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Interview with: Capt. Gene Cernan
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: February 5, 2009
DG: Today is February 5, 2009. We are in Mayor’s dining room in the basement of City Hall speaking with Captain Gene Cernan for the Houston Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. How are you today, Captain Cernan?
GC: I am fine. It is a pleasure to be with you.
DG: Thank you, Sir. Let’s go back to the beginning. Tell us where you were born and what your early days were like.
GC: I was born way back in 1934 in Chicago, actually. I grew up in the suburbs, about 20 miles west. At that point in time, they used to call it “the sticks.” And it truly was. It was almost way out in the country. I grew up, went to grade school, went to high school there. My high school was a big high school - 4,000 kids. Graduated with over 900 kids of all sizes, shapes, religions, backgrounds.
I had a dream as a kid growing up . . . I am a product of World War II. I was in grade school during World War II and we would maybe go to a movie. My dad was too young for World War I and too old for World War II so he was home. I had one older sister – we would go to a movie maybe once a week or once every 2 weeks. The Movietone News, the black and white Movietone News . . . we had no television at that point in time, which I know is hard for youngsters in today’s world to believe, and World War II was going on. I would see all these, if you will, John Wayne and some of those people – the real people, the real heroes – flying airplanes at Wake Island and Guadalcanal and off the aircraft carriers and as an 8, 10 year old kid at that point in time, I just decided that is what I wanted to do. That was my dream and I encourage everyone to have a dream but at that point in time, it was an impossible dream. We were just a blue collar family. My dad did not go to college. Neither did my mother. Dad had to finish high school at night. My dream as a kid was to fly, fly airplanes off aircraft carriers. At that point in time, it was an impossible dream. How could that ever happen to me? My dad’s dream was for me to get the education he never had an opportunity to get. He really wanted me to go to Purdue. It was going to be a hard financial challenge. I applied for a naval ROTC scholarship in general and requested to go to Purdue and that is where our dreams came together. I dreamed about flying and when I got out of Purdue, I was accepted in the Navy Flight Training. His dream was for me to get the education and our dreams did not conflict, they sort of came together. And from there, I was able to live out my dream of flying airplanes off of aircraft carriers.
DG: What did you do as a kid? What did you do growing up? There is no TV. How did you occupy your time?
GC: We were outdoors. Sports played a big part in my life all through my life and, of course, in high school, it was the big sports – baseball, football, basketball. I was probably never the greatest or best athlete. I probably had to work a little hard at it but I made the varsity team in all 3 sports. In the wintertime, the firemen used to come and flood those corner lots and we’d get a hockey stick and go out and beat each other over the heads with a hockey stick as kids. You know, it could get pretty cold in Chicago. We had a lot of snow. So, in the wintertime, we kept busy. Outdoors most of the time. In addition, my dad was one of those guys who even though he did not have that education, could do anything. I mean, he could build your garage, he could rebuild a motor on your automobile, he could fix your toilet, your plumbing, your electrical work. And so, as a kid, in addition to getting involved in a lot of sports activities, I spent a lot of time, particularly on weekends, helping my dad do some of those things. When I got old enough to drive, at that point in time, I think I was 16 . . . my dad’s mom and dad, my paternal grandparents, had a dairy farm up in northern Wisconsin and from the time I was 1 year old, I spent almost every summer up there and a lot of weekends when my dad and I would drive, about 300 miles north of Chicago. We would drive up there. And that was a real education, too, because my grandparents had no electricity, milked their cows by hand, no tractors, pulled a hay wagon with horses, threw the hay on the wagon with a pitchfork. Outhouse. Everything was pretty basic. No running water. I just wish I could expose my grandkids to that kind of life today because it was truly an education. But anyway, my granddad had a 1931 Model A coup on blocks for as long as I can remember, I mean, and I saw it summer after summer after summer sitting there. By the time I became able to drive, my granddad said, “O.K., it’s yours,” and my dad went up there and we went up there and put new tires on it and it had spoke wheels, old 4 cylinder. The pistons were about this big around. And we drove it home. That was my very, very first car and I do wish I had it today. It would be a real relic, a very valuable relic as a matter of fact. So that was my start and life went on from there.
My growing up period, I had a very basic education and you know, a lot of people today say, “How did you get to the moon?” “Why me?” and this kind of thing. We may want to talk about that later. But I think if I had to look back at someone who was my real hero but I did not appreciate it at the time until much later in life, it was my father. I can remember, to this day, and this may be the reason I got to the moon – he always used to say 2 things: 1) “Do it right the first time or you are going to have to do it all over again and it takes just as much time to do it right as it does to do it wrong.” And I can remember one time we were putting a roof on a garage and we were putting the nails in the boards and I looked over my shoulder . . . I had bent one. I looked over my shoulder. My dad wasn’t looking so I just bent the thing down into the wood. But he caught me, made me pull that nail out, straighten it, and use the same nail. Not a new one. But this one was already bent once so it was easy to bend it again. He made me put that same nail back in. He made me put it in straight. And the other thing, probably the most important message I could convey to other young people who have a dream, who think their dream is an impossible goal . . . my dad used to say, “Always do your best. I don’t care whether it is in a classroom; whether it is on a football field or whatever it is you do in life. And remember, your best is not going to be better than everyone else’s and everything, but some day, you are going to surprise yourself.” I think probably if there is one reason I was able to achieve anything in life, it is because of that statement. “Do your best and one day you may surprise yourself.” And indeed he was right because I did surprise myself.
DG: I am going to mention now, there is a terrific book, “Last Man on the Moon” that you co-wrote and that tells the story of the early space program, of your story and of the times, as well as any book on the market and I encourage anyone who is interested in your story to check out that book and read it for details that we might not cover today. When you were a kid, what were you good at? If somebody looked back at you, was there anything in what you were good at, where your talents lie, that would have given us a . . .
GC: Well, I just had an aptitude for science and math. I don’t know why. Maybe it is because of my dad’s mechanical aptitude and because I was interested in . . . I started to ask questions, and “How does this work?” and “Why does that work?” and doing some things with my dad and, you know, all the way through high school, I got good grades, and was good in math and science. Not very good in English, not a very good reader which I regret because I try and do a lot of reading now but out of those 900 kids in my graduating class in high school, I ended up in the top 2%. Now, was that my goal? No. It was just because that is the way it ended up. When I got to college, when I got to Purdue, that was a real challenge, that was a real reckoning. I realized I had to work a lot harder than I did in high school. Things were different. There was a real world when I started learning how to learn when I got to Purdue.
DG: That decision to go into an ROTC program -- of course, times have changed; there have been several conflicts since then -- what was it like in terms of your peers? Was that an option a lot of kids considered? Were you unique?
GC: Well, to go back to those days, I graduated high school in 1952, graduated college in 1956, and at that time, and I wish we would do it today although we have a volunteer Army which is working very well – every young man . . . I am not sure where the women fit in, but every young man was required from the time he was 18 years old, somewhere in the next several years, to give 2 years of military service. And so, almost every major university in the country had Naval ROTC, Air Force ROTC, Army ROTC, and so by the time you got out of college, when I graduated and I got commissioned in the Navy, I was an ensign in the Navy but somewhere along the way, in those years, you had to give 2 years military service as an unlisted man, as an officer, to Uncle Sam, to the country. It was expected of you. It was normal. We looked forward to it. It was another part of our education. We got college credits through ROTC. But, you know, we spent a lot of time . . . Purdue is an engineering school and it probably should have taken well over 4 years to get through it but we used to go to school on Saturdays, have anywhere from 18-23 hours a semester and none of those courses were 2 and 3 hour laboratories which required . . . you know, we spent a lot of time in class. So, it was a real challenge and, you know, that is where I really learned something about myself was, was I up to the challenge? And, of course, grades were important. As I say, today, you know, I look back at college as where I learned how to learn but grades were important to me. Personal pride certainly played a big role in it but in order to stay in Naval ROTC required a certain grade point average. And my goal was to graduate, get commissioned and fly. Remember, I never lost sight of the dream I had to fly – all the way through college -- and that was my vehicle to get me there.
DG: Terrific. So, pick up the narrative. You got to Purdue. Tell us what those years were like and how you progressed and how you got to your first assignment and how you got to fly.
GC: Well, you know, I went to Purdue just like any naive kid, you know. You go from the top of the rung senior in high school, big man on campus, to a neophyte again, to a freshman. You do that all through your life. I did it again when I got into the Navy. To a freshman in college. As I said, I didn’t have any legacy, college legacy or a fraternity legacy but I met some people and ended up becoming a member of Phi Gamma Delta which was a big, big part of my life. A very educational part of my life. It taught me, in addition to just what Purdue had to offer, it taught me how to grow up, how to be a man, how to be responsible, how to be accountable to myself and others. So, when I got out of Purdue, I figured I got a pretty good, pretty broad education. I got a degree in electrical engineering. Bachelor of Science. But my goal was not . . . when my dad wanted me to go to Purdue, he was the one who steered me. He wanted me to become an engineer. And I will tell you – I was not sure an engineer drove trains or what he did at that point in time of my life but I took a college preparatory course obviously in high school which was required to get into Purdue and ROTC as well. That led me through 4 years . . . you know, when you are in high school or in college, it seems like eternity before you are ever going to get out but in retrospect, those years went by so fast and they were some of the, I thought at that . . . well, they still are some of the most enjoyable, greatest years I have ever lived in my life. I still have friends from both high school and from those college days. But then, you graduate, become an ensign, you go into flight training. I got through flight training a little faster than most. It took me about 11 months to get my wings and about 13 months to complete flight training which normally is about 18 months. I went out to San Diego as an ensign. Maybe a lieutenant JG at that point in time which is only that much above an ensign but I was a nugget. I was the new kid on the block. I was a freshman again and joined a squadron, an AV squadron that was training to go into the Western Pacific, West Pac, aboard a carrier. And, as I say, you are the low man on the totem pole but there again, your education picks up all over again. You learn . . . all of a sudden, you are just given responsibility. You are just given a group of people to lead, if you will. You are given a responsibility to be officer of the day or officer of the deck. And then when you start flying and you start coming aboard ship, I mean, that is the only way to fly, in my world.
