“The Last Man to Walk on the Moon”

The news was buried deep inside the paper.

The news was buried deep inside the paper.

To someone who grew up in the ’60s, that headline (“The Last Man to Walk on the Moon”) sounds like the title of a dystopian science fiction novel — set in some future several centuries hence in which we’ve rendered the moon even less habitable than it is now, perhaps with radioactivity from the Second Great Interplanetary War.

Cernan on the moon.

Cernan on the moon.

But neither Heinlein nor Herbert nor Asimov nor Bradbury nor the rest could have imagined a future in which, in the near year 2017, we’d be looking back to the last trip to the moon as a thing that happened more than 40 years ago. (OK, maybe one of them did imagine something like that and I missed it. But it would have been a betrayal of the genre. In their stories, bad things might happen out there, but at least we would be there.)

When I was a kid, going to the moon was this super-exciting thing we were going to do in the future, as a necessary step before venturing to Mars and beyond. And now, it’s so far in the past it’s shocking.

Over the weekend, something caused me to think of “the Space Age,” and I was saddened to think of it as a thing in the now-distant past. We had thought we were on the leading edge of something that would last for the rest of human existence. Space travel would soon be like air travel — “2001” told us so!

Instead, after a few flights to the moon, we went backward. We pulled back to boring orbital flight, never again to leave our own backyard. And then we went back further, to where we no longer have the capability to send a man into orbit — astronauts have to catch a ride with the Russians. You know, the people we beat in the Space Race.

Astronauts are now like hobos, riding the rails when they get the chance.

Perhaps we Americans, we humans for that matter, are like the English after Spain discovered the New World — they waited well over a century before sending people to live there. (But if that’s the case, who is Spain, or Portugal?) So maybe someday, long after my generation is gone…

Anyway, those are the kinds of thought I have upon reading this, buried deep inside the paper today:

Astronaut Gene Cernan traced his only child’s initials in the dust of the lunar surface. Then he climbed into the lunar module for the ride home, becoming the last person to walk on the moon….

“Those steps up that ladder, they were tough to make,” Cernan recalled in a 2007 oral history. “I didn’t want to go up. I wanted to stay a while.”

His family said his devotion to lunar exploration never waned, even in the final year of his life. Cernan died Monday at age 82 at a Houston hospital following ongoing heath issues, family spokeswoman Melissa Wren told The Associated Press….

On Dec. 14, 1972, Cernan became the last of only a dozen men to walk on the moon. Cernan called it “perhaps the brightest moment of my life. … It’s like you would want to freeze that moment and take it home with you. But you can’t.”…

When he took those steps up that ladder to leave the moon and never return, so did his nation, his species.

And he was not happy about that.

Now, all our space heroes are dying of old age.

In the ’60s, during the Space Age, we were fired up with energy to meet the challenge that an inspirational president had set for us. I still get goosebumps:

We choose to go to the Moon!… We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things,[7] not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win

Now, this week, as Astronaut Cernan was breathing his last, our nation prepared to inaugurate… President Trump, whose great aspiration for our country is to build a wall to keep the Mexicans out.

How far we have fallen from the moon, from the stars…

15 thoughts on ““The Last Man to Walk on the Moon”

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    At this moment, we are to space what the Chinese were to the Age of Discovery.

    China had huge armadas sweeping the Indian ocean all the way to Africa, trading and spreading Chinese influence. There were doing this for half a century before the Portuguese “discovered” the Indian Ocean, and almost a century before Columbus first stumbled upon the Americas.

    Then, Chinese xenophobia asserted itself with a crushing vengeance, and it suddenly became illegal to travel across the ocean. China, you see, was the greatest of nations, so what was the point of encountering inferior races?

    Consequently, the West discovered, and conquered, and colonized, rather than the East doing those things. If not for that phenomenally isolationist move by the Chinese emperors, the thrust of history over the past half-millennium would be entirely different — and in many ways, a mirror image.

    Well, there we were, boldly traversing the vastness of space… and then we, too, decided “Nah, we’re not gonna do that anymore…”

    What will be the consequences of that decision for the next 500 years?

  2. Norm Ivey

    Manned space exploration is exciting, but excepting the moon, it’s just not practical with current technology. The moon is close, and it stays at petty much the same distance from us, so we can get there when we want. The other planets are always changing their distance from us. A trip to Mars would have to be launched at a time when Earth’s orbit and Mars’s orbit are close. The same is true of the return. Moon walkers spent a few hours there. The explorers to Mars would have to remain there until the two orbits were close again–it could be many months. It would take some pretty remarkable human beings to be able to live in that isolated state for that length of time. Life support systems and sustenance for the trip there and back would have to be taken with them or sent separately. The lower gravity there would cause explorers muscles to atrophy, and their health when they returned to Earth would be at risk.

    Technological exploration is our only option for now. Robots don’t need anything except fuel, which can be supplied by sunlight. They also don’t ever need to return to us.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      “it’s just not practical with current technology”

      Yep, and that was dramatically true about going to the moon in 1961 — 66 years ago.

      The very best statement of the obstacles I’ve ever seen or heard was in this clip from the HBO series, “From the Earth to the Moon.” We didn’t have the know-how to do the things we’d have to do before doing the next things we’d have to do to even get to where we could start to address the possibility of getting a man to the moon and bringing him back alive and safe.

