Fly Us To The Moon
December 7, 1972
“You can’t discover the source of the Missouri any more,” remarked Ronald Ellwin Evans when asked to explain his motivation for accepting the tremendous bodily risks inherent in being an astronaut. “So where are you going to go but space?”
For Evans, the allure of the final frontier resulted in numerous adventurous experiences. He saw the Earth from a distance of 240,000 miles, drifted alone in the cold and infinite expanse on an hour-long space walk, and piloted a spacecraft in lunar orbit. In the process, he joined one of the most exclusive clubs in, well, the universe.
Evans, a Kansas native and KU alum, was 39 years old during the 12-day mission to the moon aboard Apollo 17. Rocketing away from Cape Kennedy in the early morning hours of December 7, 1972, this would be the country’s last manned lunar landing of the 20th century. But it was also the first time Jayhawks could look skyward and know one of their own was up there looking down.
Ronald Evans’ Kansas bona fides are indisputable. Born on November 10, 1933, in the northwestern town of St. Francis, he later moved with his mother to Topeka where he attended Highland Park High School, from which he graduated in 1951.
From Topeka it was on to Lawrence and the University of Kansas where he pursued and, in 1955, earned his Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering.
At KU, Evans prepared for his future career as a military man by participating in the Navy ROTC program; and in 1957, he completed flight training and was commissioned an ensign. As time would tell, Evans possessed in spades the adventurous spirit and technological skills essential to a carrier pilot, talents that would serve him well in his future galactic endeavors.
While in the Navy, Evans helped impart his expertise to others as an F8 combat flight instructor, but he also found time to further his own education. In 1964, he earned his Master of Science degree in aeronautical engineering from the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. And once the nation became heavily involved in the Vietnam War, Evans’ skills were employed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga, from whose deck he flew more than 100 combat missions in Southeast Asia during a seven-month tour of duty.
Like most veterans, Evans spoke little about his wartime experiences, once telling an inquisitive Lawrence Journal-World reporter that he didn’t “know how you make a war story interesting.” “It scares the hell out of you, is what it does,” he added. “They were shooting at me a lot, but I got only one little bullet hole in the airplane.” He also received eight Air Medals, the Vietnam Service Medal, and the Navy Commendation Medal with combat distinguishing service.
Evans’ war stint came to an end in April 1966 when he received news that NASA had selected him as one of the first 19 astronauts for the Apollo program. “I had just come back from a mission,” he later recalled, “and the captain [of the Ticonderoga] came up to the ready room and announced it. That was a real fine way to get a message.”
Looking back on his decision to leave his ship and accept his Navy Astronaut wings, Evans said, “I think I accomplished my bit in Vietnam. I didn’t go back for a second and third time like a lot of my contemporaries, but I feel I’m accomplishing something for my nation by doing this job here.”
Perhaps his wife Jan (also of Topeka), seven-year-old son Jon and five-year-old daughter Jamie were weighing on his mind when Evans decided to stop flying combat missions over hostile territory. But if occupational normality and sheer self-preservation were his goals, he could have chosen thousands of professions far more suitable than space travel.
Over the next six years, Evans served mainly an understudy role in the US space program, being a member of the astronaut support crew for the Apollo 7 and Apollo 11 missions; and then, in January 1971, as the backup command module pilot for the Apollo 14 lunar expedition. And while he did not make it into space any of these times, clearly he was being groomed for a future piloting mission of his own.
His long wait would come to an end the following year when NASA announced that Commander Evans would fly the command module for Apollo 17. His task would be to take fellow astronauts Cmdr. Eugene Andrew Cernan (mission commander) and Dr. Harrison Hagen “Jack” Schmitt (lunar module pilot) to the moon, maintain lunar orbit while they explored the surface some 60 miles below, then pilot them all back to Earth 12 days later.
As the Kansas City Star Magazine of November 12, 1972, put it, “If they were robbing a bank instead of exploring the moon, the command module pilot [Evans] could be referred to as the driver of the getaway car…. [H]e sits outside the moon and keeps the motor running.”
Asked by the Kansas City Times whether he felt any frustration at not being able to set foot upon the moon himself, Evans responded: “I’d like to get down to the moon’s surface, you darn right I would. There’s a certain amount of disappointment … but there’s a heck of a lot of compensation from just being able to get up there 240,000 miles away from earth and get within eight miles of the thing.”
