Apollo 11's astronauts were in the midst of a tight, grueling training schedule in May 1969. Just one slip-up could delay their July launch and derail the goal of landing on the moon before the end of the 1960s. But in addition to learning how to control the command service module, fly the lunar module and operate other systems, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins had to learn to watch their language.
That was because of their profanity-spewing Apollo mission predecessors -- the Apollo 10 crew of Thomas Stafford, John Young and Gene Cernan.
In the dress-rehearsal for Apollo 11, the Apollo 10 astronauts spent their May 18-26, 1969, mission rocketing to the moon, flying the lunar module close to the moon's surface and cursing like drunken sailors. (To be fair, Stafford was from the Air Force. His crew mates served in the Navy.)
The most well-known profanity incident broadcast to millions of television viewers was when mission commander Stafford and lunar-module pilot Cernan were flying the lunar module just 49,000 feet from the moon's surface when it began to roll wildly.
"Son of a bitch," Cernan exclaimed, startling Mission Control and those watching on TV.
When checking out the landing site for Apollo 11, Cernan excitedly said, "You know, this Goddamn ..." then stopped abruptly before starting his statement again. "Boy, I'll tell you, babe, this is something."
But it wasn't just when the Apollo 10 crew members were under stress or were very excited that they cursed. It happened frequently during ordinary conversation among the astronauts.
"How -- how come these bastards gave us this star chart with no [laughter] velcro?" Stafford said one time, according to mission transcripts.
Seconds later, it was command-module pilot Young's turn.
"Yes -- no, I don't want that. No, I don't want any of that shit [laughter]," he said.
All that curing in space caused a -- ahem -- certain type of storm back on Earth.
Dr. Larry Poland, president of the non-denominational Miami Bible College, contacted NASA and President Richard Nixon to complain about the profuse profanity from the Apollo 10 crew, demanding they apologize for their behavior.
"I've gotten calls from many people who were astounded that they were broadcasting things like that 240,000 miles from the moon when it's the kind of language you would expect to see on the restroom wall," Poland said in a story published in the Orlando Sentinel on May 28, 1969. "It was in serious bad taste and indiscreet, I felt.
"I realize the men were under extreme pressure, but the other astronauts were able to control well their use of foul language."
According to NASA transcripts of the mission, the Apollo 10 astronauts cursed at least 230 times. Which makes the number of curses uttered by the Apollo 11 crew that much more remarkable.
Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins cursed less than 15 times during their moon-landing mission, based on NASA transcripts. Most of that came from command-module pilot Collins. Aldrin cursed just once and Armstrong didn't at all.
With the attention of the world focused on everything they did or said, the Apollo 11 astronauts conducted themselves as great ambassadors for America.
But back to Apollo 10. Was all their cursing really that bad?
We won't go into detail, but none of the astronauts used the granddaddy of curse words, the one that starts with an "f." The word "shit" was the most popular profanity, used 157 times by the Apollo 10 astronauts.
The complaints against the Apollo 10 crew incited students at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne to start a petition defending the astronauts.
"A space technology professor and hundreds of Florida Institute of Technology students Wednesday challenged the right of a Bible college president to ask Apollo 10 astronauts to repent for 'their profanity, vulgarity and blasphemy' while orbiting the moon," the Sentinel reported on May 29,1969.
"We feel that the inane protesters should apologize for their blatant display of ignorance and manners," said student William Lynn McKinney. He helped start the petition, which more than 300 students signed and sent to Nixon.
Dr. James Lasater, professor of physics, oceanography and space technology, was also behind the drive to support Stafford, Young and Cernan.
"Ideally, of course, it would have been best if the language had not been used," he told the Sentinel. "But the astronauts deserve non censure for it. They were in an extreme and alien situation that occurred 240,000 miles away from our society of Earth."
This article is written by Roger Simmons from The Orlando Sentinel and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.