"I've been asked oh, so many times over the last years: 'How does it feel to be the end, how does it feel to be the tail of the dog, the last one over the fence?' I got on my soapbox after we came back, but in January of '73 I was at Kennedy [Space Center, Florida] for homecoming, and I said: 'I've been tired of being called the end. Apollo 17 is not the end. It's just the beginning of a whole new era in the history of mankind.'"

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

Images courtesy of NASA

“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.”

NASA safety panel calls for establishment of “Mars Czar” ahead of “fragile” manned mission to Red Planet

The NASA Aerospace Advisory Panel has described current plans for a manned mission to Mars as “fragile”, and has called for the establishment of a “Marz Czar” or a specialist mission office that would ensure the agency was adequately prepared to complete the unprecedented mission.

The calls were part its 2016 annual report on safety in the agency, which has been presented to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, President of the Senate Joe Biden and Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan, as well as being published online yesterday.

“The Panel notes that significant progress has been made in identifying the needed capabilities, deciding on potential risk reduction strategies, and assessing the status of the specific technologies, including whether they are sufficiently funded. However, at some point, it will be necessary to provide a more focused evaluation of potential mission architectures in order to have confidence that the needed technologies have been properly funded and that they will be available in time to be incorporated into the actual flight hardware,” the panel wrote in the report.

“Establishment of a Mars Mission Program Office and/or designation of a “Mars Czar” could facilitate the completion of the needed trade studies and ensure that limited funds are being spent on the appropriate technical challenges.”

The Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel also cast doubt on the viability of NASA’s current plans, suggesting that even a small hiccup could jeopardise the entire mission.

“At this point in the process, no decisions on specific system architectures have been made. However, it is the Panel’s understanding that even with a SLS [Space Launch System] lift capability of 130 tons, there would be a need for multiple launches per mission potentially augmented with the use of other vehicles such as the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle. With notional NASA out-year budgets assuming one SLS launch per year, plus the long trip times involved (800 to 1,100 days away from Earth), current plans to carry out the Journey to Mars appear to be somewhat “fragile”,” the panel wrote.

“Since SLS would carry the most critical items into deep space, a delay or technical failure on a single launch could significantly impact the entire mission. This should make reliability a high priority for SLS.”

Images courtesy ofNASA

The panel also suggested that the agency could get involved with privately run missions to the Moon in order to use the lunar surface as a testing ground, and ultimately make plans more robust to hitches.

“One option to address this issue would be to take advantage of potential commercial and/or international activities to create a more robust exploration architecture. These commercial and international partnerships could also potentially provide opportunities for NASA to test technologies and systems on the lunar surface. Even if NASA chooses not to take a leadership role in human missions to the Moon, there may be other opportunities to gain valuable experience—with large landers and ascent vehicles, with the operation of systems for in-situ resource extraction, with large-scale habitation systems, and with the long-term impact of dust on space suits and other mechanical systems,” the panel wrote.

“Testing these systems first on the Moon could help to increase the robustness of the overall space infrastructure, enhance the cislunar space economy, and increase the safety of the Mars missions themselves.”