But you start coming aboard ship and landing aboard that aircraft carrier. And in those days, aircraft carriers were smaller than they are today. I just had an opportunity to be at the Commission of the George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier. 90,000 ton. It is just unbelievable. That is another story. Ours were about 30,000 tons, about one-third the size. But anyway, and then you are expected to learn how to come aboard a carrier at night. I am talking about you never stop learning in life. There is always something new to learn about yourself and about what you are doing and about what you want to do. And when you come aboard an aircraft carrier at night, no lights, no moon, a million miles away from anyplace out in the middle of an ocean and you look around and there is nobody else in that airplane but you and your Maker, that is when you find out who you really are. That is when you develop a sense of respect for what you are doing but a sense of confidence that you can do it and you can do it as well or better than it has ever been done before. That is where you learn your limitations and that is where you learn your capabilities. So, you know, you never stop learning about yourself, about your profession, and no matter what profession . . . I try to tell young people, no matter what profession you are in, particularly if it is aviation, if it is not a passion, get out and do something else. It has to be your passion. You have to want to do it more than you want to do anything else, you know, and for me, I wanted to fly from the time I was . . . I was a kid who made model airplanes and hung them from the ceiling in my bedroom. If you want to go back a ways, that bedroom that we lived in when I was a kid growing up, we lived in a 700 square foot house with a basement. I shared a bedroom with my sister until she went to college. On her side, she had dressing tables and on my side, I had airplanes hanging from the ceiling. But it became a passion at that point in time in my life and it became that impossible dream . . . I tell kids, again, “The impossible does happen because I am probably a testimonial sitting here of a kid with a dream who ended up without ever knowing it was even possible at that point in time of calling the moon my home.”
DG: Your choice to be a Navy pilot and land on aircraft carriers puts you in a very elite fraternity. My family had Air Force experience so I can say this. It was probably one of the most exclusive seats in the military until they invented nuclear submarines.
GC: Well, I didn’t mean this to be a Navy commercial and my Air Force friends might not appreciate it but I think there is something different about the requirements that are put upon you, particularly, as I said, at night coming aboard because the first American in space was a naval aviator, Alan Shepard. The first American to orbit the Earth was John Glenn who wore Navy wings of gold. He was a Marine but he wore Navy wings of gold. The first American to step on the moon, Neil Armstrong, was a naval aviator. The last man to leave his footsteps on the surface of the moon _____[21:40] was a naval aviator. And probably the real hooker is 5 out of 6 landings were commanded by naval aviators, and the 7th which did not land, was commanded by Jim ____, a naval aviator. People ask me why. Are we any better than the Air Force? No. Let me tell you – some of the greatest pilots in the world are Air Force pilots. They just went in one direction and we went in another. And maybe their training, the exposure, the level of confidence – I don’t know what it was – it is just the way it ended up. That is the end of my Navy commercial.
DG: That’s all right. We will let other people decide why.
GC: Yes, they can figure it out.
DG: It is a point worth making. O.K., so around this time, you met the woman who became your wife. Can you tell us about that story?
GC: Yes. I went on my first cruise. I was stationed in San Diego flying a number of planes but ended up making a cruise to the Western Pacific on the USS Shangri-La in a little A-4 Skyhawk, a little jet airplane and, at that point in time, remember, by the way, we were in the middle of the Cold War. This was in 1957, 1958, 1959. I went out to San Diego in 1958 and went on a cruise in the fall of 1958. Our big responsibility in that Cold War was if the bell rang, if someone started shooting nuclear missiles at each other, we had the capability on board and that was our goal – we could carry a nuclear bomb whether it was . . . in the Western Pacific, we went from north to south; from north up by eastern Russia and Vladivostok all the way down south to the southern part of China, and that is a responsibility you had to think about because you trained and you were ready; you know, ‘I dare you to ring the bell’ kind of thing. It was something you never wanted to happen but if it did happen, that is what you were there for. And the chances are, and we knew it at that point in time, that if we did have to fly in and drop a big bomb . . . of course, the Air Force was dropping them, too, and everything else was going on . . . that our ship was going to be there when we got back. We almost accepted that as a fact. But that never deterred anybody. But anyway, went on a cruise for about 10 months, came back, visited my old college roommate on the West Coast in the LA area.
Well, I came home to see my parents for Christmas. They were still in Chicago. Mom was still alive at that point in time. Then went back to the LA area on the way to San Diego and stayed with a friend. And somewhere along there, when I was getting a ticket on the old Continental Airlines, I saw this good-looking airline hostess in line next to me and I just happened to eavesdrop and I heard her name. And so, I remembered it and so when I got back, I told my buddy and his wife about it. “Oh, let’s call her. Let’s call her.” I said, “There is no way.” So, my buddy’s wife picks up a telephone, calls Continental Airlines and says, “I’d like to talk to Barbara Ashley.” And they said, “Well, who are you?” and that they don’t give out that information. “Oh, I am a long lost friend.” She gave her all this . . . they said, “O.K., we will tell her. We won’t connect you but we will call her and if she wants to call you, she will call you back.” Lo and behold, she called back and I convinced her to go on a date with me. And so, we dated quite a while but about 4-5 months later, I was gone again. I went on another cruise for 8-9 months and then came back in March of 1961. In May of 1961, May 5 if I remember right of 1961, Alan Shepard flew in space, and we were married the next day on a Saturday at the chapel at the Naval Air Station at Miramar in San Diego. So I remember those days very, very well.
DG: Now, people of this generation – certainly the generation that will be watching this interview – are familiar with NASA and the space race but it really began in those early days, and there was a great competition with the Russians. Can you sort of set the stage? What were those early memories like?
GC: Yes. We have a generation of 30 and 40 year olds . . . remember, it is 40 years since I made my first trip to the moon. 40 years ago. And it is already over 36 since I made the last steps on the moon. So we have a generation of 30 and 40+ year olds who either were not born when Neil Armstrong made the first steps 40 years ago or, at best, in diapers and knee pants when I made the final steps over 36 years ago. And it is now their children who are in grade school - those kids with the dream about going back. This goes back to 1961, and little did we know at the time that Alan Shepard flight. He did not even go into orbit. He went up _____[27:28] came down. 16 minutes of space flight. Made the first steps to the moon. Little did we know that his flight was truly those first steps on the moon because Yerga Guerrin (sp??) flew in a previous months. The Soviets sent Yerga Guerrin in space, made 1 orbit of the earth, came home. Sputnik was, I think, 1957 so it was several years earlier. The Russians were putting up all kinds of rockets. Ours were exploding all over the place. The Russians literally owned space at that point in time, and America desperately needed a hero. Even more so because those were what a lot of people who were around at that point in time remember as the Terrible Sixties -- campus unrest, civil strife; the beginning of what became a very, very unpopular war in Vietnam and the rest of the world was looking to America to say, what are you going to do about this? The Russians have a technological advantage. The whole world was in a quandary. We put Alan Shepard into space and, of course, he was an instant hero, the hero we needed. It was literally 3 weeks later, John F. Kennedy, the president of the United States, got up in front of Congress and eventually down here at Rice Stadium a few months later, and told the American people that we were going to go to the moon. We were going to send a man to the moon and return him safely to Earth and he said we were going to do it by the end of the decade. What he did not say but he certainly implied, ‘and we are going to do it before the other guy does it.’ We had 16 minutes of space flight experience. John Glenn’s flight into space was 1 year later. We did not know beans about going to the moon. The technology did not exist to get there.
