Eugene Cernan was a unique American who came of age as an astronaut during the most exciting and dangerous decade of spaceflight. His career spanned the entire Gemini and Apollo programs, from being the first person to spacewalk all the way around our world to the moment when he left man's last footprint on the Moon as commander of Apollo 17.
Between those two historic events lay more adventures than an ordinary person could imagine as Cernan repeatedly put his life, his family and everything he held dear on the altar of an obsessive desire. Written with New York Times bestselling author Don Davis, The Last Man on the Moon is the astronaut story never before told - about the fear, love and sacrifice demanded of the few men who dared to reach beyond the heavens for the biggest prize of all - the Moon.
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|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||9.02(w) x 6.06(h) x 0.98(d)|
About the Author
Donald A. Davis is the author and co-author of more than 20 books, including New York Times bestseller Shooter, the Kyle Swanson Sniper Novels, and Lightning Strike. He lives outside Boulder, Colorado.
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Fire on the Pad
Friday, January 27, 1967, was another balmy southern California winter day with temperatures in the low seventies, but a blizzard might as well have been hammering the North American Aviation plant in Downey. Inside the altitude chamber, where Tom Stafford, John Young and I were buckled into a titanium container not much larger than a kitchen table, there wasn't any air, much less any weather. Time, not snowfall or sunshine, was our concern. The most experienced astronaut crew in the U.S. space program, with five completed missions between us, we were trying to bring a new, untried and stubborn spacecraft up to launch standards, and we weren't having much success.
On the other side of the United States, in Florida's afternoon sunshine, three of our fellow astronauts were conducting similar tests in an identical spacecraft perched atop a giant Saturn 1-B rocket at Cape Kennedy. The world knew Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee as the crew of Apollo 1, and they were scheduled to lift off in less than a month. They weren't having much luck either.
The days of the one-man Mercury missions seemed like distant history, and the two-man Gemini series had proven we could walk in space, rendezvous, and endure long flights. Now the time had come for the start of Apollo, the gigantic undertaking that would realize President Kennedy's dream of putting an American on the Moon, and bringing him back alive, by the end of the decade.
My gut feeling as a test pilot was that as badly as the program needed this flight, the bird simply wasn't ready. In fact, I was amazed that we were so far along the path toward launch with so many things still going wrong. Before Apollo could fly, tens of thousands of parts in both the rocket and spacecraft had to work flawlessly, and so far, they hadn't. But the damned Russians were breathing down our necks, and we were going to force that spacecraft to do what it was supposed to do, even if we had to bend some mechanical and physical laws through sheer willpower. Despite the problems, all signals remained go for Apollo 1.
In Florida, the prime crew was atop an empty rocket for what was called a "plugs out" test, which meant that everything was being run as it would be for a real mission, except the Saturn was not fueled. In California, our crew was in a duplicate spacecraft in the middle of a chamber that simulated the vacuum of outer space. The cone-shaped command module had given fair warning that this was not going to be a good day even before I climbed aboard. The forty-pound hatch fell on my foot and I could have sworn the bird had dropped it on purpose, part of its evil plot to keep me, Gene Cernan, from ever flying in space again.
I wormed in through the small hatch, slid onto the middle canvas couch, then moved over to my own position on the right side of the crew compartment. Although spacious in comparison to the tiny spacecraft of Mercury and Gemini, there still wasn't much room in Apollo, and I carefully eased my feet down among a clutter of unprotected bundles of wires. A technician helped buckle me in and attach the hoses to my suit, then the radio in my helmet came alive with a burst of static. While waiting for the others to climb in, I stuck a checklist onto the Velcro that wallpapered the interior of the Apollo spacecraft. We had discovered that the sticky stuff was the best way to keep things from floating around in zero gravity.
Tom Stafford, the mission commander, squeezed through the hatch and scooted into his place on the left side. Finally, John Young, the command module pilot, settled into the empty couch in the middle, and, with the help of the guys outside, hauled the big hatch into place over his head and screwed down the multiple clamps that locked it. The thing was heavy and awkward, a big pain in the ass, and in my case, a pain in the foot as well.
