Forty years ago, this month, in the north-eastern quadrant of the Moon’s near side, the last footprints on another celestial body were left by two human explorers from Earth. Astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt landed the Apollo 17 lunar module Challenger in the beautiful, mountain-ringed valley of Taurus-Littrow and spent three days exploring its mysteries. The selection of these two men, whose backgrounds could not have been more different—Cernan was an active-duty Navy captain, Schmitt a civilian geologist—had come at the end of a process which invoked great disappointment and bitterness, but which demonstrated the admirable focus of the entire NASA team upon accomplishing “The Mission” and achieving excellence. In this second installment of an Apollo 17 commemorative feature, AmericaSpace will continue to explore the twists and turns of good luck and bad luck which decided who would fly the mission…and who would not. Even after the announcement of Cernan, Schmitt, and their command module pilot, Ron Evans, the fates still had several more cards of fortune to play.
The names of Cernan, Evans, and Schmitt were revealed by NASA on 13 August 1971 and, in keeping with convention, the identities of a backup crew were also publicised. Since Jack Schmitt was the only professional geologist in the astronaut corps at the time, it seemed unlikely that even a broken leg would prevent him from flying, and the backup team knew this. Assigned to this somewhat unenviable role were astronauts Dave Scott, Al Worden, and Jim Irwin, who had recently returned from the Moon on Apollo 15. However, their assignment was terminated a few months later, when the three men became embroiled in a particularly ugly scandal which would tarnish their individual reputations as well as the astronaut corps itself.
Scott, Worden, and Irwin had carried a stack of first-day philatelic covers to the Moon on Apollo 15, part of an arrangement with a stamp dealer, with the intention of selling them and setting up trust funds for their children. The problem was that the 400 total covers—a hundred for each astronaut and the remainder for a German dealer, Walter Eiermann—had not been authorised by NASA. According to the terms of the deal with Eiermann, the covers would be sold exclusively (and privately) to collectors, with no publicity, after the end of the Apollo programme, with Scott, Worden, and Irwin expecting to receive around $8,000 apiece. Eiermann, however, began selling them within weeks and the furious astronauts contacted him in October 1971 and tried to cancel the agreement. It was too late. The story had leaked into the European press and some covers were already fetching $1,500 each.
It is important to stress that none of the astronauts accepted any money and when Dave Scott admitted to senior managers what happened he was met with NASA’s full fury. Neither Deke Slayton, the head of Flight Crew Operations, or Chris Kraft, the incoming head of what would become the Johnson Space Center, knew if their activity was wrong or illegal, or not, but they knew it did not smell good. They passed the case to NASA Deputy Administrator George Low, who involved the space agency’s inspector-general and lawyers. “In a matter of days,” wrote Kraft in his memoir, Flight, “we had a full-scale internal scandal on our hands.” Scott, Worden, and Irwin were removed from active flight status and dropped from the Apollo 17 backup crew.
Their replacements, formally announced in July 1972, were another mix of previous lunar voyagers: newly-returned Apollo 16 Moonwalkers John Young and Charlie Duke, teamed with veteran Apollo 14 command module pilot Stu Roosa. Previously, Deke Slayton tried to offer positions to “rookie” astronauts, but with no more missions on the horizon there seemed little sense in training first-timers for a “dead-end” backup stint. For his part, Roosa accepted the Apollo 17 assignment, even with a one-in-a-million chance of flying, but Duke—who would back up Jack Schmitt—knew that he would never fly. Even if the geologist broke his leg, Duke noted years later, NASA would probably postpone the launch. For John Young, he would stick around for whatever missions he could get…and late in 1972 he came within a whisker of seizing the Apollo 17 command for himself.
During their time together, the new backups developed a camaraderie and even jokingly grew moustaches. John Young added more depth in his memoir, Forever Young. “We supported the Apollo 17 crew as best we could,” he wrote. “Honestly, Charlie and Stu and I never wanted anything but the prime crew actually to make the launch; in fact, the three of us all grew moustaches and vowed not to shave them until those guys got off the launch pad.” By the time the new backup team began training, Cernan and his men had already completed a dozen geology field trips and Young’s crew joined them for visits to Stillwater in Montana, the Nevada nuclear test site, Tonopah in Nevada, Blackhawk Landslide in southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains, the inhospitable Mojave Desert, and Flagstaff—where Jack Schmitt had earlier worked as an astrogeologist—in Arizona.
