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40 Years Since Apollo 17: Part 1 – Picking the Men

Standing near a huge boulder, overlooking the scenic grandeur of the Taurus-Littrow valley, Jack Schmitt became the first – and so far only – professional geologist to visit another world. His selection as a member of the Apollo 17 crew came at the end of a long and difficult process, which saw him overlooked for an assignment time and time again…and eventually resulted in Joe Engle losing his own seat on a lunar voyage. Photo Credit: NASA

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.

Gene Cernan (centre) and Jack Schmitt (right) present a US flag, flown on Apollo 17, to Flight Director Gene Kranz (left) in Mission Control in December 1973, a year after their mission. Little could they possibly have foreseen that humanity would remain shackled to low-Earth for at least the next four decades. Photo Credit: NASA

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.

Pictured during Apollo 14 geology training in August 1970, Gene Cernan (kneeling at right, facing the direction of the camera) and behind him Joe Engle had trained since mid-1969 for a lunar landing voyage. After almost two years working together, it was a bitter disappointment for the pair to be broken up. Photo Credit: NASA

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”.

Despite their differences in background and military-civilian attitudes, Jack Schmitt (foreground) and Gene Cernan developed mutual respect for one another during the 16-month Apollo 17 training regime. They are pictured in September 1972 during suited geological equipment training. Photo Credit: NASA

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.

Missions » Apollo »

6 comments to 40 Years Since Apollo 17: Part 1 – Picking the Men

  • Leonidas

    Every time I read about the why and how’s of the Apollo program’s cancellation, I’m filled with resentment and sadness. And reading about Apollo 17, brings it all back.

    There you had it, a fully developed system and hardware (Saturn V/Apollo), that was so versatile as to be used in multiple ways for all shorts of different missions, in Earth or Moon orbit, and even beyond. And what do you do with it? You scrap it!

    As magnificent and triumphant was the Apollo program for the US, its ultimate cancellation was equally magnificent (in a bitter and negative way…).

    • Karol

      Leonides, you are absolutely correct . . . yet again. If you have the opportunity to listen to the audio recording of “The Last Man on the Moon” by Gene Cernan, you can hear the disappointment in his voice over not only the cancellation of the Apollo program, but what was to become the end of manned exploration beyond LEO for decades to come. He entreats us not to just throw away the program of exploration that so many have sacrificed so much for. He hopes that some young person will lift the “honor” of being the last man on the Moon from his shoulders. These courageous men, these heroes, the Shepards, Glenns, Armstrongs, and Cernans are truly giants. They bravely earned their right to explore space in the seat of a fighter jet and/or a prototype aircraft, not figuring out a way to pay for crap on Ebay. I hope their legacy isn’t denigrated to space hucksterism, con men, fast-buck artists, celebrities in space, billionaires sending millionaires on sub-orbital joy-rides, and “we can get to Mars cheaper than NASA” scams.

      • Leonidas

        Karol, I have to agree with you…yet again ;)I haven’t listened to Gene Cerman’s audio, I’ll most certainly will.

        You know, I was just watching two NASA documentaries about the 30-year history of the space shuttle (one was narrated by William Shatner himself). I developed a new appreciation for the Space Shuttle program, of what it achieved, what it did, not only on the engineering side of things, but on the human side as well. It helped me to throw away some of the ‘just going around in circles’ attitude I admit I had towards the Shuttle.

        I was very much impressed with the determination and drive that the thousands of individuals who were part of the Shuttle program displayed. They didn’t just go to work each morning. It was their life! It was like a big family. And when disaster hit, it was like they were losing someone of their own. And after the Columbia disaster, thousands of volunteers from the public came in to assist NASA on recovering the Shuttle’s wreckage. Not to mention the thousands who blocked the highways to watch the first Shuttle launch back in 1981, or the countless of thousands who witnessed launches every year. That tells me that there’s a big portion of the public that supports the space program. Yet, we have an paradox here. Why isn’t that public support more vocal over there?

        As for space entepreneurs and celebrities in LEO, I share Neil deGrasse Tyson’s view: “Private space? You gotta love ‘em. Keep at it guys, provided *emphasis* that NASA gets to go some place beyond, otheriwise we’re just closing shop!”

        And as for the costs facing a Mars mission, I was enlightened reading Robert Zubrin’s ‘Case for Mars’. It’s the uttermost tragedy that NASA (actually it was Richard Trully himself, NASA’s administrator at the time), didn’t want to endorse Bush’s SEI back in 1989. Trully seems to have been interested only in continuing the Shuttle-Station program, and testified to Congress back then that if they’d fund the Space Station plans, he wouldn’t mind whatever decision they would have concerning SEI and Mars. And not only that, but the 90-day report that NASA issued for SEI, presented Congress with a stuggering $450 billion price tag for going to Mars, because NASA insisted on implementing the space station into the plan, instead of adopting Zubrin’s ‘Mars Direct’, which according to NASA’s own enginneers would only cost around $30 billion.

        Talking about inside sabotage huh? (And I was only blaming Nixon and Proxmire…)

        In the light of all these, Trully should have been fired on the spot, as many people at NASA felt back then.

        Now, as for private industries and entepreneurs, I really don’t know what to make of them. I have a wait and see approach. In NASA’s history, there were some enormously ill-advised and tragic decisions being made, concerning the future of the space program, either from NASA itself or from Congress/White House (the worst offender). But the most tragic of all, would be to dismantle NASA’s human spaceflight program. Not only would that be grave, but it would also be a spit in the face of all the people that dedicated their lives to space exploration.

  • Tom Greene

    Sounds like 2010 when BHO cancelled the Shuttle program to pay for his social programs. The Shuttle Endevour was built & designed for 100 flights but flew half of that. Now we pay the Russians to fly our astronauts to our ISS, just another example our poor planning by the powers to be !

    • Mr. Greene,
      The shuttle program was cancelled in 2004, under the Bush Administration.
      Sincerely and with regards, Jason Rhian – Editor, AmericaSpace

      • Tom Greene

        How did this happen ? No way, other than the Russians, to get our astronauts to the ISS, or hope this never happens, rescue the astronauts is case of a disaster, without a viable transportation vehicle. NASA should’ve demanded keeping Endeavour flight ready until another vehicle was developed.