The 81st General Meeting Opening Remarks
Captain Gene Cernan
The following presentation was delivered at the 81st General Meeting Monday morning session, May 14th by Captain Eugene A. Cernan. It has been edited for content and phrasing.
Speaker Bio: Captain Eugene A. Cernan retired from the Navy in 1976 after 20 years as a naval aviator. Thirteen of those years were dedicated to involvement with NASA as an astronaut. During his years with NASA, Captain Cernan flew on three separate space missions. He was the second man to walk in space as the pilot on Gemini 9, and was one of three astronauts to travel to the moon on Apollo 10. As commander of Apollo 17, Captain Cernan was the last man to leave his footprints on the surface of the moon.
Since his retirement from the Navy, Captain Cernan has been active in the design, engineering, and development testing of spacecraft hardware and systems. He has also served as senior United States negotiator during discussions with the U.S.S.R. concerning the joint U.S. and Soviet Apollo/Soyuz Project.
Captain Cernan earned his bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University in 1956. He was awarded a master of science degree in aeronautical engineering in 1963 from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. In addition to being presented numerous honorary doctorates, Captain Cernan has received the Navy Distinguished Flying Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal with Star, and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. He even has a television Emmy.
Today Captain Cernan is President and CEO of the Cernan Corporation and the Cernan Group, Incorporated. Both are space-related technology and marketing consulting firms. In addition, Captain Cernan acts as a special consultant with ABC in on-camera support of ABC news and special events programming.
Captain Cernan: It certainly is a pleasure to be with you at your 81st General Meeting. I'm not here to lecture you on safety. Instead, I'm going to give you my feelings on the important significance of it, and then share some thoughts about having gone to the moon.
I'm certainly not an expert on pressure vessels and boilers, although I guess you could consider the Apollo spacecraft a fairly significant, important pressure vessel, which I spent a good bit of my time in. Over the years I have come to understand something of the importance of commitment, reliability, performance, and dedication to what you believe is important in your life, and certainly that is safety. And that's what your week is all about. I do subscribe sincerely to your theme, “Safety professionals: devoting our lives to protecting yours.” You each have devoted your lives and professions to protecting the lives of others.
I do a lot of work in the aviation/aerospace industry, and we have events such as this called safety standouts. We have one-day events in Geneva or Sao Paulo or other places, and four- or five-day events in Wichita, Kansas, where we do what you do. We bring in experts. We share experiences, both the good and the bad. We talk about our mistakes. We try and make sure they won't happen again. What we do this week. What I have been supporting for over 15 years of my life is not dissimilar to what your goal is here
We can design the finest bit of technology in the world, but we are finding young people today, particularly young people in aviation and maybe throughout other professions, are beginning to use technology as a crutch and not an aid. And so I preach: Use technology. It will make you more efficient, you will be more successful, and you will be safer. But don't depend solely on technology. Learn how to fly the airplane. Learn how to recognize something that is happening that technology can't tell you. Use technology – and in your profession I urge you to do the same thing – as an aid and not simply as a crutch.
I have been asked many times if I was scared when I went into space, or more particularly, when I went to the moon. No, I wasn't scared. I always felt if you are really scared about doing something like that, you ought to stay home. But was I apprehensive, yes. We knew we were confronted with and vulnerable to a whole host of unknown problems that we couldn't predict and we somehow had to be aware of. Was I coming home? Yes, I was coming home. I didn't go to the moon not to come back home. And I had 450,000 good reasons to feel that way – they were the folks who designed, developed, and spent their lives testing our vehicles, spacecraft, subsystems, and our pressure vessels so that we would come home. They gave me the confidence that I would return home.
Those people committed themselves. They took ownership of every wire and every screw they put in the heat shield, into testing the rocket engines, as if they themselves were going to be the ones who were flying the spacecraft. They committed to us and took ownership of what they were responsible for. And certainly the rest was up to us.
