An Old Era Ends-A New One is Born

As the international rush to get to the moon ramps up in the next few years, it is worth noting that, just as we are losing the World War II generation, we are also losing NASA’s early astronaut corps who made the 1960s and 1970’s space exploration possible.

Often called the most significant photo from space in human history, the famous “Earthrise” photo taken by Apollo 8 astronauts on Dec. 24, 1968 never fails to cause an emotional response. 

The Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts are legends who made our current travel to the moon far less of a challenge 50 years later than it would otherwise have been. Since these missions completed their historic work, we have been able to mull over many scenarios for how to do it ‘right’ the next time, and so here we are. We have learned from our successes in science and engineering, but we have also learned from our failure of political nerve to go beyond the gauntlet thrown down by Apollo 17. Now we are in the midst of what appears to be a new Space Race, this time between the open societies of the ‘west’ and the closed and secretive society of China. Meanwhile, amidst this political hubris, the ranks of the Old Guard astronauts continue to thin out each year.

Project Mercury

The first group of astronauts to pass, were the original Project Mercury astronauts at the pionering, and very risky, dawn of NASA (1958-1963): Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, John Glenn, Virgil Grisson, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard and Donald Slayton. With the passing of John Glen in 2016 at the age of 95, we lost irretrivably our connection to the trials and tribulations of sitting in a ‘tin can’ as big as a telephone booth and eating food out of toothpaste tubes. These were the incredably brave men who sat on top of rockets that had only been tested a handful of times without blowing up!

John Glenn entering the Friendship 7 Mercury capsule on top of the Redstone rocket,

But more than that, these were the faces of NASA that we saw in the news media who made space travel a household word in the early-1960s. This was a HUGE transition in social consciousness because prior to Project Mercury, space travel was pure science fiction. We were a Nation obsessed by the prospects of nuclear war and Soviet spies lurking around every street corner. The adventures of the Mercury astronauts let hundreds of millions of people take a mental vacation and think about more hopeful ties to come. That plus the advent of the Jetsons TV series!

The 14 ‘Group 3’ astronauts selected in 1963 for the Gemini and Apollo manned programs

The second cohort of astronauts were those that flew with Project Gemini between 1963 and 1966. There were ten crewed missions and 16 astronauts, who conducted space walks, dockings and tested out technology and protocols for the Apollo program. Many of them went on to fly in Project Apollo having earned their ‘creds’ with Gemini.

The photo above shows, seated left to right, Edwin Aldrin (33), William Anders (30), Charles Bassett (32), Alan Bean (31), Eugene Cernan (29), and Roger Chaffee (28). Standing left to right are Michael Collins (33), Walter Cunningham (31), Donn Eisele (33), Theodore Freeman (33), Richard Gordon (34), Russell Schweickart (28), David Scott (31) and Clifton Williams (31). Additional astronauts were selected for Gemini: Frank Borman (35), Jim Lovell (35), Thomas Stafford (33), John Young (34), Neil Armstrong (33), and Pete Conrad (33). The ages of this group in 1963 spanned 29 to 35.

Whenever I look at this photo, I see these astronauts as being 10 years older than their actual age. I was a teenager during this time and anyone older than 25 or 30 looked pretty old to me. I guess for these astronauts, a military life, and the dress styles of the narrow-tie, conservative, early-60s does that to you.

NASA Astronaut Edward White floats in zero gravity of space northeast of Hawaii, on June 3, 1965, during the flight of Gemini IV.

At the present time, January 2023, the only survivors of the Mercury and Gemini groups are Edwin Aldrin (92), William Anders (89), Russell Schweickart (88) and David Scott (91). We just lost Walter Cunningham (90).

Finally, we have the Program Apollo astronauts. They were actually drawn from the Project Gemini group, but because of the premature deaths of Roger Chaffee, Ed White, Charles Bassett, and Theodore Freeman, additional astronauts were added to this project: Charles Duke, Harrison Schmitt, Ken Mattingly, Fred Haise, Wally Schirra, Edgar Mitchell, Jack Swigert, James Irwin, Alfred Wordon, James McDivitt, Ronald Evans, and Stuart Roosa.

50th Anniversary, 2019: From left to right: Charlie Duke (Apollo 16), Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11), Walter Cunningham (Apollo 7), Al Worden (Apollo 15), Rusty Schweickart (Apollo 9), Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17), Michael Collins (Apollo 11) and Fred Haise (Apollo 13). 
Felix Kunze/The Explorers Club

Each Apollo mission had three astronauts. Two would take the LEM to the surface for a walk-about, while the third astronaut remained behind in the Command Module. A total of 12 Apollo astronauts actually walked on the moon between Apollo 11 and 17: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, David Scott, James Irwin, John Young, Charles Duke, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt. Of these, the survivors by January, 2023 are Buzz Aldrin (92), David Scott (90), Charles Duke (87) and Harrison Schmitt (87).

An excellent view of the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) “Orion” and Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), as photographed by astronaut Charles M. Duke Jr., lunar module pilot, during the first Apollo 16 extravehicular activity (EVA) at the Descartes landing site.

So, the surveying astronauts in January 2023 from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs are, in order of age:

Buzz Aldrin (92: Gemini 12, Apollo 11),

David Scott (90: Gemini 8, Apollo 9, Apollo 15),

William Anders (89: Apollo 8),

Fred Haise (89: Apollo 13),

Russell Schweickart (88: Apollo 9),

Charles Duke (87: Apollo 16)

Harrison Schmitt (87: Apollo 17).

Ken Mattingly (86: Apollo 16, STS-4, STS-51C),

Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt on the moon.

We are entering something of a race against time for these survivors to be present for the launch of Artemus III. Artemis III is planned as the first crewed Moon landing mission of the Artemis program. Scheduled for launch in 2025, Artemis III is planned to be the second crewed Artemis mission and the first crewed lunar landing since Apollo 17 in 1972. Buzz Aldrin (92: Gemini 12, Apollo 11) was one of the first astronauts to set foot on the lunar surface, while Harrison Schmitt of Apollo 17 was one of the last. With Buzz Aldrin and David Scott, we even have survivors from the Gemini Program who laid the groundwork for EVAs (Gemini 12) and docking maneuvers (Gemini 8).

The odds are pretty good that many of these Old Guard astronauts will still be with us to see the Artimus III lunar lander called Starship HLS reach the lunar surface, and oh what a celebration it will be at NASA!

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