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Profiles in Badassery: Gene Cernan

Gene Cernan just after walking on the moon. "Let's get this mother out of here!"
Gene Cernan just after walking on the moon. "Let's get this mother out of here!"

The unfortunate circumstances of last week are no more. The good name of the Profile in Badassery was not officially sullied because that crappy Samsung Moment post was not included in that section. After a two week break we return to the Profile in Badassery by bestowing the honor upon Purdue's second moon-walker: Gene Cernan.

If NASA had a frequent flyer miles program, Gene Cernan would be one of their top earners. Along with Jim Lovell and John Young, Cernan has traveled into lunar orbit twice. On Apollo 10 he was the lunar module pilot that served as a dress rehearsal for Neil Armstrong's Apollo 11 landing. He then set foot on the moon as part of Apollo 17. The last set of human footprints on the moon belong to him, just as the first set of footprints belong to Purdue alum Armstrong. It is unknown if Cernan said, "Dasvidaniya, bitches," as he left the lunar surface just as Neil should have said, "Suck it, you Commie bastards," but it was his Purdue education that helped him get there.

Early life

Cernan was born on March 14, 1934 in Chicago. He is a graduate of Proviso East High School in Maywood, which led to his enrollment at Purdue. He grew up in a predominantly African American neighborhood and always dreamed of becoming a pilot. The Korean War was going on while he was in high school, but instead of being called to serve he was able to keep his sights on college. He enrolled at Purdue after he found out MIT was too expensive.

While at Purdue, Cernan became a member of Phi Delta Gamma while majoring in Electrical Engineering. He received his degree in 1956 and joined the Navy after graduation. This came from his time as a member of the Naval ROTC at Purdue, where he also learned to fly jets. He would later earn a Masters in Aeronautical Engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School.

Cernan almost got into flying by accident. When he joined the Navy, the aviator's commitment jumped up from a minimum of three to five years. Since he wasn't married yet, he stayed around and was basically drafted into flight service. He served a tour of duty int he Western Pacific, flying fighter jets off of an aircraft carrier during the height of the Cold War. This guy was Top Gun before Tom Cruise was crapping in his pants.

Time with NASA

By 1963 Gene was bored with the usual danger of being a jet pilot during the height of international tension with the threat of Nuclear War. Remember, mankind hadn't exactly perfected jet technology yet. There were still problem. When his five year stint with the Navy was over he was intrigued by President Kennedy's famous challenge to go to the moon. He met the minimum physical requirements, and the Navy recommended him despite not being a test pilot. 

"About 400 people walked into the Rice Hotel in Houston. I like to think there were 400 of the finest, best test pilots in the world in that room-and me." - Gene Cernan

As a result, he would spend time in the Gemini program that was a major buildup to Apollo, as well as the Apollo program itself. He was selected as part of the NASA's third group of astronauts. This group of fourteen astronauts was shrouded with peril. Four of the 14 astronauts in group three died before ever having a chance to go into space. The surviving 10 all survived to fly on Apollo missions, with three walking on the moon. Roger Chaffee would perish in the Apollo I fire that claimed Purdue alum Gus Grissom. Ted Freeman was killed in a jet trainer crash in 1964 before being chosen for any NASA flight. Clifton Williams also died in a plane crash, along with Charles Bassett.

Cernan and David Scott were the only members of the group to go into space three times. Cernan's first mission was Gemini 9. The original crew of Bassett and Elliott See were killed in a plane crash four months before the, mission, making Cernan and Tom Stafford the primary crew. They had two primary objectives of docking with an unmanned Agena target vehicle and a spacewalk. The docking was unsuccessful because of problems with the target vehicle, and Cernan's two hour spacewalk was difficult. On this spacewalk he tested the first Manned Maneuvering Unit, a predecessor to today's units. Unfortunately, he had severe overheating problems with his space suit and nearly died. This is only a minor problem for true badasses, even though he did call it the spacewalk from hell.

he was only the third person ever to take a spacewalk, and his time of more than two hours was almost four times longer than the previous two spacewalks combined. He had problems moving in zero gravity, as well as problems with fogging of his visor. Once back in the spacecraft, his suit expanded so much until the cabin was repressurized that he could barely fit into his seat.

Apollo program

Cernan's next flight would serve as a dress rehearsal for the original moon landing. Gene served as the lunar module pilot on Apollo 10. This mission as notable as Apollo 10 achieved the highest speed attained by a manned vehicle at roughly 24,791 miles per hour. It reached this speed on its return from the moon, but it is hardly the speed of light.

Apollo 10 descended within nine miles of the lunar surface as a practice for the actual moon landing two months later. Cernan, who is a bit of a wiseacre, talked about the mission int his way:

"A lot of people thought about the kind of people we were: 'Don't give those guys an opportunity to land, 'cause they might!' So the ascent module, the part we lifted off the lunar surface with, was short-fueled. The fuel tanks weren't full. So had we literally tried to land on the moon, we couldn't have gotten off." - Gene Cernan

It was an incredibly smooth mission, paving the way for Neil to take one small step on Apollo 11. It also set the stage for Apollo 17, which, to this date, was the last manned mission to the moon. Cernan and Harrison Schmitt landed on December 11, 1972. The pair performed three EVAs on the lunar surface, accounting for nearly 23 hours of activity on the surface. He pimped out on the lunar surface with the lunar rover, riding around with a system on 24's Allegedly, when leaving the lunar surface, Cernan said, "Let's get this mother out of here", which is almost as good as "das vidaniya, bitches." Instead, he gave this moving speech:

"As I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come - but we believe not too long into the future - I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record - that America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17." - Gene Cernan

As another fitting tribute, he etched his daughter's initials on the lunar surface as well.

Life after NASA

Like many other astronauts, Cernan went into private business after walking on the moon. He has written a book about his life, and currently is available to be booked for speaking engagements. Unlike Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan has a very dry sense of humor and is not afraid to share it. His remarks about wanting to land during Apollo 10 represent that. The fact he even thought about it when it wasn't part of the mission also lend credence to his badass status.

He returned to campus three years ago to speak at the dedication of the Neil Armstrong Hall of Engineering. He also continues to champion the cause of space flight, and is pushing for NASA to continue Project Constellation, or at least a variant of it, to return to the moon as soon as possible. As much as he cherishes being the last man on the moon, he doesn't want to be the last one ever.

Only 12 men have walked on the moon. Two of them, the first and the last, belong to Purdue University. That would be enough to dictate a Profile in Badassery for Gene Cernan. The fact that he flew combat aircraft and also went into space two other times only adds to his resume. I am proud that he is a fellow alum. Unlike me, he is definitely a true badass of epic proportions.