The Last Lunar Explorer: An interview with Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon

The Last Lunar Explorer: An interview with Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon

Jackson Howarth (from LUUSci at the University of Leeds) chats with Gene Cernan

This article is cross-published from LUUSci, the Leeds University Union student science magazine (originally published March 6, 2017). It is appearing on BlueSci’s website as part of a new initiative to form a UK-wide network of university science magazines. Membership is growing, and currently includes BlueSci (University of Cambridge), LUUSci (University of Leeds), {react} (Newcastle University), Kinesis (UCL), and Sci@StAnd (University of St Andrews). Look out for more of these guest articles across our websites. We hope this initiative will help to raise the profile of student science journalism by highlighting the fantastic work being done across the UK.  

I gave this interview in the summer of 2015, but never quite found the right opportunity to publish it. And now, nearly two years on, I can say that that I have only regrets that I left it so late. Gene Cernan passed away earlier this year, on January 16th. I can only hope that these few words will stand as both a testament to this remarkable man, and a brief window through which we may glimpse his warmth and passion. I will leave the rest of this piece as I originally wrote it.

“The first time I went to the moon, I remember looking back at the Earth in all its beauty and all its splendour.”

As a child, I was fascinated by the Moon. Most of us have at some point looked up and wondered what it must be like to walk on the surface of another world, or gaze back at the only home we have ever known. As I grew up, that sense of awe never left me. So a few months ago, when the brilliant people at Omega, whose ‘Speedmaster’ watches were worn by astronauts throughout the Gemini and Apollo missions, gave me an opportunity to interview Gene Cernan, I jumped at the chance. Gene is the only person out of the twelve Apollo astronauts who walked on the Moon to have descended towards the surface twice. He orbited, but didn’t land, during the Apollo 10 mission in 1969 whereupon re-entry, he and his crew also gained the record for travelling faster than any human had before. Gene then returned in 1972, during Apollo 17, and became the last man to walk on the Moon. In conversation, Gene was fascinating, and really did have an almost other-worldly presence. He spoke with warmth and enthusiasm despite being 81 years old – and having flown from Houston to London that morning. On behalf of all of us who will never be lucky enough to make the incredible journey ourselves, I decided it was only right to indulge my childhood curiosities, realising that this would likely be my best, and perhaps only chance to truly experience walking on the Moon.

Gene Cernan and author

Me: First of all, do you think it is actually possible to describe what going to the Moon is like?

Gene: The first time I went to the moon, I remember looking back at the Earth in all its beauty and all its splendour. Most people have only seen it through the eyes of poets, artists and philosophers, and you have to let your imagination do the work. On the Moon you’re looking at [the Earth], and it’s not like that picture you’ve seen, its three dimensional. You look at the Earth; the multicolours, the blue of the oceans, the whites of the snow and the clouds, and it doesn’t move and it doesn’t roll through space and it doesn’t tumble, there’s no strings holding it up. It moves with purpose and with order. Every twelve hours you’re looking at the other side of the world and yet it’s surrounded by what I like to call the blackest black you’ve ever seen. It’s not darkness. Darkness to me is like a shadow, or being in the shade. Think of an eclipse, that’s darkness. Blackness is the endlessness of time and space, it’s also three dimensional, and you can’t tell anybody about that. I mean I’m talking to you about it, but you’ve got to be there, you’ve got to experience it. No training, no preparation, no indoctrination, nobody can prepare you for it. Even when you’re being debriefed by the guy who just came back.

As you land on the Moon, you can feel those mountains, you can feel the mountains climbing and surrounding you. So we land. Dust was clear, noise was gone, nobody’s talking and you’re just mesmerised, and you realise, as you look out the window, you’re seeing what has never been seen with human eyes before. You’re somewhere where no human being has ever been before, and then some hours later when you’re prepared to leave the spacecraft, and you’re out in this environment, and sunshine, this paradox, surrounded by blackness – you are truly in another world. When I looked back from that other world… I found it conclusive, and I wanted to find a way of describing it to you, or to anybody, no matter what your beliefs are. I came to the conclusion that it was too beautiful to happen by accident, there had to be something bigger than you or me, some creator, I call him God, I don’t care how you want to worship your God, or what you want to call him. I know that there is a God who created this universe, because I sat in his front porch and looked back home. Now how do you tell someone what that’s like, that I’m sitting in God’s front porch with my spacesuit on!? Three days of my life, that’s where I was, divorced from normal everyday things, while the world was going on. Up there, night time is going, daytime is going, your family’s doing their thing, I could sort of work out what time it was in Houston by watching the sun rise, and imagined what my daughter was doing. It’s all going on without you, you’re not there.

Me: What happens to time out there? Does it change? Does it feel slower?

