LUNAR EXPLORATION CONCLUDED

A Geologist for Apollo 17

As was his custom, Slayton waited until Apollo 15 had returned from its flight to announce his choice of crewmen for the last lunar mission. On August 13, 1971, he named Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans, and Jack Schmitt as the prime crew for Apollo 17, backed up by Dave Scott, Al Worden, and Jim Irwin, just returned from Apollo 15.55 The decision to put Schmitt on the crew instead of Joe Engle - who had trained as lunar module pilot with Cernan and Evans on the backup crew for Apollo 14 - was, like all those before it, Slayton's, and no one in the NASA organization put pressure on him to make it.* He noted later, however, that "we might have gotten some [pressure], I suppose, if we hadn't made the right decision down here. [But] there wasn't any doubt . . . that we were going to have to do that when they canceled [Apollo 15 and 19] , and we did it."56

Engle, who had been out of town during Apollo 15 on personal business, learned that his plans had been changed on August 10, when he called in to the Astronaut Office to see if he had any messages. It was a tremendous disappointment; he had made the hard decision to leave the X-15 program in 1966 because he thought that going to the moon was the only way he could surpass his past accomplishments. But, he said, "when something like this happens, you can do one of two things. You can lay on the bed and cry about it . . . , or you can get behind the mission and make it the best in the world." Engle's choice was to support the mission. He would try to help Schmitt fit into the crew that he himself had trained with for so long. After that, he hoped to test-fly the space shuttle.57

At the customary news conference the week after the announcement, the first question challenged Schmitt's assignment to the crew instead of Engle. Schmitt said, "There's no question that Joe Engle is one of the most outstandingly qualified test pilots in the business," but he was confident of his own abilities: "as far as my qualifications to fly the spacecraft are concerned, I will attempt to compete with anybody in the program." Cernan agreed: "Jack isn't sitting here as part of this crew for any other reason than that he has rowed hard, he's earned it, and he deserved it." He noted that Engle and Dick Gordon (command module pilot on Apollo 12) had been assigned to the new space shuttle project and commented (perhaps with a trace of envy), "Those guys moving into shuttle right now are probably going to contribute . . . a lot more than maybe even we can contribute by a lunar mission."58

On its final flight to explore the moon, then, Apollo would send a scientist - the one astronaut indisputably qualified to make the observations scientists had long wanted to make. It remained to be seen whether, under the constraints that limited lunar exploration, he could apply his experience to enhance the quality of the results.


* But see Chapter 12. Earlier in the year, Dale Myers, chief of manned space flight, and Robert Gilruth, MSC director, had agreed to Schmitt's appointment to the Apollo 17 crew, subject to his satisfactory completion of training, and Slayton was undoubtedly a party to that decision. The decision was evidently a well kept secret, however, for as late as August 3, Schmitt was quoted as admitting that it seemed unlikely he would get the chance to explore the moon. Stuart Auerbach, "Apollo 15 Leaves Moon Orbit At End of Historic Mission," Washington Post, Aug. 5, 1971.


55. NASA Release 71-149, "Apollo 17 Crew Named," Aug. 13, 1971.

56. Donald K. Slayton interview, Oct. 15, 1984.

57. Jim Maloney, "A new goal for dropped astronaut," Houston Post, Sept. 8, 1971.

58. MSC, "Apollo 17 Crew Press Conference, Manned Spacecraft Center, August 19, 1971, 10:00 AM (CDT)," transcript; Reuters, "Geologist Defends Selection of Him for Moon Flight," New York Times, Aug. 20, 1971.


Previous Next Index