Apollo 12 astronaut Richard “Dick” F. Gordon Jr., one of a dozen men who flew around the moon but didn’t land there, has died, NASA said. He was 88.
Gordon died Monday at his San Marcos home, according to the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.
Gordon was a test pilot when he was chosen for NASA’s third group of astronauts in 1963. He flew on Gemini 11 in 1966, walking in space twice. In 1969, Gordon circled the moon in the Apollo 12 command module Yankee Clipper while crewmates Alan Bean and Charles Conrad landed and walked on the lunar surface.
Over the two flights, he spent nearly 316 hours in space”Dick will be fondly remembered as one of our nation’s boldest flyers, a man who added to our own nation’s capabilities by challenging his own. He will be missed,” acting NASA administrator Robert Lightfoot said in a statement Tuesday.
Born in Seattle, a Navy captain and a chemist, Gordon was such a steely professional that after a difficult first spacewalk, he fell asleep during a break in his second spacewalk. He downplayed Apollo 12 being hit by lightning during liftoff; backup batteries saved the crew from having to abort the mission.
“He’s a cool guy,” Bean recalled Tuesday. “He’s the kind of guy you want when you go to the moon.”
In a 1997 NASA oral history, Gordon said people would often ask if he felt alone while his two partners walked on the moon. “I said, ‘Hell no, if you knew those guys, you’d be happy to be alone’.”
Gordon called that experience wonderful: “You don’t have to communicate. You don’t have to worry about pleasing anyone beside yourself. And there’s a lot of things that you have to do and accomplish. And it’s a moment of solitude.”
Gordon and Bean described the second moon landing as a mission full of antics and dust.
When Conrad and Bean left the moon and docked their lunar module, Gordon said he looked in and “all I could see was a black cloud in there. I didn’t see them at all. I looked in there and said, ‘Holy smoke. You’re not getting in here and dirtying up my nice clean Command Module.’ So they passed the rocks over, took off their suits and underwear, and I said, ‘OK, you can come in now’.”
Gordon had been slated to command the Apollo 18 mission that would land on the moon, but it was cut for budget reasons. Apollo 17 was the last mission to the moon. In all, 24 Americans flew to the moon and 12 landed on it.
While in the Navy as a test pilot, Gordon won the Bendix Trophy Race from Los Angeles to New York in 1961, setting a speed record of 869.74 miles per hour.
Gordon was the instant leader of a star-studded class of 14 astronauts that included Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins and the last man on the moon, Eugene Cernan, Bean recalled.
“He was a happy guy and just the best possible crewmate and friend,” he said.
During his first Gemini 11 spacewalk, Gordon said he and crewmate Conrad “were so jacked up” that they were ready an hour early. When it came time to put on his helmet, it wouldn’t fit. After much effort and lost time, he got it on, but was exhausted and behind schedule.
“I was perspiring,” he later recalled. “My eyes were stinging … they decided to quit.”
His second spacewalk was so calm that he and Conrad caught themselves falling asleep.
“It was nice and warm and cuddly,” Gordon said.
After retiring from NASA in 1972, he became executive vice-president of the New Orleans Saints football team. He went on to be an executive in energy and science companies.
Gordon is survived by six children, two stepchildren and five grandchildren.
Gordon had two spacewalks — at a time when NASA still hadn’t mastered them. He ran into problems from the start. Gordon labored somewhat alarmingly outside the capsule — breathing heavily and sweating profusely.
“How are you doing?” asked Conrad.
“Alright. Just rest. You’ve got plenty of time. You’ve only been out nine minutes.”
Gordon’s visor was fogging up as he struggled in the weightlessness (much like had happened in previous spacewalks). There were no handholds or places to pin his feet, and he kept floating away from the spacecraft. “I equate the experience I had with trying to tie your shoelaces with one hand,” he remembered during an interview with NPR in 2016. “It’s an impossible task and we learn from that. I think we learn more from our failures and mistakes than we do with anything else.”
NASA made it to the moon by the end of the 1960s because it overcame and learned from obstacles like this one.
Gordon flew again in 1969 on Apollo 12, the second mission to land on the moon. He was the command module pilot and stayed behind, circling the moon as Conrad and Alan Bean walked on the surface.
For 42 hours, he was by himself and said he loved it. When he wasn’t busy conducting experiments and taking pictures, he enjoyed the solitude — especially as he looked back at the planet: “Makes you think about the fragility of our Earth and the things we do to it to make you realize how fragile it is.”
Gordon was in line to command a later lunar mission, perhaps Apollo 18. But that flight was canceled. He was disappointed he never got to walk on the moon but proud of his NASA tenure. After he left the space agency, he became a vice president of the New Orleans Saints football team and later worked for several oil and gas companies.