The last man on the moon

Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, visited the Museum for a tour of our space technologies collections with Curator Doug Millard. Press Officer Will Stanley describes Gene’s encounter with his old spaceship.

Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: Science Museum

Apollo 10 Command Module. Credit: Science Museum

This is the Apollo 10 Command Module, sent to the Moon and back by NASA in May 1969 as a dry run for the mission that would put the first men on the Moon. But it’s also known by another name, “Charlie Brown”, and this was how Lunar Module Pilot Eugene A. “Gene” Cernan greeted the module when he saw it this morning in the Science Museum.

I asked Gene what it felt like being reunited with Charlie Brown again, “You take yourself back in time to where you were. The view was out of this world.” And Gene should know. He’s been into space three times: as pilot of Gemini 9A (1966); lunar module pilot of Apollo 10 (1969); and as commander of Apollo 17 in December 1972, the last Apollo mission.

Commander Gene Cernan, pictured in our Exploring Space gallery

Commander Gene Cernan, pictured in our Exploring Space gallery. Credit: Science Museum

As only the 11th person to walk on the Moon – and the last to re-enter Apollo 17’s lunar module – Gene has the distinction of being the last man on the Moon. How long he will keep this unique title is still a matter of debate. “Curiosity is the essence of human existence. We have centuries of exploration on this planet alone. What’s around the corner? What’s across the ocean? It is our destiny to explore,” explains Gene.

Gene Cernan with Curator Doug Millard (r). Credit: Science Museum

Gene Cernan with Curator Doug Millard (r). Credit: Science Museum

Walking through our Exploring Space gallery with Curator Doug Millard, our conversation turns to the differences between manned and robotic space exploration. “This is the only computer that can respond to the unexpected,” says Gene, pointing to his brain. “You send humans to deal with the unexpected. To bring back things no one expected to find. That’s the purpose of exploration.”

We arrive in front of Apollo 10. “That’s Charlie Brown. I like to feel that by going to the Moon in Apollo 10 for a dry run, we made Apollo 11 far more successful.” Gene turns to us and jokes, “Where were you when Apollo 10 launched? I know where I was! Sat in that.”

Gene Cernan with Curator Doug Millard (l) in front of Apollo 10. Credit: Science Museum

Gene Cernan with Curator Doug Millard (l) in front of Apollo 10. Credit: Science Museum

His re-entry was one of the most dramatic ever seen. Apollo 10 holds the record as the fastest manned vehicle, reaching speeds of almost 40,000 km per hour (11.08 km/s or 24,791 mph to be exact) during its return to Earth on 26th May 1969. “It was 5 or 6 in the morning and we were like a shooting star coming in,” explains Gene. “On my Gemini mission I could see reds and greens, but for the Apollo 10 re-entry I saw purples and a white hot glow.”

After Gene spots an image of his excursions driving NASA’s Lunar Rover (Moon buggy) on display, I asked which was more fun, driving the rover or piloting “Snoopy”, the lunar module. “Flying Snoopy was pretty exciting, but driving a car in 1/6th of Earth’s gravity. Well if you get the chance, try it. It is a lot of fun. I truly believe we could go back and drive it again, but you might need to replace the batteries,” jokes Gene.

Commander Gene Cernan test-driving an empty lunar rover on the Moon, shortly before Apollo 17 Mission’s first Extra-Vehicular Activity. Image credit: NASA

Commander Gene Cernan test-driving an empty lunar rover on the Moon, shortly before Apollo 17 Mission’s first Extra-Vehicular Activity. Image credit: NASA

“Someone did a hell of a good job building it,” says Gene, looking at Apollo 10. “This not only got us there, it got us back again too. Every man who went to the moon came back.” The round trip to the moon took Apollo 10 eight days. Gene explains how he passed the time, “It was very busy, and pretty exciting. There were all kinds of experiments to do and we were getting ready for challenges ahead. On the way back, you look back and have to pinch yourself. The good news is you had the chance to do it, to go to the Moon. The bad news was that the time went so fast.

Our time is up. Gene takes a last look at Charlie Brown, his former home in space. “In Apollo 10, the three of us, Commander Thomas Stafford, Command Module Pilot John Young and me, we travelled faster than any other human beings ever.” It’s a claim very few can make.

On Thursday 26 September 2013, the Science Museum is offering visitors the rare opportunity to see the interior of the Apollo 10 Command Module via a handheld camera. Doug Millard, Deputy Keeper of Technologies and Engineering will be answering questions about Apollo 10 and the Museum’s Space Technologies collections.

The Science Museum will be also be sharing images and taking questions via Twitter using @sciencemuseum and #Apollo10.

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