I have often wondered – we will never know – was Kennedy a visionary, a dreamer, politically astute? He was probably all three. But he was asking us . . . I am a 27-year-old young, snotty nosed naval aviator, you know – invincible, invisible and bulletproof – and even I had to admit that he was asking us to do something that could not be done. He was asking his country, challenging his country to do the impossible. And think about that. Three weeks after Alan Shepard flew. And all of a sudden, the wheels started going and it was not long before those people who got involved, and I was not in the space program at that time, those people who got involved over a period of time, all of a sudden did not believe it could not be done, you know, and the rest is history. But I came back, got married in May, and was not sure what I was going to do. I had an engineering degree. Should I go out . . . I always wanted to work somewhere in the aviation business. Should I go to Denver and work for Martin Marietta? What should I do? I don’t know. I wanted to go out and make a living, and I had been having fun for 5 years. I mean, they were paying me to do what I was doing. I mean, to fly airplanes off aircraft carriers and they were paying me to do that? Incredible! And then the Navy said, no, we don’t . . . well, I could have gotten out. I had paid my obligation to the Navy and then some but they said, ‘No, why don’t you stick around and we will send you to Monterrey, California, Monterrey Carmel to go to postgraduate school, get more education?’ I kept thinking, you know, I guess that would not hurt, plus the fact that I just got married in Monterrey, Carmel. God’s country up there. And it really was wonderful. So, I said, O.K. I went up there with the anticipation of being there for a couple of years and then going on to someplace like Princeton or else to finish getting my master’s degree in aerial engineering, and it truly was an enjoyable experience up there. Our daughter, our only daughter, was born at the Monterrey Carmel Hospital up there and I was there for a couple of years, and in that period of time, John Glenn had flown . . . the Original 7: John Glenn, Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, Carpenter, Grissom – that group. Grissom had flow and then Glenn had flown. I would get up at 1, 2 o'clock in the morning California time to watch these guys go or either be scrubbed and wait for another day to launch into space. I mean, everybody did. I mean, everybody did at that point in time, and everybody knew who was going. Things are a lot different today.
And lo and behold, in the summer of 1963, I had been at postgraduate school at Monterrey for 2 years – I got a call from Special Projects Navy Department saying, “We want to recommend you to NASA for further evaluation,” and like a dummy, I said, “For what?” They said, “For the Apollo program.” I did not apply. I did not apply to be an astronaut not because I would not have wanted to be but because I did not have enough jet time, I had not yet gone to test pilot school, I had a good education, good operational experience but I did not apply because I was not qualified. I was not good enough yet to be one of those guys. I remember after Alan Shepard flew, going back a couple of years now, after Alan Shepard flew, someone said, “How would you like to do that?” and I said, “Man, would I love it!” You know, “Sure baby, I’d fly ____[33:47]. I think that is where I want to go. Sure, I’d love it but by the time I get good enough, by the time I am qualified, all the pioneering will be over. There won’t be anything left to do.” So, I get this call 2 years later, you know . . . not only “yes,” but “hell yes!” and “That is not good enough. We’ve got to know in writing by Monday morning at 9 o'clock.” Typical military requirements. So I volunteered.
My first introduction to Houston, Texas. The Original 7 had trained at Langley, Virginia but the plans for building at that time the Manned Spacecraft Center down here in Clearlake thanks to Lyndon Baines Johnson were already underway. The Original 7 and the second group of 9 who were selected in 1962-1963 timeframe were already down here working out of office buildings and barracks at Ellington Air Force Base and that kind of thing because, what is now the Johnson Space Center, had not yet been completed. So after that summer of 1963, unbeknownst to me, the Navy had recommended, as the Air Force had done, I think there were 86 or so of us to NASA because a lot of people applied and a lot of people were eliminated by the military and they had 86 people. And the civilians fly directly to NASA, several thousand. There were probably a couple, 3,000 left. A lot of paperwork came, answered questions, don’t call me, I’ll call you. You’ll either get a letter or another batch of paperwork. This went on for a couple of months. And then, I got a letter or a telephone call, I am not sure which, inviting me down to Houston, Texas. Well, by that time, a lot of those people had been eliminated and I came down here to the old Rice Hotel and I will never forget this . . . we all came under an alias which happened to be, I think the manager – oh, what’s the name? I can’t even remember his name – we all came under the same name. So I walked into the ballroom of the old Rice Hotel right here in Houston. I had never been to Houston, Texas in my entire life. I do not think I had ever been . . . as a kid, I think we went on a vacation – we took a vacation every 2 years and I think somewhere back then, we took Highway 66 west and we probably went through Amarillo or someplace in north Texas, but that was my introduction to Texas.
So, really the first time. And I walked into the ballroom here in Houston at the Rice Hotel with 400 of the most qualified human beings that have ever flown an airplane. There was combat experience, there was test pilot experience, there were some guys who had applied 2 or 3 times before for the Space Program but did not it make it and were back again. 400 of them, and me. And quite frankly, I asked myself why was I here? How did I get here? And I kept thinking, well, my dad said, “Just go out and do your best. You may surprise yourself.” So, we were here about 1 week. We had all kinds of crazy medical tests. We had essay tests. We had interviews. We had all kinds of things. And I kept thinking, well, you know, at least I can say maybe . . . because the interviews were by Alan Shepard, Wally Schirra, a couple of the astronauts and a couple of civilian people that worked at the Johnson Space Center . . . at least I’ll get to tell my daughter I met an astronaut. Then, you know, we flew into old Hobby. Intercontinental did not exist. I think it was National Airlines, brought us from San Francisco down to Hobby. Old National. Sent us home. “Don’t call me, we’ll call you.” So that was in the fall of 1963 and it was, I guess, 2 or 3 weeks later, 414 of us were chosen, and you were going to get a telephone call. You were either going to get a telephone call from Deke Slayton who became our boss, one of the Original 7, or a civilian who was sort of handling the selection phase. Deke called me and he said, “I’ve got a job for you if you still want it.” It just blew me away . . . well, I take it back. There is something else that happened. After that first visit to the Rice Hotel, there was another invitation to come down here to Houston and San Antonio, and this is an important thing I missed . . . and 36 of us out of the 400 were invited back, and I was still one of those. And, at that point in time, I began to think, you know . . . we had no idea how many they were going to pick. They could pick 7, they could pick 9, maybe they are going to pick 10 or 11. We did not know. But, you know, golly, maybe I’ve got a chance! We lost 4 people in the physical, a couple of them who probably were wrongfully rubbed out because of physical problems. They were not looking for ways to keep you at that point in time. They were looking for reasons to eliminate you. We lost 4 in the physical and that is when they said, again, “Go home. Don’t call me, we’ll call you.” About 2 or 3 weeks later, I got a call from Deke Slayton saying, “You’ve got a job if you want to.” No guarantees. So, now you are an astronaut, O.K.? Now, you are an astronaut and it is like when I graduated from Purdue. Now, I are engineer – how do I spell it, kind of thing! Now I are an astronaut. It was amazing, the transformation. One day, I am nothing but just a plain, ordinary lieutenant in the Navy -- I am a naval aviator, which there were thousands of us -- And the next day, I am some kind of superhero. And I had not done anything. I had done absolutely nothing. I was the same guy the next day as I was the day before. It is like today, flown 3 times, walked in space, went to the moon twice, called the moon my home, and when people say, “Have you changed?” My answer to that is, “I’d like to think not. I put my pants on one leg at a time just like everybody else does. When I cut myself, I bleed. I still have to pay my taxes. I guess not everybody has to do that. It depends on what role you play in life. I still have to pay my taxes. I still have to pay my bills. And yet, obviously, things have changed.” Things changed for me that day because that was October . . . we were told to report down here in January, by the middle of January, I had made a decision my third year I had been selected to go to Princeton, I made a decision during the selection process to stay in Monterrey at the postgraduate school and finish my masters there because in case I was selected, at least I would have a chance to get my masters, which I did. I accelerated and got my masters the day before I left Monterrey in January to come down here. So I got my masters in aero engineering and came down here. And people still ask me today, “Why me?” “I don’t know,” because out of those 400, out of those 36, there were people probably eminently more qualified than I was based upon their experience and background. And I even say today, “For everyone who walked on the moon, there are a couple of thousand out there who could have done it just as well and, in some cases, maybe even better,” but here I am.
DG: Given those criteria – experience, specific experience, clearly there was another element they were looking for. Now, your book does a terrific job of putting you in that time and place but after all these years and seeing the people who went and seeing the people who made it and the people who did not, can you put your finger on what that other quality might have been?
