Forty-five years ago, this month, NASA made the decision which would close out human exploration of the lunar surface for more than two generations: the selection of the final crew to journey to the Moon. As outlined in yesterday’s AmericaSpace history article, scathing budget cuts in the wake of Apollo 11—and finally realized after the Apollo 13 near-disaster—saw the final “H-series” and final “J-series” exploration missions deleted from the manifest. When the remaining missions were renumbered Apollos 15 through 17, this led to the two “lost” missions being popularly (but incorrectly) remembered as Apollos 18 and 19.
And the loss of Apollo 18 dealt a specific blow to the three men who might have formed its prime crew: the Apollo 15 backup crew of Commander Dick Gordon, Command Module Pilot (CMP) Vance Brand, and Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) Harrison “Jack” Schmitt. For Schmitt was the only geologist-astronaut in NASA’s corps at the time and NASA had found itself under intense pressure from the scientific community to fly him on one of the lunar landing missions. With Apollo 18 gone, the only way to do that was to place Schmitt onto the final planned flight, Apollo 17 … which spelled particularly ugly news for the LMP of that mission, Joe Engle.
Under the informal crew-rotation system, put in place by the unflown Project Mercury astronaut Deke Slayton—then serving as head of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston, Texas—a backup crew for a given mission rotated into the prime crew slot for another mission, three flights down the road. For instance, astronauts Tom Stafford, John Young, and Gene Cernan backed up the Apollo 7 mission and went on to serve as the prime crew for Apollo 10 in May 1969, which executed a full dress-rehearsal of humanity’s first piloted lunar landing. However, Slayton acquiesced that after Apollo 11 and humanity’s first steps on the Moon, the missions were more spaced out on the manifest, with longer training times, and he felt no “obligation, technical or moral” to keep the rotation system in place for its own sake.
That said, the Apollo 14 backup crew of Commander Gene Cernan, CMP Ron Evans, and LMP Joe Engle might have anticipated their eventual assignment to the Apollo 17 prime slot. By the end of 1970, they had already spent more than a year backing up Al Shepard, Stu Roosa, and Ed Mitchell for a mission targeted for the spring of 1971. Additionally, they received NASA’s Superior Achievement Award, in recognition of their associated efforts in safely bringing the Apollo 13 crew back to Earth.
However, as detailed in his autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon, Cernan admitted that Engle was not as knowledgeable about the quirky systems of the Lunar Module (LM) as he would have liked. On the other hand, Engle—who had flown the X-15 rocket-propelled aircraft before joining NASA—was one of the most gifted pilots in the Astronaut Office at that time. In December 1970, Cernan attended a meeting with Shepard and Slayton to discuss a concern with Apollo 14 LMP Mitchell. According to Cernan, Slayton was concerned about Mitchell’s focus on the mission, as well as his refusal to accept the “dead-end” Apollo 16 backup role.
Mitchell had eventually complied, but the doubts remained, and Cernan was asked for his input: Should Mitchell be dropped from Apollo 14, in favor of Engle? Both Shepard and Cernan agreed that Mitchell was more qualified in terms of his LM knowledge than Engle. But as the events of 1971 unfolded, Cernan would lament not fighting harder to get his former crewmate a seat on a lunar landing mission.
In the final days before the launch of Apollo 14, Dick Gordon felt that his chance of someday commanding Apollo 17 improved, following a freak accident at Cape Kennedy. On 23 January 1971, Cernan was flying a tiny Bell H-13 Sioux helicopter—later immortalized in the TV series, MAS*H—and tried to mischievously “flat-hat” the Indian River. As he looked at the reflective bottom, his eyes lost contact with the water. One of the chopper’s skids touched the calm surface and the H-13 crashed into the river.
“Spinning rotor blades shredded the water, then ripped apart and cartwheeled away in jagged fragments,” Cernan later wrote in his autobiography. “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 remained of the demolished chopper, with me strapped inside, sank like a rock.”