On one of those occasions, near Tonopah—midway between Reno and Las Vegas—the backup crew’s geologist driver sheared off part of the suspension system of his station wagon and left them stranded on the cusp of sundown. “The Apollo 17 prime crew was two miles away in a different vehicle,” wrote Young, “and about to begin driving back to Tonopah. I ran all that way to get them to stop by waving my arms. They did stop, picked me up, and went back up the hill to get Charlie and our geology trainers.” Had Young not done this, they would have been obliged to spend the night in the desert with no camping equipment. “It would not have been a fun night out of town,” Young concluded.
By the time that Young, Roosa, and Duke joined the mission, a primary landing site for Apollo 17 had been chosen. In November 1971, the planning process began. In the ‘Apollo Lunar Surface Journal,’ Eric Jones wrote that “the flight planners wanted a site far enough from the [Moon’s] eastern limb that they would have at least 12 minutes of flying time—and preferably 15 minutes—before Acquisition of Signal and the start of the final descent.” This enforced a demand of possible sites being no further east than a lunar longitude of 34 degrees, and in a memo dated 23 November, Jim McDivitt, head of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, declared that only in cases of extraordinary scientific merit should a site outside those parameters be considered. The final decision of the Taurus-Littow valley was made in February 1972. Ironically, one of the key factors in the decision was the imagery acquired by the Apollo 15 crew from lunar orbit…
Years later, Gene Cernan wrote that the site was so far off the “usual” track that it did not have a name and was thus dubbed ‘Taurus-Littrow’. Its steep-sided mountains were expected to yield rock and soil samples from before the calamitous Mare Imbrium impact—a major collision event in early lunar history, which produced a 700-mile-wide crater that is today best recognised as the Man in the Moon’s right eye—and its dark-coloured surface was peculiarly distinct from the brighter highlands around it. In fact, the valley possessed some of the darkest material ever seen on the Moon. “The targeted landing point itself,” explained the NASA news release on 16 February, “will be on the other prime sampling objective, which is the very dark, non-mare material filling the valleys between the mountains.”
On Earth, such geological events can occur when pockets of high-pressure volcanic gas find release at the surface and spray droplets of lava in a veritable “fire fountain”; if this had happened at Taurus-Littrow it was expected to have blanketed a wide area with volcanic material. During his observations from orbit on Apollo 15, Al Worden described what he thought were “cinder cones” in the region and suggested over the radio that it might be a highly desirable spot for a future landing. If Taurus-Littrow was volcanic in origin, its relatively low crater density and dark material led to intense speculation that it was one of the youngest such areas on the Moon. At the same time, the North and South Massifs, which bounded the valley, were expected to produce more ancient rocks and the Sculptured Hills appeared to hint at highland volcanism.
If Charlie Duke intuitively knew that he would never gain a seat on Apollo 17 for real, that opportunity came tantalisingly close for John Young, in spite of his assertion that he wanted nothing more than for the prime crew to fly. Two unexpected situations arose in the latter part of 1972. The first came in the weeks after the infamous massacre of Olympic athletes in Munich in early September, and there was talk that Black September militants were targeting the high-profile Apollo 17 crew and their children. Gene Cernan was incensed by this threat to their children’s lives and in the final weeks before launch armed police sat in unmarked cars, 24 hours per day, monitoring the astronauts’ homes. Meanwhile, during the day, well-dressed, exceptionally polite and heavily-armed federal agents sat in the classrooms of the Cernan and Evans children.
During this time, a routine physical exam showed up a prostate infection in Cernan himself. Dr. Chuck La Pinta, the flight surgeon, kept discreetly quiet and treated him accordingly. Years later, Cernan would praise La Pinta as one of few doctors who did not ring alarm bells…but then something else happened which almost scuppered his chance of flying Apollo 17 altogether. One day in October, the crew was playing softball at Cape Kennedy, when Cernan felt something “snap” in his right leg. Fearing a ruptured tendon, he had to be carried away by Evans and Schmitt. La Pinta’s prognosis was not good. If the tendon was ruptured, it would take months to heal—and Apollo 17 was scheduled for launch in barely six weeks’ time—and if not it would still require several weeks of bedrest and time on crutches. Thankfully, when the X-ray results came back, they showed no rupture, but La Pinta told Cernan categorically not to overly tax himself. If he did, the tendon might tear and his chance of flying Apollo 17 would be gone for good.
La Pinta kept Cernan shielded from the managers, who feared the worst. At length, the doctor’s treatment and advice worked and Cernan later paid glowing tribute to La Pinta for his discretion. He was, wrote Cernan, “a great doctor, a terrific liar…and an even better friend.”
This is part of a series of History articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus on the launch of Apollo 17 itself.