Gene: It just takes on a new meaning. You can kind of make time whatever you want. Time is defined here by the sun going up and going down. And you’ve got certain things you do in the morning and certain things you do in the evening; eat, go to bed, that kind of stuff, but up there…

If I lived on the moon for a month as we were going to do before the constellations program was cancelled, for six months, you would coordinate your lifestyle for fourteen days of day and fourteen days of night. You’d be doing different things because you’d have to cope with 250 degree Celsius temperature changes, down to -150. You would have to coordinate your lifestyle to time. Fourteen days – that’s time. When we go to Mars, you know you are really going to have to redefine time, and yet it is the one thing on Earth that controls everything you or I do.

In simulations, you can pause and emerge if you want to talk about it. Press the freeze button. Stop time. When I climbed up the ladder on that last EVA [Extravehicular activity] I knew I wasn’t coming back, and I looked down at my footprints, I knew someone would be back there, but it wouldn’t be me.

How long will you be there for, someone asked me, in terms of time? How long will my daughters initials be there on the surface in that sand, how long will the flag be there? – Forever – however long forever is, think about that. Forever! How long is forever? That’s time isn’t it? But how long is forever? So I tried to look back to Earth, and then down to my footprints, to try and figure out the significance of what it had meant to have been there, and I didn’t have enough time. I wanted to press the freeze button in the simulator but I didn’t have one. I’m disappointed that we haven’t followed on from that. But we will. Someday, perhaps another 50 years, and between when I stepped on the Moon, and the next person steps on the Moon, or on Mars, it’s going to seem very short.

Me: Given that we haven’t been back since, in hindsight, would you change your last words on the moon?

[As I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come (but we believe not too long into the future), 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.]

Gene: You know… Probably not. Everybody knows what Neil Armstrong said. Nobody knows what I said, but they all want to know what I was going to say. I say I don’t know what I was going to say, I’ve got to look and feel the moment. I couldn’t predict what might come to mind when I was looking down at those footprints and then looking back to Earth, over those mountains in the south-western sky, knowing that I wasn’t coming back. There’s no way I could have had a script, the words I said just came to me, I don’t think I could say anything different. I may have thought a bit about it the night before but they were spirit of the moment quite frankly and I don’t think there’s anything I could have said, knowing that it was going to be so long before we went back.

Me: We have already talked about the grandeur and the large, almost abstract, overwhelming reactions, but were there any very small, relatable, very human moments, which you had also never experienced on Earth?

Gene: I’m not avoiding the question, but everything was new and different. I’ve flown a Saturn V, and that was a first, but then the second time, I flew and commanded a Saturn V at night time, and whether you’re in a car, or flying a plane, or landing on the Moon, things are different at night. I had an abort handle right next to me and I remember that the last thing I wanted to do was to hit it by accident so I sat on my hand! We started this conversation by talking about coming down those steps, but the feeling, the feeling of 1/6th gravity, that I could do amazing things even in this heavy spacesuit, I could do things I couldn’t have even conceived before! That was new and different; sleeping on the moon. You don’t sleep, you just rest, but I tell you what struck me; I was laying there, just trying to accept the fact of where I was, I had to get up and peak through the coverings on the window, and look from the flag to the footprints and to the Earth, and I put it back down and lay down and I said something like – ‘I’m not sure I believe this’. I just wasn’t sure, I had to pinch myself, and then you get realistic – well I am here, and in three days I’ve got to get out of here when my work is done. Just trying to accept the fact that you’re there, I flew into space the first time and orbited the earth, and that was challenging and exciting and different, but there the earth was – I mean that was home! And now I’m on, let me call the moon another planet – I’m on another planet! That is truly unreal. And I’m there. And that is probably the best answer I can give you, the new and unusual experience was trying to get a hold of the fact that you were there, and that that world was going round below you and you were no longer a part of it. You are no longer… you’re looking back… and it’s just different.

—-End of interview —-

Before I stepped into the room where Gene was waiting, I did wonder whether I should ask some more technical questions, but I quickly dismissed this idea. Although Gene stressed the difficulties in describing a Moon walk, by explaining these difficulties, I think he painted a vivid picture. It has often been said that science cannot provide any moral guidance, but even if this is true, I feel like words like this can provide a perspective from which our planet, and its complex and fragile ecosystems, become more readily valued. Although mired by Cold War competition, one cannot deny that the Apollo missions demonstrated this value of science brilliantly. Putting man on the Moon inspired an entire generation of scientists, and the images and stories brought back by the astronauts continue to encourage calls to take better care of each other and our planet, and to put petty problems into perspective. If stories like this go untold, this invaluable legacy may fade, so let’s remember Gene.

Jackson Howarth is a 4th Year (exchange) student in History & The History and Philosophy of Science (University of Leeds).