By a miracle, Cernan survived and, according to a NASA news release of 25 January, he “escaped from the crash with minor contusions and abrasions and some slight singeing of the eyebrows and eyelids.” After being patched up, he walked into the Cape Kennedy crew quarters, surprising Al Shepard, who was having breakfast. Things were so boring at the Cape, he quipped, that he had to do something to gain publicity for Apollo 14! “Yeah, right,” was Shepard’s unimpressed response.
Later, an equally unimpressed Deke Slayton offered Cernan the chance to tell the media that the helicopter’s engine had failed and precipitated the crash. However, Cernan would have none of it. “It didn’t fail,” he told Slayton. “I just screwed up.” The accident was front-page news and even Vice President Ted Agnew telephoned the Cape Kennedy crew quarters to check on Cernan’s health. An investigation board, chaired by astronaut Jim Lovell, published its report in October 1971 and concluded that, indeed, a “misjudgment in establishing altitude … [was] the primary cause.” In admitting blame, Cernan knew that he had ruined his chances of cycling out of the Apollo 14 backup command and into the Apollo 17 prime command.
So too did Dick Gordon.
But in Cernan’s corner were Shepard and Tom Stafford. Shepard had been a previous chief of the Astronaut Office, but stepped down to train for Apollo 14, before taking up the reins for a second term in June 1971. During Shepard’s training, his place at the head of the office was taken by Stafford, with whom Cernan had flown on Gemini IX-A in June 1966 and Apollo 10 in May 1969. At the same time, Gordon had the backing of Pete Conrad—his old Gemini XI and Apollo 12 crewmate, then in charge of the Skylab branch of the office—as well as Apollo 15 Commander Dave Scott and veteran astronaut Jim McDivitt, who was serving as manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office. But perhaps equally importantly to Gordon was that he had Jack Schmitt, the geologist, on his crew.
Finally, on 13 August 1971, came the official announcement. The prime crew for Apollo 17 would consist of Cernan in command, retaining Evans as his CMP, but losing Engle in favor of Schmitt as his LMP. Despite Deke Slayton’s support of Engle—to such an extent that he proposed his name, along with those of Cernan and Evans to NASA Headquarters for approval—it was not to be. There was no concern about Cernan or Evans, but the one person who absolutely had to be on the prime crew roster for the final piloted lunar landing mission of the 20th century was Jack Schmitt. Behind the scenes, as far back as March 1971, Dale Myers, NASA’s then-associated administrator for Manned Space Flight, had written to Charlie Townes of the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences to express his support of flying Schmitt on Apollo 17.
Cernan and Evans and their wives were holidaying in Acapulco when Slayton called to inform them that they had been selected. Cernan flashed a thumbs-up to Evans, but Slayton told him to return to Houston promptly to “discuss” the rest of the Apollo 17 crew. Nevertheless, the two Moon-going husbands and their wives celebrated, but were aware that Slayton had been forced to shuffle the crew at Engle’s expense.
A month later, Engle told a reporter from the Houston Post that his choice was stark: He could either lay on the bed and cry about a decision already made or he could get behind the mission and make it the best it could possible be. Admirably, Engle’s support for Apollo 17 was unwavering and he dedicated himself to helping Schmitt improve his LMP skills for the final lunar landing mission.
Yet even this was not the end of the story. After more than a year of training, and rapidly closing in on their December 1972 launch date, the crew was faced with another obstacle. In late September, a routine physical examination of Cernan uncovered a prostate infection. The flight surgeon, Chuck La Pinta, kept discreetly quiet and treated him accordingly. Then, a few weeks later, whilst playing softball, Cernan felt something “snap” in his right leg. At first, he feared a ruptured tendon, which would have taken months to heal and effectively eliminated Cernan from Apollo 17. Fortunately, La Pinta found no rupture, but warned his patient not to overly tax himself or the tendon might tear. La Pinta shielded Cernan from the NASA managers, prompting the astronaut to describe him as “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 15th anniversary of STS-105, a critical resupply and crew-swap mission to the International Space Station.