Saturday, June 30, 2012

Apollo 10: The Last Long Light of A Different Day

By Patrick J. Walsh

In the Spring of 1969, America had a new President. After narrowly defeating Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon was settling into the first few months of his first term in the Oval Office.

At the time, the number of U.S. troops engaged in the Vietnam War was 540,000 — the highest level it would reach during the entire course of the conflict.

And as the last vestige of winter withered away in the Northeastern United States and the tentative warmth of spring made its first appearance, I was only just beginning to become aware of the activities of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which at that time was making its final preparations to send the crew of Apollo 10 a quarter million miles into space, to the very edge of the Moon.

Reflecting on those days now, I find it striking that in the course of a lifetime, and in the long pull of history, there are moments that are freighted with the indelible importance of personal experience.

There are those tragic moments -- such as the assassination of President Kennedy, or the Apollo1 fire, to name two examples from the context of the space program -- that remain etched on the granite stone of shared memories with a certain stoic emptiness of grief.

And there are those times of elation — as when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made the first landing on the Moon — that are so widely shared and deeply held as to become touchstones of the collective experience.

The journey to that moment — the moment when the Eagle lunar module settled onto the surface of the Moon in July, 1969 — reached its penultimate milestone with Apollo 10.

Designed as an ‘end-to-end’ test of everything necessary to a lunar landing, except for the landing itself, Apollo 10 launched May 18, 1969. The flight was commanded by Tom Stafford, whose crew consisted of command module pilot John Young and lunar module pilot Eugene Cernan.

In the course of testing the procedures, vehicles, systems and equipment necessary to the later landing missions, the Apollo 10 crew became just the second group of human beings to orbit the Moon (the crew of Apollo 8 had been first, in December, 1968).

Then, when they separated the Apollo 10 lunar module from the combined command and service modules, Stafford and Cernan became the first astronauts to operate an Apollo lunar module in lunar orbit.

Apollo 10 lunar module pilot Eugene Cernan. NASA photo.
In a nod to the Apollo program's place in popular culture, the Apollo 10 lunar module
was dubbed "Snoopy," in honor of the beloved character from the Charles Schulz
comic strip Peanuts. The command module was given the call sign “Charlie Brown.”
In their tiny spacecraft some 47,000 feet above the lunar surface, Stafford and Cernan were just a shadow away from landing on the Moon.

But that moment would wait. Apollo 10 was, ultimately, designed to be overshadowed by other missions that would mark the history books with the manifestations of a new era.

In that later day, John Young would return to the lunar neighborhood and would land, and walk on the surface, as commander of Apollo 16 in April, 1972.

Eugene Cernan would land on the Moon as commander of Apollo 17 in December, 1972. He would explore amid the lunar dust and in a moment of particular poignancy, he would be the last of the Apollo lunar explorers to leave the surface, as the first phase of lunar exploration came to a close.

And Tom Stafford would, in July, 1975, preside over the final flight of the Apollo program, as commander of the American portion of the unique cooperative spaceflight of the Cold War era, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

But in that Spring of 1969, even as the prospect of those future milestones that would define the Apollo program drew closer, all those moments were still somewhere farther down the road.

And at that moment, as my little part of the world felt the promise of those first warm days of Spring, the crew of Apollo 10 was busy preparing the way to the Moon, dutifully ensuring all that was necessary for all that was yet to come...

© 2012 Patrick J. Walsh

From the video series Five Minutes in Space
Learn more about these important steps on the way to the Moon:

Apollo 10: Within A Shadow of the Moon

Apollo 1: The First Team

Freedom 7: Fifteen Minutes That Changed the World