Forty years ago this month, humanity left its last footprints on the surface of another celestial body. Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt guided their lunar module Challenger down into a beautiful valley in the Taurus Mountains, on the edge of the Moon’s Serenitatis basin, just south of the ancient crater Littrow. The spectacular landing site had been selected in February 1972, having been extensively photographed from orbit during the Apollo 15 mission, and was expected to yield rock and soil samples from before the tumultuous Mare Imbrium impact event to better understand the peculiar nature of the valley floor, whose intrinsic darkness looked strangely out of place amidst the light-coloured surrounding highlands. When they visited ‘Taurus-Littrow’, Cernan and Schmitt achieved the exalted goal of setting foot on an alien world…and left a gaggle of disappointed fellow astronauts back on Earth. In this first installment of an Apollo 17 commemorative feature, AmericaSpace will explore the twists and turns of good luck and bad luck which decided who would fly Apollo 17…and who would not.
To understand the crew-selection process in that long-gone era, the central character was Deke Slayton, an astronaut himself and since the early 1960s served as NASA’s head of Flight Crew Operations. In the early Apollo period, he developed a three-flight rotation system, whereby the astronauts on the backup team of a given mission would fly as the prime crew three missions later. Hence, the Apollo 9 backup crew of Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon, and Al Bean were recycled as the Apollo 12 prime crew. It would make sense to suppose that the Apollo 14 backup crew—Gene Cernan, Ron Evans, and Joe Engle—would thus have been in pole position to take the Apollo 17 seats. Had NASA not been required by Congress to cancel its last two Apollo landing missions (18 and 19) in September 1970, it is quite possible that this is what would have happened.
But there was a problem. On the Apollo 15 backup crew—and therefore probably pointed toward the Apollo 18 prime crew—was NASA’s only professional geologist-astronaut, Dr Jack Schmitt, and the space agency had long been under intense pressure from the National Academy of Sciences to fly him to the Moon. Since his selection by NASA in 1965, Schmitt had worked extensively on Apollo, covering the lunar surface experiments packages, the lunar module descent stage systems, and other elements of cargo and tools. He single-handedly came up with a lunar-orbit science plan for Bill Anders to follow on Apollo 8 and was closely involved in the geological training of subsequent landing crews. It paid off. In March 1970, Schmitt’s name was formally announced on the Apollo 15 backup crew. Joining him would be Dick Gordon as his commander (and lunar-landing buddy) and command module pilot Vance Brand.
For the scientific community, it was a moment of triumph. Many had pushed for a geologist to be aboard the first lunar landing mission, although the engineering demands of that flight made it relatively easy for NASA to snub them. However, as successive Apollo crews—all military pilots—journeyed to the Moon, it became harder and harder for the space agency to explain away their decision not to include Schmitt. When Apollo 18 was cancelled, the men who would have served as its crew were deeply disappointed, but Gordon felt that with Schmitt on his team there was a very good chance that Deke Slayton might overlook the rotation system and assign them to Apollo 17 instead. Then, on 23 January 1971, an incident in Florida’s Banana River seemed to improve the chances of Gordon’s crew significantly.
On that day, Gene Cernan, in his role as Apollo 14 backup commander, was flying a tiny Bell H-13 Sioux helicopter—a type which became famous in M*A*S*H—on a training mission. The chopper was routinely employed by Apollo commanders as a tool for lunar landings. Cernan flew down the Atlantic side of Cocoa Beach, over Melbourne and back up the Indian River towards the Cape. Mischievously, he decided to ‘flat-hat’ the river, but as he looked at the reflective bottom his eyes lost touch with the water. One of the helicopter’s skids touched the calm surface of the river and the H-13 crashed in a spectacular explosion.
“Spinning rotor blades shredded the water, then ripped apart and cartwheeled away in jagged fragments,” Cernan wrote in his memoir, The Last Man on the Moon. “The big transmission behind me tore free and bounced like a steel ball for a hundred yards before going down. The lattice-like tail boom broke off and skittered away in ever-smaller pieces, the plexiglas canopy surrounding me disintegrated, one of the gas tanks blew up and what remaining of the demolished chopper, with me strapped inside, sank like a rock.” Miraculously, Cernan survived and swam to safety through water coated with burning fuel. Boaters hurried to his aid. After being patched up at Patrick Air Force Base, Cernan—his eyebrows singed and his backside charbroiled—strode into the crew quarters to see an astonished Al Shepard, commander of the Apollo 14 prime crew, having breakfast. In true ‘Right Stuff’ fashion, Cernan told Shepard that things were so boring at the Cape, he had to do something to get some publicity for Apollo 14!
“Right!” Shepard grinned.
