Veteran astronaut Dick Gordon, who passed away on Monday, aged 88, brings to just 14 the number of remaining spacefarers who have traveled to the Moon and back. Gordon’s impressive career saw him fly to the highest altitude ever reached by a human being on his first mission in September 1966, before traveling even further, to the Moon itself, on his second in November 1969. By the time he retired from NASA in early 1972, after more than eight years with the agency, Gordon had attained the rank of a Captain in the U.S. Navy and had spent over 315 hours in space, including 38 minutes of Extravehicular Activity (EVA). He remains one of only 24 sons of Earth to have voyaged to the Moon.
“NASA and the nation have lost one of our early space pioneers,” said NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot in a statement. “We send our condolences to the family and loved ones of Gemini and Apollo astronaut Richard Gordon, a hero from NASA’s third class of astronauts.” Mr. Lightfoot highlighted Gordon’s multi-faceted background as a naval officer, aviator, chemist and test pilot, which saw him make the first attempt to create artificial gravity on Gemini XI and identify future lunar landing sites from his vantage point in orbit around the Moon on Apollo 12. “Dick will be fondly remember as one of our nation’s boldest flyers,” concluded Mr. Lightfoot, “a man who added to our own nation’s capabilities by challenging his own. He will be missed.”
Richard Francis Gordon Jr. was born in Seattle, Wash., on 5 October 1929. He attended schools in Washington State and nurtured childhood dreams of the priesthood, before embarking on a degree in chemistry at the University of Washington. Upon graduation in 1951, Gordon’s focus had shifted to either professional baseball or dentistry. His preference was the latter, but when the Korean War broke out he joined the U.S. Navy and discovered aviation to be his life’s calling.
Gordon went on to win top honors for precision aerial maneuvers, which carried him through All-Weather Flight School to jet transition training to the all-weather fighter squadron at Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Fla. He was selected to attend the Navy’s test piloting school at Patuxent River, Md., in 1957, when he met a fellow naval aviator, named Charles “Pete” Conrad. The two became lifelong friends, whiling away raucous nights in bars and nightspots, knocking back beer and shots, then showing up at the flight line six hours later, models of sobriety. “They were not only good pilots,” observed fellow astronaut Deke Slayton, “but a good time.”
As a test pilot, Gordon flew F-8U Crusaders, F-11F Tigers, F-J4 Furies and A-4 Skyhawks and was the first project pilot for the F-4H Phantom II. He also served as a Phantom flight instructor and introduced the aircraft to both the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets. His reputation as one of the hottest F-4H jocks in the world reached its zenith in May 1961, when he used the jet to win the Bendix transcontinental race from Los Angeles to New York. Gordon established a new speed record of almost 870 mph (1,400 km/h) and completed the epic coast-to-coast journey in two hours and 47 minutes.
He applied for admission into NASA’s second astronaut class in September 1962, but was not selected, an eventuality which left Gordon frustrated and on the brink of retiring from the Navy. However, in October 1963, his turn came and he was chosen, alongside 13 others, in the agency’s third group of astronauts. Two years later, after intensive training, Gordon and Conrad were named as the backup crew for Gemini VIII, which flew in March 1966. Days after Gemini VIII returned to Earth, they were announced as the prime crew for Gemini XI, planned as a three-day mission, the following September.
Launched atop a Titan II rocket from Cape Kennedy’s Pad 19 on 12 September, Conrad and Gordon were tasked with rendezvous and docking with an unpiloted Agena-D target vehicle, within their very first orbit of the globe. They later connected a tether between Gemini XI and the Agena, to achieve a measure of artificial gravity, and subsequently utilized the target vehicle to boost their orbital altitude to a world-record-breaking apogee of 850 miles (1,370 km). With the exception of the Apollo missions to the Moon, this remains the highest Earth orbit ever attained by human beings. During the course of the mission, Gordon performed 38 minutes of spacewalking, becoming only the fourth American to venture outside of his spacecraft in orbit.
Returning to Earth on 15 September, Conrad and Gordon remained teamed together and in December 1966 they were assigned—along with astronaut Clifton “C.C.” Williams—to the backup crew for Apollo 3, then slated as the first manned mission of the Saturn V. All plans were thrown into disarray early in 1967, when astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were killed in a flash-fire, which swept through their spacecraft on the launch pad. With the death of Williams in an aircraft accident, Al Bean took his place and the three astronauts served as backups for Apollo 9 in March 1969, before being named as prime crew for Apollo 12, which launched on 14 November 1969.
The ten-day voyage began badly, launching into thundery skies, and the Saturn V rocket was twice hit by lightning. In spite of several hairy moments, the mission went ahead and Conrad and Bean landed on the Moon and spent more than a day exploring a region of Oceanus Procellarum, the Ocean of Storms. They performed a precision landing, close to the unmanned Surveyor 3 probe, but it was Gordon—flying overhead in the Command and Service Module (CSM)—who nailed down their exact co-ordinates. “He’s on the Surveyor Crater!” Gordon jubilantly told Mission Control. “I’ll tell ya, he’s the only thing that casts a shadow down there.”
When Conrad and Bean returned to join Gordon a couple of days later, the reception was joyous and embarrassing. No sooner had the hatches between the two spacecraft opened, Gordon took one look at his filthy crewmates, literally charcoal-blackened by lunar dust…and refused to let them cross the threshold. He knew that lunar dust was harshly abrasive and no one knew the damage it could do to spacecraft systems.
“You ain’t coming in my ship like that, Pete. Strip down!”
“Say what?” replied an incredulous Conrad.
“You heard me. Get out of those suits and you can come in.”
So it was that Conrad and Bean stripped naked and floated in their birthday suits between spacecraft, more than 240,000 miles (370,000 km) from Earth, high above the Moon. Years later, Conrad chuckled at the mental image. If something really bad had happened at that exact moment, and a thousand years later, someone had found them, what would they possibly think? “That I’m a sick and lonely man,” Gordon deadpanned, “and I went to a lot of trouble and expense for some privacy!”
It was Gordon’s fondest wish to land on the Moon himself and, despite warning signs that the Apollo lunar program would end early, he elected to remain in the crew rotation, hoping for a mission of his own. In March 1970, he was assigned with astronauts Vance Brand and Jack Schmitt to the Apollo 15 backup crew, which might have seen them rotate into the prime crew for Apollo 18. Sadly, Apollo 18 was canceled later that year. Hope still remained, however, that Gordon’s crew—which included Schmitt, the first professional geologist selected for astronaut training—could be assigned to the final lunar landing, Apollo 17. It was not to be. In August 1971, Gene Cernan, Ron Evans and Schmitt were assigned to Apollo 17. They became the last humans to date to visit the Moon.
In the meantime, Gordon retired from NASA and the Navy in January 1972. Always known for his cockiness and fun-loving persona, Gordon was nicknamed “Animal” by his good friend Pete Conrad. And as the world mourns the loss of yet another Apollo lunar pioneer, we are reminded of a picture which Conrad sent to Gordon in September 1962, just after being selected by NASA as an astronaut. The picture showed Conrad in his flight suit. He did not know that Gordon would join him at the space agency barely a year later. And neither man could possibly know that they would someday fly into space and travel to the Moon together. Conrad died in July 1999 and Gordon is once more reunited with his wisecracking crewmate, fellow aviator and dear friend.
The message on the back of the picture read simply: “To Dick: Until we serve together again.”