55 years ago, Apollo 10's crew turned the airwaves blue

Shockingly, astronauts can curse when in high-stress situations

It has been 55 years since Apollo 10 slipped into lunar orbit. The mission? To rehearse nearly every part of Apollo 11's landing except the part where it would actually land.

The pace of the Apollo program is difficult for the Artemis generation to comprehend. Having flown a crew to lunar orbit on Apollo 8 at the end of 1968 and checked out the lunar module with Apollo 9 at the start of 1969, NASA was ready to take the next step with Apollo 10 and do almost everything except perform the touchdown.

The crew consisted of Gemini veterans Tom Stafford, Gene Cernan, and John Young. Cernan and Young would go on to land on the Moon in later Apollo missions, while Stafford's next (and last) spaceflight would be the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project of 1975.

The launch of the Saturn V was relatively straightforward, although the so-called pogo motion was described by Cernan in his book The Last Man on the Moon "as if the gods were mixing martinis."

The pogo shaking continued throughout the launch. Cernan recalled: "The spacecraft was talking to us, and we didn't like what it had to say." A new vibration replaced it during the burn to send the spacecraft to the Moon. The shaking was so bad that Cernan feared that the mission might be aborted. The infamously foul-mouthed former astronaut wrote: "Quoth the Raven, no fucking way."

Having extracted the lunar module from the Saturn V, the Apollo stack slipped into lunar orbit 55 years ago on May 21, 1969. Stafford and Cernan piloted the Apollo lunar module to less than 47,000 feet above the surface a day later. "Much closer," noted Cernan, "if you consider those damned mountains that seemed to be grinning around us like gigantic decayed teeth."

Cernan's words hint that the flight did not go well. An error on the part of the crew resulted in the wrong navigational mode being set, and when the bolts were blown to separate the ascent and descent stages of the lunar module, "Snoopy went nuts," Cernan said.

Snoopy was the call sign of the lunar module for Apollo 10. The command and service module was dubbed Charlie Brown.

The incident lasted only approximately eight seconds – although some sources put it as nearer 20 seconds – before control was regained. Still, we imagine it felt like a very long time for both crew and mission controllers.

"I didn't know it at the time," wrote Cernan, "but my cursing, done in a very intense moment, was about to ignite a firestorm of criticism."

There had been a good deal of colorful language from the astronauts during the mission, including Cernan hollering "SON OF A BITCH" as the lunar module appeared to go out of control.

He wrote: "Our transcribers had been treated to more than a few goddamns, fucks and shits and learned that astronauts in space can get royally pissed off."

"The good reverend Dr Larry Poland, president of the Miami Bible College, was most distressed that we had carried to the Moon" language befitting "a restroom wall," and Cernan was blamed. According to the former astronaut, out of every hundred letters received on the subject, 99 supported the crew. Still, NASA caved in and wheeled out Cernan to apologize for any offense.

Forgiveness was duly dispensed by the offended reverend. "That didn't make much difference to me," wrote Cernan. "I never got around to forgiving that self-righteous prig. Bunch of goddamned hogwash."

The crew of Apollo 10 is no longer with us. Tom Stafford died in March 2024 at the age of 93. Cernan died in 2017, and Young in 2018. The Apollo 10 command module can be seen at London's Science Museum, but the Snoopy lunar module was jettisoned into a heliocentric orbit. As far as astronomers can tell, the empty spacecraft has remained in orbit around the Sun ever since. ®

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