Just a few days before American astronaut Scott Kelly returned to Earth after spending nearly a year aboard the International Space Station, a documentary was released chronicling the life and times of one of Kelly’s predecessors: Eugene Cernan, “The Last Man on the Moon.”
When Cernan was growing up in the western suburbs and attending what was then known as Proviso High School in Maywood, he had ambitions to become a pilot, but he never thought about becoming an astronaut — mainly because space travel was the stuff of science fiction in the 1940s.
“I go back to before God created water,” said Cernan, 81, in a phone interview. “They’d show newsreels before the movies, and I saw planes taking off from aircraft carriers, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
“I came from an average, blue-collar family. Mom and Dad didn’t go to college … so flying a plane was just a dream, but I never lost that dream.”
After graduating from Purdue, Cernan became a naval aviator and, after logging thousands of hours of flight time, was selected by NASA in 1963 to participate in the Gemini and then the Apollo missions.
“When [President John F.] Kennedy challenged us to go to the moon, we didn’t know beans about going to the moon,” said Cernan. “Two things about the ’60s. There was the campus unrest, civil strife, very unpopular war — but we also sent three Americans to the moon and it was what this country needed and proved it could do.
“We need another JFK, quite frankly.”
In May of 1969, two months before Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon, Cernan commanded Apollo 10, which was in essence a dress rehearsal for the moon landing.
“I used to tell Neil, God bless his soul, someone had to paint that white runway strip from the Earth to the moon so he wouldn’t get lost,” says Cernan with a chuckle.
An urban legend of sorts about the Apollo 10 flight resurfaced last month when a TV series revisited the story about the crew hearing “outer-space music” on the dark side of the moon during the mission.
“Oh golly, every conspiracy theorist in the world has called me on that one,” said Cernan. “And to be honest with you, if it were really something, it would have been in a debrief, and I’m sure I’d remember it — but I don’t remember it.
“We had two vehicles that were separated. You’re on the other side of the moon, almost in a different what I would call electronic environment. There was static interference.
“I don’t know what it was. I’d like to be able to tell you that along with that noise I saw an odd-looking winged craft next to us, and the guy sticking his head out the window had long green ears — but I can’t.”
Cut to December 1972. On the last of his three days on the moon, Eugene Cernan spent more than seven hours outside the Lunar Module. He drove the Lunar Roving Vehicle, he collected samples, he took measurements.
“When I made those steps on the moon, in my life I felt as if I’d arrived. Those steps were very meaningful to me. …
“When you walk on the moon, you have to realize, this is not Earth. It’s another piece of real estate in the universe. That’s something you have to come to grips with.”
In a gesture that lives on in space travel lore and the popular culture, Cernan scrawled his daughter’s initials into the lunar surface, where they remain to this day as the coolest graffiti ever.
“People ask me if I planned it, but I didn’t. I had NO idea it would be such a big deal to the folks. When my daughter was grown, she appreciated it, and now my granddaughters, they tell me it was a really, really neat thing for me to do. Their mother’s initials are on the moon. That gives me a great deal of joy.”
With the release of the documentary, Cernan finds himself in the public eye again, and though he’s never been one to seek fame, he says he’s come to understand how people view him.
“People say, ‘You’re one of 12 men who walked on the moon,’ and I accept that they’ll look at me differently than I look at myself.
“If that helps me inspire people, terrific. I’m a very strong advocate of space exploration; I lived on God’s front porch for three days. But I’m also a strong advocate of young people pursuing all sorts of dreams. So many kids today have talent, if we could just get them to focus. … I want doctors, I want teachers, I want kids to devote themselves to be passionate. Let’s get that generation inspired.”
“The Last Man on the Moon” is available for viewing on iTunes, Amazon and other on-demand services.