Gene Cernan never knew about the plan NASA approved to cut him loose in space — or at least he didn’t know about it at the time. When Cernan, who died today at age 82, did learn about it, long after any danger had passed, he could only laugh. It didn’t matter what NASA’s secret plans were, he’d have flown anyway.
It was in June 1966, as he and Tom Stafford were heading to the launch pad to take off aboard Gemini 9, that Stafford — but not Cernan — learned of the plan. Stafford was the commander of the mission — the man who would sit in the left-hand seat of the spacecraft. Cernan was the second in command of the two-man crew, but his subordinate position carried one important perk: the man in the right-hand seat was the one who would perform any spacewalks, while the commander stayed inside and tended to the ship.