Eugene Cernan was a remarkable man, but you don’t need me to tell you that. While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became household names, Gene Cernan is generally known only to those with an active interest in Space exploration. I certainly wasn’t aware of him until a chance encounter occurred in 1999, which to say changed my life would be an exaggeration, but it certainly influenced it greatly.
Some years earlier I was in Athena (a chain of poster stores in the UK during the 1980’s and 1990’s) and was struck by a photo of the earth taken from space. It forced me to linger on it for long enough to read the caption which simply said “Apollo 17, 7th Dec 1972”. This date was significant as it was my birthday. Okay, it wasn’t the day I was born, but it was the day I turned 2 years old. The coincidence was enough for me to part with £2.99 and buy the poster, which I then framed in a mount which cost several times more than the print itself. This was the only photo I had on my bedroom wall, and it lasted there for many years, until 1999.
At this time I was working as a radio producer at Capital FM in London, which was then the UK’s biggest and most successful radio station. It even claimed to be the world’s most successful radio station, but that was difficult to prove.
One day in July after finishing the evening show which I worked on, the presenter of the show asked what I was doing the following evening after work. When I failed to come up with a plausible excuse, he explained to me that he needed to go to the Science Museum as the Master of Ceremonies for an Omega watch event and suggested I might want to go with him. It sounded quite boring and I stood there for a while desperately trying to come up with a valid reason why going home might be the preferred option. He then elaborated that Omega watches were holding the event to mark the 30th anniversary of their watches going to the Moon with the Apollo programme, and that there would be a real astronaut there. It sealed the deal and I agreed to go. I asked if there was a dress code, to which he replied “Don’t worry about it, just whatever you’re wearing will be fine”.
During our radio show on the following day, the studio chat between us was dominated by space talk, and by the time we came off the air I was actually getting quite excited about meeting a guy who had left footprints on the Moon. It was at this point where the evening started to depart from my expectations. The presenter disappeared off to the toilets and came out a couple of minutes later in a 3-piece suit and bow tie. “I thought you said there was no dress code?” I said in a tone an octave higher than my normal voice. “Well obviously I am talking so I need to look presentable”. To this day I haven’t forgiven him for what was to follow.
So we drove there in his red Ferrari, just so that we weren’t too conspicuous as we arrived! He looked as though he was going to the Oscars, and I looked like I was going to a student bar. We pulled up outside the Science Museum at the end of a red carpet which led into a glitzy foyer covered in Omega promotional banners. A couple of well presented men opened the doors and then drove the car off to be valet parked. My colleague walked proudly and confidently into the reception which was filled with well-to-do people dressed to the nines, with me looking lost and very self conscious (and totally out of place) straggling in behind.
Upon entering the building we were approached by a man with a tray of canapés, and I saw his eyes give me the once over, looking down to my ripped jeans and tatty sports shoes. I was beginning to wish the ground would swallow me up, and was starting to regret the whole experience. “Don’t worry about it. You’re media” said my colleague, trying to settle my obvious discomfort, but the fact was that out of about 300 people, I was the only one not dressed for the event. Even the technical guys responsible for the sound system where suited and booted.
Just as I thought things couldn’t get worse, we were invited to the main hall for the evening meal. I was now on my own as my colleague was off to do his introductions on the mic. I hung back and followed in behind the main rush of people with my shoulders stooped and head held low. At the entrance to the main hall was a seating plan, and it was upon studying this when I realised the evening was about to get much worse. Myself and my colleague were on the head table, which was on the stage, lit up like a movie set. To make matters worse, half of the people on this table were going to be introduced, so I had to be seated pretty much by myself with the other 300 people looking at me wondering who the hell I was. It was about as awkward a situation as I have ever been in - far outstripping the time I found myself in a Taiwanese love hotel with a strict Christian girl from Hong Kong.
One by one the top table was introduced and welcomed with applause from the audience. It got to the point where there were only two empty chairs remaining, both either side of me. One was for my colleague who was having the time of his life on the mic, and the other was for the guest of honour… “Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome a man who has been into space three times, and to the Moon twice - Commander of Apollo 17 - Eugene Cernan”.
He walked in to a standing ovation and after acknowledging his reception with counter applause, sat down next to me and offered his hand in introduction. I explained who I was and why I was there, and made a nervous joke about dressing for the occasion. He wasn’t due to speak until after dinner, so we had five courses to get through with casual chit chat to bridge the time.
Other guests on the top table were renowned scientists who were asking questions I didn’t understand. I remember a conversation at one point about solar winds in which I wasn’t sure if they were talking English or not, as I understood so little. After 30 minutes or so of this geeky conversation, I found my form and confidence and seizing the opportunity of a rare pause in the conversation, piped up “So what’s it like on the Moon then?”. This question seemed to change the course of the conversation for the rest of the evening, and the remaining hour or so was spent with Gene telling us the most amazing stories about his travels in space. I told him about the photo of the Earth which I had on my wall, explaining that I had got it because it was taken on my birthday. He casually informed me that he had taken that photo, and we chatted about it for a while. He seemed to have an enthusiasm for this topic which had not been present up until now. Being the only two people on the table able to hold a conversation about the challenges of photography in Space, we kind of hit it off, and we spent the rest of the evening talking like old friends.