I will give you a good example. Apollo 17 – the lunar module built by Grumman 40 years ago this December – was the last lunar module to ever fly. The crew at Kennedy Space Center made it known to the world that the lunar module we call Challenger, was going to be the best and finest spacecraft that ever flew to the moon. And indeed it was. They said, “It's up to me,” – all 450,000 of them. They put the responsibility, if you will, in my hands. They gave me the ability to succeed or fail. They gave me the finest spaceship to go to the moon. I called it my home for three days, and then they got me off the moon and back into lunar orbit, and then back home to where I knew I would return.
It's that kind of dedication and commitment that you folks are responsible for. From an 18-wheeler going down a street carrying a high-pressure load of nitrogen, to almost anything we do or use today, pressure vessels and boilers integrate with all parts of society. What you do is important.
Before I take you back in time to my experiences in space, I want to acknowledge the fact that some of you weren't around or were teenagers or young kids when Neil Armstrong made the first steps on the moon, or when I made those final steps 40 years ago.
The spring of 1961 was a period when the Soviet Union literally owned space. Sputnik had gone up a few years earlier. Yuri Gagarin had gone up in April of 1961 – the first human being to orbit the earth once and come down. We were involved in an unpleasant cold war. We were living in what we referred to later on as the terrible '60s. The country was shackled by campus unrest, civil strife, assassinations, and the beginning of a very unpopular war. It was a time when America needed to look forward; a time when we needed to be bold; a time when we needed leadership – a hero in this country.
And along came a couple of people. One was John F. Kennedy and another was Alan Shepard. Alan Shepard was the first American to ever go into space. He became a symbol of what we needed most. And although his flight was only sixteen minutes long – suborbital, went up and went down – unknown to us at the time he literally took the very first steps that led us to the moon. I remember that well. I watched Alan. I was a young naval aviator. I came back from a couple carrier cruises in the western Pacific, and someone said, “How would you like to do that?” And I said, “I would love to, but by the time I get good enough to become qualified, there won't be anything left to do. All the pioneering will be over.” I tell young people to never count themselves out, because they never really know.
But in this environment, just three weeks later after Shepard flew, John F. Kennedy challenged the American people beyond our wildest dreams and craziest imagination. He challenged us to do what most people thought couldn't be done at that point in time when he declared that the United States would land on the moon and return safely to earth, and we’d do it before the end of the decade.
What he didn't say, but implied, was that we’d do it before the other guy did. And he went on to say that it would not be easy, and it would require great sacrifice. How prophetic he was, because he was correct across the board. All of this after just 16 minutes of suborbital space flight. Technologically, we didn't know beans about going to the moon. The technology didn't exist. JFK's challenge called for a very bold and courageous program and response to where the country was at that point in time in the world. His challenge and commitment led to one of the greatest technological endeavors in the history of modern man.
Your parents and grandparents were committed to a goal deemed unattainable by most. It was a goal that required our nation to reach further than we had ever reached before. It was a human endeavor we now know as Apollo, and it required the vision of a president, and the effort, courage, dedication, and self-sacrifice of an entire nation of people in a very trying time in our history.
But the technology of Apollo is obsolete, long since overshadowed by time. The most important thing that must live on is the human endeavor – not that of the few people who have had a chance to walk in space or call the moon their home, but that of a nation of millions of people who made it possible.
It was a nation of people who overcame the tragedy of Apollo 1 when we lost three of our colleagues in a fire before we, the Apollo spacecraft, got off the ground. I remember that day back in February of 1967, a cold, rainy day at Arlington cemetery, and we were following behind the caissons wondering whether we were burying our colleagues and our friends, or whether we were burying the entire Apollo program. It was a nation of people that would not give up.
