There can be few who do not know the name of the first man who walked on the Moon, who can perhaps even name his colleagues who flew with him on the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969. Perhaps to have been the last man on the Moon is not such a distinction but it remains a huge honour, with only twelve people ever to have walked on that nearby but alien world, the last of them being Harrison H “Jack” Schmitt and Eugene Cernan who spent three days on the lunar surface before departing on 14th December 1972.
The subject of a new feature length documentary from director Mark Craig, The Last Man on the Moon Gene Cernan has remained as humble as his upbringing, growing up on his grandparents’ farm in Wisconsin with no electricity or tractors, just horses to pull the farm equipment, and he has kept nature in his life despite the call first of the skies then the stars.
Graduating from Purdue University he was commissioned in the US Navy and became a naval aviator; recalling the days in and out of San Diego, flying off aircraft carriers, Cernan states he felt “invincible and bulletproof,” though as some terrifying footage of botched landings attests, others were not so lucky.
Cernan, who turned 82 in March 2016, remains sanguine about his continued survival: “It’s always going to happen to the other guy.” That attitude served him well when a phone call came to offer him an opportunity which he had considered but which he had not imagined would come his way, expecting that “by the time I got qualified, all the opportunities would have gone. All the pioneering would be done.”
Instead he was invited to attend a secret meeting at a hotel, where after checking in under a false name he found the bar full of test pilots. Then came the examinations, then the medical, then the physical tests, then finally the call. “We’ve got a job for you in Houston if you still want it.”
Told through interviews with not only Cernan but his colleagues who have remained lifelong friends, the personalities frame a potted history of the space programme, the stories set against footage of the various test flights leading up to the Gemini then the Apollo programmes, as astonishing now as fifty years ago, balanced with lighter moments, faded home movies of Cernan’s wedding day to Barbara, their life together, their daughter Tracy growing up.
Beyond the archive footage, photographs and news reports, there are also beautifully rendered recreations to illustrate key moments in the story where footage could not be captured, such as Cernan’s two hour spacewalk from the Gemini 9A, the longest ever attempted at that time. “Our goal was to identify and solve problems so that Neil (Armstrong) and his crew would have that much less to worry about,” Cernan recalls.
While that mission in June 1966 was not a complete success, Cernan and command pilot Thomas Stafford returned to Earth safely, but others were not so fortunate. Cernan and Stafford were originally the backup crew for that mission, promoted to primaries when Charles Bassett and Elliot See tragically died in a test flight accident only months before liftoff.
Similarly, as the Gemini flights were conceived as preliminary test flights to establish the technology for the later Apollo missions, so Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Edward White were killed in the Apollo 1 fire in January 1967. Risk may be the price of progress, but it is not without cost; also interviewed is Martha Chaffee, who describes the night she was told she was a widow, that the father of her children would not be coming home.
“You think going to the Moon is hard? You ought to try staying home,” Barbara Cernan comments; she and Martha Chaffey were close friends, “like sisters.” But despite the statement of Alan Bean, fourth man to walk on the Moon, that work came first for all of the astronauts, Gene Cernan is not unaware of his family; reading the letter he wrote to his daughter the night before he flew around the Moon in May 1969, launched by a Saturn V rocket, the emotion of his promise to return safely to her has not dissipated in five decades.
Remaining rightfully in awe of what his younger self and all those who worked to put him in that position accomplished, while The Last Man on the Moon is an elegiac recollection, as a celebration it is sombre; the lives that were lost are in the past but so is the achievement. Ten missions to the lunar surface were planned; after budget cuts and the near disaster of Apollo 13 this was cut to six, the last being Apollo 17.
Cernan himself does not dwell on the past; “I’m the luckiest human being in the world. I don’t go around living in the past for the most part, but every once in a while, you let yourself go back in time. I look up there and I might just reflect for a half a minute or so. I can take myself there at the speed of thought.”
Revisiting the launch site, Cernan finds a bleakness, the technology, once the sum of a nation’s collective intellect and the colossal pooled effort of a dozen disciplines, now turned to rust, given to the weeds. “I don’t want to remember it this way. It’s disappointing. I almost wish I hadn’t come.”
Since Jack and Gene left the Moon over forty four years, humanity has not only failed to return, nor are there any immediate plans to do so. The reason is not that there is nothing to be done, with the possibility of advanced optical and radio astronomy without interference, of valuable minerals, of solar collectors, of helium-3 harvesting, it is that the space race was driven by political and ideological goals which no longer exist. The space race was won by the west and the matter supposedly settled. We remember, but we have not progressed.
The Apollo 10 capsule in which Cernan, Stafford and John Young orbited the Moon in a dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 touchdown now sits in the Science Museum in London while Apollo 17 resides in Johnson Space Centre, but Eugene Cernan does not sit still. With his fellow former astronauts telling him to slow down and his personal assistant countering that retirement isn’t in his vocabulary, he remains determined to give time to everyone who wishes to share a moment with someone who has walked on another world.
A portrait of a remarkable man, for all he has done, Cernan remains humble and – ironically – fully down to Earth. “You’ll never know how good you are unless you try. Dream the impossible and go out and make it happen. I walked on the Moon. What can’t you do?”
The Last Man on the Moon is in cinemas from Friday 8th April with a special Nationwide Live Q&A with Captain Eugene Cernan on Monday 11th April only is available on iTunes and On Demand from 15th April