Last man on the Moon: ‘It’s our destiny’

Gene: ‘I no longer belonged to the Earth. Forevermore, I would belong to the universe.’ © NASA

The last person to set foot on the Moon, Eugene Cernan, has died. He said the experience 44 years ago changed him deeply and forever. What can we earthlings learn from him today?

On December 14th 1972, Eugene Cernan was standing on the surface of the Moon. As captain of NASA’s Apollo 17 mission, he had spent three days collecting rocks, driving the lunar rover, and conducting experiments. Now it was time to go home. Cernan drew his daughter’s initials in the dust, looked around him, and saw the Earth in the distance. Then he spoke.

‘As I take these last steps from the surface… I’d just like to record that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. We leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind.’

Then joining his colleague in the lander, he said ‘Let’s get this mother out of here,’ and blasted off. No one has returned since.

‘Gene’ Cernan died in Houston on Monday, surrounded by his family. Of the 12 men who walked on the Moon during the 1960s and 70s, only six are still living.

Cernan loved giving talks to young children and inspiring them to follow in his footsteps. But while China, Japan and the European Space Agency (ESA) have planned missions to the Moon, these will not take place until at least 2024.

Visiting the Moon was a profound experience for Cernan. Not because of the rock itself, but because it gave him an outsider’s perspective of the Earth. The planet ‘was alive, it was moving, with purpose and beauty through space and time.’

Psychologists call this the ‘Overview Effect’, and it is not unique to Cernan. The first man on the Moon, Neil Armstrong, was awed to think that ‘that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth… I felt very, very small.’ James Irwin said that the planet ‘looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart.’

Often, this experience sent astronauts back home with a renewed passion for protecting the environment, and an ‘instant global consciousness’. From space, the ‘imaginary’ borders between countries seem foolish, and suffering becomes a problem that the entire planet has a responsibility to solve.

Blue marble

We should all think more like astronauts, say some. Expanding our horizons makes us more compassionate, more understanding of others, and more open-minded. Very few of us will get to expand them all the way to space, but we can all remember that — for now — Earth is the only planet we have. We must look after it, and each other.

That is very touching, but it has very little to do with everyday life, others respond. Most of us interact with the world on a much smaller scale, and feel strong bonds to the places and people we know best. There is nothing wrong with wanting to put their interests first; in the end, these personal connections are what make us truly human.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to visit the Moon if you had the chance?
  2. Do you have a responsibility to the world, or to the people closest to you?

Activities

  1. The year is 2050, and the world has decided to build a colony on the Moon. Draw a design of the first settlement.
  2. Write a poem about the Overview Effect, imagining how it would feel to see the Earth from afar.

Some People Say...

“Always shoot for the Moon. Even if you miss, you wind up among the stars.”

Eugene Cernan

What do you think?

Q & A

We have already been to the Moon. Why should we go again?
President Obama ruled out another lunar mission in 2010 for this very reason, but the world’s other space agencies are keen to return. This is because reaching the Moon is far simpler and cheaper than going all the way to Mars, which is NASA’s current goal. But going to the Moon would help this in the long run, as it would teach scientists more about how to live away from Earth.
How can I become an astronaut?
Keep studying! NASA and ESA both ask for people with degrees in science, engineering or mathematics. If you want to fly the spaceships yourself, you should learn how to fly ordinary planes first, and get at least 1,000 hours’ experience. You also need to be physically and mentally fit, so make sure you get lots of exercise.

Word Watch

Eugene Cernan
The astronaut began his career as a pilot. He was hired by NASA (the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) in 1963, when President Kennedy launched the Apollo program. He travelled to space three times: he performed a space walk in 1966; a ‘final rehearsal’ for the Moon landing in 1969; and led Apollo 17 in 1972.
Apollo 17
The Apollo program was NASA’s plan to land people on the Moon and bring them back safely. It did so six times between 1969 and 1972.
Initials
Since there is no weather or atmosphere on the Moon, human footprints and markings will be preserved for thousands of years.
Lander
The three Apollo 17 astronauts travelled to the Moon in a spacecraft called a Command/Service Module. Cernan and the scientist Harrison Schmitt then landed in a Lunar Module called Challenger, while the pilot Ron Evans stayed in orbit.
2024
The ESA’s Moon mission lists this as its earliest date. China and Japan are aiming for 2024.
Overview Effect
The term was coined by Frank White in his 1987 book The Overview Effect — Space Exploration and Human Evolution.

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