Another space hero leaves us

Eugene Cernan wasn’t among the seven original astronauts chosen to fly into space. He was, though, among the second group, the men who would fly aboard the two-person Gemini craft.

Cernan died today at age 82 and I want to say “so long” to another space hero.

I have two distinct memories of Eugene Cernan while watching the space program launch Americans into space — when we used to hold our breath waiting for their safe return.

Cernan flew aboard the Apollo 10 mission in May 1969. He and mission commander Tom Stafford separated the lunar lander from the command ship as the assembly neared the moon’s surface. The lander began gyrating violently and Cernan could be heard over the radio cursing like the sailor he was as he and Stafford fought to regain control of the craft.

Routine? Hardly. That mission was the setup for the historic Apollo 11 moon landing flight two months later.

A dozen years after that, Cernan was providing expert broadcast commentary as the space shuttle Columbia would launch on the maiden voyage of the shuttle program.

As Columbia’s rocket ignited and the ship lifted off the pad toward Earth orbit, you could hear Cernan cheer Columbia on, yelling: “Fly … fly like an eagle!”

Cernan would be the last man to leave footprints on the moon as he commanded the Apollo 17 mission. NASA canceled the rest of the program.

I long for the day when we can restore our manned space program and hope as well we can revive the pithy excitement expressed by Eugene Cernan.