In 1941, John Gillespie Magee, Jr. is nineteen. He has joined the ranks of the Royal Canadian Air Force as a pilot, and during his training that June he passes the time by writing poetry. He will be killed in action a few months later, on December 11, 1941, in a collision with a Royal Air Force plane.
One of his poems, “High Flight,” is published after his death.
“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…
Where never lark nor even eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
NASA astronauts adopt the poem as their credo. The poem itself will eventually go into space, carried by Gemini 10’s astronauts; the poem will be read at the funerals of others.
In 1961, Eugene Cernan is a pilot with the United States Navy. That May, President John F. Kennedy addresses Congress regarding the plan for manned spaceflight, already nicknamed “the space race.”
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
The speech, introducing the goals of the Apollo program, sets into motion an astronaut-recruiting drive that will produce some of the most groundbreaking scientific missions of the modern age. In September 1962, the original “Mercury 7” astronauts are joined by the “New 9,” who begin training for two-man missions aboard Gemini craft designed to test high-orbit maneuvers in preparation for missions to the Moon.
A third wave of recruiting begins immediately.
In October of 1963, Cernan receives a phone call from NASA; he is the final of fourteen new astronauts to be chosen for Gemini training, with the idea of one day crewing Apollo.
In November 1965, Cernan is chosen as backup crew for the Gemini 9 mission.
On February 28, 1966, the primary crew, Elliot See and Charlie Bassett, die when their two-man plane crashes into McDonnell Space Center.
Eugene Cernan and Tom Stafford become Gemini’s primary crew, and take flight in Gemini 9A on June 3, 1966. Eugene Cernan becomes the second American to walk in space, during a two-hour EVA that, because of a lack of handholds on the outside of the craft, forces him to expend unexpected energy to perform even simple maneuvers. By the time he returns to the Gemini, he has zero visibility through his fogged visor, and his heart rate is 180 beats per minute. (During his post-flight checkup, it’s determined he lost thirteen pounds in three days.)
He and Stafford struggle for several minutes before the hatch can be closed, and the rest of the mission’s planned experiments are scrapped to preserve the tenuous health of the astronauts.
Months after the flight, Cernan discovers that Stafford had been under orders to disconnect him and return home alone if the EVA became unsustainable.
In January 1967, Eugene Cernan is in California, sitting in a replica of the Apollo 1 space capsule with the other members of his backup crew, Jim Young and Tom Stafford. The primary crew (Virgil Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee) are in Florida, running tests for the spacecraft set to take off in less than a month.
The California tests are shut down suddenly so Tom Stafford can take the call informing him that the primary crew of Apollo 1 has died. A fire consumed the capsule; within thirty seconds, transmission from the astronauts inside had ceased.
The space program is deeply shaken. It will be nearly two years before another manned flight is scheduled for launch, in October 1968 – Apollo 7. Apollo 1 never flies.
That year, Eugene Cernan debates quitting the program. Reading “High Flight,” Cernan says, is what convinced him to stay and take the risk for the chance at space flight.
On December 11, 1972, Eugene Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt land their lunar module on the surface of the Moon.
Cernan is commanding the Apollo 17 mission, NASA’s last.
Schmitt is a civilian geologist, inserted into the crew when the Apollo 18 mission was scrapped and the window of opportunity to put a scientist on the Moon was closing.
They descend on a ladder that still remains at the landing site. A plaque attached to the ladder reads, Here Man completed his first explorations of the Moon. December 1972 AD. May the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind.
This is Cernan’s third trip into space, and his second time in lunar orbit. As they start to set up the video camera that will record their moonwalk, Cernan calls Schmitt’s attention: “Hey, Jack, just stop. You owe yourself thirty seconds to look up over the South Massif at the Earth.”
“You seen one Earth, you seen them all,” Schmitt says.
“When you begin to believe that,” Cernan says, then allows the sentence to trail off.
Their work to connect the camera continues, a logistical back-and-forth. After several minutes, Schmitt begins to sing.
“Oh, bury me not, on the lone prairie, where the coyotes howl and the wind blows free…”
April 15, 2010.
President Barack Obama delivers an address at John F. Kennedy Space Center, outlining his plan for the space program.
Research and technology will be NASA’s new focus, with the goal of achieving heavy-lift aircraft to make deep-space travel more accessible. The current Constellation space shuttle program will be shut down. The focus of space travel will shift past the Moon.
“We’ve been there before,” Obama says. “There’s a lot more of space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do.”
Two days prior to the announcement, Cernan signed an open letter, alongside Neil Armstrong and Jim Lovell, stating the “decision to cancel the Constellation program, its Ares 1 and Ares V rockets, and the Orion spacecraft, is devastating.”
“Now, little more than 40 years ago, astronauts…allowed their feet to touch the dusty surface of the Earth’s only moon,” Obama says. “And the question for us now is whether that was the beginning of something or the end of something.”
Obama announces that ideally, by the mid-2030s, there will have been a manned orbit of Mars; NASA’s next objective is to put man on its surface.
On December 14, 1972, three days after they arrived, Jack Schmitt and Eugene Cernan return to the Challenger module after their last EVA and knock the lunar dust from their suits to reduce their weight for the return flight to the orbiting command module.
Cernan, scheduled to board after Schmitt, has prepared some notes for the occasion, written onto the cuff of his suit. Standing in front of the ladder, he ignores them. “I’m on the surface,” he begins.
“And as I take man’s last steps from the surface, back home, for some time to come, but we believe not too long into the future, I’d like to just list what I believe history will record, that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow.
And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus – Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. God speed the crew of Apollo 17.”
He makes one clear, careful footprint in the dusty lunar surface. Then he steps onto the ladder that will take him into the module, the last man to walk on the Moon.
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