Update (January 2017): We were very sad to hear of the death of Gene Cernan, who died at the age of 82. During his career as an astronaut, Cernan flew three space missions – Apollo 10, 17 and Gemini 9A.
The Gemini programme is sometimes swamped by the magnitude of what followed with Apollo. And yet the techniques for getting to the Moon were developed and tested on Gemini. Cernan flew with Tom Stafford – later to accompany him on Apollo 10 – on Gemini 9A in 1966. Their spacecraft should have docked with an unmanned Agena rocket to practice such manoeuvring but the rocket’s fairing jammed forcing a revised mission schedule and also producing one of the most memorable pictures of the early space age.
Cernan went on to endure a gruelling two hour spacewalk on the mission. His modified suit proved immensely difficult to work in – restricting movement and painful on the body. His visor misted over and he could hardly see. There was deep concern that he might not be able to re-enter the Gemini spacecraft.
Cernan was the only astronaut to make two descents towards the Moon in an Apollo lunar module: the first time as a practise down to just 14 km above the lunar surface during the Apollo 10 mission, and then all the way down on Apollo 17 – the final lunar landing mission.
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 (September 2013) in the Science Museum.
I asked Cernan 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 Cernan 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.
As only the 11th person to walk on the Moon – and the last to re-enter Apollo 17’s lunar module – Cernan 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. As Cernan explains:
“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.”
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 Cernan, 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.” Cernan turns to us and jokes, “Where were you when Apollo 10 launched? I know where I was! Sat in that.”
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 Cernan. “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 Cernan 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,” he jokes.
“Someone did a hell of a good job building it,” says Cernan, 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. Cernan 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 Cernan 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.
Will Stanley described Gene Cernan’s encounter with his old spaceship, Apollo 10, on a visit to the Museum in September 2013.