A few days ago, we lost Eugene A. Cernan, Captain, United States Navy. Who was Gene Cernan? For many Americans, especially for those who were yet to be born when he achieved so much, his name is a mystery.
A Naval Aviator, Gene Cernan was selected by NASA in 1963 for the Gemini and Apollo manned space programs. He flew on Gemini IX as Pilot, along with Air Force General Tom Stafford, who was Command Pilot for the mission, in June, 1966. Gene performed America’s second Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) during the mission, which required a set of tasks to be handled while outside the spacecraft. One will recall that in June, 1965, Edward H. White II performed America’s first EVA during the Gemini IV mission. White floated outside the spacecraft for some 22 minutes without any specific objectives; his job was to demonstrate the EVA event as a critical component for future Gemini and Apollo missions, and return safely to the spacecraft. Cernan’s EVA job during Gemini IX, however, was significantly longer and more complex.
During more than 2 hours outside Gemini IX, Cernan struggled to complete the list of tasks assigned to him. As it turned out, maneuvering in 0 G took greater consideration of the mechanics involved. Sweating profusely, Gene lost nearly 11 pounds, fogged up his visor so badly he could not see, and barely made it back into the spacecraft alive after Tom Stafford informed Mission Control in Houston he was terminating the EVA event. Cernan demonstrated incredible courage.
Gene went on to fly aboard Apollo 10 to the moon in May, 1969, in a dress rehearsal for the actual lunar landing that would take place in July of that year. And, finally, Cernan was Mission Commander of Apollo XVII, the last manned lunar mission, in December, 1972. Apollo XVII was the sole Apollo mission scheduled for a night launch, and it was spectacular. It was also sad to see the incredible accomplishment that was Apollo come to an end… all because of budget cuts and a war in Southeast Asia we failed to wage with a definitive plan to win.
Gene Cernan was an authentic American hero, like his fellow astronauts who flew aboard Mercury, Gemini and Apollo equipment. I knew Gene, having met him as I wrote my first book, and during flight training at the Beech Aircraft plant in Wichita. Next time you look up at the moon, especially in a winter sky, think about Gene.
January 27th of this year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo I fire on Pad 34 at the Kennedy Space Center. 3 more authentic American heroes, Virgil I. (“Gus”) Grissom, the Mission Commander, along with Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee, were killed when a rogue spark caused by faulty electrical wiring in the spacecraft ignited in a pressurized, pure oxygen environment. The fire that resulted was swift and lethal. The Apollo I crew died of asphyxiation.
The accident that night brought the fledgling Apollo program to an immediate halt, only some 8 weeks after the last Gemini mission flew. Subsequent investigation led to a complete redesign of the Apollo spacecraft, which went on to prove itself as a tremendously safe and effective piece of space hardware across the 11 missions that followed the Apollo I tragedy between 1968 and 1972. One could say Apollo’s resounding success, in many ways, rested on the shoulders of Grissom, White and Chaffee.
As we observe this anniversary, think of these heroes who so long ago gave their lives for a cause in which America can take great pride. The greatest way to honor these men is for the United States to get back into the manned spaceflight business with renewed purpose. Apollo crews returning from the moon all commented on how fragile and alone our planet appears in the vast darkness of space. Our survival may someday depend on reaching toward the stars.
President Trump ran on a theme of “Make American Great Again.” I applaud that. And I hope, that in demonstrating authentic leadership, President Trump makes a new and profound commitment to America’s manned space flight program. Gene Cernan’s footprints – along with those of each Apollo lunar landing crew – remain untouched on the lunar surface. It’s way past time for us to return to the moon… and beyond.
John P. Schreitmueller is a former Marine Corps officer, a Board Certified Executive Coach Practitioner and a licensed Commercial Pilot. He has flown thousands of hours in high performance aircraft. An advocate of the US manned space program and a historian of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, his book, OF DREAMS AND ASTRONAUTS, won the Aviation/Space Writers Association Award of Excellence for nonfiction journalism.