Deke Slayton, though, was in no mood for humour. At first, he tried to give Cernan an easy way out before talking to the press, offering to tell them that the helicopter itself was to blame, that its engine had failed. “No,” Cernan told him, “it didn’t fail. I just screwed up.” When the investigation board, chaired by astronaut Jim Lovell, published its report on the accident in October 1971, it concluded that “misjudgement in estimating altitude…[was] the primary cause.” In admitting blame and telling the truth, Cernan knew that he may have screwed his chances of someday commanding Apollo 17, but was aware that honesty went a long way with Deke Slayton.
On 13 August 1971, NASA formally announced the prime Apollo 17 crew. Slayton was unprepared to break up “core” Apollo 14 backup crew of Cernan and Evans…but bowed to National Academy of Sciences pressure and added Schmitt as the mission’s lunar module pilot. That spelled particularly bad news for Dick Gordon and Vance Brand, obviously, but perhaps the person who suffered the most was Cernan’s original lunar module pilot, Joe Engle. Writing two decades later, in his landmark book A Man on the Moon, Andrew Chaikin noted that Engle’s toughest challenge in those bitter days was explaining to his children that he was not going to the Moon.
This does not imply that Slayton had no confidence in Engle; quite the opposite, for Engle was a former X-15 pilot, with three flights above 50 miles, and would later earn renown as the only astronaut to fly the Shuttle wholly manually from the de-orbit through the atmosphere to touchdown. Cernan described him as “a magnificent aviator”, but admitted that Engle was not as knowledgeable about the lunar module’s quirky systems as he would have liked. To Cernan, it mattered little, for his experience from Apollo 10 imbued him with the skills to carry both of them, and Slayton retained sufficient confidence to recommend the names of Cernan, Evans, and Engle to NASA Headquarters as the Apollo 17 prime crew. It was rejected. Jack Schmitt, the geologist, simply had to be aboard the final lunar landing mission. Indeed, high-level management discussions had been in progress since March 1971 and NASA Associate Administrator for Manned Space Flight Dale Myers had written to Charlie Townes, chair of the Space Sciences Board of the National Academy of Sciences, assuring him of his support.
Cernan and Evans and their wives, Barbara and Jan, were vacationing in Acapulco when Slayton called them with the Apollo 17 news. Cernan flashed a thumbs-up to Evans, to signify that the two would fly together, but was stopped short in his tracks when Slayton called him back to Houston to “discuss” the rest of his crew. “The four of us adjourned to the bar for a few rounds of rum and Coke,” he said of that evening on Mexico’s Pacific coast, “elated because we had gotten what we wanted, but disappointed, too. Even without being told, we knew that Deke probably had been forced to shuffle the crew, that Jack was going to fly and Joe was going to stay home.”
Engle handled his predicament with grace and dignity. A month later, on 8 September, he told Jim Maloney of the Houston Post that “when something like this happens, you can do one of two things: You can lay on the bed and cry about it, or you can get behind the mission and make it the best in the world.” It is testament to Engle’s integrity and strength of character that he put his own feelings to one side and rededicated himself to helping Schmitt perfect his skills as a lunar module pilot. That is not to say that Engle was not bitterly disappointed by the decision. He had devoted two years of his life to Apollo 14 backup duties and confidently anticipated the Apollo 17 assignment. Fellow astronaut John Young, writing in his memoir, Forever Young, described Engle as “incensed”.
The wives were unhappy, too, at least at first. Barbara Cernan and Jan Evans had formed close relationships with Joe and Mary Engle and were devastated at the loss. Schmitt was a bachelor and Cernan worried about whether he could mould the civilian into a member of his team. Schmitt apparently had little regard for the military chain of command to which most astronauts had become accustomed, and Cernan found himself in the firing line: on one occasion, he was scolded by Chief Astronaut Tom Stafford. “You’re the commander of this goddamn crew,” said Stafford. “Get him in gear!” At length, Cernan sat Schmitt down with the bottom line. NASA may be a civilian agency, but its leaders came from military services, where the commander’s word was final. “We could discuss differences and problems,” Cernan wrote in his memoir, “but the old Supreme Being argument had to apply.”
The consensus was that Schmitt would work through Cernan, like it or not. Or in Cernan’s words: “Period. End of story. Sit down.”
Schmitt sat down. In time, the duo developed immense respect for each other and Cernan gave his geologist responsibility for planning virtually every science aspect of their three days on the Moon’s surface.
When NASA announced the prime crew for Apollo 17, the agency also named the men who would serve as their backups…although there was never any realistic chance that the backup team would ever fly. With Schmitt, the geologist, aboard, it seemed more likely that even if he broke his leg Apollo 17 would be delayed until the next lunar launch window. In fact, Apollo 17’s backup crew changed twice in the 16 months between crew announcement and launch. The first backups were the newly-returned Apollo 15 crew of Dave Scott, Al Worden, and Jim Irwin, but they were replaced in early 1972 when a particularly ugly incident reared its head and threatened to tarnish the reputation of the astronaut corps.
The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.