originally published May 8, 2012
Launched in May, 1969, The Apollo 10 mission was critical to executing the successful July moon landing. But what about that trio of astronauts whose names are anything but household, who took the run before the big run? On the one hand, these three men strapped themselves into a capsule the size of a Buick’s trunk and allowed themselves to be fired into space, so they have nothing to prove to anybody. In fact, they should probably be allowed to eat for free at every Denny’s across the country. I’m just saying.
But on the other hand, the Apollo 11 astronauts are the rock stars of NASA. Armstrong is the coolest Neil this side of Young, and Buzz Aldrin dropped a record with Snoop Dogg. Why don’t the Apollo 10 guys get some love?
Luckily, I’m stuffed with so much love I literally have to wear a bib while I write every day.
NASA set up Apollo 10 as a test-run for the moon landing. They ran everything as though they were going to drop onto the lunar surface, but without the actual landing. In fact, NASA wanted to make sure these cowboys didn’t pull a what-are-they-gonna-do-to-us move and drop the lunar module to the surface; they purposely left almost no fuel in the LM’s tank. That way, they could execute their simulation exercises, but if they decided to go rogue, they’d never be able to lift off.
The mission’s captain, Thomas P. Stafford, is what you’d call an overachiever. He flew on six space missions, including the first US-Soviet joint mission in 1975. He was also a brigadier general at the time – the first general to ever get launched outside Earth’s atmosphere. Suddenly all those hours I spent practicing the ultra-fast lyrics of REM’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” seem like a waste.
John Young piloted the command module. If John felt slighted for having been a part of the mission before the mission that landed on the moon, that was probably quickly dissipated by the fact that yeah, he landed on the damn moon.
John Young is the guy they should rename the profession of ‘astronaut’ after. He’s the only guy to have flown four different spacecraft: a Gemini, the Apollo rocket, the lunar module, and the space shuttle. He was a rebel too; he smuggled a corned beef sandwich aboard the Gemini and got his hand slapped for it.
During the Apollo 10 mission, John became the first person to orbit the moon solo, chilling in the command module (possibly with a knish and a pickle) while the other two guys flew the lunar module. For Apollo 13, John was part of the backup crew, executing numerous tests and simulations to ensure a safe return for Tom Hanks and his team. He flew back to the moon on the Apollo 16 mission, and set a speed record for the lunar rover, no doubt taking it off some sweet jumps.
At 42 years, John had the longest career as an astronaut ever, and he wants you to know that he’s really impressed that you were able to submit those quarterly forecast projection reports on time. Pussy.
Eugene Cernan, who piloted the lunar module for Apollo 10, got a chance to tread his tootsies on the moon’s surface also, as commander of the Apollo 17 mission. In fact, he gambled by giving up his spot as lunar module pilot on Apollo 16 because he wanted to command the final Apollo mission. On that trip, Eugene first broke John’s lunar land-speed record, then became the last man to leave the moon’s surface (not counting those dudes who were killed in Superman II). He also netted a mention on TV’s Modern Family as the best dad ever, for leaving his daughter’s initials on the lunar surface before he left.
If, like me, you’re feeling a little bit smaller for reading the numerous accomplishments by these three guys, don’t worry. That’s not “don’t worry” because I have some scandal for any of them – far as I can tell, they’ve never even been caught speeding – but rather “don’t worry” because I’ve only got 300 words left, then we can all go out and get drunk and talk about that time we stuffed 23 Cheetos in our mouths at once and I bet Eugene Cernan can’t even do that so there. (Though for the record, I bet John Young can)
Three astronauts were also logged in as Apollo 10’s backup crew. If the Apollo 10 mission was the almost-moon show, these guys had to feel doubly rotten. By tradition, the backup crew for 10 should have been the primary crew for 13, but NASA switched things up. Only the crew’s scheduled lunar module pilot, Edgar Mitchell, nabbed a chance to mosey on the moon. His re-assignment from Apollo 13 to Apollo 14 was a great stroke of luck, even if it meant not having Kevin Bacon portray him in a movie. Gary Cole played him in From The Earth To The Moon, and that’s almost as good.
So what else did Apollo 10 accomplish, besides setting the table for the Apollo 11 crew to chow down on history? Actually, lots.
The rocket carried the first color TV camera into space, which captured the action brilliantly for those back home. They nudged the lunar module to within eight and a half miles of the lunar surface, and grabbed the final calculations needed to make sure Armstrong and Aldrin didn’t ram the surface like a bumper car. Also, the names of the command module and lunar module were Charlie Brown and Snoopy, which allowed for this brilliant photograph to occur on their way to the rocket:
The three astronauts set a Guinness record for the fastest manned vehicle ever, clocking in at 24,791mph on re-entry. That record still stands. Also, because of both the distance between the Earth and moon and the rotation of the Earth at the time, these three have the record for the furthest anyone has ever been from their home in human history (about 254,110 miles).
So next time someone’s dropping the Armstrong card, or even the John Glenn card, remind them that Stafford, Young and Cernan were not the almost-guys. They were the guys. These three are every bit the role model and hero that our country’s celebrities will never be (in spite of every effort made by their publicists to convince us otherwise).
Also, come on Denny’s. Unlimited Moons Over My-Hammy for life for these three. Get with it.