The Sick Man on the Moon
– Fit to travel to the Moon? 2
by David Orbell
Commander Eugene Cernan
Apollo 17, the last manned visit to the Moon, was launched on the 7th December 1972. By far the most ambitious and technically challenging of NASA's lunar missions, it also marked the last time that humans would leave the sanctuary of low Earth orbit. The crew consisted of Commander Eugene Cernan, Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans, and Lunar Module Pilot/Geologist Harrison Schmitt.
Gene Cernan recounts in his 2009 autobiography, an incident that occurred during September 1972, two months prior to the final lunar landing that he was to command aboard Apollo 17:
"A few weeks later (following a News conference on 28 August 1972) Chuck La Pinta, our Apollo 17 flight surgeon and a good guy, was poking around my body during a physical exam and discovered I had a prostate infection.
"Chuck was a medical anomaly, so he didn't run out, ring bells, alarm everybody, and report me as being unfit. Instead he told no one at all, but worked quietly to resolve the problem. 'We'll take care of it here,' my nonchalant doctor said with a deadpan expression, humourless eyes watching below the brim of the porkpie hat he always wore. I gladly agreed to be treated in secret, because I didn't want some manager to think I was anything less than a genuine, totally healthy astronaut.
"So I spent many a morning having my prostate digitally massaged by the flight surgeon, a very awkward position for a space hero.1 The experience was both embarrassing and a little degrading, but I was not going to let something like that keep me from going to the Moon."2
Mystifying as Gene Cernan’s relationship was with his medical co-conspirator, not to mention the logistics of allocating an additional timetable for secret medical therapy during peak mission training, other incredulous medical dramas were waiting in the wings.
In October 1972, less than two months before the launch of Apollo 17, Gene Cernan, seemingly with time on his hands from 'digital massage', and the myriad of duties involving his upcoming space flight, decided to engage in a game of softball and "slapped a line drive into the outfield." (A 'line drive' describes a batted ball hit so sharply that it flies low and fast, usually in a straight line.)
"I could almost hear something snap inside my leg as I rounded second base," he recalls. "It felt like a machete had chopped deep into my lower calf, and I hit the dirt with a roll and a scream of agony. Within sight of my Saturn rocket, and watched by most of our launch team, a tendon in my right leg had given way, and I lay there with my brain storming. Goddamn, what have I done?"3
Gene was carried from the field, with his "leg on fire and dangling as if it were about to fall off. I can't walk! If I can't walk they dammed sure won’t let me fly. I've blown it."
Chuck la Pinta was to come to Gene's rescue once again. He drove Gene to the infirmary. Following X-rays Chuck’s diagnosis was that Cernan had a severe stretch, "really hyperextended". He advised Gene that he had to "sit it out for maybe as long as two weeks". Furthermore, it was emphasised that whatever the outcome, he would have to use crutches for some considerable time.
"Geno we've got a serious injury here." He wrapped the leg tightly. "But I'm not officially grounding you because I think we can lick it. You work with me, take it slow for a few days, and I'll get you ready on time. Far as anyone else is concerned, I'll tell 'em it's no big deal."
Gene's response was "No big deal? If I can't walk how can I go to the Moon?"4
Chuck continued to downplay the episode when questioned by program "honchos". Gene describes Chuck as a "great doctor, a terrific liar, and an even better friend".
What an understatement!
If questioned now, one wonders how the two accomplices would account to NASA for jeopardising the most hazardous mission in the history of manned space exploration? Cernan goes on to describe hobbling around on crutches in front of the various Apollo personnel. He describes how Pinta lied and how he broke out in a sweat with the pain as he attempted to get into the bulky space suit during training.5
Gene quotes Deke Slayton, NASA's director of flight crew operations, asking Pinta: "What if he rips the tendon when he's on the Moon?" Incredulously Pinta advises Slayton not to worry! Deke's acquiescence to this abysmal advice would surely have led to a charge of criminal negligence should Cernan’s injurious condition have wrought catastrophe on the mission.
Gene Cernan describes how the flight surgeon was "massaging my rectum for the prostate and my leg for the tendon EVERY DAY keeping his mouth shut about both problems."6 These medical shenanigans took place only days from the launch of what was undoubtedly the most demanding and technically challenging expedition ever undertaken in the history of humankind.
Confirmation that Gene had not recovered by the day of the Apollo 17 launch is contained in his statement: "Chuck La Pinta and I grinned at each other as I squeezed my aching butt and sore leg into my space suit. When asked how I felt, I lied a little and he knew it."7
The final reference Gene makes to his mission jeopardising leg condition, occurred on the last Moon walk on the 13th December 1972. "The stretched tendon in my leg hurt with every step I took."8
Prior to the unfortunate timing of these medical challenges Gene had already experienced a near fatal accident.
Earlier in his NASA career on the 23rd January 1971, whilst piloting a H-13 Bell helicopter above the Indian river near the Kennedy Space Center, a classic example of what may be described as basic pilot error ensued. "Without realising the danger, I flew into a trap that was the plague of seaplane pilots. Without ripples, the water provided no depth perception and my eyes looked straight through the clear surface to the reflective river bottom ... I crashed with a spectacular explosion."9
Cernan had a miraculous escape, swimming through flames on the surface of the water that singed his eyebrows and face and caused him to swallow flames while gulping for air and at the same time sinking, because he had neglected to wear a Mae West life vest! Gene describes his salvation: "Out of nowhere came a small fishing craft with only one person aboard, a woman, she grabbed two handfuls of my soaking, yellow flight suit and helped wrestle me out of the drink."10
After being stitched up in hospital he eventually met with Deke Slayton who offered to put the incident down to engine failure. Gene claims to have refused this offer. "Like I said Deke, it didn't quit, I just screwed up." Slayton shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. "Well if that's the way you want it."
