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.)
Charles Murray and Catherine Bly Cox. Apollo. 2004.
Tom Stafford and Michael Cassutt. We Have Capture. 2004.