GC: Well, you know, going back to my book, my 13 years in the Space Program went from . . . there, again, I am the new kid on the block, remember? Always a freshman, always a nugget. When we got in the Space Program, we were the freshman class, we were the new kids on the block. So the first year or so was wondering a little bit about things. I did not know a thing about orbital mechanics. I did not know what made a satellite fly. Part of the testing going in the selection process I think was not looking at your answers but looking how you approach the problem with the knowledge and logic and capabilities you had. And during those years in the Space Program, we went from backup to flying to backup to flying, and you never had a chance to look over your shoulder and realize where you had been or what you had done or what it meant to you or to anybody – the country, your friends, whatever. And several years after I got out of the Program, a good friend of mine said, “Gene, you need to tell somebody. You need to talk about that.” Oh, I have given talks and so forth, shared my feelings, shared my experience which is a great reward, but he said, “You need to put that down on paper. You need to write a book. You need to do something so your grandkids and those who follow somewhere out there who maybe are not even born, will understand what it was like and why and how and what motivated you.” He said something that stuck with me, he said, “You don’t realize other people look at you differently than you look at yourself,” and I appreciate that and I do understand that and I hear it every day. I just walked through the airport coming back from the West Coast the other day and somebody stops me. “Aren’t you Gene Cernan?” I said, “Yes,” and I introduced myself. “You don’t know me but I just recognized you and I wanted to say hello.” And it is probably a good thing I do not look at myself the way other people or the way you might look at me. I lived on the moon and I walked on the moon. I am no different than you. Just a human being who had an opportunity somewhere along the way to do something different, and I believe very strongly in opportunities. I believe very strongly in don’t turn your back on something you think you can be part of or make happen. So I ended up writing a book. It is not a technical book. It is not a space book. It is just a book answering the questions about, that people ask. “How did you feel?” “Were you scared?” “Do you feel any closer to God?” The whole raft of questions, that I just wanted to share the answers with people. It is hard to put a finger to say, how did you succeed or what did you believe in? I mentioned earlier, passion. I think you’ve got to have passion for what you are doing. If you want to produce a good oral history, you . . . before this interview, you read my book. You decided that you need to know something more about me than what you read in the newspapers or wherever or what you find on the internet, because you are passionate about, if you are going to do it, do it right and I think maybe the passion that I had for flying and the passion that I felt that . . . I always felt like an underdog. I wasn’t the best athlete but I made the first team. I had to work harder than some other guys who had some natural ability I did not have. When it came to flying, knock on wood which I am still doing, you’ve got to know that you are going to be good at it and if you don’t know in your heart that what you are going to be doing, you are going to be good at; if you don’t take the time to be good at it, you are going to hurt yourself or hurt somebody else no matter what profession you are in or, at worst, you are just not going to succeed. And when it comes to my profession, you cannot afford not to succeed. I mean, you know, I am getting ahead of the game maybe but when you light that descent engine on that Lunar Module and you are headed down to the surface of the moon, this is not a simulator. I mean, you’ve got 14 minutes of the most dynamic, exciting moments of your entire life. If you make a mistake or if you have a problem, you’ve got to be prepared to solve that problem now, in real time. In a simulator, you’ve got a button. Freeze. Stop time. You could not do that on the way down to land on the Moon. You were on your way down. You were going to succeed or fail or kill yourself. You had 3 choices. And the latter 2 were not acceptable to me. And even when you get down below 200 feet and you get a little lower, you are in what you call the dead man’s curve. You are going to land one way or the other because you have to come down fast enough to keep from running out of fuel. If you come down too fast, you’ve got to be able to slow down enough so you do not hit the moon too hard. So you are going to land and about 80 or 100 feet, you get the dust and you are committed. And then, when you get just above the surface, you shut the engine down. Then the noise is gone. You hit the surface, the noise is gone. Nobody is talking because they cannot help you. The ground's quiet, your partner is mesmerized. The noise is gone, the vibration is gone, the dust is gone, and all of a sudden, you’ve got to come to the realization that you just have landed on another planet and what you are seeing . . . our landing site was surrounded by mountains on 3 sides that are higher than the Grand Canyon is deep.
So what you are seeing now has never been seen by human eyes in the history of mankind. You are now where no man has ever been before and in our flight, particularly because we landed in the eastern edge of the Moon, the earth, which is so overpowering, is right out your window on the top of the mountains in the southwestern sky. And you have to somehow forget the technical aspect of it. You have to somehow begin to accept the moment and the time where you are. And, of course, that goes on for the next 3 days. And you hope subconsciously . . . a whole other story, when I walked up the ladder to leave but if you want to get into that, we can later, but I hope you absorb subconsciously what you seem incapable of absorbing consciously. You are living on another planet. You have now touched down. When I first stepped foot on the Moon, I was, for the first time, touching something that was not earth. It walked to the tops of the highest mountains to the depth of the deepest oceans on this planet of ours. And you are still on earth. I was not on earth anymore. I was on another [allow me to call the Moon a planet], another planet, another body somewhere out in its universe. That is something you have to rationalize. I have always said, “There are 2 space programs,” and maybe I am getting ahead of your questions here but there are 2 space programs: One in earth orbit. When you fly around the earth, you fly over a river, you fly over a city, you fly over a lake, across the ocean in 15 minutes. You are 250 miles above the surface of the earth. You are traveling at 18,000 miles. You fly through a sunrise and a sunset every hour and a half. 16 of them every 24 hours. That is a wonderful experience, magnificently beautiful. But you do not see the earth. You are just flying high and fast around it. You know, if you are lucky, you might even get a glimpse of your own hometown. Well, when you leave the earth and you watch the horizon which was slightly curved and earth orbit closed around the planet itself, and you begin to see something very strange and yet, something very familiar because you are no longer flying over cities and lakes and hometowns and across oceans. They begin to appear in front of you. You begin to look form the turquoise blues of the Caribbean across the entirety of North and South America, across the East Coast, the windswept plains, the snow covered mountains of the West and the deep dark blues of the Pacific Ocean and you do it all with a single glance. And you do not fly through a sunrise and a sunset anymore – you watch them happen on opposite sides of the world all at the same time, looking through distance, across distance or through time. I don’t know. And that earth gets small very, very quickly as you head out to the Moon until it becomes so small, you can cover it with your thumb, with nothing bigger than the palm of your hand. You have to reconcile all that, you know, and it turns on an axis. You cannot see it. There are no strings holding it up. Every 12 hours, you are looking at the other side of the world. So, when I say there are 2 space programs, there are 2 space programs technologically because it takes a lot more technology to accelerate to 25,000 miles an hour for a rendezvous out there somewhere with the Moon, but also, the other space program is philosophically and even spiritually different than . . . as I say, we can get into it. Maybe I am getting ahead of the game. But that is part of my book. I tried to share those feelings. What is it like to sit on God’s front porch looking back at the earth? Let your imagination wander. I have been there. What is infinity? I cannot put it in the palm of my hand. I cannot draw you a picture of it. It is the endlessness of space and the endlessness of time. What is that? I don’t know but I can tell you it exists because I saw it with my own eyes. So I am one of those very lucky, fortunate few who has had a chance to try and comprehend what all that means. An important part of my book is that is what I wanted to give back. That is what I wanted to share. And I started out as a normal, everyday little kid in a blue collar family with a dream and never realizing that dream would allow me to someday call the Moon my home. If there are any young people at any age watching this little interview, that is the one thing I want you to remember – just never count yourself out. Dream big. Dream about being what you want to be – a doctor, a schoolteacher, a truck driver, going to the Moon, going to Mars, a movie star. Dream what you want to be, even though it is impossible at that point in time in your life. Someday, you may surprise yourself. It is as simple as that.
DG: Yes, and your book does a terrific job of sharing those feelings and more. It is so much more than a narrative. But one of the things that was conspicuous in its absence, although it comes out indirectly, is the danger that was involved. There are a lot of people that do not survive flight school to become a naval aviator and then there are the missions that you flew and then there is the testing to become an astronaut, and then there is being strapped to the rocket, and there were astronauts lost before they ever got on the rocket. Was it your passion was so great that you did not allow yourself to think about it? Was that one of the things that made astronauts different? How did you reconcile the danger?
GC: I remember during those early days, we lost 8 guys in 2 years. Most of us were in the military. The whole time I was in the Space Program, I was still a naval aviator getting paid by the Navy and nothing changed. I was on lend lease, if you will, to NASA. And so, we never really wore a uniform because we were in a civilian program except when we got a special commendation or something, or during a funeral. I wore my uniform 8 times in 2 years. We lost 8 guys. One in an automobile crash. The others at airplane crashes or, of course, the Apollo 1 fire where we lost 3 guys back in 1967, this past month, this January, before they ever got off the ground. Well, even going back to Gemini, I was on a backup crew of Gemini 9 up in St. Louis. We were flying the T38s. We were in a second airplane and the first airplane tried to land in some weather they should not have tried to land in, quite frankly. Here is the best policy in the world, supposedly, who did something dumb. We can all do and have done something dumb, and they killed themselves. And, of course, Tom Stafford and I became the prime crew of Gemini 9 and, of course, we had to turn around in like 3 months to be able to fly the mission and we did. I am getting ahead of the game. I did not go to the moon not to come home. I did not go to the moon to be a martyr. I knew what I was doing and I was just arrogant enough to know if I had the right equipment, the right hardware, go by the right people, I knew I could get home. During that big launch of the Big Saturn 5 on my last flight of Apollo 17 where I was commander, I was daring that booster to fail because I knew if the guidance on the booster failed, all I did was flip a switch and I could fly that thing myself to the Moon. I did not want it to fail but I was arrogant enough to dare it to fail. I do not know if that makes sense, but we never thought . . . you know, people say, “You’ve got a lot of guts. You are a brave” . . . I don’t really think that. That never really crossed our mind. Yes, we knew that we were going to be subject to a whole host of unknown problems. We tried to prepare ourselves as well as we could so that we could handle those unknown problems. Yet, in Gemini 9, I was the second American to walk in space. We had a grand total of 20 minutes space walking experience prior to my flying. I was going to be out there for almost 3 hours going twice around the world, flying a Buck Rogers backpack and, you know, we were in such a hurry, we never really thought about Mr. Newton’s laws about every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction and zero gravity that comes home in space. I had all kinds of problems. I had no place to anchor my body. I was putting on this backpack with real rocket engines on it, going to fly on a 125 feet tether. Way, way ahead of ourselves. Had lots of problems.
DG: I want to go back and fill in a little bit about Houston and its history. When you came back and you were part of that group of astronauts – you came to Houston, the Space Center was just being built, there was no Clearlake City, there was no NASA, there was nothing out there; we were beneficiaries of President Johnson’s political string pulling – but tell me what it was like. I mean, the rest of the country saw you as a hero but you were not exactly . . .
