Eugene Cernan, the last man to have walked on the moon, died on Monday 16th January. In memory of the astronaut, we went back to an oral history conducted in 2007, 35 years after the final Moon landing, for the NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project in Houston, Texas to consider the man’s lunar legacy in his own words.
A US Navy Captain, Cernan flew three times in space, twice to the Moon. The second American to walk in space, he was the last human to leave his footprints on the Moon. In May 1969, he was the lunar module pilot of Apollo 10 and in 1972, he commanded the last human mission to the Moon with Apollo 17. Below, we parsed the oral history to gather some of his thoughts on that legacy.
Eugene Cernan on Piloting
“There’s no way I’m going to go all the way to the Moon, particularly for a second time, and let a computer land me on the Moon.
“The arrogance of a pilot, particularly naval aviators, is too great to allow that to happen. Nobody ever landed on the Moon other than with their own two hands and brain and eyeballs and whatever.
“Computer-assisted, yes. Got a lot of information. We got help from a lot of sources. But you’re looking for landing radar. You’re looking to maintain the communications. You’re on your back. You’ve got to roll over. You’ve got to go face up. A lot of things happen very quickly.
“As I say a very dynamic, exciting 14 minutes of your life, maybe 15. At 7,000 feet you pitch over, so for the first time you can really see the landing site where you’re going to land.”
Eugene Cernan on Landing
“That’s where you experience the most quiet moment a human being can experience in his lifetime. There’s no vibration. There’s no noise. The ground quit talking. Your partner is mesmerized. He can’t say anything. The dust is gone.
“It’s a realization, a reality, all of a sudden you have just landed in another world on another body out there [somewhere in the] universe, and what you are seeing is being seen by human beings, human eyes, for the first time. Where you are no human beings have ever been before.”
Eugene Cernan on Preparation
“So we prepared to get out. Had to prepare all our backpacks and everything. Then I started down the ladder. But the first step on the Moon had already been taken by Neil. So this was not the first step on the Moon. However, it was my first step. Let me tell you, it truly was a first step for me.
“It was important historically to me personally because well selfishly, because it was my step. I’d come close in Apollo 10, and now I was actually on the Moon, now I was actually going to step on the surface of the Moon.”
Eugene Cernan on First Steps
“So when I stepped on the surface I realized I was really there, and that for the first time, I’m stepping on another body in this universe. You can climb the highest mountain or walk the depths of the deepest ocean on Planet Earth but you’re still on Planet Earth. Now after all that zero-G traveling for three days and my other flights, I’m standing and touching something hard, something I can feel, and it’s not Earth. (Pounding fist) That came home to me very very clearly. I’m living, truly living in another world at this point in time.
“There have been people who want to believe in the fantasy or the conspiracy, whatever, that it was all done in Hollywood, we never really walked on the Moon. Well, if they want to have missed one of the greatest adventures in the history of mankind, that’s their choice.
“But once my footsteps were on the surface of the Moon, nobody, but nobody, could ever take, and to this day can take those footsteps away from me. Like my daughter’s initials I put into the Moon during that three days we were there. Someone said, “How long will they be there?” I said, “Forever, however long forever is.” I’m not sure we, any of us, understand that.”