“It’s a small step for a man, but a giant leap for mankind.” On July 20, 1969, as man steps for the first time on the surface of the Moon, about 600 million people worldwide watch it live. The scope of the event is far-reaching: American supremacy in the ‘space race’ is confirmed, and NASA’s achievement is to spearhead decades of spatial discoveries.
Of course, we all keep the First Men (& Women) in good memory. Neil Armstrong is one of them, along with Christopher Columbus, Lucy, Yuri Gagarin… all achieved posterity, sometimes thanks to an incredible twist of fate, but also to an odd set of circumstances or via historical reconstruction. (Conspiracy theorists out there: I don’t refer to the 1969 Moon landing but to Columbus’ self-proclaimed discovery of America, though the continent could have been discovered earlier.)
What about the Last Men (& Women)?
Apollo 11’s success was not only synonymous with laurels for the U.S. in the course of the space race which brought Soviet and American blocks into conflict. It is also an incredible technological exploit, made possible thanks to years of research, and consecrates man into a ‘multi-planetary species’. “This is the greatest week in the history of the world since Creation” President Nixon stated at the time. Only seven years had passed since JFK had made his famous Houston speech urging mankind to “choose to go to the Moon”.
In the space of three and a half years, six new Apollo missions would be launched, starting with Apollo 12… whose crew walked into Armstrong’s fresh foot tracks, only four months after him! Successive missions would soon outshine one another: no more than twelve astronauts stepped on the Moon – a record that still holds today. December 1972: the last chapter in the Apollo program’s history is about to be written, that’s number 17. The mission is commanded by a man named Eugene “Gene” Cernan.
Although he is only 38 years old at the time, Cernan already has a long track record within the aerospace industry. He served aboard Gemini 9, and then piloted the lunar module in the course of the Apollo 10 mission. His career highlights the pace at which the space race has to be conducted according to U.S. authorities – after all, the first achievement of mankind in that field was when Yuri Gagarin first journeyed into outer space in 1961, and that was on Soviet side!
However, when Cernan took over Apollo 17, the program was already running out of steam. NASA has dedicated a big chunk of his total budget to the Apollo missions – up to three billion dollars (70% of NASA’s budget) in 1967. As ten brave Americans had already stepped on the Moon’s surface, the general public got bored of lunar achievements. Plus, at the turn of the 1960s, Earth news did not leave much room for space exploration. People demonstrated massively against the Vietnam War; the Space Race was not atop the US/Soviet priorities since both sides initiated general disarmament; and on top of that, NASA had just successfully launched the first space probe to orbit the Red Planet a month before. That’s it: the Moon was not trendy anymore.
Cernan has to face it: better give the Apollo program a proper burying. Heading the Apollo 17 mission, whose crew includes astronauts Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt, he took a seat aboard the Saturn V rocket on December 7, 1972. Four calm days of space journey followed, without any problem to be reported to Houston. Eventually, on December 11, Commander Gene Cernan got to spacewalk – he and his crew surely had a good time out there: they still hold the record of the longest time spent moonwalking, more than 22 hours. On December 19, weighed down by about 250 pounds of lunar rocks, the command module safely came back to Earth.
Since then, NASA never dealt any spare tickets to the Moon; rather, it worked hard on a joint US-Soviet space program. Cernan, freshly back from our satellite, joined the American ranks.
“There was no work for me in Skylab, but when there was the long-awaited joint venture with the Russians, known as the Apollo-Soyuz Test Program, I was on the negotiating team representing the American astronauts […]. From 1973 to 1975, I traveled to the Soviet Union numerous times, and to my pleasant surprise, found lasting friends among my once-mortal enemies, the Soviet cosmonauts.”
It’s not that Eugene loves it; without a doubt, he would trade the NASA-logoed suit and tie for a spacesuit. But his career had to come to an end, despite his will to keep on space traveling and discovering more! The last man on the Moon retired in 1976, and seemed to bitterly regret no astronaut was ever chosen to follow his own footsteps.
“After Apollo 17, America stopped looking towards the next horizon. The United States had become a space-faring nation, but threw it away. We have sacrificed space exploration for space exploitation, which is interesting but scarcely visionary.”
Despite his wishes towards greater space exploration, Eugene Cernan is to leave man’s last footprints up there for a long time. And since the Moon does not feature an atmosphere – thus preventing erosion from occurring on its surface – his challenge is to be remembered by the generations to come.
- The Last Man on the Moon: Astronaut Eugene Cernan and America’s Race in Space, by Eugene Cernan, Donald A. Davis (1999)