally part of the Apollo 13 crew, but was bumped at the last minute in favor of Swigert because Mattingly had been exposed to rubella. The actual shuffling that took place was far more complicated than that.

As Apollo wound down and missions 18, 19, and 20 were cancelled, (see 441. The Last Apollo) nine astronauts were going to lose their chance at the moon. One of these men was Harrison Schmitt who had been slated for Apollo 18. He was one of the scientist astronauts recruited by NASA. Given the schedule at the time Apollo 18 was cancelled, none of these scientists would have flown. This was unacceptable to the scientific community; they lobbied for and got Schmitt moved up to Apollo 17, which cost Joe Engle his mission.

What happened to the men who got the Apollo axe? Obviously that is worth at least one post, possibly more, but my rotation pushes that into January or later.

Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt landed on the moon December 11. Their mission was J type, as were Apollo 15 and 16, which meant these missions were designed for a three day stay and included a Lunar Rover. This dune buggy looking vehicle allowed one or two astronauts to move further away from the Lunar Lander and greatly increased the usefulness of the mission.

Apollo 17 landed in the Taurus-Littrow region of the moon. This site allowed sampling a wide range of types of rock, as it consisted of an ancient lava flow, with surface broken by subsequent meteor strikes, and included secondary strikes. This means that ejecta from the nearby Tycho crater came to earth (came to Moon?) causing secondary, smaller craters at the Taurus-Littrow site. This allowed Schmitt to sample Tycho material even though an Apollo landing at Tycho never happened.

A few minutes before eleven PM, Greenwich Time, December 14, 1972, the last manned mission to the moon lifted off, to later rendezvous with the CSM and return to Earth. Gene Cernan was the last to enter the lunar Lander before take off. We’ll give him the final words:

“Too many years have passed for me to still be the last man to have left his footprints on the Moon. I believe with all my heart that somewhere out there is a young boy or girl with indomitable will and courage who will lift that dubious distinction from my shoulders and take us back where we belong. Let us give that dream a chance.”


I’ve read a large number of memoirs by astronauts and others involved in space exploration. The Last Man on the Moon by Eugene Cernan and Don Davis is one of the best. If you want more of this story, that is the place to go for it.


441. The Last Apollo

“We leave as we came, and, God willing, we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”        Cernan’s closing words on leaving the moon at the end of Apollo 17

Forty-five years ago, at 12:33 AM Eastern Time, the last manned moon flight took off from Cape Canaveral.

It was a stunt from the get-go. Kennedy’s speech, setting a goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth, was a Trump-worthy brag. If we had failed, it would be laughed at today as just another empty promise made by a politician.

One man laid down the challenge and thousands of men and women carried out the promise.

But it was still a stunt. When Kennedy made his speech on May 25, 1961, Russian had put a man into orbit. We had not, although we had managed a sub-orbital flight. Atlas boosters were still blowing up on launch, so a smaller Redstone was used for Alan Shepard’s flight on May fifth.

NASA had only been in existence for three years. By any real or imagined yardstick, the Russians were far ahead in space.

By herculean efforts, NASA forged ahead through Mercury and Gemini. The fire aboard “Apollo One” set American efforts back significantly, and when launches began again, it looked like the Russians were going to land on the moon first.

There were Soviet problems however, particularly the repeated failure of their N-1 rocket. These doomed their attempt to reach the moon first, but NASA was not aware at the time.

NASA had problems of its own. The lunar lander was not ready when Apollo 7, the first actual manned Apollo flight, left for low Earth orbit in October of 1968. Only a year remained on Kennedy’s timeline, and the Soviets — we thought — were poised to land on the moon ahead of us. Something had to be done.

That something was the Apollo 8 journey to and around the moon, without a lander, for the Christmas season of 1968. We had been to the moon first (by an ad-man’s stretch of the truth), even if the Soviets became the first to land.

Apollo 9 tested the lunar lander in low Earth orbit. Apollo 10 (the most frustrating almost in human history) returned to the moon, deployed the lunar lander, and flew it to within wishing distance of the moon without landing.

Apollo 11 landed a man safely on the moon, and returned him safely to the Earth.

Now what?