GC: Well, when we came down there, of course, Clearlake – there was literally almost no place to live, and it was somewhat of a culture shock to come from Monterrey, California where, in August, you could wear a sweater and you could watch the fog come over the hill, you know – it was just a wonderful place to live – coming down here to Houston with the humidity and the hot summers. It was truly a culture shock. My wife actually grew up in Baytown so, for her, it was not all bad. We had a 9 month old daughter born in California but literally raised in Texas, a Texan, and, of course, her 3 daughters were all born here. But we moved on to . . . they were just developing Clearlake. They were just putting a few duplexes in. We rented a house there in Clearlake. Clearlake has gone bananas, of course. Everything people see down there now did not exist. The closest hardware store was down there across the lake in League City. A great hardware store. It had all the old things you would want to buy. Sears was in Pasadena. To get pancakes and eggs for breakfast, we had to go halfway up into town somewhere because there was nothing down there. NASA Road 1 which was 528, west of the Gulf Freeway was a shell road. It was a shell road and, of course, they were working on the Gulf Freeway then and, of course, they are still working on it now. It is 10 year generation after generation. NASA Road 1 was a 2 lane road. We rented a house for maybe 6 or 8 months and then were developing Nassau Bay. Timber Cove and El Lago were already in development and most of the Original 7 and second group of 9 lived in one of those two places. Most of my group of 14 pretty much settled in the Nassau Bay area as they were developing Nassau Bay. But it was truly a culture shock. I had never really spent any time in Texas but the thing I remember most about coming down here and I always related – the people in Texas compared to the people anywhere else I had ever been had not forgotten how to say please and thank you. You would stop by for gas and that is when they put your gas in your tank for you and you would talk to the attendant. He would wipe your windows and he would say, “How are you? What are you doing today?” It was just a friendly old environment. It was wonderful. It was just a great place to bring up kids. It was an enjoyable place to be and, of course, we watched it begin to expand and explode and explode.
I find myself today . . . I was born in Illinois, spent a lot of time in California, but I would like to think . . . I have been down here since January 1963 so 46 years – I like to think of myself as a Texan. About 3-4 years ago, I started reading about Texas history. I started reading about the Texas Rangers. Well, maybe it is because several years ago, I got infatuated with the Hill Country and I have a small ranch out there and I have some Longhorns and ____[01:03]. I am a rancher, I am a farmer, I am a dreamer at heart. I always wanted someday to own a ranch in Montana. That was never to be. This is the fulfillment of my dream in the Hill Country. I started reading about Texas history, the Alamo and all these things, not in chronological order but the Alamo, the Civil War, the US-Mexican War and, of course, the Comanches. And, you know, when you put that all together and realize from 1800 to 1900, all these things were happening at the same time. The Mexicans coming from one end, Texas being the Texicans – not yet a member of the United States – the people moving west, the Comanche territory, the atrocities, everything that was going on in that period of time. I know now why Texans have a right to be arrogant and I am going to say the word “we” although I was not here during those days and I was not born here – we have earned the right like no other place in the country to be proud. We really have. What Texas went through, what the people of Texas went through over those years, both from the Alamo, the Civil War, Mexico, Comanches, what the Texas Rangers were and who they were and what they did and how they had to live and how they had to bring justice to the country is just a phenomenal period of history in the state of Texas which, quite frankly, I am very, very proud of. And I learned a number of things that maybe a lot of Texans do not even know today: that, number one, we have a right to secede, we have a right to divide our state, I believe, into 6 separate states, maybe 5 but I believe it is 6; and if the Texas flag is flown on a separate staff as a U.S. flag, it is the only state in the Union that has the right to fly at the same height as the U.S. flag. If it is on the same staff, then it flies below the U.S. flag properly. Those are things I think even most young people growing up in Texas do not appreciate and realize. Texas is a unique place. It is not just because it is big but it is because of the nature of our geography and the nature of our history over the years. I am very proud. People would say, “Why did you stay in Houston when you got out of the Space Program?” I had the opportunity to go a lot of different places. I don’t know – I just liked it here. I travel a lot. I do go to a lot of different places but this is my home. My daughter was raised here. My grandchildren were raised here. This is it. I am one of those proud Texans. Every once in a while, someone from Alaska reminds me that they could cut Alaska into 3 pieces and we would be the 4th largest state. It is not size that counts, it is the history, it is the people, and I urge young people to go back and read about who they are and where they came from and how Texas grew to be what it is today.
DG: Yes, sir. We all know Texas ____[01:07] but your book also talks about something else that all Texans are familiar with – the heat. Now, when you came to Houston, the city was not as air-conditioned as it is now.
GC: Oh, I remember when we first came down here and, as I say, my wife grew up in Baytown so we went to where her mother was living . . . we did not have air-conditioning. We had a 1963 . . . the fact is, we got a new car. My old 1956 convertible, my bachelor convertible, 1956 Chevrolet, I sold. We had a baby and we got a 4 door 1963 Chevrolet. No air-conditioning. I sent my wife and baby down here on an airplane and then I drove by myself. It is a long drive from the San Francisco area, from the Monterrey area across. I eventually made my way to Baytown. I did not know where anything was. I did not know where Baytown was. I just worked my way around the city. I remember, no air-conditioning. Not just in my car but in her mother’s house. There was this big attic fan about 5 feet square across and that was the cooling system in most of the city at that point in time except perhaps some of the big office buildings. Air-conditioning – you had to special order a car to get air-conditioning. It just did not come with it. You had to special order a car. And, of course, when we came down here and built a house, we moved in to Nassau Bay, built about a 3,000 square foot house on a relatively small lot but for us, it was big, it was big time. We were given the opportunity to get a special mortgage, 4% which was phenomenal at that point in time. I think we built the house for well less than $100 a square foot, and a nice little house. 3,000 square feet. We loved it. We had a little swimming pool in back. This was high cotton for a young lieutenant in the Navy making $10,000. Well, actually, when I left and got here, I was making probably around $8,500 a year when I was selected for the Space Program. When I left 13 years later, retired from the Navy and NASA, flown in space 3 times, walked in space, been to the Moon, lived on the Moon, I was making $48,000. But we survived. We lived well and we had a good time. We did it all.
DG: As part of that early group of astronauts, there was some Life magazine money and some other . . .
GC: There was. That is what allowed us to buy a house. We were part of a Time Life agreement for the personal stories. That actually came down from Kennedy. They were trying to figure out how they could augment the military pay of the Original 7 and they came down and Time and Life came down with a contract that gave them some extra money a year. And, of course, as more people got in the program, that got dwindled and dwindled down a lot. Yes, there were some perks. There were some perks. General Motors allowed us to lease a car for $1 a year and we turned it in at the end of the year. It was a freebie. So there were some perks – there is no question about it. Did we deserve them? Probably not. But did we accept them? Yes, we did. And did I drive a Corvette? You bet your life I did! That I would not have been able to drive otherwise.
DG: I doubt you could find too many citizens in the country that would not say you deserve that and more, whatever you could get, especially understanding what the Navy paid. Captain Cernan, I would like to sort of return to the timeline. We have 3 missions to talk about and the time in between, so we can come back to some of these bigger issues. Your first one was Gemini 9 in which you were originally the backup and then you moved up and were able to fly because of that tragedy involving the original designated crew. I guess the biggest part of that flight was the space walk. Although the flight was called jinxed for a couple of other reasons – you had a couple of delays and then there was the docking hatch that did not open – let’s talk about that space walk.
GC: Let me preface this by going back to what I said earlier. The president of the United States, J.F.K. said, 3 weeks after Alan Shepard went up and down, “We are going to go to the Moon.” Well, we knew nothing about it. We called that program Apollo. Well, we had to build a bridge to Apollo from the Original 7’s mercury program where they sent 1 man . . . the longest mission, and it was only 1 man, was Gordon Cooper for 22 hours, I think. So how are we going to go from there to the Moon? Well, we had to build a bridge. The Gemini program . . . Gemini was a bridge and in Gemini, we put 2 people in the spacecraft. Very small spacecraft. Our capabilities to put heavy vehicles in space was still limited. We had to figure out whether we could learn how to rendezvous because that is what the Apollo program was based upon. If we could not rendezvous, we could not get to the Moon, we could not circle the Moon and rendezvous to get home. We had to have a long duration in space so we did this in Gemini. Gemini 7 lived in that little capsule for 14 days. That was Jim Lovell and Frank Borman, God bless their soul because I do not know how they did it. And we had to learn how to get outside and live and work in a vacuum even though this vacuum was zero gravity and the Moon was going to be one-sixth gravity. So, that was the reasoning behind the Gemini program. And by the time we got to Gemini 9, we proved some of those concepts. We had Gemini 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7, so some of those were behind us. Now, we were trying to move further out and rendezvous without a computer and, by the way, you know a computer at that time was like one of those old slot machines, a barrel drum type thing where you press a button, it twists and it comes . . . hoping you hit the jackpot and get the right answer. I had a slide rule on Gemini 9 and a paper and pencil and we wanted to rendezvous manually at night from above, trying to figure out all the problems we might have when we went into Apollo. And we did that. The other thing was walking in space. Ed White was the first and only American to have walked in space. We had one Russian who was out for 12 minutes and spent 3 getting out and 9 fighting for his life to get back in to that spacecraft of his. Ed White went out there and had a good flight, did not identify a lot of problems that came to bite me on Gemini 9 because we lost the Gemini 8 flight – was supposed to have a space walk on it but they had a thruster problem and they had to come back and land early. So here was Gemini 9, mission unchanged. I look back today . . . now historians call it probably the most ambitious flight in all the Gemini program . . . and I was going to go out there for at least 3 years, daytime, nighttime, activate, basically assemble a Buck Rogers type backpack with real live hot thrusters on it. I had to have a special pair of pants, woven steel, over my regular spacesuit in a vacuum. We had really never been outside, in a vacuum. The thermal requirements. Hot, cold. How hot does it get? How cold does it get? People ask that question all the time and I say, “How hot do you want it to get?” “How cold do you want it to get?” If you are in a shadow, it can get very cold, including on the Moon. If you stay in the sun, it is going to get to be 150 degrees, 200 degrees above Fahrenheit, above zero. So we had to find out the answers to all those things. Could we work, not just survive but could we work in space? That was the objective of Gemini 9. Very ambitious. And, of course, I got in a lot of trouble on my Gemini 9 space walk because we did not anticipate some of the basic laws of motion. Mr. Newton’s laws – for every action, an equal and opposite reaction. When our feet are anchored to the floor here by gravity, we can twist something or turn something or pick it up but at zero gravity when you are not anchored, you pick it up, it picks you up. I had to telescope some arms of this thing, push them and turn them, they would push me back and I would go floating back out there. I had no way of holding on . . . of all things – we put a rail for me to “stand on.”
