Monday, January 16, 2017

Last Man Out

"Son of a bitch!" Apollo 10 Astronaut Gene Cernan, in orbit around the Moon, May, 1969.

Noting the passing of Gene Cernan, Astronaut.

LM Pilot Cernan's words were broadcast over an open mike 240, 000 miles, from the Moon to Houston to our living room. He and his crew mate Tom Stafford were executing a maneuver in the Lunar Module, the spidery craft designed to land on the Moon, that would reunite them with John Young, piloting the Command Module in orbit forty-ish miles above. Suddenly, the machine pitched out of control.

Eugene Andrew Cernan was a typical early-era NASA astronaut. Engineer, military test pilot, cool customer. He had a master's degree and 200 "traps" aboard Navy carriers. He had three space flights - one in the small two-person Gemini, and two aboard the more sophisticated Apollo moon craft. 

His first trip to the moon - Apollo 10 - was a dress rehearsal for the landing made two months later. The space agency already had ten years of experience with the super competitive, profoundly confident fliers they employed. Apollo 10's LM, called Snoopy, had intentionally been shorted fuel. If Stafford and Cernan had "accidentally" landed, there was not sufficient fuel to depart.

So they played by the rules, flipped a few switches and... Chaos. In low (50,000 feet) orbit around the Moon, out of control. What would you say in similar circumstances? 

They were all test pilots, familiar with how experimental technology can suddenly turn a good day, bad. They got things back together, took a few deep breaths, and finished the maneuver. And took some not too gentle criticism for the salty language.

Captain Cernan went on to walk on the Moon as commander of Apollo 17, the last mission. He holds the official "Land Speed" record in a rover (about 12 mph) and along with Dr. Harrison Schmitt (Harvard-educated geologist) brought back about 250 pounds of rocks.

His parting words echoed those of the first landing. 

"And, 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. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17."

With profound thanks and immeasurable respect, Godspeed Captain Cernan.

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