Evans would, of course, have a multitude of responsibilities while maintaining orbit, including operating panoramic and mapping cameras; measuring lunar atmospheric density; and taking thermal and subsurface readings. (“I consider myself a flying geologist,” he said.) He was also charged with making sure Cernan and Schmitt’s lunar module “Challenger” locked up successfully with his command module (“America”) and returned to Earth safely and in one piece. “I firmly believe,” he told the Kansas City Times, “that I’ll be able to contribute quite a bit to science up there and that extends man’s capability beyond just flying the spacecraft up there and getting it back.”
During the run-up to the Apollo 17 launch, Evans distinguished himself, among the press especially, as quite a colorful character. The Star Magazine described him as a “friendly, darkly-tanned man of 39, wearing the ‘wild’ civilian clothes for which he has become known. His coat and socks were fire engine red, his shoes, slacks and tie were white, and his shirt a blushing pink.”
In fact, the sailing, hunting and motorcycling enthusiast routinely appeared at press conferences in blazing red-white-and-blue sartorial ensembles (often sporting a sunflower lapel pin as a symbol of his Kansas pride), leading many journalists to dub him “Captain America.”
Neither was Evans shy about expressing his political opinions, especially when they concerned the funding and future of the manned space program. In a Kansas City Times article of December 8, 1972, titled “Salty Jabs by Astronaut,” Evans was quoted at a press conference criticizing the Nixon Administration for supporting space exploration “by talk but not action.” No man of the Left, though, he blamed funding shortfalls on politicians swayed by “kooks who feel you ought to be spending money for welfare.”
But Evans was all business when it came to the mission. Apollo 17 was originally scheduled to thrust off from Cape Kennedy at around 9:50 p.m. EST on December 6, 1972, making it NASA’s first ever night launch; but a countdown sequencer failure delayed the mission until the early morning hours of December 7. It finally left the pad at exactly 12:33 a.m., some two-and-a-half hours later. After that, the launch and the mission went off without a hitch.
The lunar module landed on December 11 in the Taurus-Littrow region of the moon, near the southeast edge of Mare Serenitatis. (As Evans put it to the Star Magazine, “They’ll land at the lower left corner of the left eye of the man in the moon.” “For those who imagine they can see a face in the moon,” noted the Star, “Mare Serenitatis makes the left eye.”) During three extravehicular activities (EVAs), Cernan and Schmitt took numerous geological readings, and, in total, brought back 115 kilograms (about 250 lbs.) of moon rocks and soil samples.
All the while, Evans maintained solo vigil and conducted his own experiments and analyses of the lunar surface. Their voyage back to Earth began on December 17, but before the splashdown, Evans had one last task to perform: a space walk.
At 3:27 p.m. that day, Evans left the relatively secure confines of the command module to enter the vast black expanse of the universe. The purpose of his one-hour, six-minute walk was, according to NASA, to retrieve “three camera cassettes and [complete] a personal inspection of the equipment bay area.” It was a complete success.
Evans later described the singular experience of dangling from a capsule barreling 10,000 miles per hour through space to the December 1981 edition of Kansas Alumni. “You have to hang on, using your wrists to maintain body position,” he explained. “You never let go with both hands at the same time, I tell you that. But once you adjust to the situation,” he added, “it’s actually euphoric. Stepping outside the spacecraft is as close as you can come to being a real spaceman.”
As Apollo 17 began its long journey home, the three astronauts could bask for a moment in some of the records they had set. At 22 hours, four minutes, Cernan and Schmitt had spent more time on the lunar surface than anyone before them, a record that still stands since no one has been to the moon since then. They also returned with the heaviest payload of “moon rocks” and other lunar geologic samples ever collected.
And for Evans personally, at 147 hours, 48 minutes, he achieved the distinction of having spent the most time of any astronaut in lunar orbit. And furthermore, when Apollo 17 safely splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at 2:25 p.m. on December 19, the crew could now boast the record for longest manned lunar landing flight with a time of 301 hours, 51 minutes (roughly 12.5 days). As an added treat for Evans, the ship assigned to meet and helicopter the module “America” out of the ocean was his old carrier, the USS Ticonderoga.
The nation welcomed the astronauts home with the usual hoopla. Perhaps nowhere was excitement greater than in Kansas. Evans was named Kansan of the Year for 1972, while KU bestowed the University of Kansas Distinguished Service Citation on him the following year. The December 1972 edition of Kansas Alumni ran a story titled “Jayhawk Orbits the Moon,” in which it not only lauded Evans, but also reported on all the other KU graduates closely involved with the space program.