Now, you’ve got the smartest engineers in the world in the Space Program and I am going up in zero gravity and they give me a rail to stand on? It’s crazy. But I did not catch it, they did not catch it, but it sure caught us when we were up there. So I had a lot of problems. I did get unstrapped from the spacecraft in this backpack. I was ready to become a human satellite. The oxygen system from the backpack, the electrical system, everything was plugged in. I was disengaged from the spacecraft except for a little latch that was holding this backpack that I was now strapped into. All Tom Stafford had to do was flip the latch and I would have gone out there, and I could have, but the problem along the way was I overpowered my cooling system in the spacesuit. I just had oxygen running through and I just worked so hard. My heart rate got up to about 170. The doctors were looking at it. I was all instrumented. The doctors were looking at me. They knew I was getting close to the edge. I knew I was tired but I did not want to give up. I mean, this is my first flight. People depended on me. I did not want to not do the job that I was sent to do and I was ready to go on. In retrospect, had I gone, I really would have gotten in trouble. But there, my visors fogged up, I can’t see, it is night time, so I’ve got to wait until we get in the sunshine to get the sun to cool it. Bottom line is we decided to abort that part of the flight. If we hadn’t and I had flown, I think, in retrospect, getting out of this unit would have been impossible and I could not get in the spacecraft with it. So getting out of it would have been impossible. It might have been a different end result had I actually been cut loose. I could have flown it. I could have flown it. That would not have been a problem. But getting back in that spacecraft, it was so small anyway . . . a suit that . . . when you are pressurized, you are like that old turkey day balloon in the New York City parade – you are just like this, and then I had the steel pants on top of it which were even tougher to bend and getting back in the spacecraft was . . . I tried to equate it in my book, it is like putting a champagne cork back into a champagne bottle. It is almost impossible. But, like I have said – I did not go to the Moon not to come home. I did not go outside that spacecraft not to get back in. I was coming home one way or the other. That is why I call it “spacewalk from hell” because I knew I was on the edge the whole time. When I came home, I was pretty disappointed. I thought I had let everybody down and we failed but as it turned out, in retrospect, people have looked at that, looked at what we have learned from it, looked at some of the hardware changes we made, the suit changes we made, and probably without the problems we had on Gemini 9, we would have been faced with the same problems at some later date that might have been maybe even catastrophic.
DG: It is probably not clear to regular citizens watching just how much of the program was exploratory in nature with human beings as guinea pigs.
GC: Oh, everything we did. Every flight . . . of course, every flight built on the flight before. I mean, all the way from the beginning of Mercury, from Al Shepard’s flight, to the day Gordon Cooper spent 22 hours circling the Earth. From the beginning of Gemini to the end of Gemini, we built on everybody else’s experience. The EVA problem on Gemini 9 was that our experience did not exist - we only had 20 minutes so we did not fill those gaps. But every flight right on through the end of Apollo 17 . . . Apollo 17 was our longer, we landed at a more challenging landing site, we carried more payload, we carried a lunar rover, we drove a car on the Moon . . . everything was exploratory. Every mission used everything we knew from the previous mission but we had to open new doors, new challenges, new unknowns that we had never been confronted with before. There was always something new that happened. “Were you scared?” A question asked all the time. No, but we were probably too busy to be scared. But apprehensive? Yes, because there was always something unexpected that was going to prop up and you had to be prepared to respond to it. It was a dynamic situation the whole time.
DG: One of the things that surprised me when I went back and read about it was the frequency of the flights. Every 2 or 3 months.
GC: Isn’t that amazing? We launched Gemini every 6 weeks. Every 6 weeks, we launched a Gemini spacecraft. Every 6 weeks, right to the end. And at Apollo, once we got Apollo 7, after the fire, it was about over 1 year before we regrouped and, by the way, I remember after the Apollo 1 fire being at Arlington Cemetery on a cold February day, not sure whether we buried 3 of our friends and colleagues or whether we buried the entire Apollo program but I will tell you – the American people rose to the occasion. I mean, the phoenix rose out of the ashes. Those guys . . . I hate to use a cliché but they did not die in vain. If it wasn’t for what happened to them, it might have happened later at a most critical time, perhaps something like Apollo 13. But we rose from the ashes and we rose stronger and better and more determined than ever. That accident was in January and 1-1/2 plus years later in October, we were in the air again. We were in the air again, and once we started flying Apollo, it was every 2 months because we had to get on the lunar cycle. You just could not fly when you wanted to If you wanted to land at a certain place on the Moon, you had to launch at a certain time of the month. So we were basically, believe it or not: 40 years ago this year, we launched Apollo 8 in December of last year; Apollo 9, I believe it was in March; Apollo 10 that I flew on, we flew in May; Apollo 11 followed in our footsteps. We painted the white line in the sky so Neal Armstrong would not get lost. We did everything on Apollo 10 but land. Went in July. Apollo 12, I think we maybe through an extra month in there, it came in, I think it was November, and then in January, we kept going. March, we launched 13. Then we spread them out a little bit. Can you believe that? Going to the Moon every 2 months? Especially in those important days – 9, 10, 11 and 12.
DG: In retrospect, was it the urgency of the race with the Russians? Was it just the momentum of the program? What was the prime engine?
GC: Absolutely not question about it. Apollo 8, which went to the Moon on Christmas Eve and read Genesis back, Christmas Eve 1968, was not part of the program. Apollo 8, Apollo 9 were supposed to fly the Lunar Module in Earth orbit and check it out in high Earth, maybe 4,000 miles. Apollo 10 was going to be the first attempt to land. Then, the Lunar Module got delayed a little bit but what really forced the decision to send Apollo 8 to the Moon in December of 1968 was the fact that the Russians had sent some unmanned spacecraft around the Moon. Unmanned. They had some problems with it but they went it. And the thought was, Intelligence was that they were ready to send a manned spacecraft to the Moon. Not to land because they had had problems with their landing program and we knew we were going to be able to land before they would. As a matter of fact, it looked to me like they had abandoned their landing program about that time because they had their big rocket blow up. So we knew we were going to win the race to the Moon to land. But if they circled the Moon, if they sent men to the Moon before we landed, they would win. O.K.? We were not going to let that happen. When I say “we,” I mean, I am not so sure the astronauts made that decision but the people in the position to make the decision came to us and said, ‘What do you think?’ We said, ‘Let’s go.’ So we sent Apollo 8 to the Moon by itself without any lunar lander and the lunar lander was being delayed and, of course, that changed the program. It pushed the first landing attempt from 10 to 11. But it was certainly politically motivated. There is absolutely no question. In other circumstances, had there not been the pressure of, number one, beating the Russians to the Moon then landing before the end of the decade, would it have gone that way? I don’t think so. I think we would have gone the original plan -- the original, conservative approach to getting there. You know, we had to be prepared to take and manage some risks. We had to be bold at that point in time to do the things we did and I am not blowing my horn, I am saying America -- the Space Program, NASA, the people in the decision making process -- had to be bold. We had to take a risk. Sometimes I wonder if today, we are afraid to take a chance, afraid to take a risk because we might be wrong, we might make a mistake. It is not the way the world works. If you want to accomplish something, you’ve got to be willing whether it is in the economic world, whether it is in the technical world, whether it is going to the Moon or wherever, you’ve got to be willing to take a risk and manage that risk. To make a mistake is not a disaster. To be dumb is. But you learn from your mistakes and pick yourself up and go do it better the next time. And that is the way we did it in the Space Program. We made some mistakes. Some of those mistakes cost some lives and almost cost some others. But we did learn from those mistakes. History tells the story. A testimonial to America’s ingenuity and capability and boldness to accept a challenge is the fact that everyone we sent to the Moon came home including the crew of Apollo 13. When this program started, although we never talked about it, I think those of us who were in the middle of it were not sure that that was going to be the case but we were ready to go anyway.
DG: And, of course, for the sake of perspective, it should be said it was not just bragging rights that were at stake – we were engaged in a struggle with the Russians, a perceived struggle with the Russians.
