Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan, last man to walk on the moon dies at 82


U.S. astronaut Gene Cernan, who as the commander of the final Apollo lunar landing mission in 1972 became known as the “last man on the moon,” died on Monday (Jan. 16). He was 82.

NASA confirmed Cernan’s death on its website and social media channels, noting he was surrounded by his family at the time he died. The cause of death was not stated, but he was known to have been ill in recent months.

“We are saddened by the loss of retired NASA astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon,” NASA wrote. “A captain in the U.S. Navy, [he] left his mark on the history of exploration by flying three times in space, twice to the moon.” [In Pictures: Astronaut Eugene Cernan Remembered]

Cernan was chosen with NASA’s third group of astronauts in 1963. His first spaceflight, Gemini 9A, came three years later, after he and Thomas Stafford replaced Elliot See and Charles Bassett in the wake of a jet crash that claimed the original crew members’ lives.

As the pilot of NASA’s seventh Gemini Flight — a three-day mission in Earth orbit that rendezvoused but failed to dock with an unmanned target vehicle, Cernan became only the second American astronaut to go out on an extra-vehicular activity (EVA). The two-hour spacewalk though, nearly cost him his life.

Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan, seen here aboard the lunar module on the moon in 1972, died on Jan. 16, 2017. He was 82. Credit: NASA

‘Spacewalk from hell’

“So, you know about that spacewalk from hell,” remarked Cernan in a 2007 NASA interview, referring to his Gemini 9 EVA on June 5, 1966.

Finding it difficult to bend wearing a pressurized spacesuit, Cernan struggled to maneuver outside the two-seat space capsule, tumbling uncontrollably while trailing an umbilical. Lacking the handrails that would become common on later spacecraft, Cernan slowly climbed to the aft of the Gemini to don and test the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit (AMU), an early predecessor to the jetpacks astronauts demonstrated in the years to come.

Cernan’s AMU flight, however, was not to be. The cooling system for his spacesuit overheated, causing his helmet’s faceplate to fog. With no way to wipe it clear, he could not see. Exhausted and practically blind, Cernan managed to find his way back to his seat and, with Stafford’s help, re-entered the spacecraft.

After orbiting the Earth 47 times during the course of their three days in space, Cernan and Stafford splashed down safely to be recovered by the USS Wasp aircraft carrier on June 6, 1966. [NASA’s 17 Apollo Moon Missions in Pictures]

Gene Cernan seen becoming only the second American to conduct a spacewalk during the Gemini 9A mission in June 1966. Credit: NASA

‘White line in the sky’

The Gemini 9 crewmates re-teamed three years later — this time with a third astronaut, John Young — to launch on a dress rehearsal for the first moon landing on May 18, 1969. As lunar module pilot aboard Apollo 10, Cernan and Stafford flew the four-legged lander named “Snoopy” to an altitude of just 8.4 miles (15.6 kilometers) above the moon, the point where the next crew would descend to a landing.

“I keep telling Neil Armstrong that we painted that white line in the sky all the way to the moon down to 47,000 feet so he would not get lost, and all he had to do was land,” Cernan said in his NASA oral history. “Made it sort of easy for him.”

Again though, Cernan skirted disaster. After jettisoning the descent stage and igniting the ascent engine to return to the command module “Charlie Brown,” the lunar module unexpectedly began to turn and roll, a situation that could have led to the Cernan and Stafford crashing to the moon. The two astronauts had accidentally left the lander’s abort mode in “auto” for staging. Stafford was able to take over manual control and regained the proper attitude. [Watch – Moon Shots: Astronauts Remember]

The three Apollo 10 crewmates safely splashed down on May 26, 1969, eight days after they left Earth for the moon.

Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, seen on the lunar surface in December 1972. Credit: NASA

‘America’s challenge of today’

Only 24 people in history have voyaged to the moon and only three of them have flown there twice: Jim Lovell, John Young and Cernan.

But Cernan had to survive one more near-death incident before he could launch on his third and what was perhaps his most historic spaceflight.

On Jan. 23, 1971, Cernan was flying a Bell 47G helicopter as part of his training for landing on the moon, when he dipped too low and crashed into the Indian River at Cape Canaveral, nearly drowning. He walked away with second degree burns on his face and singed hair, and came close to being grounded by NASA.

