Vintage Space Fun Fact: How to Not Swear on the Moon

In the 1960s, NASA’s astronauts were the cool, calm, and collected faces of the space program who represented American values — most were married and had some sort of religious affiliation. NASA’s public affair office took great pains to keep its astronauts’ images clean, but they were still men who occasionally cursed when faced with a bad situation. As NASA gathered steam and took a firm place in the public eye, the organization had a job covering up some of the less radio- and family-friendly transmissions. (One of the surface shots taken by the crew of Apollo 10. 1969.)

Every so often, astronauts forgot that their every word was broadcast live throughout the world. Some slip-ups, like Tom Stafford’s on Apollo 10, were easier to cover.

Four days, four hours, and forty-four minutes after launch, Commander Stafford and Lunar Module Pilot Gene Cernan were taking the LM Snoopy to a low lunar orbit; Command Module pilot John Young remained in the CM Charlie Brown. As Snoopy passed over the lunar surface, Stafford and Cernan took pictures of surface features to give future crews a better idea of the terrain they’d be facing when coming in for a landing. (Tom Stafford poses with his LM’s namesake, Snoopy. 1969.)

At one point, Stafford recognized a landmark crater, Censorinus A. He was momentarily distracted by the dramatic shadows and giant boulders surrounding the crater. “I’ve got Censorinus A right here,” he said out loud to the world, “bigger than shit!”

A shocked reporter listening to the transmission in mission control turned to astronaut Jack Schmitt. “What did Colonel Stafford just say?” Thinking quickly, Schmitt covered for his colleague and replied “He said, ‘Oh, there’s Censorinus… bigger than Schmitt!’”

Stafford’s was an isolated incident, but some astronauts were harder to censor. One in particular had the unfortunate habit of filling space when his mind wandered with profanities. This posed a problem for NASA — with the world watching astronauts walking around the lunar surface, how could the organization be sure the his transmissions from the Moon would be family-friendly? (Al Bean, Apollo 12 LMP, on the Moon. 1969.)

The story goes that in preparing for his mission, NASA had the astronaut hypnotized. Rather than curse, a psychiatrist put the idea in his head that he would rather hum when his mind wandered.  The hypnotized astronaut is rarely named, but only one man can be heard humming as he skipps across the lunar surface. Transmissions from Commander Pete Conrad are punctuated with “dum de dum dum dum” and “dum do do do, do do” making him the likliest candidate. (Pete Conrad visits samples he returned from the Moon.)

Suggested Reading:

Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox. Apollo. 2004.

Tom Stafford and Michael Cassutt. We Have Capture. 2004.


20 thoughts on “Vintage Space Fun Fact: How to Not Swear on the Moon

  1. I had the pleasure of meeting Gene Cernan, that man is one of the most creative and high-frequency cursers I have ever encountered. Considering my own salty tongue it was a pleasant shock to hear.

  2. Stumbled on this site and article – love it! Vintage space buff myself, currently reading Digital Apollo (great read). Thanks!

  3. Amy: Forgot to mention, the last words spoken on the moon weren’t they official ones – they were along the lines of, “OK, let’s get this motherf—er out of here.” There’s probably a story to be told there!


  4. It should also be noted that Pete Conrad was the only person to walk on the moon who failed a grade in high school – he was Dyslexic before it was an identified problem. He was fortunate to have a mother who was truely concerned and he went off to a boarding school. A terrific teacher there helped him work through his challenge.
    As he hummed, Pete was probably thinking “muh ed mud, muh ed mud…”

  5. @David, I think Gene Cernan just said “let’s get this mother out of here”.
    Some other fine eloquent examples were shown when Apollo 10’s LM went crazy when they were manoeuvring above the moon’s surface and the gyro’s went berserk. I guess it was Gene Cernan (again) who shouted “son of a b**ch!”.
    Pete Conrad also used weird replacements for his usual swear words, when he climbed off the porch of the LM to descend to the Moon’s surface he had to pull the handle for the TV camera. He said “Good Godfrey. That – that handle’s in there like something I never saw before.”
    The Apollo 12 transcript is a very nice read anyway. Lots of laughter and jokes. Sometimes they weren’t aware their mike was “hot” and occasionally blurted out strong language. they were pilots, after all…

    1. Jasper:

      I’d heard it both ways, so I assumed that “mother” was the cleaned-up version. Jack Schmitt is going to be doing research at my archival facility this spring; maybe I’ll try to ask him about it (being as delicate as possible).


  6. Apollo 10 astronaut, Cernan and Stafford, weren’t watching their language because their LM was spinning wildly out of control. My understanding is that the lunar module, Snoopy, went crazy when one astronaut flipped a switch for the other; then the other astronaut switched it back…to the WRONG position. (This is from memory…i could be wrong…but it’s a good story!)

    1. Ray, that is a great story, and there are a number of profanities at that point in the mission transcript. I can’t say whether they were broadcasting live audio at the time, though. I’ll have to look into it.

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