Gene believed he would lose his place in the Apollo crew rota, "Although unbelievable to many people, within forty eight hours I was back on flight status and ready to fly Apollo 14 if needed."11
Without a doubt, despite Earthly piloting deficiencies, Gene Cernan possessed attributes that were indispensable to the agenda that would conclude the Apollo program. Prostate glands, stretched tendons, let alone helicopter crashes wouldn’t deter the immortalisation of Eugene Cernan as ‘the last man on the Moon’.
Armed with this intimate in-depth knowledge of Gene's position during pre-flight preparation the reader may well adopt a more rigorous approach in questioning the contemporary record of Apollo as purveyed in NASA's extraordinary saga.
Even if he was accompanied by Mr Lucky himself, we can be forgiven for concluding that Gene's 'the Last Man on the Moon' epithet is more appropriately 'The Sick Man on the Moon'.
The Lucky Man
What is Moon dust made of? Harrison Schmitt, who was Gene Cernan’s partner on the lunar surface and the only geologist to participate in an Apollo mission gave out the bare facts when he stated that "Meteoroids hit the Moon, reducing rocks to jagged dust. It's a process of hammering and smashing."
34 years later NASA's Science News dated 30th January 2006 ironically titled The Mysterious Smell of Moondust filled in the detail: "Almost half is silicon dioxide glass created by meteoroids hitting the Moon. These impacts, which have been going on for billions of years, fuse topsoil into glass and shatter the same into tiny pieces."
Tiny pieces which were to have a major effect on the Apollo narrative, for despite the long-held public understanding that the Moon rocks were hermetically sealed in special containers to preserve their vacuum heredity, in that same article NASA sensationally reversed its previous historical testimony:
Astronauts took special Thermos containers to the Moon to hold the samples in a vacuum. But the JAGGED EDGES of the DUST unexpectedly CUT THE SEALS of the containers, allowing oxygen and water vapour to sneak in during the 3-day trip back to Earth. No one can say how much the dust was altered by that exposure. [emphasis added]
Harrison Schmitt would have unquestionably understood the potentially fatal consequences of frolicking on rock and glass shards putting himself a mere razor’s edge from oblivion. Yet despite this obvious danger, the logical Schmitt actually keelhauled his relatively vulnerable spacesuit over identical shards to those that destroyed the container seals. Moreover, by levering himself off the lunar surface he would have placed intense downward pressure on small portions of his suit thereby multiplying the risk of inducing puncturing. Identical examples of other astronauts enacting the same life-threatening procedures are to be found in the Apollo TV coverage, but not once did a fatality occur. One of many examples is shown in the YouTube segment: ‘Jack Schmitt is called 'Twinkletoes' from mission control’.
Listening to the carefree, jokey inflection of ground control it is no wonder that skeptics suspect that the astronauts were in fact on very safe ground. In reality, Schmitt should have horrified mission control whilst performing acrobatics on the lunar surface and perhaps the strangest aspect of this 'dust shard roulette' is undoubtedly a mission control that exuded a nonchalant, cavalier indifference to their operative’s potential demise from possible implosion.
The new admission that specimen containers’ seals were pierced by the jagged edges of the dust shards, is most illuminating. Not least because it demonstrates that NASA has been willing to withhold pertinent information from the public domain for at least 37 years, since the lunar surface would have supposedly revealed itself on the 1969 EVA; and it certainly explains why geologists seem to have lost interest in the Apollo rocks – most of the lunar rocks so gathered are still awaiting examination – unlike the public, were they already in the know? This 2006 explanation also attempted to deal with those critics finding discrepancies in the Apollo lunar regolith record.
As to geologist Schmitt's inner thoughts on the occasions when he reviews his vaudevillian antics as recorded during humankind’s most mysterious adventure, one can only speculate that he is probably most appreciative of the obsequious silence from the world's academic and media hierarchy.
With no speculation at all one can say that unquestionably, Harrison Schmitt is a very lucky man.
Aulis Online, August 2013
1. Once the most popular therapeutic manoeuvre used to treat prostatitis, it was abandoned as primary therapy in the 1960s. Vigorous prostate massage has been documented with occasional consequences that are injurious and life threatening. (Wikipedia)
2. The Last Man on the Moon Eugene Cernan and Don Davis. St Martin's Griffin, 2009 p.286
3. Ibid. P.287
4. Ibid. P.289
5. The reader is invited to watch the YouTube title 'James Burke and the Apollo A7L Spacesuit'. Mr Burke's comments, especially at the 4:00 mark are highly significant and surely justify a full study as to how even fully fit astronauts, unlike Cernan, could possibly suit and de-suit without multiple assistance given the documented limitations of room, being overwhelmed by acute fatigue, nappies (diapers) faeces, urine bags, heart monitors, and coated onto this inglorious cocktail – abrasive Moon dust.
Unlike James Burke, Cernan’s aforementioned difficulties would have been exacerbated to the extreme given the lack of essential leverage as indicated in Burke's clip.
6. The Last Man on the Moon Eugene Cernan and Don Davis, St Martin's Griffin, 2009 p.290
7. Ibid p.297
8. Ibid p.334
9. Ibid p.258
10. Ibid p.260
11. Ibid p.264