by Jeff Cunningham
A couple of days ago, engineer, naval aviator, Apollo astronaut and “the last man on the moon” Eugene “Gene” Cernan passed away at the age of 82. We know… there’s been a lot of obituaries flooding your social feeds of late, and we won’t drag it out, but this man is worth a few words.
Born and raised in suburban Illinois, Cernan received a degree in Electrical Engineering from Purdue before going on to serve in the United States Navy as an aviator. His career included over 5,000 hours at the stick, and over 200 landings on aircraft carriers.
He was among the third group selected by NASA for the Astronaut Corps. Cernan flew Gemini 9A and Apollo 10, and in the process became the second American spacewalker, pioneering techniques for extravehicular activity and orbital rendezvous that later crews would use.
What history knows him best for, though, was as commander of Apollo 17, the final expedition to the lunar surface, and the bittersweet honor of being the last man to walk on the moon. Cernan and his crew made the best of their time, gathering invaluable surveying data and samples that gave scientists important clues as to the moon’s early history (and he also managed to set the lunar land speed record in the rover while he was at it).
Before climbing the ladder to the lander and turning his back on the “magnificent desolation” of Earth’s moon, he paused and spoke these words to the people of Earth:
“…As I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come … I’d like to just (say) what I believe history will record: that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”
That’s what history remembers him for. I, however, remember him as a man of indomitable passion, more Browncoat than the Browncoats themselves. Heck, he responded to the “moon landing deniers” in the amazing documentary In the Shadow of the Moon (seriously, stream it the next chance you get, it’s one of the best ever made on the space race with beautiful, never-before-seen HD footage) with words that will sound familiar to any fan of Firefly: “Nobody can take those footsteps I made on the surface of the moon away from me.”
I was fortunate enough to meet this brave man when he came to speak at the University of Central Florida. The way that I will remember him will be as a fierce, tireless defender and advocate for getting us back out there in the black. Think about it– how horrible would it feel to be known as the last man to walk on the moon? As the years pass, I can imagine how it could turn from an honor into a terrible burden. Cernan may well have felt the same, because he continuously testified before Congress, spoke before audiences and anyone who would listen to him that he should NOT be the last.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but when I look at his life and how he spent it after returning to Earth, I can’t avoid looking at myself in the mirror in comparison and asking, “Well, what have you done for that cause?” Indeed, what have each of us done who professes to care and believe in the exploration and colonization of the heavens (which, you’d think, would include any fan of science-fiction franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly/Serenity, etc.)? Not to try to guilt anyone (aside from maybe myself) into it, but I really think there is more we could be doing– not “we” as in “trust everyone else to vote,” but as in you and me, no matter what your background may be.
It’s given me pause to think about how we’ve been going about this little campaign of ours at Take Back the Sky, and it may well inspire a change or two. I’m still thinking it all over in my mind, and I’ll keep you posted of any epiphanies that come to me.
But for now, Godspeed, Captain Cernan. It is our hope that mankind will, in the not-too-distant future, once again follow in your footsteps.