Thwarted Aid; Catholics and Trump; Last Men

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Good morning, it’s Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019. Forty-seven years ago today, former Navy pilot Eugene A. Cernan and a civilian geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt emerged from their lunar module into a picturesque valley near a place dubbed the Sea of Serenity. It was the last trip human beings took to the moon.

“As I step off at the surface of Taurus-Littrow, I'd like to dedicate the first steps of Apollo 17 to all those who made it possible,” Gene Cernan radioed to mission control in Houston. Then, as he touched the lunar surface, emotions took over. “Oh, my golly,” he gushed. “Unbelievable!”

Those two reactions nicely captured Cernan’s personality. On the one hand, he was the eternally squared-away naval officer. He was also spontaneous, even daring. So much so that he did something reckless the year before and was lucky to be on the moon at all. I’ll explain in a moment. First, I’d point you to RealClearPolitics’ front page, which presents our poll averages, videos, breaking news stories, and aggregated opinion columns spanning the political spectrum. We also offer original material from our own reporters and contributors, including the following:

* * *

Career Officials Thwart Aid to Christian, Yazidi Genocide Victims. Susan Crabtree reports on bureaucrats’ resistance to bipartisan congressional mandates to help religious minorities in areas decimated by ISIS.

EWTN/RealClear Poll: U.S. Catholics Open to Reelecting Trump. Matthew Bunson explores this and other findings in the survey.

Alex Epstein’s Clear Thinking on Climate and Energy. In RealClearEnergy, Rupert Darwall spotlights the Cato Institute scholar. 

Five Facts: The Room That Held the Constitutional Convention. In RealClearPolicy, No Labels offers this mini-history lesson on the Philadelphia site where our nation’s governing principles were forged in 1787.

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In January 1971, while stationed at Cape Canaveral, Gene Cernan crashed his Bell helicopter off the Florida coast and could have been killed. Space nerds could also tell you that it was Deke Slayton who investigated the crash and pronounced its cause to be a mechanical malfunction. What wasn’t known until Cernan published his memoir, “The Last Man on the Moon,” was that Slayton covered for his fellow astronaut. The primary reason Cernan’s chopper crash: He was showboating for friends on the beach.

“Had the real story come to the attention of Flight Director Chris Kraft,” Miles O'Brien noted on the 40th anniversary of Apollo 17, “the last man on the moon might very well have been backup commander John Young.”

In any event, three days after Cernan and Schmitt reached the moon’s surface, it was time to say goodbye. Wishing to avoid Neil Armstrong’s botched line when human beings first arrived on the moon, Cernan wrote out what he wanted to say and rehearsed it beforehand:

“As I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come -- but we believe not too long into the future -- I’d like to just say what I believe history will record: That America's challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind.”

Nice lines, but the very last words spoken on the moon’s surface were more spontaneous. As he reached for the button that would send the Challenger lunar module back to the mother ship and the trip home, Cernan told Schmitt, “Okay, Jack. Let’s get this mother out of here.”

The other problem with Cernan’s little speech is that few people remember it. That’s because by December 1972, when Cernan, Schmitt, and Ronald Evans rode their Saturn V rocket after midnight from the Kennedy Space Center -- the program's only nighttime launch -- America’s attention was on issues other than space travel, including the long, grinding Vietnam War.

It wasn’t for lack of effort on NASA’s part. Trying to maintain civilian interest, not to mention congressional support, NASA finally acceded to National Academy of Sciences lobbying for inclusion of a geologist on an Apollo flight. This led to the selection of Schmitt, who had been working with the U.S. Geological Survey in Arizona when the call went out for volunteer scientist-astronauts.

“I thought about 10 seconds and raised my hand,” he later recalled. Schmitt’s eventual selection as the third man on the Apollo 17 crew meant that former X-15 test pilot Joe Henry Engle, originally recommended by crew assignment director Slayton, was bumped. Cernan and Evans were less than thrilled at the grounding of their fellow aviator, but Schmitt’s competence soon won them over. In the end, he and Cernan spent 75 hours on the moon’s surface, covering some 30 kilometers in their various moon vehicles and bringing back 243 pounds of moon rocks. The three Apollo 17 astronauts splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 19, 1972 and were picked up by the USS Ticonderoga.

Back in Houston, the men were met at their homes by enthusiastic neighbors, but the rest of America just wasn’t riveted by moon missions in the same way anymore. “You may leave here for four days in space,” sang Barry McGuire, “but when you return it’s the same old place."

Actually, the crew of Apollo 17 traveled the heavens for 12 days, not four, and knew even before liftoff that they would likely be the last lunar astronauts for many years to come. Afterwards, they went on with their lives:

--Joe Engle may not have made it to the moon, but he flew aboard the space shuttle and was still flying high-performance aircraft well into his 80s. At 87, he participated in ceremonies last summer marking the 50th anniversary of the first moon launch.

--Ron Evans, who spent more time in lunar orbit than any other astronaut, retired from NASA and took a job in Arizona. “On the dark side of the moon, where you can’t see Earth and can’t be reached by radio, it might be a little lonely,” he once said. “But I was too busy to think about being alone.” He was selected by NASA while serving as a combat pilot in Vietnam. “You can’t go up some rivers and see what’s at the end of the river anymore,” he explained. “We’ve already done that. So I’m in this to explore what’s out there -- and what’s inside myself.”

Ron Evans was only 56 when he died of a heart attack.

--Harrison Schmitt ran for the Senate from New Mexico, winning his maiden campaign in 1976. Six years later, his was one of the Republican seats lost because of the now-forgotten “Reagan recession” of 1982. When asked about the moon landing, he once said, “It’s like trying to describe what you feel when you’re standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon or remembering your first love or the birth of your child: You have to be there to really know what it’s like.”

While on the face of the moon, scientist Jack Schmitt showed he could be just as puckish as the most macho flyboy. When Gene Cernan told him to stop what he was doing for a moment and look back at their home planet, Schmitt quipped, “Ah, you’ve seen one Earth, you’ve seen them all.”

--Gene Cernan stayed active long enough to have his own website. When he died nearly three years ago at age 82, he was still involved in NASA-related educational efforts and remained a proponent of a robust U.S. presence in space. In his autobiography, the commanding officer of Apollo 17 expounded on his feelings when he first landed on the moon.

“I lowered my left foot and the thin crust gave way,” he wrote. “Soft contact. There, it was done. A Cernan footprint was on the moon. I had fulfilled my dream. No one could ever take this moment away. I felt comfortable, as if I belonged there. I was standing on God's front porch.”

Carl M. Cannon 
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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