Easily the most prominent was Air Force Lt. Col. Joe H. Engle (e’55), a classmate of Evans’, who had become the country’s youngest astronaut (at age 33) back in 1965. Interestingly, Engle was originally slated to be the command module pilot for Apollo 17 and had, in fact, trained with Evans and Cernan for roughly a year in preparation for the December 1972 launch. Had this been the final crew complement, it would have been a double KU first – not only the first two Jayhawks in space, but also the first time two astronauts from the same school had left Earth’s orbit together.
In the end, though, Engle was bumped in favor of Jack Schmitt. Since Apollo 17 was to be America’s last moon mission, many scientists – including Schmitt himself, who held a doctorate in geology from Harvard – argued that a professional geologist should be put on the lunar surface.
As such, according to a 2002 Houston Chronicle article, the “politically astute and professionally ambitious” Schmitt “became the focus of an intense lobbying campaign by the global science community.” This effort, ultimately successful, persuaded NASA to make the crew change.
For his part, Engle would later achieve distinction as one of the first Space Shuttle astronauts. Meanwhile, during the early 1970s, as many as 17 other KU alumni were working in support of the Apollo programs, at either the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston or at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Among these was John E. “Jack” Riley (j’50), NASA’s deputy chief of public information, known as the “voice” of the space program. While Apollo 17 was in space, Riley interpreted “for news and television media what [was] going on during the actual moon walk.”
From all accounts, during his mission his home state was not far from Ron Evans’ mind. He later recalled trying to pinpoint Kansas on, from his perspective, the tiny North American land mass, thinking of how his family must be preparing for the Christmas holiday.
But his alma mater, too, was in a way part of the trip – his fellow earthbound Jayhawks saw to that. About a month before Apollo 17 took off, KU alum Robert P. Ryan (c’70), who was working in NASA’s Health Maintenance Branch at Mission Control, Houston, sent a letter to Robert E. Foster, KU’s director of bands, with an unusual request. He asked for a copy of the “Jayhawk Fight Song.”
“I have received permission,” Ryan wrote, “to wake up Mr. Evans one morning” with the song, so both his slumber and the cold vastness of space might be interrupted by the sounds of Jayhawk pride. Naturally Foster agreed, writing: “Everyone at the University of Kansas is, of course, proud of the accomplishments of its alumni and we are pleased to have men like you and Mr. Evans represent this University.” “[W]e are very happy to be a part, even in a small way, of his great project.”
As Evans admitted later, though, during an April 1973 visit to KU, the overture did not exactly have the desired wakening effect. “I have come back to KU to redeem myself,” he joked to the crowd. “One day during the flight, they played the Jayhawk fight song three or four times to wake me up and I didn’t hear it!” Nonetheless, at more than 200,000 miles, Ryan’s efforts doubtlessly represent the longest-distance broadcast of KU school spirit, a record that is not likely to be broken any time soon.
Apollo 17 would be Evans’ last mission into space, though he was the backup command module pilot for the historic joint American-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission of 1975.
The following year, he retired from the Navy as a captain after 21 years of service but remained with NASA until March 1977, during which time he helped train astronauts that would later be part of the reusable Space Shuttle program. Evans’ resume made him the right man for the job: During his more than two decades of military and astronaut service, he logged over 5,100 total flight hours, the equivalent of 212 solid days in the air.
Upon reentering civilian life, Evans maintained his close ties with the American space program as Director of Space Systems Marketing for Phoenix-based Sperry Flight Systems, supplying NASA with Space Shuttle and satellite components.
“I miss the excitement of flying in space,” Evans told Kansas Alumni in 1981, “and I’d like to do it again. But I probably won’t get to fly again because I’ve switched from the operations side of space to the business side.”
He confided to the magazine that the reason for his retirement from the space program was the long delay between the end of the Apollo and start of the Space Shuttle programs. Under these conditions, it is easy to see how a former fighter pilot and astronaut could, as he said, become “a little bored.”
Since Evans spent most of his adult life cheating death by working (and excelling) in two of the most dangerous fields of human endeavor, it was a total shock when he died of a heart attack on April 6, 1990, at the age of 56.
But it is some small consolation that part of Ronald Evans still lives on at his alma mater. The auditorium bearing his name in Raymond Nichols Hall contains a small KU flag that Evans had taken into space. It is mounted on a plaque that reads “To the men and women of KU where I took my first steps toward the moon.”
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas
Apollo 17 Crew Information (NASA): http://www.hq.nasa.gov/alsj/a17/a17.crew.html
Evans Bio & Missions History: http://www.astronautix.com/astros/evans.htm
Official NASA Evans Bio: http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/evans-re.html
For more detail about the Apollo 17 crew change involving Joe Engle and Jack Schmitt, see Houston Chronicle (December 5, 2002).