In 1972, the US astronaut Eugene Cernan became the last man to set foot on the moon. Now 82, he recalls Nasa’s final Apollo mission — and his own small steps and giant leaps.
As the lunar module approached the surface of the moon, it was noisy from the vibrations and I could just about hear the team on the ground talking to me. Then the dust started blowing underneath, and I lost sight of where I wanted to land. All I could do was flick the switch and shut down the engine.
It was December 1972. I was part of the Apollo 17 crew, the final mission of Nasa’s space programme, which had brought Neil Armstrong to worldwide attention 3½ years earlier. I had orbited the moon before, on Apollo 10, but now I was sitting in the commander’s seat and I was about to land on the lunar surface.
Suddenly, there was no noise, no dust. I held my breath and looked out across the landscape — it was like science fiction. There I was, sitting in this other world with my fellow astronaut, Harrison. There was no wind, no trees, no telephone poles — I was struck by the absence of everything. I don’t know whether this state lasted 10 or 20 seconds, but then I came alive again and realised with excitement: “Hell, I’m on the moon! This is it.”
Stepping out of the lunar module took a lot of preparation, between getting on our spacesuits and doing many checks. Finally, we inched down the rungs of the ladder and onto the surface. This was the first time I had stepped on anything solid that was not Earth. Think about that: every step we take is on this planet somewhere. All of a sudden, I’m walking on a surface — some rocks, some planet — but it’s not Earth. The first steps had been taken by Neil Armstrong, then there were the other men who walked on the moon, but those were my first steps, and nobody could take them away from me.
As we’d left Earth’s orbit, I had seen the multicoloured blues of the ocean, the whites of the snow and clouds. I’d watched it all reach around and close in upon itself. Now, looking across the horizon, I could see Earth a quarter of a million miles away. I gazed across the continent of Africa. Back inside the lunar module 12 hours later, I caught a glimpse of North America. I came to the conclusion that there were so many things I didn’t understand. I got a feeling that this must be what it’s like to sit on God’s front porch and look at creation. I wasn’t afraid. You’ve got oxygen and water, you’ve bought into the fact that you’re going to be in a tin can on the moon. The spacecraft might get hit by a meteor, but it’s one chance in a million and you don’t worry about that.
During the day, we put on our spacesuits and went through all the checks. It was hot in the suit and we perspired a lot. That first day, we unloaded the lunar rover. The second and third days were all about exploring predetermined points. We inspected, photographed and collected samples of lunar rock to bring home. Back inside the spacecraft, we handled the rock with our bare hands. It smelt like gunpowder.
Sleep was difficult. I remember, that first night, thinking: “I’ve come all this way, taken all this risk, and I’m going to sleep?” It seemed crazy, what a waste of time. But the doctor had told us to rest, so we pulled the shades down and lay in our hammocks, crisscrossed one on top of the other.
I never worried about getting off the moon until the time came, three days later. It’s easy now to say, “I didn’t go to the moon not to come home,” but the fact is you knew there was a possibility. The other astronauts and I never talked about it. We didn’t really want to face it as a possibility, but I believe every one of us knew that we were putting ourselves in harm’s way, but that it was worth it. As I walked to the spacecraft, I didn’t want to go home. I impulsively put my daughter Tracy’s initials in the sand where I had parked the rover, behind the lunar module. I’d already put away the cameras, but I wish I had taken a photo of those initials and of my final footsteps.
I knew I wouldn’t come this way again, but thought somebody else would. That was more than 40 years ago, and I’m overwhelmingly disappointed that nobody has been on the moon since. It’s unacceptable for us to be where we are today, not just for America but for all humanity. Humans can relate to humans. We’ve never got the ticker tape out for robots, but we have for Neil Armstrong.
1 Neil Armstrong
2 Buzz Aldrin
3 Pete Conrad
4 Alan Bean
5 Alan Shepard
6 Edgar Mitchell
7 David Scott
8 James Irwin
9 John Young
10 Charles Duke
11 Eugene Cernan (Cernan boarded the lunar module last)
12 Harrison Schmitt
The Last Man on the Moon is in cinemas from April 8