The Apollo 11 mission has been described as one of the most incredible feats in modern history. On July 16th, 1969, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins launched from the Kennedy Space Center atop a Saturn V rocket and embarked on the first-ever human journey to the moon. Although Armstrong and Aldrin were the first to walk on the moon’s surface, another man played a key role in the mission. Eugene Cernan, a Navy lieutenant commander, was the first man to ever “catch a ride” to the moon.
Cernan’s journey began three years earlier, in 1966, when he was selected as a member of NASA’s third group of astronauts. He was initially assigned to the Apollo 8 mission, but that mission was delayed by technical difficulties. In the meantime, Cernan was assigned to the Apollo 10 mission, serving as the lunar module pilot. On May 18th, 1969, Cernan and his crewmates, Thomas Stafford and John Young, blasted off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Cernan and his crewmates completed a total of five orbits around the moon, coming within just 8.4 miles of its surface. As the lunar module descended to the moon’s surface – a maneuver known as the “dry run” – Cernan became the first human being to ever orbit the moon and the second to ever fly around it. Although the mission was a success, Apollo 8’s launch was delayed again, and Cernan was reassigned to Apollo 11.
Cernan and Apollo 11’s crew launched from the Kennedy Space Center just six weeks after his return from Apollo 10. On July 20th, Armstrong and Aldrin became the first humans to ever set foot on the moon, while Michael Collins remained in lunar orbit aboard the command module. Cernan was an integral part of the mission, however. He served as the lunar module pilot, navigating the craft as it descended to the moon’s surface.
Once the lunar module touched down, Cernan and Collins waited in lunar orbit while Armstrong and Aldrin explored the moon’s surface. After the two astronauts had returned to the lunar module, Cernan “caught a ride” on the craft as it lifted off the moon’s surface and flew back to the command module.
Cernan’s involvement in the mission didn’t end there. He was also responsible for flying the lunar module back to the command module, a maneuver known as the “rendezvous,” and for helping Armstrong and Aldrin back into the command module as they returned from the moon.
Upon the crew’s return to Earth, Cernan was awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, making him the only living recipient of the award. He went on to serve as the Commander of Apollo 17, the last human mission ever launched to the moon, and retired as a captain in 1976.
Today, Cernan is remembered as the first man to ever “catch a ride” on a lunar mission. He may not have been the first to walk on the moon, but his role in the mission was just as important in making history.