Tag Archives: forgotten heroes

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.

433. S. L. Goes to War

I served but did not see combat. The Syd Logsdon in this title is my father.

World War Two was a presence in our home when I was young. My dad served, was wounded, and returned. It was the biggest and most concentrated experience of his life.

My dad was a storyteller, but all his war stores were humorous tales of incidents along the way, or descriptions of enduring exhaustion and cold, or brief, dry, cool descriptions of the techniques used to clear a town or take a pillbox. He went through some of the worst fighting in the war, but his stories were essentially bloodless.

These were not the kind of gung-ho stories that would lead to hero worship. He didn’t consider himself a hero, anyway. He was just one of millions who went where he was sent and did what he was given to do; that was enough.

I can see him in memory, telling his stories. Even as a child, I could see the pain in his face. He had to tell the stories — he couldn’t keep them in — but he kept the horrors shut up behind his eyes. I don’t know how much he told my mother when they were alone, but I do know how often her nights were disrupted by the terrors that came to my father in his dreams. PTSD they would call it now. Then, it was just the way men were, when they came back from war.

He joined the First Infantry Division as a replacement after D-day and fought his way across northern France. His view was a soldier’s view — a road here, a village there, this particular house, that particular pillbox. I don’t think he ever had a global picture of where he was. He left combat in an ambulance before the assault on the Rhine. He always said that wound kept him alive. He had an almost superstitious belief that he would have died on the Rhine.

He was there for the entire Battle of the Bulge. Roughly two hundred thousand American and German troops died in a small corner of the Ardennes forest. You can see windrows of the dead, in history books, in grainy black and white photographs. He never talked about that, although he was eloquent about the cold and the exhaustion.

The wound that sent him out of combat came under incongruous circumstances. After the Battle of the Bulge was over, his group had captured a stash of German weapons. The lieutenant in charge wanted to try them, so he, my father, and some other privates took a panzerfaust — a German antitank weapon — out to an open field. My father put it on his shoulder and pulled the trigger.

My father always speculated that some Jewish prisoner in a munitions factory had sabotaged the weapon, in hopes of taking out a German soldier. No one will ever know. The weapon exploded an inch from his head, and he spent the remaining months of the war in a hospital in Paris. more tomorrow

341. Air Force in Space, Almost

Regular readers will note that posts now come later in the day.

See if you can find anything wrong with this sentence:

Throughout 1943, U. S. Air Force  B-17 bombers carried out raids over Germany.

Give up? The place is right, the time is right, the B-17s are right, but the United States Air Force did not exist yet. The service in question was the United States Army Air Force, previously called the United States Army Air Corps. From the beginning of American military aviation, planes flying from ships belonged to the Navy and planes flying from air fields belonged to the Army.

That changed with post-war reorganization. The War Department became the Department of the Army, which then joined the Department of the Navy and the newly created Department of the Air Force to become the Department of Defense.

The Air Force was new and hungry, and it soon found plenty to feed on.

By dropping atomic bombs on Japan, the United States had changed the face of warfare. A bombs, and soon H bombs, became our first line of defense against expected Soviet aggression, and it was the Air Force’s job to deliver them if needed. Within a decade, missiles were ousting planes as the primary means of delivery, and the Air Force became the proprietor of such missiles as the Atlas, Titan, and Minuteman.

But not of all missiles. The United States Army developed the Redstone IRBM which launched the first two American astronauts into space, if not orbit. The Redstone was later succeeded by the Pershing which was a cornerstone of the defense of Europe until the eighties. The Navy developed the Polaris and then the Poseidon submarine launched missiles, which were probably, due to their stealthy deployment, a greater deterrent than the missiles developed by the Air Force.

Meanwhile, the Army continued to maintain some aircraft for support missions, and with the onset of war in Korea and later Viet Nam, Army helicopters became a major force in the air. Naval jets launched form aircraft carriers were the equal of Air Force planes. Soon the Marine Corps came to maintain what amounts to a mini-air force all its own.

It looked like everybody has aircraft and everybody had missiles.

