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The Last Man on the Moon? — The Story of Eugene Cernan in Two Parts (Pt. 2)

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.

This post continues the story of the last man to walk on the moon, astronaut, Eugene Cernan, which was inspired by our last NASA talk of 2016. Geologist Dr. Noah Petro, in “Walking with the Last Men on the Moon: Revisiting the Apollo 17 Landing Site with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter”, discussed his work, observing the Taurus-Littrow Valley with the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and re-examining the features Cernan and geologist, Dr. Jack Schmidt, first explored, more than forty years ago.

After taking Gemini 9A to space, Cernan would continue to serve, first the back-up to Gemini 12, the final flight in that program, and then as part of the back-up crew for Apollo 7, the return to manned spaceflight after loss in testing of Apollo 1 and its crew. With the Apollo 7 back-up crew scheduled to be the primary crew for Apollo 10, Cernan began to learn to fly a new craft: the Lunar Module.

Apollo 10 Lunar Module. Photo Courtesy of NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/as10-34-5112a_0.jpg

Apollo 10 was a dress rehearsal for the upcoming moon landing. Tom Stafford commanded the mission with John Young as the command module pilot and Cernan as the lunar module pilot. On May 8, 1969, they soared into orbit aboard a roaring, vibrating Saturn V rocket. Firing the rocket’s third stage engine, they set course for the moon. Days later they reached the moon. Cernan and Stafford boarded the lunar module, which they’d named Snoopy, detached it from the command module and descended towards the moon. For several hours they flew over desolate valleys and ridges, photographing potential future landing sites and watching for concerns that might trip up future crews. At last, having come within a few tens of thousands of feet of the lunar surface, Cernan and Stafford turned Snoopy around. A mishap sent the lunar module cartwheeling though the lunar sky, but the astronauts recovered in time to fire their ascent rocket and return to the command module. Apollo 10 splashed down into the Pacific eight days after launching, concluding a successful mission.

Cernan turned down the opportunity to serve as the back-up lunar module pilot for Apollo 13, an assignment that would have likely also have given him the primary lunar module pilot’s position for Apollo 16. Instead, risking his chance to set foot on the moon, he asked for command of his own mission.  The gamble paid off with Cernan being assigned to command the back-up crew for Apollo 14, a step in the right direction. Cernan and Flight Crew Operations director Deke Slayton chose Navy veteran Ron Evans to be Cernan’s command pilot and Air Force pilot Joe Engle to fly the lunar module. Engle had earned astronaut’s wings flying the X-15 research plane, but neither had yet flown as a part of the space program.

Cernan got to work, training to back up Alan Shepard, the legendary astronaut pilot of the first suborbital Mercury flight, who was returning to space for the first time since that flight. In the meantime, disaster struck Apollo 13. When an oxygen tank exploded, that crew was forced to use their lunar module as a lifeboat to supplement their failing command module. Cernan and Engle put their own training on hold and spent long hours in a simulator devising procedures for the Apollo 13 crew to help them get home.

Even as Apollo 14 and then Apollo 15 flew successfully, budget cuts led to the cancellation of later Apollo flights. Cernan’s crew was assigned Apollo 17, but with the cancellation of Apollo 18, NASA leaders insisted that Dr. Jack Schmidt, then assigned as the lunar module pilot of Apollo 18, be reassigned, replacing Joe Engle on Cernan’s crew. Cernan briefly objected to Engle’s replacement, but accepted it and moved on molding the team into shape, discovering in Schmidt an irascible but dedicated worker. With the approaching end of the Apollo program, Cernan spent significant time talking to the press to generate excitement for the mission.

Apollo 17. Photo Courtesy of NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/images/117627main_image_feature_345_ys_full.jpg

The mission planners chose a landing spot in a box canyon they called the Taurus-Littrow Valley with the hope that the canyon might contain volcanic rocks from the moon’s core. After a harried preparation period, on December 6, 1972, Cernan and his crew climbed into the command module America. Over 700,000 people gathered to watch the only night launch of the manned space program. After a delay caused by a faulty computer, a half hour past midnight on December 7th, the final Apollo took flight. Reaching orbit, the crew completed the rocket burn that would send them to the moon. Three and a half days later they reached the moon. Cernan and Schmidt detached the landing module, Challenger, and carefully guided it down to a smooth landing. Cernan emerged first, followed by Schmidt. Cernan retrieved and assembled the lunar rover, and erected an American flag before he and Schmidt began to set up the instruments they had brought from Earth. They also completed a run to collect samples from a nearby crater before returning to the lander to rest.

Cernan on the Lunar Rover. Photo Courtesy of NASA. [https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/images/171016main_image_feature_774_ys_full.jpg

The second moonwalk was delayed by the need for a bit of rover repair, but soon enough Cernan and Schmidt found themselves driving among the craters, on a frantic quest to  collect as many samples and do as many experiments as they could fit in. Their third and final moonwalk took Cernan and Schmidt in another direction, and gave Schmidt a chance to closely study a boulder while Cernan took photos. Schmidt returned to the lander while Cernan parked the rover a distance away so that it could take photos of the liftoff to come. As he climbed the ladder to Challenger and left the moon’s surface for the final time, Cernan closed our manned exploration of the moon to date, with the words, “As we leave the Moon at Taurus–Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.

Cernan and crew returned to Earth on December 19, 1972. For a time, Cernan continued at NASA, working on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Program before moving into private business. To his dying day Cernan believed,

“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.”

Cernan died in January of this year. The material for this post, including both quotes is drawn from his 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 flights, the links above are just the beginning of what is available in the general collections of the Library of Congress. You can start your own explorations at www.loc.gov.

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