Meet a Moonwalker or Two
Only 12 men have walked on another world. As of 2006, only 9 of these men remain alive (Conrad, Irwin, and Shepard are deceased). The Apollo Moonwalkers are truly unique. Their celebrity provides you with opportunties to understand their remarkable lives. If you have even the briefest chance to meet one of them, or hear their stories, you'll be touching a living history of a rare and unique experience.
NASA Astronaut Biographies
The very first Moonwalker I ever saw "live and in person" was Charles M. (Charlie) Duke, Brigadier General, U.S. Air Force (Retired). It took place in 1985, when I was an Air Force officer trainee at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas (read more). At the time he was a Reserve officer, acting as deputy to the Training Center commander. He was a relative of a colleague of mine who was also entering the Air Force. Imagine the thrill of getting your new rank pinned-on by a Moonwalker! General Duke was the consumate storyteller and southern gentleman. I didn't see him again until the Apollo 11 anniversary celebration (discussed below), in 1999. More recently, I even traded email with him in 2005.
Gene-O (Update: 2006 Meeting)
I've had the honor of meeting the Most Recent Man on the Moon: Captain Eugene Cernan, U.S. Navy (Retired), Commander, Apollo 17. I highly recommend his 1999 book, "The Last Man on the Moon," it's an appropriately insightful, frank, and humorous look at his life. His Gemini IX EVA account alone is worth the read. Gene is an exemplary representative of "space culture," and more importantly, of the future we can still have - on the Moon - and elsewhere in the solar system. If you have the opportunity to see him speak - go out of your way to do so.
On a Florida summer day, we are inside the great hall of the Saturn Five Center. Here lies the greatest machine built by men, and across the shallow river sits a spacecraft named Columbia, which leaves for orbit in five days. Who could image her eventual fate? The lines of people seeking an audience with a Moonwalker wind furiously underneath the immense, suspended Saturn rocket. My wife and I must choose a queue. On our left is Mr. Homer Hickam, signing his splendid story of fulfilling dreams, "Rocket Boys." On our right is the man who piloted an odd little Grumman spacecraft to the Moon, and spent three days of glorious exploration.
Thus, 17 July 1999, I finally shook hands with a man who walked on the Moon. As I firmly clasp this man's hand, I realize he even had moondust under his fingernails for several weeks in 1972. His grip was as manly and solid as youd expect from someone whose forearms had been strengthened by flexing pressure suit gloves for quite a few years. He still plays a lot of golf. The solid physical contact was arrested very slightly by the autograph pen, as he turned for the obligatory photo op, and asked my wife if the photo came out alright. After years of waiting, all I could say to the first Apollo astronaut I ever touched was Thank you, Sir. (sigh) At least my parents taught me to be polite.
Now here is a really, really nice guy. I had the great privilege of talking a little while with the only professional artist to walk on the Moon, Captain Alan Bean, USN (Ret.), Lunar Module Pilot, Apollo 12. Hey, you have got to really dig a guy who puts a little moondust in his paintings. He was genuinely pleasant, chatted everyone up like an old friend, and took plenty of time to write personal notes. He thanked me for my service in the Air Force as he inscribed his photograph, which I later had made into a montage including one of his works. This encounter sure sounds like the characterizations in Andy Chaikin's "A Man on the Moon," and in HBO's From the Earth To The Moon series. Yes, he is definately a bit more of a sensitive soul than the typical naval aviator. He was still terribly saddened by the sudden loss of his best friend Pete Conrad in the motorcycle accident just a few weeks before we met. When I asked if he'd met the actor who portayed him in From the Earth To The Moon, he remarked how pleased he was with Dave Foley's characterization of him, noting a Canadian actor did a pretty fine Texan.
Oh, and I once made eye contact with Buzz Aldrin... Does that count? During the Apollo 11 30th Anniversary celebration described below, he was standing far offstage, waiting for his introduction. Everyone else was taking pictures of the astronauts already on stage, but Buzz noticed me aiming my camera way over to one side. He definately looked at me, and I smiled at him prior to taking another shot. I always wondered if his reaction meant anything - or what he might have been thinking. I don't know if after hundreds of thousands of hours of being a celebrity he was indifferent, complacent, pleased, angry, or none of these things. He is known to be an intense, spirited, and multi-talented sort of man. I hope to finally really meet him for a more accurate measure, someday.
A little more about that unique meeting opportunity one summer in 1999...
One really hot Florida day, in the outdoor courtyard of the magnificent Saturn Five Center, our favorite Apollo astronauts, the youngest aged 64 (Charlie Duke), the oldest aged 76 (Wally Schirra), came to tell some stories.
Under the awning, sitting above the sweltering international crowd, are men whove done everything Ive ever dreamed of doing. Emcee Homer Hickam is riding high on his own success as a NASA engineer turned popular author, and hes obviously delighted as he introduces each distinguished guest. Wally Schirra is looking pleasantly beefy as he tells his favorite potty-in-space story. Walt Cunningham is almost upstaged by his former commander, but these two Apollo 7 teammates are making the crowd happy. Charlie Duke, the aw-shucks South Carolinian, tells of both the sheer nerves and exhilaration of being the CAPCOM when men first landed on the moon, and the delight of saving his colleague T.K. Mattingly's wedding ring from deep space oblivion on Apollo 16. Next, Gene Cernan, the most recent man to walk on the moon, knows just what to say. Hes got the crowd, and hes turning on the charm in a splendid and inspiring fashion.
And then, our heavily perspiring Kennedy Space Center summer celebration of the 30th anniversary of the first lunar landing hits the highpoint: Buzz Aldrin ascends the stage. The significance of Apollo 11 is brought to us by a real, living, and inspired man. The ovation dies down, and the lunar module pilot of Eagle is suddenly holding one. From offstage a live American Bald Eagle is now perched atop Buzzs gauntleted arm, and the cameras fire away. My traditionalist heart is moved; this ceremony concludes on a very classy note.
These were my recollections, as I wrote them in 1999. It was indeed a superb day to be an Apollo enthusiast.
Images, L to R: Wally Schirra (Mercury-Sigma 7, Gemini 6, Apollo 7), Walt Cunningham (Apollo 7), Buzz Aldrin (Gemini 12, Apollo 11), American Bald Eagle, Gene Cernan (Gemini 9, Apollo 10, Apollo 17), Charlie Duke (Apollo 16) at Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Florida, July 17th, 1999
(I even had the privilege of contributing these photos to Kipp Teague's exemplary Project Apollo Archives!)
And I always wanted to meet this one particular astronaut...
Who didn't envy this fictional astronaut just a bit? He flew all three series (Mercury, Gemini, Apollo), walked on the Moon on Apollo 15, and was married to a beautiful Jeannie. At least on TV, circa 1970. (Major Anthony Nelson, USAF - portrayed by actor Larry Hagman). If you'd rather see Jeannie , and an Air Force tribute to her... well, who wouldn't?