When we were all on board, the cabin was pressurized with 100 percent oxygen, the same way all American space missions were flown. Then the air was pumped out of the altitude chamber to simulate the environment of space, although we were really at sea level, only a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. When the desired pressure was reached, we checked the suit loops, those serpentine hoses which delivered our life-support systems, and verified the ability of the spacecraft to withstand the vacuum of the "space" now surrounding us. The pressure of the oxygen inside the command module was higher than was the vacuum outside, and pushed against the inward-opening hatch, sealing it so securely that a herd of elephants couldn't have pulled it open. Nobody wanted a hatch to accidentally pop off on the way to the Moon.
Tom, John and I were anxious to complete our work that Friday so we could peel off the bulky suits, jump into a couple of NASA T-38 jets that we had parked at Los Angeles International Airport several days earlier, and fly home to Houston. But first we had to finish the test, even if it took us into the weekend. So we lay there on small couches that looked like little trampolines and monitored the electronic guts of Apollo.
Our work continued in stops and starts. A leaking hose dripped poison glycol coolant onto the floor of the spacecraft, and electrical short circuits disrupted communications with the control booth just outside the chamber. After a few irritating hours, Tom grumbled, "Go to the Moon? This son of a bitch won't even make it into Earth orbit." Left unsolved, such glitches could stack one atop another and come back to haunt us. Every problem we could find and fix on the ground was one less the guys would have to worry about in space, so we remained locked in our seats, running endless checks of systems, dials, and switches.
Time was the enemy, the pages falling quickly from the calendar toward the launch date of February 21.
At the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Gus Grissom was bitching about communication problems. "I can't hear a thing you're saying," he barked to the launch team. "Jesus Christ ... I said, how are we going to get to the Moon if we can't talk between two or three buildings?" Gus didn't mince his words or his actions. As one of the Original Seven astronauts, he had already flown in space twice, and now commanded Apollo 1. Everyone in the program knew that Gus firmly believed that when the first American stepped onto lunar soil, the name patch on his suit would read: GRISSOM. If Gus didn't like something, he let people know; at one point he had hung a huge lemon on a balky command module simulator to compare the malfunctioning space-age machine to a broken-down automobile. Such outbursts added even more color to his crusty reputation.
Ed White, suited up in the capsule with him, was another celebrity in the astronaut ranks. A West Pointer and the son of a general, slender and good-looking and straight as an arrow, Ed had been the first American to walk in space, just eighteen months ago. The third crewman was a nugget, a rookie. Roger Chaffee had never flown in orbit, but had so impressed our bosses that they assigned him a coveted spot on the first Apollo. Roger was my next-door neighbor and one of my closest buddies.
The litany of problems we were experiencing both at the Cape and Downey had strained the already uneasy relationship between the astronauts and North American Aviation. All of the spacecraft of the Mercury and Gemini programs had come from the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation in St. Louis, and a strong bond of trust had grown between the McDonnell engineers who built the machines and the astronauts who flew them.
The news that North American had won the bidding to be the prime contractor for the Apollo command module had come as a shock to us. We knew the company had a tremendous reputation for building airplanes, but spacecraft were entirely different animals. As the months passed, many of us felt the North American design teams seemed determined to reinvent the wheel rather than build upon what already had been proven to work, an attitude that was difficult to accept in a program that had already endured 20,000 system failures.
In our opinion, they also showed little or no interest in astronaut suggestions. Just because we had already flown in space and would be the pilots to fly their new creation did not make us experts in their eyes. The North American engineers were working under immense pressure and were not about to let some astronaut "wish list" further complicate the program's already staggering costs and tight schedules. The result was more of an uneasy truce than a full partnership between us.