NASA’s last crewed mission to the moon however, lifted off on the first U.S. night launch on Dec. 7, 1972, with Cernan in the commander’s seat. Four days later, he and Harrison Schmitt landed the Apollo 17 lunar module, Challenger, in the moon’s Taurus-Littrow valley, as Ron Evans orbited on board the command module, America.

Over the course of three moonwalks, Cernan and Schmitt, the latter the only geologist to visit the moon, collected 741 rock and soil samples, including the only orange volcanic glass to be returned to Earth and the “goodwill moon rock” presented on behalf of the U.S. to more than 130 nations around the world. The Apollo 17 moonwalkers became the last to drive the lunar roving vehicle (LRV) and set several records, including one for the longest time spent outside on the moon’s surface (22 hours and 6 minutes).

“America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow,” said Cernan before launching for Earth. “As we leave the moon and Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came, and, God willing, we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”

On their way to the moon, Cernan and his crewmates captured the first photo of Earth’s face fully illuminated, a now iconic image referred to by some as the “Blue Marble.”

The three astronauts splashed down on Dec. 19, 1972, for a mission duration of 12 days, 13 hours and 51 minutes.

In total, Cernan logged 23 days, 14 hours and 15 minutes in space, including more than 24 hours on one spacewalk and three moonwalks.

‘Last Man on the Moon’

Eugene Andrew “Gene” Cernan was born in Chicago, Ill., on March 14, 1934. He earned his bachelor of science in electrical engineering from Purdue University in Indiana in 1956 and a master of science in aeronautical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in California in 1963.

Commissioned in the Navy through the ROTC program at Purdue, he entered flight training upon graduation. Serving as a Naval Aviator for 13 years, Capt. Cernan retired from the Navy having logged more than 5,000 hours flying time, including 4,800 hours in jets and over 200 carrier landings.

Before retiring from NASA in 1976, Cernan assisted in the planning for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), serving as the senior negotiator in direct discussion with the former Soviet Union in support of the historic joint mission.

Initially joining Coral Petroleum of Houston as an executive vice president, Cernan established his own company, The Cernan Corporation, in 1981 to provide consulting services for energy, aerospace and other related industries. He also served as chairman of the board for Johnson Engineering, prior to its acquisition by Spacehab (later Astrotech).

In 1999, Cernan published his memoir, “The Last Man on the Moon,” with coauthor Donald Davis, covering his naval and NASA career. The book later served as the basis for a feature-length documentary by the same title, directed by British filmmaker Mark Craig.

Cernan was married to Barbara Jean Atchley from 1961 to 1981, with whom he had a daughter, Tracy. In 1987, he re-married and with Jan Cernan had two daughters, Kelly and Danielle.

The recipient of multiple awards and honorary doctorates, Cernan was bestowed the Distinguished Flying Cross and NASA Distinguished Service Medal, among other honors. Cernan was inducted in the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 1993 and the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2000.

In 2016, he was presented the Neil Armstrong Outstanding Achievement Award by the National Aviation Hall of Fame, in part to honor his advocacy for “personal empowerment and development, especially among youth,” as well as his support for the revival of U.S. human space exploration.

“I’ve said for a long time [and] I still believe it, it’s going to be — well it’s almost 50 now — but fifty or a hundred years in the history of mankind before we look back and really understand the meaning of Apollo,” stated Cernan in 2007. “We did it way too early considering what we’re doing now in space.”

“It’s almost as if JFK [President John F. Kennedy] reached out into the 21st century where we are today, grabbed hold of a decade of time, slipped it neatly into the 60s and 70s and called it Apollo,” he said.

Explaining EmDrive, the ‘physics-defying’ thruster even NASA is puzzled over


Even if you don’t keep up with developments in space propulsion technology, you’ve still probably heard about the EmDrive by now. You’ve probably seen headlines declaring it as the key to interstellar travel, and claims that it will drastically reduce trips across our solar system, making our dreams of people walking on other planets even more of a reality. There have even been claims that this highly controversial technology is the key to creating warp drives.

These are bold claims, and as the great cosmologist and astrophysicist Carl Sagan once said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” With that in mind, we thought it’d be helpful to break down what we know about the enigmatic EmDrive, and whether or not it is, in fact, the key to mankind exploring the stars. So without further ado, here’s absolutely everything you need to know about the world’s most puzzling propulsion device.

What is the EmDrive?