For the Soviets, the answer was to turn away from the moon. Their N-1 mega-rocket had failed, and their manned modules and lander were stored away. The Soviets began a series of long flights and space stations, studying space from low Earth orbit.

For NASA there were nine more Saturn V rockets waiting to launch Apollo 12 through 20. It didn’t turn out that way. Apollo 12 landed in a different part of the moon, Apollo 13 suffered and explosion, didn’t land, and barely made it home.

Even before Apollo 13, Apollo 20 was cancelled so its Saturn V could be used to launch Skylab. Even before Apollo 14 landed, Apollo 18 and 19 were cancelled. Why? Because it was a stunt from the get-go. Apollo 11 met the deadline. To coin-counting bureaucrats, that was enough.

For those of us who see space exploration as the future of humanity, Apollo 11 was only the  beginning. Lunar exploration, a moon base, Mars. Venus — there should have been no end.

Bureaucrats did not agree. On Thursday, 1972, at 12:33 AM Eastern Time, the last manned moon flight took off from Cape Canaveral.

more next Thursday, the anniversary of the last liftoff from the Moon


440. Pearl Harbor Day is Tomorrow

Pearl Harbor Day is tomorrow and for the third time, I am not going to write about it directly.

In 2015, I used Pearl Harbor Day as a jumping off place to discuss the decision to go to war in Iraq.

In 2016, I used Pearl Harbor Day as a jumping off place to discuss Japanese Internment.

In 2017, I am even less able to salute and shout hallelujah than I was on the last two times Pearl Harbor Day rolled around. Things are even worse than they were then.

Do I think we were shouldn’t have retaliated to the Pearl Harbor attack? Don’t be absurd.

Do I support disarmament? I wish I could, but it would be national suicide.

Am I a veteran? Yes; and I would love to be the last veteran.

Am I a pacifist? Don’t I wish. I would love to live long enough to be able to say yes to that, but I won’t. Neither will you, and you are younger than I am.

There are times when we have to fight and Pearl Harbor signaled one of those times, but our national default setting should not be attack. We should fight rarely, and only when necessary. For many years now, we have been doing a terrible job of deciding when to fight, so I find it hard to wave the flag. Someone might think that means I’m ready to start shooting.

Tomorrow is Pearl Harbor Day. It is also the forty-fifth anniversary of the last manned moon launch. I think I’ll write about that.


434. S. L. in Occupation

Last post was about my father in the closing days of WWII. After his wounds had healed, he was returned to his unit, now in occupied Bavaria.

How he felt about the German soldiers he fought, he never did say. In his stories, he never shot them — just scared them a bit. Somewhere along the line he had ditched his M1 Garand for a Thompson sub-machine gun with a broken stock. He carried it (he said) one handed by the pistol grip; in combat he pulled the trigger and recoil sent the muzzle swinging up and to the left, with a spray of bullets that sent the enemy sprinting for cover.

It was a good, clean story for the wife and kid, but once he almost slipped in the middle of telling it. Comfort and humor almost got swamped by blood and truth. He changed the subject. There is no doubt in my mind that, like a million other WWII veterans, he only told what his audience could bear to hear.

His feelings about German civilians were quite clear; these were his kind of people. Bavaria was a long way from the seats of power, and these were farmers and poor shopkeepers. He hated Nazis, and German generals, and politicians, but he liked the local people and they liked him. So did their daughters.

My father was handsome young man, full of life, full of fun, and he had money. The young German men were gone. They had gone to war and were now dead or in Allied POW camps. The German civilians were hungry. As I read between the lines of his stories, my father kept several families fed, in exactly the same way my grandfather kept several families of out of work townsmen fed with produce from his farm during the depression.

My father’s feelings for his Bavarian Germans were conditioned by his childhood. These were working people, like his own family and friends, and like the German settlers that lived around Owasso, Oklahoma where he was raised.

He fell in love with a German girl and they planned marriage, but he discovered that to marry her, he would have to reenlist and remain in Germany two more years. He was a homesick farm boy, ready to feel the Oklahoma dirt beneath his feet again, so he left his German girlfriend and came home. A year later he married. A year after that, I was born.