In all his official NASA portraits, Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan looks stern. All the Apollo-era astronauts were photographed unsmiling, almost as though it would give tax paying Americans the sense that their national heroes took their roles deadly seriously every waking moment. But Cernan somehow looks more serious than most, and he looks like a man with a natural commanding physical presence. Last November I found myself in a bar with Gene Cernan, and even nearing 79 he absolutely possesses a quietly commanding presence I imagined. It’s incredible. Here’s what happened when I met the last man to walk on the Moon.
It was after the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation’s banquet celebrating 40 years since Apollo 17 landed on the Moon. People wandered into the event hotel’s tiny bar for after-dinner drinks: astronauts, their adoring fans, and a smattering of important people from NASA. I found myself sitting on a couch with NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Communications, a member of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation’s board who had helped stage the three-day event, and Gene Cernan. A small but intimidating cohort.
I’d met Cernan the day before. He was sitting at his signing station, a quietly commanding presence in a room packed with space fanatics carrying moon globes and Apollo models for their heroes to sign when I’d seized a quiet moment to introduce myself and shake his hand. Starstruck and nervous, I’d asked him the one question that I could remember wanting to ask him: What affected you more, seeing the Moon for the first time from lunar orbit on Apollo 10 or walking on its surface on Apollo 17? Unable to suppress a smile, he’d said 17. That final mission “took me all the way.”
Cernan was more relaxed the next night in the bar, visibly at ease being out of the spotlight with the formal Apollo 17 celebrations over. When a group of space nuts came over and asked him to join them outside in a toast to the Moon in honour of Neil Armstrong, he quietly refused. He had just been talking about all the other Apollo 17 anniversary events he had lined up in the coming months, saying how he enjoyed seeing people like Gene Kranz but was sick of people calling him a courageous hero and telling him how wonderful he was. I pointed out that the evening had been filled with plenty of talk about his potty mouth to counter all the “wonderful hero” talk. There really had been; throughout the night people had been talking about the time he swore in lunar orbit on Apollo 10.
Apollo 10 was, NASA hoped when the mission launched on May 18, 1969, the final dress rehearsal before a crew would attempt the first landing on the lunar surface. Tom Stafford was the mission’s commander, Cernan was the Lunar Module Pilot, and John young was the Command Module Pilot. At some point in training for the mission, Stafford and Cernan started calling Young “Charlie Brown.” The name stuck and became the call sign for the Command Module. To complete the set, the Lunar Module was named Snoopy.
The flight plan for Apollo 10 had Stafford and Cernan crawl into Snoopy, separate from Charlie Brown, and descend towards the Moon as if for a landing. The two astronauts brought the LM into a 9.7 by 70.5 mile elliptical orbit, flying over a potential landing site – Landing Site 2 – in the Sea of Tranquility. While in lunar orbit, the crew ran tests of the LM’s landing radar, making sure it could provide both “high gate” and “low gate” altitude data. They refined their orbit; firing their reaction controls for 7.5-seconds and the large descent engine twice for 40.1 seconds, the first time at 10 percent thrust and the second time at full throttle, they put Snoopy into a 13.7 by 219 mile orbit around the Moon.
On their 14th revolution, Snoopy came within 12.7 miles of the Moon’s surface. It was at this point that the crew reached staging, firing the ascent stage to separate from the descent stage as though lifting off from the Moon. When they successfully jettisoned the descent stage on the second attempted firing, all hell broke loose. Snoopy started gyrating, spinning wildly and out of control. Cernan, entirely unprepared for the wild ride, yelled “son of a bitch” over an open radio chanel to mission control and the world. The exchange has been immortalized in the formal mission transcript.
Equally unprepared, Stafford panicked and yelled that they were in gimbal lock, that the engine had swiveled over to a stop and stuck. He called out for Cernan to thrust forward before he hit the switch to separate the ascent module fully from the descent stage. As Snoopy continued its wild motions, the crew got a light warning that the inertial guidance system was in fact approaching its limits and threatening to go into gimbal lock – the guidance computer was risking losing its orientation and reference points in space. Stafford took manual control of the LM and managed to negate the wild gyrations using the attitude control system.
Post flight analysis found that the whole episode was due to an error in a checklist order that had left a single switch in the wrong position. Part of the lunar orbital activities was a test of the Abort Guidance System (AGS). The system had two modes, auto and attitude hold. In auto, the system would search for the Command Module in preparation for a rendezvous and docking. But when Cernan and Stafford separated Snoopy’s ascent stage from the descent stage, Charlie Brown was on the other side of the Moon. What they wanted was to have the AGS in attitude hold mode so they would stay in the correct orientation after separation, but they were in auto mode and Snoopy started careening towards the Moon. Had the crew not acted quickly to and fixed the problem when they did, Snoopy would have smashed right into the lunar surface.
When I mentioned the constant references to his swearing on Apollo 10, Cernan immediate shot back, politely yet defensively, that it wasn’t he who swore. I immediately agreed. Unsurprisingly, he and I have both read the Apollo 10 transcripts in pursuit of the true story behind famous cursing episode.
It was that one “son of a bitch” that slipped out after Snoopy started gyrating that everyone had been referring to all night. No one seemed to care that Cernan hadn’t actually uttered any really foul lunar orbital profanities, nor did they care that he wasn’t the only one to have said the offending phrase over the radio. All three astronauts said “son of a bitch” more than once on that eight day mission, and occasionally a stronger profanity slipped out in everyday conversation. But no amount of foul language could have made Cernan less of a hero to everyone there, possibly to his chagrin.
My lasting impression of Gene Cernan’s is that he’s an impressive man, as much for his accomplishments as his presence and physicality. But he was also incredibly sweet, consenting to pose for a picture. Unfortunately, the only one in which he’s smiling I look completely star struck. I suppose it’s appropriate.
This is the second in a series of blog posts about my trip to Florida November 1-4, 2012. Be warned, there will be no small amount of space nerd geekery throughout these articles. Read the first one here.