c.2019 New York Times News Service
Soon we will recognize the 50th anniversary of the first humans to walk on the moon.
We remember and celebrate the heroism of the Apollo 11 crew: the humility of Neil Armstrong making those first bootprints; the cool bravado of Buzz Aldrin during the critical moments of the Eagle lander’s final descent; and the lonely vigil of Michael Collins in orbit above his mates, waiting to bring them back home.
But we also need to celebrate the many pathfinders who made this historic mission possible. Among the most critical were the crew of Apollo 10, who were asked to perform a full dress rehearsal of the Apollo 11 mission just two months beforehand. Mission commander Thomas P. Stafford; John W. Young, the command module pilot; and Eugene A. Cernan, lunar module pilot, did almost everything that Aldrin, Armstrong and Collins did, but they stopped just before landing on the moon.
Imagine if Ferdinand and Isabella had sent a ship to the New World in 1491 and asked its captain and crew to find new lands to the west without getting out of the ship to set foot on them, because the next captain and crew were scheduled to do that in 1492.
Or picture President Thomas Jefferson sending a party to scout passage to the Pacific Ocean in 1803, then saying, “Don’t touch a thing — because Lewis and Clark are scheduled to do that the following year.”
It seems unfathomable, to go all that way, to take all of those risks and then pull back, not grabbing the brass ring and reaping the rewards. In a sense, though, those were the instructions, and that was the burden borne by Apollo 10’s relatively unheralded crew 50 years ago this month.
It would be the first time the moon lander was flown in the environment for which it was built. All of the risks that they would take to test the equipment and procedures — launching; Earth-orbital docking; the three-day Earth-to-Moon cruise; lunar orbit undocking; descent of the lander, nicknamed Snoopy, almost to the surface; reascending and redocking; three more days back to Earth; then a Pacific Ocean splashdown — were the same risks the Apollo 11 crew would have to take, with one distinction. A moon landing was not to be.
They executed the rehearsal flawlessly. While Young circled above them in the command and service module, nicknamed Charlie Brown, Stafford and Cernan undocked for their descent toward the landing site in the smooth, dark volcanic plains of the Sea of Tranquility.
“You’ll never know how big this thing is when there ain’t nobody in here but one guy,” Young told his departing friends from his lonely outpost. As they began to fall toward the surface, Cernan quipped back, “You’ll never know how small it looks when you’re as far away as we are.”
They would eventually guide the lander to within only about 47,000 feet above the surface — close enough to test the landing radar and around the same maximum altitude of commercial aircraft above Earth’s surface. While relaying their reactions and perspective back to Young aboard Charlie Brown, Cernan called out: “Oh, Charlie! We just saw Earthrise, and it’s got to be magnificent!”
What ran through their minds when the command finally came from Houston to fire the ascent engine and head back up? It must have been so tempting to go for a landing. Cernan was wistful: “The spacecraft is looking good and there are no problems, Charlie, except it would be nice to be around here more often. …”
But Snoopy didn’t have enough fuel to land on the moon and then blast off again. According to Craig Nelson, author of the book “Rocket Men,” Cernan speculated that the lander’s ascent module had been short-fueled on purpose: “A lot of people thought about the kind of people we were, ‘Don’t give those guys an opportunity to land, ’cause they might!’ ”
Two months later as the entire world looked on, human footsteps were at last emblazoned on the dusty surface of the moon by Neil and Buzz.