I often try to remember all the stories he told me that evening, but two of them I find myself recounting to people whenever the opportunity arises, and I will try my best to repeat them now with as much accuracy as I can, although after 18 years, some of the facts and figures I’ve had to research online.
In 1969 the US and Russia were in a race to put a man on the Moon, and the Apollo programme was moving at rapid pace. Apollo 11 was planned to be the mission which made it to the Moon, but before that could happen there needed to be a “dress rehearsal”, including separation and re-docking of the lunar module. Apollo 10’s objective was to do everything that Apollo 11 was going to do except actually land on the Moon. It was vital that the two missions were identical in weight and equipment, and Gene Cernan was the Lunar Module Pilot. A pre flight routine inspection of the spacecraft some weeks prior to launch had discovered a problem with one of the oxygen tanks. It is NASA’s protocol that if a problem is found in a system, all the parts are changed rather than just the faulty part, so the entire oxygen system was exchanged for a new one. The faulty part was disposed of, and the remaining parts were put on the shelf (this is relevant to the second story). Everything else with the mission went well, and they launched on May 18th 1969 - less than 2 months before the historic Apollo 11 Moon landing which is surely one of the most iconic moments in the history of the human race. They entered lunar orbit and Gene got to within 10 miles of the Moon’s surface before turning around, re-docking and heading back to Earth.
To escape the Moon’s gravity you need to gain enough speed to get to the point where Earth’s gravity becomes the prominent force and pulls the craft home. Gene described it as riding a bike over a hill - you need to gain enough speed to get up over the top, but then coming down the other side you accelerate without needing power. On any other space mission they would only ever have just the right amount of fuel to achieve the required escape speed, as any excess fuel would add unnecessary weight to the craft. With Apollo 10 however, they did have excess fuel as they needed to have the identical amount of fuel on board to Apollo 11 which was going to land. They needed to burn this extra fuel in order to get the weight of the craft correct for re-entry, so an additional 30 seconds of burn time was needed to do this. This gave them far more speed than was necessary to escape the Moon’s pull, and as they were grabbed by Earth’s gravity they then accelerated all the way home for the next 2 days. Gene said that the speed indicator in the module only went up to a finite figure (of which I cannot remember what it was) and that the needle was stuck against the end stop with several hours of acceleration still to go. Only once data had been analysed after the mission had been completed was it calculated that they reached a maximum velocity of almost 25,000mph (40,000kph). This makes the 3 Apollo crew members the fastest humans of all time. It’s not every day you sit next to someone who can make such a claim.
Going back to the oxygen tanks which were put on the shelf at Cape Canaveral, these eventually found their way onto Apollo 13. A routine maintenance stir of these tanks on the way to the Moon resulted in an explosion due to a faulty fan which short-circuited and ignited the gas. The story of that mission is well documented, but Gene pointed out that had NASA not changed the entire oxygen system on Apollo 10 when they found the fault, then the chances are that the same accident would have occurred on their mission. However, there were 11 months and 2 more missions between these two flights, during which lots was learnt about space travel. The crew of Apollo 13 only got back by the thinnest of margins, and it’s widely accepted that if the same problem had occurred on an earlier mission then they wouldn’t have been able to save the crew.
It was a sobering thought as we tucked into sticky toffee pudding. He was also wearing the same watch that was on his wrist when he was walking and driving around on the Moon. It no longer worked and had a cracked screen, but he explained that he still liked to wear it when the occasion was right.
Other interesting facts about the man are that he is the furthest human to have ventured from the Earth - over 250,000 miles from home. He holds the speed record for the fastest man on the Moon at 11mph when he drove the lunar buggy downhill into a crater. He was the last man on the Moon - something he found extremely sad and frustrating.
I also asked him about sleep, and he said that he got none. “When you are on the surface of the Moon, looking back at the beauty of Earth, you realise a couple of things. Firstly that you are incredibly privileged to be there, and secondly that you will only be there once. How could you waste a second of that precious time sleeping? Of course we had sleep programmed into our routine, but I couldn’t lie there and waste what was the most amazing 72 hours of my life. I felt it would be an insult to others to be so privileged to get the chance to be there, and then waste some of it asleep.”
I left the Science Museum that night in awe of the man who I had sat next to. He was the most interesting and exciting dinner date I have ever had (and I’ve had a few!). He told his stories with a passion which was infectious yet was never boastful. Although I unintentionally showed a lack of respect in my dress code, he never hinted at this, and in fact showed me more respect than I deserved, and seemed more interested in answering my questions than those from the dignitaries on the top table. He was a thoroughly decent gentleman, and I was sad to hear of his passing yesterday (Jan 16th).
March 1934 - Jan 2017