GC: Hey, this was a cold war in space. This was a nonshooting, active, cold war in space. It determined the future of this country politically, economically and in so many other ways, and had it been different, the world might have been a lot different.
DG: So you came back from that first flight and then you were cycled to the next flight.
GC: We backed Tom Stafford, John Young and I eventually . . . well, we were working on Apollo 1, a fire occurred, a year and a half we ended up backing up Apollo 7 which was the first flight of an Apollo spacecraft in Earth orbit. And then, when that was successful 11 days in Earth orbit, we were recycled to the prime crew of Apollo 10. And, at that point in time, the determination whether Apollo 8 should go to the Moon or not was not made. So we were still looking at the potential to being the first attempt to land on the Moon. And then when the Apollo 8 decision got made that I discussed a minute ago, that got moved back. And, you know, would I have liked to have been one of those first 2 men on the Moon? You bet your life I would have liked it but in retrospect, that was the right decision. We checked out the Lunar Module in lunar orbit, we did all the rendezvous, we went down to 8 miles above the surface, 47,000 feet, checked the landing radar, checked the software, the Lunar Module environment and the Lunar environment, the rendezvous and had some problems. At one time, we had a computer/thruster combination start spinning the spacecraft to Lunar Module while we went down over the landing site and boy, when you are going 3,000 miles an hour over 10,000 feet mountains, you pick up your feet because you feel like you are going to drag them on the surface, but we went out of control. I remember seeing the Lunar rise about 8 times in 15 seconds. We were tail over tea kettle and, of course, because there was it a live pass over the Moon, we were hot mikes. Everything we said, the world heard. And when all this happened, I said, something, not exactly but, ‘Golly gee whiz, what the heck happened?’ It didn’t come out that way! And I had no idea I said it. No idea what I said until after I got home. My wife told me, “You were a little salty up there.” I said, “What are you talking about?” And I heard the tapes. But that was just a reaction to the moment. Fortunately, we got the spacecraft stabilized and were able to complete the rendezvous and make a successful mission out of it. But that is when Apollo 10 became x-rated. I would get home and we would get 50 letters that would say, ‘Boy, you made us proud Americans, it was a great flight, glad to know your pants on one leg at a time. I would have said much worse.’ I mean, it was a pretty hair-raising situation. We found out later, had this gone on for another 4 or 5 seconds, we would have decayed into the Moon. We would not have been able to get out. And then the 51st letter would say, ‘Oh, it was a wonderful flight, I am a proud American but how could you use such language in front of my children?’ So it is one of those no-win situations. So you publicly say you are sorry for those people who understood, thank you; and for those people who I offended, I am sorry. So where do you go from there?
And so, from there, I went back up . . . well, it was not a sure thing but a number of things happened and I had a chance to walk on the Moon on a subsequent flight which I turned down because it was probably the biggest risk I ever took in my days in the Space Program was not in-flight . . . I turned down an opportunity to walk on what was Apollo 16 for the chance to be able to sit in the left seat, have a command. Not to give orders but I just wanted the responsibility. I wanted to know if I had what it took to be the commander of a mission. I had to prove that to me. I was not proving it to anybody else. It worked out well form me. I ended up commanding a backup crew of Apollo 14 – Alan Shepard. I got to know one of the . . . difficult guy to know until you break that big wall he puts around him but once you get to know Alan Shepard, there is not any better a human being in the world. He and I got to be great friends. And from there, again, with no guarantee and no certainties, I ended up fortunately having command of Apollo 17. I ended up getting to command a mission as well as walk on the Moon. So when I call myself the luckiest human being in the world . . . my flying career in space could have ended after Apollo 10 but it did not. I wanted to go back.
DG: Take us to the Moon with you on that flight. You are the last man on the Moon. What was it liked? When you stepped out, what were you thinking? Of course, the book does a terrific job with that.
GC: Well, you know, going to . . . I had been there but I flew with 2 people that had never flown before which was really very interesting. One was a combat veteran, naval aviator, combat veteran from Vietnam. The other was a geologist, a scientist, a non-aviator. And going into the assignment of that crew, it was determined that we had a gentleman just in the program, he was training on the backup crew that he would fly before the end of the program. Apollo 18 got canceled, which was a normal place for him to fly. And so, he got put on the crew of Apollo 17 and there is a lot of detail on that in my book but anyway, he did a great job. Again, it was one of those decisions that was the right decision to make because when we got to the Moon, he was a micro geologist. He was at his test tube and I was sitting back here talking about the geology of the mountains. So between the two of us, we put a pretty good picture together. We got to the Moon pretty much the way everybody else did and started on down and I think I talked a little bit about those 14 minutes of the descent where things get pretty dynamic. And then, at the end of that, overshadowed by stark silence. The meaning of the word quiet. And, of course, when I first stepped out of it . . . the first steps had already been taken but this was my first step, so it was unique and special. And we lived and worked on the Moon for over 3 days. We had to subble (sp??) a car, drive a car, which was just great. It is still up there and for those people who do not believe we went to the Moon, I can tell them where the car is and if you take back a set of batteries, I know you can drive it away; tell them where I put my daughter’s initials in the sand just before we left; tell them where the flag is and tell them why it looks like it was flying. I mean, the truth needs no defense but if there are some skeptics out there who still do not believe me, let’s go back and find out. I will show you. And I truly believe that some of those places, particularly where Apollo 11 landed, will someday be a national monument. I truly believe it will whenever we have more ready access to going back to the Moon. But we were there for 3 days. The thing that is . . . you know, you don’t take it for granted and the thing that does not allow you to take it for granted – you look over your shoulder and the Earth is always in the same spot, over the mountains in the southwestern sky. It changes. Not only does it rotate on that axis we talked about but the sun starts to progress across it. And like we see a crescent moon or a half moon or a three-quarters moon or a full moon, the opposite happens on the Earth. When we are here on earth and see a crescent moon, if you are on the Moon looking back at the Earth, you are going to see over more than three-quarters of the Earth lit by sunlight. And when we are here and see a three-quarter moon, if you are on the Moon, you are going to be looking back and seeing a crescent Earth. So the time we are there, a 13 day flight, we were on the Moon 3 days and around it for 4 more, the phase of the Earth like the phase of the Moon progresses and less and less of the Earth was in sunlight. But it is always there. And I guess that is the most memorable experience I have ever had indelibly etched in my mind is looking back at the beauty of the Earth. And I think more than the first steps to me were the last steps. I knew Apollo 17 was the last flight to the Moon. I knew I was going to be the last guy to leave my footprints there. And when I started up the ladder on that last day and got 3 or 4 steps up the ladder and I looked down, unfortunately I did not have a camera with me. I had already discarded it. And I looked down at my final footprint on the surface of the Moon – I told myself I wasn’t coming back this way again. It is not like going to my grandparents’ farm every summer wishing I could stay but knowing I was coming back. I wished I could stay but in this case, I knew once I left, I was not coming this way again. Somebody would but not me. And I would look over my shoulder and I would see that Earth which is so penetrating. It is the only color. It is surrounded by that blackness, that infiniteness, that endlessness of space and time. Not like a multicolor picture painted on a black background but three-dimensional. It is like if my arm were long enough, I could reach out and bring the Earth back and take it home with me and show it to you, show it to everybody. Here is what it looks like.
And that is when I wanted to stop the clock. That is when I wanted to freeze time. I wanted time to try and understand the meaning of where I had been, what the last 3 days of my life meant to me, meant to you, and to everybody else, where I was in this cosmic universe and in this thing called time which we pass through on a daily basis. I don’t mean to get too philosophical, and that is when I hope subconsciously I could bring home more with me than I could comprehend consciously. I just wanted to stop, stop and see if my mind, see if I was capable of understanding and realizing where I was, a quarter million miles out in space. And I came to the conclusion that, you know, I have been sitting on God’s front porch for the last 3 days of my life looking back home at the small part of the universe that he created. It is not meant to be a religious statement. Spiritual, perhaps. But looking at the Earth, there is too much purpose, too much logic, it does not tumble through space, it does not move aimlessly, and it is far too beautiful to have happened by accident. I can promise you there is somebody bigger than you, bigger than me, bigger than all of us who put this small part of the universe together, at least the part that I was privileged to see. There is a God. I don’t care how you dress him, by what name you call him or how you worship him – there is a single God above all relations. I believe that very strongly. I was witness. I sat on that porch, I sat on that front porch and looked back at what he did, what he gave us to do with what we want. I am passionate about that. I have been to the Moon twice. I had a chance even though I did not land the first time, to challenge that feeling from that distance looking back at the Earth and my feelings were just reinforced after having been on the Moon for that length of time.