The Air Force had additional, more ambitious plans. They intended to launch manned Air Force vehicles into space, first on top of a Thor, then atop an Atlas. The project was called MISS, Man in Space Soonest. The Air Force announced its nine astronauts on June 25, 1958. They included X-15 pilots Scott Crossfield, Joe Walker, John McKay, Robert Rushworth, Robert White — and Neil Armstrong.

A month later, MISS was cancelled.

Two months later a new government organization called NASA was formed and took up the concepts pioneered by the Air Force. MISS became Project Mercury.

The Air Force, however, was not through trying for space. More on that tomorrow.

325. Exploring Challenger Deep

300px-challenger   300px-bathyscaphe_trieste

HMS Challenger 1874 and bathyschaphe Trieste 1960

Challenger Deep is located in the western Pacific about 2000 kilometers east of the Philippines. It is the deepest part of the Mariana’s Trench, which makes it the deepest part of any ocean.

March 23, 1875, the British research ship H.M.S. Challenger rolled out a line with a weight on the end to measure the oceans depth, something it had been doing throughout its four year journey. It was quite a line. When the weight hit bottom, Challenger’s crew had paid out five miles of hemp — a depth of 4475 fathoms in the measurements of the day.

Although cruises like the Beagle and the Endeavour had set the stage for such exploration, the Challenger expedition was rigged out specifically to study the world’s oceans beneath their surface. It essentially initiated of the science of oceanography. Our space shuttle Challenger was named after H.M.S. Challenger, as was the ship H.M.S. Challenger II which returned to the spot in 1951 and remeasured the depth using an echo-sounder. This time the figure was seven miles, not five.

Reaching the bottom of Challenger Deep remained impossible until two world wars, submarines, frogmen, sonar, and the invention of the Aqualung wedded modern technology to oceanographic exploration. A new invention by Auguste Piccard, the bathyscaphe, finally made very deep dives possible.

In its essential function, a bathyscaphe is more like a dirigible than a submarine. The crew is suspended beneath the vessel in a steel sphere designed to withstand great pressure. The skin of this pressure sphere is so thick, five inches in the case of the Trieste, that it would sink immediately. To prevent this, it is suspended beneath a large, thin skinned, self-propelled float filled with gasoline. This provides buoyancy and, since gasoline is a liquid, is not affected by pressure. Air tanks allow the bathyscaphe to float on the surface as it is being prepared for use. Once the air tanks are emptied, the negatively buoyant bathyscaphe sinks to the bottom — seven miles down in the case of Challenger Deep. The pressures there are so great that it is impossible to refill the air tanks, so the bathyscaphe also carries several tons of steel shot in open bottom containers, held in place by powerful electromagnets. When it is time to return to the surface, the electromagnets are shut off, the steel shot is released, and the now positively buoyant craft returns to the surface. In case of a power failure, the shot would automatically fall away.

The bathyscaphe Trieste was built in Italy to a modification of a Belgian design by Swiss inventor Piccard for the French navy, who subsequently sold it to the American Navy, who rebuilt it with a new and stronger pressure sphere made in Germany. Globalization, anyone?

On the twenty-third of January, 1960, the Trieste was ready to plumb Challenger Deep. The crew consisted of Jacques Piccard, son of the designer, and Navy Lt. Don Walsh. They boarded the vessel, moved down to the seven foot diameter pressure sphere and sealed the hatch. The air tanks were allowed to fill with water and the descent began. It took nearly five hours to sink to the bottom of the Deep. Three quarters of the way down, one of the plexiglas windows cracked, but not enough to cause disaster.

As they cruised above the deep ocean floor, Piccard and Walsh reported a bottom of smooth ooze and saw bottom fish swimming, proving that vertebrate life could survive such high pressure and eternal darkness. They spent only twenty minutes at the bottom, in part because of the cracked viewport, and hours more returning to the surface.

No one would return to those depths for another half century.

Trivia for the faithful: Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: TNG seems to have been named after the Jacques Piccard, or after his father Auguste Piccard and his twin brother Jean Felix Piccard. Different sources credit different family members with the name origin. Also, in TNG episode “11001001” a small, slow starship named Trieste is mentioned.