During Apollo 13, I was the backup crew on the next flight and we were in simulators for 48 hours trying to figure out a way that almost didn't exist to get those guys home. You've heard the slogan, "Failure is not an option." Well, let me tell you from where I stood, failure was close to becoming an option. But it was a nation of people who would not give up, and history, of course, has written the rest of the story. It was a human endeavor of immense proportions made possible by the audacity of people who dared to dream and dared to reach out beyond our grasp, beyond where we've ever reached out, to do the impossible, by people who were not deterred by failure. Apollo 1, Apollo 13, and a few more along the way were not afraid to try, and by those who didn't know it couldn't be done. And it is my belief that that is the legacy of Apollo; the spirit of Apollo. It’s the America I know and the America we are trying to preserve today.
Now, let me take you on a quick trip to the moon, if I may. But first I'm going to take you into earth orbit. It's where the Shuttle goes. It's where the Space Station goes. It's where I went on my first flight on Gemini 9 and walked around the world when we didn't have any idea what we were doing way back in 1966. When we went into earth orbit, we launched on a tight intercontinental ballistic missile, and my first thought was that I should have thought twice about being a payload. But we went into orbit about 250 miles in our Gemini spacecraft, and traveled around the world once every 90 minutes.
You fly through a magnificently beautiful sunrise and sunset – 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets in a 24-hour day. The blues and the golds – you cannot imagine it unless you have been there. You fly over a river or a coastline, and you feel like you might even get a glimpse of your own hometown. You do that every hour and a half, and our flight was three days long. But I have got to tell you, when you head out to the moon and you get on top of that big old Saturn 5, over 360 feet tall, 7.6 million pounds of thrust, and we launched at night on Apollo 17 (I have been on it twice, once on 10 and once on 17). Everything is a little different at night.
I'm a naval aviator. I land aboard aircraft carriers. You get very accustomed to doing that during the day. But when they turn the lights out and you look over your shoulder and it's only you and your Maker, and you have nothing up there except a couple of lights, that's when the rubber hits the road. It's challenging. It's the same thing when we launched the Saturn 5 at night. And we went around the world once. Instead of circling the globe at 17,000 miles an hour, you fire the third stage of the booster and head out at 25,000 miles an hour.
I want to tell you, things become different, both technologically, philosophically, and I suppose to a certain extent, spiritually. Because in a few short hours, when you look back at the earth, the horizon that was just slightly curved in earth orbit now somehow closes in and around and upon itself. And I know you have seen pictures. Pictures are not like the real thing. But all of a sudden, you begin to realize you are looking at something very strange and yet very, very familiar. Right in front of you, filling up your window, is the entire world getting smaller very, very, very quickly, until you get to the moon, and then it's small enough where you can put your thumb up and cover what I call my “identity with reality,” – the entirety of this home planet of ours.
You can look from the turquoise blues of the Caribbean, across the coast of North and South America, across our windworn plains, the snow-covered mountains, into the deep dark blues of the Pacific Ocean, and you can do it without even turning your head or rolling your eyes. It's right there.
And as you head out to the moon, a couple things happen. The earth does get smaller very quickly, but it doesn't tumble through space. It doesn't move aimlessly. It moves with purpose. And every twelve hours as you watch, as you look back – you can hardly take your eyes off of it. You are busy doing other things, but you can hardly take your eyes off of it. You look at the earth, and it turns on an axis you can't see, but you know must be there. I will honestly admit that I looked for the strings that were holding the earth up. There had to be something. It turns on an axis, and the Atlantic Ocean sort of disappears, North and South America go around the corner, and then comes Hawaii, and then Australia, and Asia, and Europe, and then suddenly you are looking at the entire continent of Africa, the other side of the world.
You no longer are going around it; you are no longer flying through sunrises and sunsets anymore. You are standing back, eventually a quarter million miles away, literally watching the sun set and rise over different parts of the world at the same time. I can remember watching what I call my “identity with reality,” and watching the sun as the earth turned and nighttime progressed across the planet. I watched the sun set on Texas. You can see all of that. You can't see state lines. There are no divisions of color and religion and creed. You just see the earth, the world, the planet, the countries, the continents. And the sun would set on Texas, and I had one daughter who was nine years old at that time, and I knew when the sun set on Texas she had eaten dinner, done her homework, said her prayers, and gone to bed.