See, the EmDrive is a conundrum. First designed in 2001 by aerospace engineer Roger Shawyer, the technology can summed up as a propellantless propulsion system, meaning that the engine doesn’t use fuel to cause a reaction. By removing the need for fuel, a craft would be substantially lighter, and therefore easier to move (and cheaper to make, theoretically). In addition, the hypothetical drive would also be able to reach extremely high speeds — we’re talking potentially getting humans to the outer reaches of the solar system in a matter of months.

The issue is, the entire concept of a reactionless drive is inconsistent with Newton’s conservation of momentum, which states that within a closed system, linear and angular momentum remain constant regardless of any changes that take place within said system. More plainly: Unless outside force is applied, an object will not move. Reactionless drives are named as such because they lack the “reaction” defined in Newton’s third law: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” But this goes against our current fundamental understanding of physics, as for an action (propulsion of a craft) to take place without a reaction (ignition of fuel and expulsion of mass) is impossible. In order for such a thing to occur, it would mean an as-yet-undefined phenomena is taking place, or our understanding of physics is completely wrong.

How does the EmDrive “work?”

Setting aside the potentially physics-breaking improbabilities the technology, let’s break down in simple terms how the proposed drive operates. The EmDrive is what is called an RF resonant cavity thruster, and is one of several hypothetical machines that use this model. These designs are said to work by having a magnetron push microwaves into a closed truncated cone, then push against the short end of the cone, and propel the craft forward. This is in contrast to the form of propulsion current spacecraft use, which instead burn large quantities of fuel to expel massive amount of energy and mass to rocket the craft into the air. An often-used metaphor for the inefficacy of this is to compare the particles pushing against the enclosure and producing thrust to the act of sitting in a car and pushing a steering wheel to move the car forward.

While tests have been done on experimental versions of the drive with low energy inputs produced very minimal, resulting in a few micronewtons of thrust (about as much force as the weight of a penny), none of the findings have ever been published in a peer-reviewed journal. That means that any and all purportedly positive test results, and the claims of those who have a vested interest in the technology, should be taken with a very big grain of skepticism-flavored salt. It’s likely that the thrust recorded was due to interference or an unaccounted error with equipment. Until the tests have been verified through the proper scientific and peer-reviewed processes, one can assume the drive does not yet work. Still, it’s interesting to note the number of people who have tested the drive and reported achieving thrust:

  • In 2001, Shawyer was given a £45,000 grant from the British government to test the EmDrive. His test was claimed to have achieved 0.016 Newtons of force and required 850 watts of power, but no peer review of the tests verified this. It’s worth noting, however, that this number was low enough it was potentially an experimental error.
  • In 2008, Yang Juan and a team of Chinese researches at the Northwestern Polytechnical University allegedly verified the theory behind RF resonant cavity thrusters, and subsequently built their own version in 2010, testing the drive multiple times from 2012-2014. Tests results were purportedly positive, achieving up yo 750 mN (micronewtons) of thrust, and requiring 2,500 watts of power.
  • In 2014, NASA researchers, tested their own version of an EmDrive, including in a hard vacuum. Once again, the group reported thrust (about 1/1000 of Shawyer’s claims), and once again, the data was never published through peer-reviewed sources. Other NASA groups are skeptical of researchers’ claims, but in their paper, it is clearly stated that these findings neither confirm or refute the drive, instead calling for further tests.
  • Most recently, in 2015, that same NASA group tested a version of chemical engineer Guido Fetta’s Cannae Drive (née Q Drive), and reported positive net thrust. Similarly, a research group at Dresden University of Technology also tested the drive, again reporting thrust, both predicted and unexpected.

Implications of a working EmDrive

From the sections above, it becomes easy to see how many in the scientific community are wary of EmDrive and RF resonant cavity thrusts altogether. But on the other hand, it raises a few questions: Why is there such a interest in the technology, and why do so many people wish to test it? What exactly are the claims being made about the drive that make it such an attractive idea? While everything from atmospheric temperature-controlling satellites, to safer and more efficient automobiles have been drummed up as potential applications for the drive, the real draw of the technology — and the impetus for its creation in the first place — is the implications for space travel.

Spacecraft equipped with a reactionless drive could potentially make it to the Moon in just a few hours; to Mars in two to three months; and to Pluto within two years. These are extremely bold claims, but if the EmDrive does turn out to be a legitimate technology, they may not be all that outlandish after all. And with no need to pack several tons-worth of fuel, spacecraft become cheaper and easier to produce, and far lighter. For NASA and other such organizations, including the numerous private space corporations like SpaceX, lightweight, affordable spacecraft that can travel to parts of space fast are something of a unicorn. Still, in order for that to become a reality, the science has to add up.

