Last Man On the Moon: A Talk With Gene Cernan

Four decades after flying to the moon, Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan still has a lot to say.

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Frazer Harrison / Wire Image

Astronaut Capt Gene Cernan speaks at the Omega Celebrates The 40th Anniversary of The Apollo Moon Landing at South Coast Plaza on July 11, 2009 in Costa Mesa, Calif.

Forty years ago today, Gene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, climbed back up the ladder of his lunar module and took off from the moon’s Taurus-Littrow valley — thus ending America’s lunar program. Cernan, who also orbited the Earth aboard Gemini 9 and orbited the moon on Apollo 10, is frustrated with the aimlessness of America’s current space program, but is confident that one day — even if it’s a distant day — we’ll return to the moon. As Apollo 17’s 40th anniversary approached, he spoke with Time:  

On the public’s enduring fascination with the lunar astronauts: One of the things I’ve observed is that almost none of the questions I get pertain to the technology. People don’t ask about how fast you were going through the perilune or the apolune when you were entering the shadow. No one cares. The questions people have are about the humanity of the experience. What did it feel like? How did you sleep? Were you scared? They also want to know about the experience of taking my first step on the moon. I say it was important to me and it’s mine and no one can take it away. But the memorable steps were the last ones.

On feelings of faith and his belief in God: What I saw as I looked at the Earth from the moon was that it was all too beautiful to have happened by accident. This could not have been the result of two dust particles coming together. I wanted to do grab that crescent Earth, put it in my spacesuit and take it home and show it to people. Looking up at the Earth, I had the sense that I was sitting on God’s front porch.

(PHOTOS: Pictures From Apollo 17)

On having fun on the moon: We spent three hard days working and we had a mission to accomplish. I was aware of what could happen if I fell down and my suit tore or if the engine didn’t light, but we didn’t live under an umbrella of fear. What we were always conscious of was the environment. We’re digging trenches and core samples and taking pictures of that magnificent desolation — the mountains surrounding us were higher than the grand canyon is deep. Jack [Schmitt, lunar module pilot] did a great job, but he’s a lunar geologist. He was in that test tube much of the time. I had to say to to him, “Jack, take a time out. You owe it to yourself to look over your shoulder at where you are.”

On the near-disaster of Apollo 13: Jim [Lovell, Apollo 13 commander] and I are still very close and I was with him in Chicago not long ago. I talk to Jim about the 13 experience and even I have a hard time grasping what those guys had to go through. Post-Apollo 13 I went back out to the moon and the only thing I could do was put the dangers out of my mind. One thing I know though: People like to say failure was not an option, but you know what? Failure was an option. Failure was very much on the table. I was in the simulator trying to figure out how they could fire the service propulsion [main] engine without making the whole ship go ass over tea kettle. But again we just trained ourselves not to think about the danger.

On reacclimating to life on Earth: You get back home and everything’s normal. I was living on the moon for 72 hours and then here I was now back in this real world. I’d often ask myself, Did what I think happened really happen? I was in the space program for 13 years and it was like someone just cut those years from my life, put me in a different world — literally in the case of Apollo 17 — and then sent me back to my original world. It’s almost like you’ve lived two different lives

On the uniqueness of astronauts: We’re really just the tip of the spear—the Armstrongs and the Shepards and the Glenns and the Lovells. We represented the people who sent us. It’s important to remember that everyone who went to the moon came home to talk about it. That says something about who we are as a nation and what we can do. That’s why as long as we’re still around, we have a responsibility to keep young kids inspired.

MORE: Last Man on the Moon, 40 Years Later: A Dream Abandoned