Gene Cernan never knew about the plan NASA approved to cut him loose in space—or at least he didn’t know about it at the time. When Cernan, who died today at age 82, did learn about it, long after any danger had passed, he could only laugh. It didn’t matter what NASA’s secret plans were, he’d have flown anyway.
It was in June of 1966, as he and Tom Stafford were heading to the launch pad to take off aboard Gemini 9, that Stafford—but not Cernan—learned of the plan. Stafford was the commander of the mission—the man who would sit in the left-hand seat of the spacecraft. Cernan was the second in command of the two-man crew, but his subordinate position carried one important perk: the man in the right hand seat was the one who would perform any spacewalks, while the commander stayed inside and tended to the ship.
Spacewalks, however—then and forever—were dangerous things. There was no certainty that an astronaut who ventured outside of a Gemini spacecraft would be able to climb back inside again—all manner of problems from a breakdown in life-support systems to a snaring of the long umbilical cord connecting him to the ship potentially making it impossible. So, shortly before the two men rode the gantry elevator to the top of the rocket on launch day, Deke Slayton, the chief astronaut, pulled Stafford aside and told him that in an emergency like that, he was to do everything he could to save his crew mate but if it all failed, he was to cut him loose, seal the hatch and fly home alone. In the cold mortal math of space travel, it was better to lose one man than two.Read More...
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