So I could not stop the clock. I went up the ladder and almost closed a chapter of my life because we were not off the surface of the Moon yet. We still had a big technological challenge ahead of us just getting off the Moon. Now we only had one engine, we only had one set of propeller takes (sp??). There was only one way. I mean, coming down and landing . . . if we had a way, if we had to abort to a point, we could have gotten out of there but now, you know, when you shut down that Lunar Module after you land, you shut down the computer, you shut down everything except the environment control system, the oxygen system. You shut it down. Everything goes belly up. And it is like, you know, on a cold winter morning in Chicago as a kid, 3 days later, getting in the car wondering whether it is going to start. Well, we had to power it all up. We had to get the computer up. We had to get the inertial platform up. Most people do not know – the ground practice from here in Houston, well, from all over the world but the big, gigantic computers, fit in this room in the basement of Johnson Space Center. Now today, you have more computing power in your cell phone than I had in both of my hands to land on the surface of the Moon. That is amazing. They tracked us but we used the stars. Just like Columbus, we used the stars to navigate to the Moon. And when we were on the surface of the Moon to tell our computer and our navigation system where we were, we had to find stars and say, this is Antares and this is Rigel or this is whatever. So we had to tell this high tech system where we were before it could help us get off the Moon. And so, people say when I look at the Moon today, when I look at the sky, how do I feel, what do I think? It is home. I look at the stars – they are home. I have been there. I know what they are. I look at the Moon and I could take myself back there almost instantaneously in thought. And so, getting off the surface was a big thing and once we started that engine and we lifted off, we lifted off very rapidly – we had to burn, in our particular mission – they were all pretty close to this but all different – 7 minutes and 14 seconds. To give you an idea of how close the margins are, if we burn 7 minutes and 7 seconds or less, we were going to come back down on the Moon. If the engine shut down at 1 minute, you were going to go up and come down. If it shut at 6 minutes, you were going to go around 3 or 4 times but you were coming back down. So it had to burn 7 minutes and 7 seconds and if it burned that long, you had small little rockets you could make up the extra 7 seconds. Fortunately, it burned exactly 7 minutes and 14 seconds and to keep us from going in orbit around the sun, I backed up the computer and shut it down. But when I mention computer, we use computers as an aid, not a crutch. When I landed on the Moon, I flew on the Moon. I used the information the computer gave me, the landing radar gave me. When we left the surface of the Moon, we used the computers as an aid, not a crutch. The human being was built into our system to get us to the Moon. Without a human being, we could not have done it, at least not in Apollo. Not the way we wanted to do it.
DG: Pilots, and especially Navy pilots.
GC: Well, we did have a little switch in there that set off. When it came time to just, before the 200 feet on down, we could have switched to auto and let the computer land you where it thought it should have. There is not one guy who landed on the Moon with that switch in auto. Do you think we are going to go all that way and not land on the Moon? You know, you’ve got to have a little ego. Not egotism. You’ve got to be a little arrogant. By arrogant, I mean you have to know you can do the job as good or better than it has ever been done before, or get out. Don’t do it. Stay home.
DG: In that moment when you are standing on the Moon as a Navy pilot, as an American astronaut, really as a citizen of the world . . .
GC: Human being. Just a human being.
DG: . . . everyone is there with you. That is probably something that would be foreign to people now – the ability to inspire that kind of coming together, that kind of universal support.
GC: Everybody there in those days not only knew who was on the next mission, who was on the last mission, who was on the next mission – they knew them by name, they identified with them in one way or another, they watched, kids got out of school, watched everything that was going on. Even today, I meet a lot of people in this younger generation who weren’t born . . . they identify with what we did because their grandfather or their uncle built a heat shield, he did the software . . . “My dad built the Apollo spacecraft.” Well, there are thousands of people who built the Apollos but that person wants to identify or, “I know exactly where I was when you launched Apollo 17. You were the only night launch. I remember where I was when I saw it.” People want to identify, even if they were not born, want an identity, want to be part of something that is a special part of our history, and that is something we owe them while we are alive. One of the greatest rewards is to share some of those feelings and thoughts with other people. I only wrote the book because I was urged to do it, wanted my grandkids to know someday who or what their Poppy did and you know, someday . . . I am not sure even sure any of them . . . the oldest is 16 – I am not sure she has read it yet.
DG: Those days certainly put Houston on the map, this being a Houston project. You could arguably say that Houston became known worldwide as the . . . whether it was those words, “Houston, we have a problem” . . .
GC: Well, you know, Neal said, “Houston. The Eagle has landed.” That was the first landing. I said, “Houston, the Challenger had landed.” Not very unique. “Houston, we have a problem.” We had a little tape recorder on board and on the way up, we played Frank Sinatra, Up Up and Away in My Beautiful Balloon, and Dean Martin’s “Fly Me To The Moon.” And then, I remember, Dean Martin . . . on the way home, we played “Going Back to Houston, Houston,” and we played “Galveston.” You know, Houston is an historical part of the Space Program. You know, I talked about Texas being proud – Houston can be proud that it played a significant role, a significant role, and was our home, quite frankly, home not just to NASA but our home where we grew up, where we raised our kids, played a major, major role in the evolution of the Apollo program.
DG: Yes, I think the citizens of Houston were certainly proud of the astronauts and the program among our citizens, among our family, as something to be proud of for everyone who lived here and for every American. I want to close with something maybe to ask you to get philosophical one more time. You had a terrific line in the book, although it was early when you were talking about the 1960s, and you said, “In a time of brewing trouble, a simultaneous need grew for heroes who could be keepers of the faith and bearers of the flame. As new astronauts, we did not realize it but that would be us.” Well, certainly every time, every generation has had its troubles but as the Space Program has sort of taken a back seat, it has become sort of not worth getting out of school and not pay that much attention to. Where do the heroes come from? Where does the role that the astronauts served come from now?
GC: Well, you know, we did not get in the Program to be heroes. We did not know we were going to be heroes. We are not sure we are heroes although we know we did something different. I just want to emphasize: We just were given an opportunity for something that, you know, opportunity is opportunity is opportunity and you take advantage of it and you find yourself on the Moon if you do it right and if you are committed to it. Today, the Space Program has changed drastically. You can walk the streets of Chicago or the trails of Casper, Wyoming and nobody knows not only how many people are on a space station but they do not know the name of anybody, and I don’t either. I don’t either. We have a flight going up this month. The reason I know who the commander is is because he grew up in the same hometown – Bellwood, Illinois, near Chicago, that I grew up in. But the rest of them, I don’t know. What their mission is, I don’t know. We will watch the shuttle launch if the news media decides to cover it and it is gone -- they are gone for 8, 10, 12, 14 days. We are not sure what they are doing. The evolution of science is significant and, you know, some day, we will find a cure to cancer, some day, we will be able to build crystals that do wonderful things in space that we have never figured out how to do in Earth gravity. But it is not exciting to anybody quite frankly. It does not turn kids on. The legacy, the real legacy of the Wright Brothers is not the fact that we can fly around the world faster or higher or farther than ever before or would they have ever dreamed of that when they launched the Kitty Hawk in 1903? No, not a bit. Their legacy is the inspiration that they provided for all of us dreamers who followed in their footsteps. The inspiration to dream the impossible and then go out and make it happen – aviation and space is a romance and we have to take advantage of that. And one of the most important contributions to the Space Program over the years has been to education. If you can get a kid’s attention, make learning fun, you can teach them anything. And space and aviation is fun. Why did we see fathers with their 2-year-old boys and girls on their shoulders in October watching Wings Over Houston, watching the Air Show in cities big and small all over the country? Why did everybody know who John Glenn was and Neal Armstrong and all those guys in those early days? Because it was exciting and fascinating and they were doing what could not be done. They were doing the impossible.
Today, what we are doing is sort of ho-hum. Important. We get some of the sharpest young men and women down at NASA who are flying in the shuttle and flying in the space station. Some of the sharpest in the world. But what they are doing is not exciting to their little brothers and sisters, other than getting in a shuttle and going to space. And then, what is next? Where do we go now, Columbus? And that is the attitude after Apollo. You know, we’ve been to the Moon – where now, Columbus? I am a strong advocate of going back to the Moon and on to Mars. I think the educational impact of giving that grammar school generation the opportunity to dream, to do once again what no one thought they could do . . . “Why can’t I be one of those, Daddy?” “Why can’t I do that?” “Why can’t I go there?” I have addressed – I have talked to those kids all the way through high school. The educational impact on that is phenomenal. If we turn our backs on going back to the Moon and on to Mars, educationally, we are going to suffer for it and what we don’t do today, somebody else will do tomorrow. There is just no question in my mind. And that is why, that, if for no other reason, is why I think the Space Program, particularly the romantic part of it, is worthwhile. The ho-hum part of it is wonderful, it is great. That supposedly some day is going to bring great return for the effort and money expended, you know. And when you talk about money expended, why does it cost so much money? It costs every taxpayer in this country one penny, less than one penny out of our tax dollars for the entire Space Program. One penny out of every dollar we pay the federal government in income tax goes to space. Since you dated this interview, we are talking today about spending a trillion, hundreds of billions of dollars on things that have little or no return. We have to make a vested investment in the future of this country, and space is an investment in technology, it is an investment in education, it is an investment in learning something about the unknown – who we are, where we are, where we have been, where we are going. It is the future of the country. And the world has become so much smaller because of space. We turn on the television – we might be watching the Pope in Rome or the Olympics in China that quick. We can navigate around the world because of space satellites. We can talk to someone in Switzerland on our computer. So the world has become smaller. So where we go from here, we are going to do it together. And it is important that we share a major leadership role in where this world goes from here. I have always said if I could have taken every human being in the world and stand them alongside me on the surface of the Moon or even better than that, sit alongside me on God’s front porch when I look back home at the Earth, at our planet, at our stars in the heavens – then I think the world would truly be a different place to live today. Now, that is not possible and I am a realist because things aren’t quite that way but we have to continue to look in that direction.
DG: Captain Cernan, thank you for your time. I appreciate it very much.
GC: My pleasure.