The pair of spacecraft being tested that day, known as Block One models, were never meant to go to the Moon, but only to orbit the Earth. Each Apollo flight would build upon the experiences of those before it and stretch our space bridge a little closer to the lunar surface. The Block Ones were little more than buckets of bolts, but damn it, they were the only buckets we had, and by God, we were going to make them fly!
The Block Two versions, true spaceships that would carry some of us to the Moon, were coming down the line, but would not be ready any time soon, and we desperately needed a launch now. The Russians had put up three unmanned lunar probes in the past year and the space race was scalding hot.
Our work in Downey was only about half done when the disembodied voice of a technician crackled in our headsets: "We're going to terminate the test now and bring you guys down."
Terminate? We groaned in disbelief. There were always hiccups in such tests, "holds" that stopped the clock while something was checked out. We would sit tight and work on other things while the problem was fixed. It might be a few minutes or it might take hours, but it was part of the job.
A "hold" was one thing, but "termination" was something else. No one, especially the crew, wanted to stop a test before it was complete, because the whole thing might have to be run again, which could take us into the weekend. Besides, dumping the vacuum from the chamber, undoing that damned, complicated hatch, and climbing out while wearing our space suits was not easy.
"Why?" barked Tom. We didn't really want to get out. We'd rather hang on, finish, and go home. After several hours of work, the problems seemed to be mounting rather than diminishing. Patience was never an astronaut virtue.
"Tom's got an important telephone call," came the answer. Now that was strange. We never took calls, no matter how important, during a test, but they had already started bleeding air into the chamber.
"Who is it?" Tom pressed. "Tell them I'll call them back."
"No," came the voice. "We've been told to get you on the phone now." In minutes, technicians would unlock the hatch and help us out.
As I began to unlock my hoses, my mind raced with possibilities. Maybe something had changed. Something was always changing in the space program. Maybe we had been assigned to be the prime crew on a lunar landing mission. Why not? We had more total hours in space than any other crew in the program, and we were already the official backup crew for the next Apollo flight. But a telephone call about something like that could wait. Whatever it was had to be important.
Hell, maybe our crew was even being tagged to make the first lunar landing. Or maybe it was our worst nightmare come true, and the Russians were on their way to the Moon. The only other time I could recall such vagueness had been when we lost two astronauts in an airplane crash just before the Gemini 9 mission. I kept it all to myself.
I glanced over at Tom, whom we always kidded about going into politics. "Might be your campaign manager, Senator," I said. "Maybe the president is calling," cracked John. Tom, disgusted with the termination, didn't think we were funny.
It took about fifteen minutes for the guys to haul us through the hatch, like pulling sardines from a can. John and I stretched our aching muscles as we walked to the Ready Room while Tom snatched the telephone from the hand of a technician waiting right outside the command module. We didn't bother getting out of the suits because we might have to return to work, and taking off a space suit wasn't as easy as slipping out of a sports coat. John and I relaxed for the first time all day, sipping cups of hot coffee and talking about whether we would get home earlier than usual or have to remain in California and start this test all over again tomorrow.
Tom joined us in about five minutes, his face chalky white. I had shared some pretty hairy experiences with T.P., and knew the man to be totally unflappable, always in control. I had never seen him like this. Before we could ask what was wrong, he stared at us and spoke with a halting voice. "There's been a fire on the pad."
John and I traded quick looks. Fire on the pad? What did that mean? "Are the guys all right?" Stafford shook his head. "They're dead," he said. "Gus, Ed and Roger are dead."
A North American helicopter ferried us to LAX, and without much of a pre-flight inspection we took off in our T-38s, Tom and I flying lead and John on our wing. In the air, we still knew nothing more than we had learned at the Downey plant. "Tom, what did they tell you?" I asked on the intercom as we roared through the late afternoon sky, the Pacific coast and the sprawl of Los Angeles giving way to the broad, empty deserts that stretch across California, Arizona, and New Mexico. The sun was setting behind us, the sky darkening ahead. Below, pinpoints of light blinked on as the edge of nightfall crept over the desert communities. Tom tried to recall the exact words, searching for some new clue, for some meaning in the terse call he had received. All he knew, all he could tell me, was that our guys were dead. Fire on the pad. Until now, such a thing had been inconceivable. It was an hour and twenty minutes to El Paso, where we refueled and flew on, cruising near the speed of sound at 45,000 feet in a zone of stony silence.
