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Downlinks with Miles O'Brien

Moon's last visitor spins tale of guts, glory and loss

From top: Cernan reflects on the lunar mission; Cernan salutes the U.S. flag on the lunar surface; a view of Earth from the Apollo 17 spacecraft; Cernan drives the lunar rover

CNN In-Depth Specials - Apollo 11 at 30

July 14, 1999
Web posted at: 10:18 a.m. EDT (1418 GMT)


HOUSTON (CNN) -- The last man on the moon prefers not to be introduced that way.

"That's a very disappointing handle that people put on me," says Gene Cernan.

Nearly 27 years after he scaled the LM ladder, looked below at his boot-prints etched in the lunar dust, and above, at our stunning blue planet suspended in the "three dimensional" blackness, Cernan wants to be remembered as someone who was there at the start of something bold and audacious -- not the end an glorious era.

But those glory days are over. Cernan admits that now, with more than a twinge of sadness. "I don't represent the beginning of Apollo," he admits. "I represent the end ... in other words we've already closed the door on having visited another planet in this universe."

But, fortunately, Gene Cernan has not closed the door on his memories of that amazing time. His book, written in collaboration with journalist and author Don Davis, is in the same category as the best astronaut memoir ever written: Mike Collins' "Carrying the Fire."

And while he may not like the handle "Last Man on the Moon," that's the title of Cernan's book. If the moon-boot fits, you gotta wear it, I suppose.

Cernan has a great story to tell, but then so do all the astronauts of his era. What few of them are inclined to do is offer some candor -- and share some real insights. After all, they don't hire test pilots for their verbal skills. That's what sets Cernan's book apart. The man can spin some yarn.

Read his chapter "The Spacewalk from Hell," and you'll realize how "Go Fever" put astronauts in often dire straits -- and how little we really knew of the danger at the time. Cernan writes: "It can safely be said that we didn't know diddly squat about walking in space when I popped the hatch open on Gemini 9."

It is a harrowing tale. Cernan did not have the benefit of all the handholds and foot restraints today's spacewalkers rely upon. Once outside, he flailed away, unable to do many simple tasks -- for lack of leverage. His heartbeat raced to 180 beats per minute; his visor fogged as he struggled in the void; he burped -- and was literally in a pickle: "The briny taste of (a) big green pickle I devoured ... five days (before) returned and would haunt me for the rest of the spacewalk," he writes.

Finally, a test he was to perform on a backpack designed (ironically) to give future spacewalkers more mobility had to be scrubbed. For Cernan, it was a Herculean struggle just to wedge himself back into the tight confines of the Gemini capsule.

It was Cernan's first spaceflight, and when he returned to Houston, he admits he worried that he had failed a hazing to earn his stripes in the hyper-competitive astronaut office. What kind of Stuff did he have? "There was a clear feeling in my own mind that, somehow, I had screwed up. That I had let them down."

But of course Cernan never let anyone down at NASA. He went on to fly within 40,000 feet of the lunar surface as LM pilot on Apollo 10, and then onto the surface as commander of Apollo 17.

But he does admit he let his family down during those frenetic years. When he returned from his first visit to the moon, his daughter Tracy simply, and poignantly, wanted to know when daddy was going to take her on a long-promised camping trip. Once, when his wife Barbara was asked how she felt about her husband going to the moon, she replied, "If you think going to the moon is hard, try staying at home."

Ultimately, the strain and the separation proved to be too much for the Cernans. They split in 1980 -- when Tracy was a teen-ager. "She got tired of being Mrs. Astronaut," Cernan admits.

That was the price Gene Cernan -- and many other astronauts of his generation -- paid for their amazing adventure.

And you get the sense that, after all the sacrifices that they made (in some cases, the ultimate sacrifice), we owe it to them not to let their dreams languish.

Gene's last words as he stepped off the moon were: "America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow."

Maybe that will one day be true. But that destiny will be left to a generation that did not grow up watching the grainy images of men romping on another world.

But all they will have to do is read "The Last Man on the Moon" and they will understand why we went, and why we should never have stopped going.

Space Correspondent Miles O'Brien's column appears weekly.

Downlinks archive

Looking ahead, looking back
June 23, 1999
Apollo 8 astronauts look back 30 years after historic flight
December 20, 1998

Gene Cernan
Gene Cernan-Rover 16x20 & 8x10
NASA Homepage
  • Apollo 17 Lunar Surface Journal : Mission Summary
  • Apollo 10 Mission Overview
  • On the Shoulders of Titans: A History of Project Gemini
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