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The Last Man on the Moon? — The Story of Eugene Cernan in Two Parts (Pt. 1)

This post was written by Sean Bryant a Reference Librarian in the Science Section who previously wrote about World War I tanks and John Glenn.

In December the Library of Congress hosted its last NASA talk of 2016. In “Walking with the Last Men on the Moon: Revisiting the Apollo 17 Landing Site with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter”, Geologist Dr. Noah Petro discussed his work on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission, observing and re-examining the Taurus-Littrow Valley, the landing site of the Apollo 17 moon mission, to develop new interpretations of the complex geology. Dr. Petro discussed working with geologist, Harrison “Jack” Schmidt, the lunar module pilot for that mission. Dr. Schmidt was one of the first scientist-astronauts, and the only one to set foot on the moon. But Dr. Schmidt wasn’t the only moonwalker on that mission. Who was his companion and fellow explorer?

Eugene A. Cernan. Photo Courtesy of NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/s71-51308.jpg

He was Eugene Cernan.

Eugene Cernan was born in Chicago and grew up in the suburban villages west of the city. Cernan, envisioning a career as a naval aviator despite never having ridden in an aircraft, studied electrical engineering at Purdue University on a NROTC scholarship, and graduated in 1956, a year behind an eventual colleague, fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong. Cernan took to flying quickly, earning his wings just as a new era began. Just a month prior, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into orbit and the space race began in earnest.

Gene would spend the next several years as a Cold Warrior, alternately in training and on duty aboard aircraft carriers in the Pacific, ready at need, to drop atomic weapons in defense of the United States. As Atlas and Redstone rockets began to carry the first American astronauts into orbit, Cernan studied at the Naval Postgraduate School, earning a Master’s degree in aeronautical engineering.  With that degree Cernan moved closer to being qualified to volunteer as an astronaut, but he still lacked the test pilot experience that the first two groups of astronauts had been required to have. He was shocked, therefore, to be asked if he’d like to volunteer to be a candidate for the third group of astronauts.

Shocked or not, Gene quickly agreed, and with the support of his family, embarked on a series of interviews and tests interspersed with periods of anxious waiting. Finally, he received word that he was one of fourteen chosen to become astronauts.

With the Mercury program winding down and Apollo still far in the distance, NASA was preparing for a series of missions, the Gemini program, to test the tools and techniques, policies and procedures that would be needed to land a man on the moon. The astronauts, all pilots, were studying geology and a number of other sciences, and taking survival training in various environments, all while monitoring various systems of the developing spacecraft and making public appearances.

With several of the Mercury astronauts still flying and the nine members of the second astronaut group  ahead of him, it would be some time before Cernan was assigned a flight, but he eventually received orders to get fitted for a space suit – the coveted sign that he had been given a place on  a mission.

That place turned out to be the backup pilot’s seat on Gemini 9, with the expectation that Cernan, and backup mission commander Tom Stafford would likely be the primary crew for the last planned Gemini mission, Gemini 12. Cernan, Stafford, and the primary crew, Elliot See and Charlie Bassett began intensive training for what was a complicated mission, for NASA planners envisioned Gemini 9 undertaking orbital maneuvers and a rendezvous and docking with an Agena rocket, before the pilot did a spacewalk to test a rocket powered backpack called an Astronaut Maneuvering Unit, or AMU. The two crews worked hard to master the equipment and procedures for the mission, but halfway through the preparation, See and Bassett were killed as the plane they were flying crashed coming in to land in poor weather. Despite the tragedy, the mission continued with Stafford and Cernan inheriting the primary seats.

Gemini IX in Space. Photo Courtesy of NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/styles/full_width_feature/public/thumbnails/image/8-s66-38520-a.jpg?itok=ATJCIpcv

On May 17, 1966, Cernan and Stafford squeezed into their Gemini capsule and prepared for their mission. The Agena rocket they were to rendezvous with blasted into the sky, climbed away – and began to tumble out of control, crashing into the Atlantic. The mission was postponed. NASA put together an alternate rendezvous target and launched that into orbit, but it would be June 3 before Gemini 9A, then on a third attempt, managed to launch successfully, sending Eugene Cernan to space.

Further frustration was imminent, however. Gemini 9A made the rendezvous with the alternate target, only to discover that the nose cone, which had protected the docking port of the target during launch, had failed to detach. Though unable to dock, Stafford and Cernan performed two more rendezvous maneuvers over the first two days, moving away from the target and then finding it again without the help of radar, and then coming in from a higher orbit, a maneuver which might be needed to meet a lander coming up from the moon. These maneuvers exhausted the astronauts and they rested for a time, leaving the spacewalk for the final day of the mission.

Walking in Space. Photo Coursesy of NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/thumbnails/image/7-s66-38515d.jpg

The next morning, after hours of preparation, with Stafford steadying him, Cernan became the third human to leave the confines of a spacecraft for the cold of space. After spending a half hour tumbling through space, wrestling with the umbilical connecting him to Gemini, Cernan made his way to the rear and, while continuously fighting a spacesuit that resisted every move, began the multistep procedure to ready the AMU for use. Floating behind the spacecraft, with no ability gain leverage, Cernan struggled, but eventually succeeded in preparing it. By this time however, the carbon dioxide and humidity resulting from Cernan’s exertions had overwhelmed the environmental system of his suit. Condensation formed, repeatedly fogging Cernan’s visor. With Cernan unable to see, Stafford, the mission commander, made the reluctant decision to cancel the trial. Cernan abandoned the AMU and made his way back to the spacecraft hatch. Forcing himself and his spacesuit, rigidly inflated with the air he needed to breathe, back into the cramped and airless Gemini 9A was the final challenge of the spacewalk, but Cernan was eventually, painfully, able to manage the task. A few hours later, Gemini 9A splashed down within a few miles of the aircraft carrier Wasp and the mission was over.

The material for this post is drawn from Cernan’s memoir, The Last Man on the Moon, written with the help of Don Davis. If you are interested in learning more about Cernan and his career in space, check back for Part 2 of this blog post. You can start your own explorations at www.loc.gov.

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