Shawyer is adamant that there is no need for pseudo science or quantum theories in order to explain how EmDrive works. Instead, he believes that current models of Newtonian physics offer an explanation, and has written papers on the subject, one of which is currently being peer reviewed. He expects the paper to be published sometime this year. While in the past Shawyer has been criticized by other scientists for incorrect and inconsistent science, if the paper does indeed get published, it may in fact begin to legitimize the EmDrive, and spur more testing and research.

Despite his insistence that the drive behaves within the laws of physics, it hasn’t prevented him from making bold assertions regarding EmDrive. Shawyer has gone on record saying that this new drive produced warp bubbles which allow the drive to move, claiming that this is how NASA’s test results were likely achieved. Assertions such as these have garnered much interest online, but have no clear supporting data and will (at the very least) require extensive testing and debate in order to be taken seriously by the scientific community — the majority of which remain skeptical of Shawyer’s claims.

Colin Johnston of the Armagh Planetarium wrote an extensive critique of the EmDrive and the inconclusive findings of numerous tests. Similarly, Corey S. Powell of Discovery wrote his own indictment of both Shawyer’s EmDrive and Fetta’s Cannae Drive, as well as the recent fervor over NASA’s findings. Both point out the need for greater discretion when reporting on such instances. Professor and mathematical physicist, John C. Baez expressed his exhaustion at the conceptual technology’s persistence in debates and discussions, calling the entire notion of a reactionless drive “baloney.” His impassioned dismissal echoes the sentiments of many others. Elsewhere, however, Shawyer’s EmDrive has been met with enthusiasm, including the website NASASpaceFlight.com, which is where the information about the most recent Eagleworks’ tests was first posted, and the New Scientist Journal, which published a favorable and optimistic paper on EmDrive. (New Scientist has gone on to make a statement that, despite their enduring excitement over the idea, they should have shown more tact when writing on the controversial subject).

Clearly, the EmDrive and RF resonant cavity thruster technology have a lot to prove. There’s no denying that the technology is an exciting thought, and that the number of “successful” tests are interesting, but one must keep in mind the physics preventing the EmDrive from gaining any traction, and the rather curious lack of peer-reviewed studies done on the subject. If the EmDrive is so groundbreaking (and works), surely people like Shawyer would be clamoring for peer-reviewed verification. A demonstrably working EmDrive could open up exciting possibilities for both space and terrestrial travel — not to mention call into question our entire understanding of physics. However, until that comes to pass, the EmDrive will remain as nothing more than science fiction.

Operation Paperclip


Operation Paperclip (originally Operation Overcast) (1949–1990) was the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) program in which over 1,500 German scientists, technicians, and engineers from Nazi Germany and other foreign countries were brought to the United States for employment in the aftermath of World War II.  It was conducted by the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency (JIOA), and in the context of the burgeoning Cold War. One purpose of Operation Paperclip was to deny German scientific expertise and knowledge to the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom, as well as inhibiting post-war Germany from redeveloping its military research capabilities. The Soviet Union had competing extraction programs known as “trophy brigades” and Operation Osoaviakhim.

Although the JIOA’s recruitment of German scientists began after the Allied victory in Europe on May 8, 1945, U.S. President Harry Truman did not formally order the execution of Operation Paperclip until August 1945. Truman’s order expressly excluded anyone found “to have been a member of the Nazi Party, and more than a nominal participant in its activities, or an active supporter of Nazi militarism”. However, those restrictions would have rendered ineligible most of the leading scientists the JIOA had identified for recruitment, among them rocket scientists Wernher von Braun, Kurt H. Debus and Arthur Rudolph, and the physician Hubertus Strughold, each earlier classified as a “menace to the security of the Allied Forces”.

To circumvent President Truman’s anti-Nazi order and the Allied Potsdam and Yalta agreements, the JIOA worked independently to create false employment and political biographies for the scientists. The JIOA also expunged from the public record the scientists’ Nazi Party memberships and régime affiliations. Once “bleached” of their Nazism, the scientists were granted security clearances by the U.S. government to work in the United States. Paperclip, the project’s operational name, derived from the paperclips used to attach the scientists’ new political personae to their “US Government Scientist” JIOA personnel files.