Twelve hours later I watched the sun rise over Texas, and I knew she had gotten up, eaten breakfast, got on the school bus and started her day. Now, is that important? Let me tell you, when you are headed out to another planet to call your home over the next several days, we all need a little security blanket. And that was mine – my “identity with reality.” They could watch me and they could hear us, but I couldn't hear or see them. And that was my identity with the real world, because in space I was in somebody else's science fiction world.
Surrounding earth is the blackest black you can conceive in your mind. Not darkness. Blackness. It goes on forever. I can't put a picture of it on the screen. I can't show it to you. I can't hold it in my hand. I call it the infinity of space and the infinity of time, the endlessness of it all. And I can tell you it does exist because I saw it with my own eyes on more than one occasion. And our earth is three-dimensional within this blackness, alive and very beautiful. And I came to the conclusion on my first trip to the moon – although I didn't land, but I was out that far –and looked back at the earth, that there was something I didn’t understand. Earth was too beautiful to have happened by accident. There must be a Creator of this small part of the universe I was privileged to see.
And I make that statement as a spiritual statement, not a religious statement. Because I think any of us can find our religion wherever we want, in our office, in our homes, in our synagogue or church or temple, on the moon, wherever. We can call our God or address our God by whatever name we want. But I can tell you that there is a Creator of the universe. There is somebody up there that I call God, because what I saw could not be a coincidence. If I could take every human being in the world today and stand them right next to me for five minutes up there, I would defy them to deny that feeling. That's just my opinion. I don't speak for everybody.
When you get to the moon, many things have to happen. When you fire the engine to land on the moon, you start out at about 50,000 feet, 14 minutes of the most exciting time a human being can experience. You have vibration and noise. You are inside a cocoon – the spacecraft. The ground is talking to you, your partner is talking to you, you are watching the moon go by underneath you, and you are slowing down from some 3,000 miles to eventually zero. And you get down below about two hundred feet, and that's what we call the deadman's curve, because you have to come down fast enough to keep from running out of fuel.
You need to come down, but you can't come down too fast because of the descent. This lunar model is in two separate pieces, the descent engine and then the ascent stage, which has its own rocket engine. If you have to abort and get out of there before you land, you've got to have time to fire that ascent engine and go.
Whether you like it or not, you are going to land. The dust starts about eighty feet, and it goes out. And the valley we landed in was surrounded by mountains on three sides higher than the Grand Canyon is deep. So at 7,000 feet, I'm looking up at the mountains. We knew where we were going to land, we had pictures of it, and suddenly I was there. It's a familiar place; I had flown down there many times in a simulator.
You get down to around nine feet, and you shut the engine down, because if you land with that big engine bell spitting fire and whatever, it might explode. And so we shut down, and you drop the last nine feet. All is quiet. The ground is not talking to you. Your partner is mesmerized. The vibration has stopped. The noise is gone. The dust is gone. And I'm looking out at this valley of mountains in front of us, a valley about 20 miles long, trying to realize and accept as a human being that what I was now seeing has never been seen with human eyes before. I was where no human being had ever been before.
A few hours later, after we got prepared, we went out on the surface. People ask, “What was the first step like?” The first step had been taken by a lot of people before me, Neil and everyone who followed him. But my first step was my first step, and no one can ever take it away from me. When I stepped on the moon’s surface, the thing that came home to me very loud and clear was, “This is not earth.” You can climb the highest mountain or walk the depths of the deepest ocean on this planet, and you are still on planet earth. I had been in space twice before this; I had been in zero gravity, but I'd never stepped on anything before. That thought came to me loud and clear for some reason. Not something I expected.
There are a lot of conspirators out there, by the way: Did we go to the moon? We did it in Arizona, we didn't go at all. That's fine. If that's what they want to believe, they missed a very exciting period of time in human history. And as I say, those steps that are on the moon will be there for a long time, as will the flag that we planted, as will my daughter's initials, which I left on the surface of the moon. Someone said, “For how long?” And I said forever, however long forever is. I don't know. And that's interesting, because time itself is a whole other subject when you go into space.
