On Dec. 14, 1972, Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan climbed from the moon’s dusty surface up the rungs of the Lunar Module ladder, entered his spacecraft and began the journey back to earth.
Almost 40 years later, he still finds it strange to have been the last man on the moon.
“I honestly believed it wasn’t the end but the beginning,” said Cernan, now 78. He thought at the time: “We’re not only going back but, by the end of the century, humans will be well on their way to Mars.”
Funding for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as a percentage of the national budget has declined. The U.S. is relying on Russia to fly to the International Space Station.
“We cracked open the door and threw out a plum to young men and women who followed us -- many far more capable -- and they reeled in a lemon,” Cernan said.
In addition to consulting and public speaking, Cernan serves on the board of trustees of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.
I spoke with the retired U.S. Navy captain and veteran of Gemini IX, Apollo 10 and Apollo 17 at a recent Explorers Club event in Manhattan.
Clash: You came close to landing on the moon on Apollo 10, just before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s mission.
Cernan: Having come close, it was important to cover that last 47,000 feet to the surface. Once I finally stepped on the moon as part of Apollo 17, no matter what was to come of the next three days -- or the rest of my life -- nobody could take those steps from me. People ask how long will they be there, and I say forever -- like my daughter’s initials that I scribbled in the sand.
Clash: Perhaps your last steps are more significant. As you mounted the ladder to return, what was going through your mind?
Cernan: I looked back at Earth in all its splendor -- I call it sitting on God’s front porch looking home -- then down at my last footprint and realized, “Hey, I’m not coming this way again.”
I physically hesitated, asking what the meaning of the last three days was -- not just to me, but to all who would follow, and not just technologically but philosophically, spiritually. I didn’t have an answer then, and I don’t now.
Maybe in another 40 years we’ll realize Apollo’s significance to our future as a civilization.
Clash: There are divided views now about whether we should send men back to the moon first, or go directly to Mars.
Cernan: I do think we need to go to the moon first to set up a base so we can use more advanced propulsion techniques. Am I willing to go to Mars? Yes, but I’m not willing to spend nine months getting there, then wait 18 more months until the planets align to come home.
Chemical propulsion is obsolete to go anywhere other than the moon. Three days -- that’s acceptable. But for Mars we need propulsion technologies to get us there in say, 60 days -- then spend whatever length of time we want to spend -- two months, six months -- and return when we want to come home. That will require ion and nuclear propulsion and help from a base on the moon.
Clash: Your frustration with NASA is evident. You obviously would have liked to see more moon missions. How about your own visit to the moon -- anything you would have done differently?
Cernan: I left my Hasselblad camera there with the lens pointing up at the zenith, the idea being someday someone would come back and find out how much deterioration solar cosmic radiation had on the glass.
So, going up the ladder, I never took a photo of my last footstep. How dumb! Wouldn’t it have been better to take the camera with me, get the shot, take the film pack off and then (for weight restrictions) throw the camera away?
I did capture in my mind what that last footprint looked like, though. It’s still very vivid and, if I were Alan Bean, I’d paint it! (Bean, an Apollo 12 moon walker, later became an artist.)
Clash: Speaking of other moon walkers, you and the late Neil Armstrong are both Purdue alumni. Were you friends?
Cernan: Neil dated a friend of mine whom he eventually married. He and I also shared an office before either of us ever flew. That’s how I got to know him, and we became good friends over the years.
He’d been hassled a bit for being less free with his personal life and the media. There are a lot of people who could have been the first man on the moon. But nobody could have handled the aftereffects with more dignity than Neil.
(Jim Clash writes on adventure for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This article was adapted from a longer conversation. Clash’s new e-book, “The Right Stuff: Interviews with Icons of the 1970s/80s,” is due out this month.)
Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on dining, Simon Kennedy on books.