      The good part starts at 1:40, when Stephen Root comes on, although you might want to start at 1:00:

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    I just find it mind-boggling that all seven of the original Mercury astronauts are dead (ironically, the oldest died last), most of them having lived full lives, and THIS is how far we’ve gotten with what they started.

    It’s like the whole population of the United States has been replaced by far more mediocre, less energetic people who are completely lacking in any sense of get-up-and-go.

    The Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, first envisioned in 1956, is now complete…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Instead of reaching for the stars, we turned inward to an astounding degree. Rather than building ships to reach to the limits of the solar system (I don’t count drones), we focus all our innovation on little devices we hold in our hands and stare at.

      And yeah, a lot of that stuff is amazing, but it has its limitations. Just now, I found it tricky to confirm that Glenn was indeed the oldest of the Mercury 7. Why was it hard to Google? Because he was also the oldest man to go into space, so “glenn oldest mercury astronaut” kept giving me references to his Shuttle flight.

      But in defense of the Web, I was able to check the Seven’s birthdates as quickly as I could type their names into the search field. And of course, I knew all the names off the top of my head.

      And now, I realize I could have done it faster than that (by calling up “mercury seven” and just clicking on each name). And give me a few dozen hours in the simulator and I’ll shave time off of THAT, being a can-do, steely-eyed missile man…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Speaking of modern inconveniences, I’m often surprised at the words that the WordPress spellcheck doesn’t know.

        For instance, as I was writing this post, I discovered it didn’t know “dystopian.”

        As usual, when I run into a blank spot like that, I copied it over to Google to check whether I was misspelling it, and I wasn’t.

        Seems to me that a lot of bloggers would use that word…

  4. Claus

    Once Trump gets sworn into office I wonder if we’ll get a discount on the Russian rockets… since that’s our only ride to the Space Station these days.

  5. Bart

    In so many ways, I truly feel for the generations that were not around when the space race started and the shock of hearing on the radio that Russia had successfully orbited the earth with an astronaut, not a dog or chimp but a living human. Then the rush to get an American in space and to win the race and dominate it for decades.

    The absolute thrill of watching and listening when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and said, “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle had landed”. Then when he stepped onto the surface of the moon and uttered the words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. I still get chills when I hear or read those words. My wife and 3 year old daughter were up watching and waiting with so much anticipation, it was simply mind-boggling.

    Before all of this took place, we lived with each astronaut’s turn orbiting the earth and when the Apollo program was announced, Gus Grissom was the first man scheduled to land on the moon but he died when the capsule exploded along with the two others who were to go with him on the mission. I admit I cried when the news was announced.

    Later after the first and second successful moon landings, we lived through the harrowing experience of the fate of Apollo 13 when it was in doubt it would make it back home when the now famous words were transmitted back to earth, “Houston, we have a problem”.

    Long ago when television stations actually signed off, some would play the national anthem, some would play John Wayne’s America, and other times they would show a plane in flight and the narrator would repeat the poem, High Flight. It was always my favorite and I still get a tear in my eye and choked up when I hear or read the following:

    High Flight by John Magee

    Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
    And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
    Sunwards I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
    Of sun-split clouds – and done a thousand things
    You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
    High in the sunlit silence. Hovering there,
    I’ve chased the shouting wind along and flung
    My eager craft through footless halls of air,
    Up, up the long delirious burning blue
    I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
    Where never lark, or even eagle, flew;
    And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
    The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
    Put out my hand, and touched the face of god.

    The generations who were not privileged to live though those exciting times will never know first hand how it felt to see the awesome greatness this country is capable of. Even with the unrest and lack of civility with our politicians and the discord among diversity groups, I still believe in American exceptionalism and our ability to overcome anything when challenged as a nation and that we can come together in a time of crisis. If we ever lose that hope and belief as a people and nation, then we are most certainly doomed to be regulated to the back seat of the bus.

    1. Dave Crockett

      It’s unfortunate that Neil Armstrong’s transmission broke up in the middle of his historic statement. He intended to be remembered for “That’s one small step for A man; one giant leap for mankind.” A tiny squelch burst obliterated the one letter word and the quote forever became nonsensical when taken literally as reported.

      I still remember Walter Cronkite going “What did he say? What did he say? Did anyone get that?” I’ve listened to the recording dozens of times and while I, too, still get chills even if the transcription does Armstrong disservice. Actually, I also get chills from the response from Earth when they landed: “Roger, Tranquility, we copy you’re down. Got a lot of people down here breathing again. Thanks a lot!”

    2. Bart

      Meant to type “relegated” instead of “regulated” ending with ..bus of relevancy.”. Didn’t sufficiently edit my comment.

  6. Bob Amundson

    My wife and I saw “Hidden Figures” yesterday; I recommend it highly. We attended the same school and were in the same classroom in 2nd grade. I asked her if she remembered many boys, including me, placing our chairs on their backs and sitting in them like the Mercury astronauts, while we awaited the launches. I received an astronaut’s flight suit when I was eight. This all lead me to become a naval aviator. I’ll never forget my first solo in a T-38 Trojan. But it all eventually became just a job …

      1. Bob Amundson

        Nope; but what I miss are my flight boots. Aviators could wear brown shoes with khakis, but most of us were much more comfortable in flight suits, with our flight boots. Trying to look as “squared away” as the Marine officers, with their dang creases, was a losing battle. We mostly looked the same in our flight suits, except for the length of hair.

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