So we are there three days. We had a lunar rover and we covered that whole valley from stem to stern and got the motorcar speed record, 14 kilometers per hour downhill (A. J. Foyt doesn't recognize that). It came time to leave after three days. We didn't really want to leave, but we had to. We had limited amounts of oxygen and water and electrical power, and the plan was to be there 75 hours. The captain is first-out-last-in, and so I started up the ladder after my partner. And I looked down at my last footsteps and got a little nostalgic. I wanted to stop the clock; I wanted to hit the freeze button.
The simulator where we practiced flying had a freeze button that you pushed if you had a problem, and you could stop and talk about it. In that moment I wanted to press the freeze button. I wanted to stop time. I wanted to stand on that ladder until I fully realized and appreciated what we had just done. And I looked down at that footprint, and I knew I wasn't going to come this way again, but I knew then and I know now someone else will. I knew we were an extension of technology. I knew we were an extension of human curiosity, but I wasn't sure what it all meant.
We landed to the west, so I was going up the ladder and the earth was above the mountains in the southwestern sky. There I was, ready to leave, and I looked over my shoulder at earth in its entire splendor – multicolor blues of the oceans, whites of the snow and the clouds – it hadn't gone away. It was still as beautiful as ever, and I wondered what the meaning was. Not just of us being there on that mission, but humankind a generation and a half ago left this planet and called another body in the universe our home for three days of our lives.
I haven't yet been able to answer that question for myself. I wonder how long it took us to understand the significance of Columbus' voyage across the Atlantic. Was it 40 years? I don't know. I know in time someone will understand. And I think there are still things we have to learn, not so much geologically or scientifically or technologically, but so much yet we have to learn about what we did. Curiosity is the essence of human existence. Who are we, where are we, where did we come from, where are we going, what's on the other side of that mountain, why did Lewis and Clark go up the Missouri?
In time we will know, but it was truly a significant step in my life. And now the question we can ask ourselves is, where now, Columbus? Where do we go, what do we do? I don't want to elaborate on this too much because I'm very passionate about what we are not doing today in space, but I will say this much. First of all, the answer to that question is we can go anywhere we want. But the crime of our generation today is the fact that we are on a mission to nowhere in space. We do not have the ability after 50 years. We spent a half of a century wrestling leadership away from the Soviet Union, only to turn right around and hand it back to the same people by a different name, the Russians.
Today we do not have the capability as Americans to put an American into space on an American piece of hardware to visit our own International Space Station. That's where we find ourselves today, and that's why I say we can go anywhere we want once we make a decision. But we stood on the shoulders of giants when I went to the moon. That's an old phrase, but it's true. And today we have to be those shoulders for young people.
I have a chance to interface with a lot of young people from third and fourth grade up to the college level, and they ask me how I got to the moon, what's important? And I tell them dream, dream, dream. Dream the impossible and go out and make it happen. I stand here having gone to the moon before their parents were born. What's impossible in their lives? And they don't have a come-back for that. I tell them what my dad told me. He said go out and do your best, on a football field, in a classroom, whatever it may be. Whatever opportunity you are given, go out and do your best.
You are not going to be better than everyone at everything, but sooner or later you are going to surprise yourself. And I truly was, because I did surprise myself. But I happen to believe very strongly that there is a young boy or young girl out there – your kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews – they are out there with indomitable will and courage and will one day take us back again where we belong. They will one day take us back where no human has ever been before. All we have to do is give them the same opportunity that someone gave us.
You are here because of your own passion for what you do. You are here before your own commitment to be something in your life, but you stood on somebody's shoulders – your friends, your professors, and your moms and dads – whoever it was. Truly no man is an island. And we have a responsibility in this generation to inspire young kids to dream and to try, because if they don't try, they will never succeed. If they are afraid to try, they will never succeed. And if they never succeed, they will never know how good they can be.