We found it difficult to say anything at all. Silently, I harbored a sense of disgust at the way they had died. Others had been killed in the program, but they had gone down in airplane crashes, and everyone figured that someday an astronaut might perish in space. It never crossed our minds that we would lose somebody in a spacecraft on the ground. As pilots, we willingly accepted risks, relying on our training and confidence when climbing into a new plane. If I was going to bust my ass on this job, at least I wanted to be flying, not sitting helplessly on the pad, waiting for something to happen!
These three guys didn't even have a chance to light the engines on that monster rocket. Hell, the thing wasn't even fueled. If it had exploded after liftoff, they would still be dead, and it would still have been a tragedy, but somehow more palatable. Gus, Ed, Roger and the rest of us had chosen to become astronauts in order to take our chances going to the Moon, not to die sitting on the pad. Challenge me to react to a problem, to make a decision, be it right or wrong, but at least give me the fighting chance they didn't get. We always knew we were vulnerable to a host of unknown problems, but a fire on the pad? That was a waste, and something for which we were unprepared.
I didn't know where to take my anger. I couldn't blame anyone, because I didn't know exactly what had happened, and blame wouldn't have done any good anyway. They were dead.
The glow of San Antonio faded behind us as Houston's bright lights rose on the night horizon and we began our descent.
Roger Chaffee had been a year behind me in the Naval ROTC program at Purdue, and I really didn't know him during our early years as naval aviators. But when we were both among the fourteen astronauts announced in October, 1963, our lives became linked. When all else fails, line up alphabetically: Cernan, then Chaffee. In the official group photo and on many other occasions, he was right there beside me.
We all arrived in Houston in January, 1964. Roger and his wife Martha, a beautiful young woman who had been homecoming queen at Purdue in her freshman year, had taken a little tan duplex apartment in Clear Lake, southeast of Houston, with their two kids, Sheryl and Steve. My wife, Barbara, our nine-month-old daughter Tracy, and I moved into a rented house on nearby Huntress Lane. As young lieutenants, we barely made 10,000 dollars a year, but soon used a windfall of cash from a publication agreement with Life magazine to buy a couple of lots in a new subdivision where we built homes, side by side, a thin wooden fence separating our yards on Barbuda Lane. We moved in within ten days of each other. Roger had the first swimming pool on the block, and I built a walk-in bar in my family room, so we became a gathering place for many parties. Almost everybody in the neighborhood was involved in the space program, and several astronauts were only a stone's throw away. Mike Collins, Jim McDivitt and Dick Gordon were just down the street, and Alan Bean, Buzz Aldrin and Dave Scott were right around the corner.
Excerpted from "The Last Man On The Moon"
Copyright © 1999 Eugene Cernan and Don Davis.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Fire on the Pad,
3. Sold by the Nuns,
4. Wings of Gold,
5. Albino Angels,
6. Two Commander Shepards,
7. Max and Deke,
8. Any Astronauts Around Here?,
9. The Suit,
11. The Mayor of Pad 19,
12. The Angry Alligator,
13. The Spacewalk from Hell,
15. Annus Horribilis,
16. Phoenix Rising,
17. The Magnificent Beast,
18. Burn, Baby, Burn,
19. There Is No End,
20. Hauling the Mail,
21. The Gamble,
22. The Ice Commander,
23. Secret Mission,
24. Beep, Beep,
25. Fire and Water,
26. Dr. Rock,
27. I Can't Walk!,
28. Top of the Pyramid,
29. Falling to the Moon,
30. Down in the Valley,
31. The Search,