“Nothing in Your Life is Impossible”

Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon shares his experience

by Michelle Evans, May 1999


Gene Cernan has what he terms the “dubious honor” of being the last man to walk on the Moon. He did that as commander of Apollo 17 in December 1972. Now over a quarter of a century later, he has finally written down his story so that it can be shared with the rest of us.


His appropriately titled book, “The Last Man on the Moon” was recently released and has been said to be one of the best accounts of the moon race yet written. At the same time, it is an autobiography that gives us insight into the man who flew three space missions, including a spacewalk in earth orbit during Gemini 9, the full-up dress rehearsal for the first lunar landing on Apollo 10, and spending 75 hours on the surface of the Moon (22 of those hours outside the Lunar Module on 3 sojourns across the surface) on Apollo 17.


To kick off his book, Captain Cernan’s publisher has sent him on a cross-country trek of speaking engagements and book signings. Luckily for members of OCSS, several of these events were here in Southern California. Within a two-day period he was to appear at Vromans Books in Pasadena, do a live radio interview on KPFK’s “Hour 25,” and then another book signing at Border’s Books in Torrance. Quite a hectic schedule, and sure to induce writer’s cramp into the best of men.


After contacting the three venues involved, OCSS was asked to participate in all three events, which is a new record even for our energetic and enthusiastic chapter.


Prior to each book signing Gene talked with the large crowds and answered many of their questions. At his last stop in Torrance, he was rushed by having to catch a plane to his next destination, but he made sure that everyone in line got their book signed before he left and then he came over to our OCSS display to check out the models and commented about how great our work had been, helping out throughout the whole whirlwind weekend.


Many of us in the chapter have met astronauts and moonwalkers on previous occasions and I believe that everyone came away with the sense that Gene Cernan was among the most eloquent. When he talked to a crowd at one of the book stores, or was answering questions on the radio, his words resonant with his passion for the space program and for exploration in general.


When the manned space program started in 1961, Gene had no idea that he would ever become a part of it, as his story about Alan Shepard shows.


“I watched Alan Shepard go off in 1961. Someone asked me at that time, ‘How would you like to do that?’ And I said, ‘Boy I’d sure like to, but by the time I’m qualified, all the pioneering would be over.’ Little did I know what life had in store for me.


“Just two years later, I was selected for the space program and I’m walking the halls with the likes of Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, and some of the others. And that evolved so that ten years later, almost to the month, I was the backup commander for Apollo 14. Alan Shepard had gotten himself back on flight status.


“The night before he launched we went out to look at that big, gigantic Saturn V, and it was alive and ready to go. We stood there looking up at that thing ten years after his first flight and I was there standing as his equal. Not only standing there as his equal, but having already flown in space twice, walked in space and gone to the Moon and yet he still had only 16 minutes of spaceflight. Which is literally in my eyes what it took to just bring me up to his level.


“I want to promise you two things: first, that after being grounded following his first flight that he redefined the meaning of the word ‘commitment’ and number two, there was no way I was going to fly that mission unless he died on the spot!”


Disappointed at our lack of progress in space, Gene had this to say: “Tell me what great goal this country has to look forward to in the future: Bombing Kosovo? We need to have a program of exploration which sets a goal and a challenge for us. If someone can find a better target than Mars, then let me know.


“Here it is, over 26 years later and I’m still that last man to have walked on the surface of the Moon. To me that tells me what we have not done in the past quarter century, more than it tells me what we have done. I truly believe that somewhere out there is a special young boy or young girl that will, in short order, take that dubious and special honor away from me and take us beyond. We have the responsibility to give them the opportunity so that they can determine their own destiny.”


Captain Cernan pointed out some of the hazards along the way to the Moon. He reminded those of us who lived through it, and explained for the first time to many who only have read about it in their history books, that “we were literally fighting our own cold war with the cosmonauts and it was a bloody battle. We lost people and they lost people. But it was a war we couldn’t afford to lose.”


On his first trip into space aboard Gemini 9 in June 1966, he was to perform an exciting spacewalk that should have culminated in the first use of a jet backpack that would eventually become the Manned Maneuvering Unit (see “Worth the Wait,” page 3). Things kept going wrong, so after a few hours Gene was so exhausted from the ordeal that he came to the realization that he had to return to the spacecraft without finishing his objectives. He must have felt like Ernest Shackleton had almost sixty years previously when he had to make the agonizing decision to turn back just 97 miles short of his goal of the South Pole. They both knew that going further would only put them in danger of never coming home.


He feels that now we need to start pushing the envelope again, reaching outward and exploring.


“What I’m hoping, aside from the sense of selfishness that you feel when you’re standing on the Moon looking back home, is that I want everyone to come and look at what I’m seeing and feeling. I want, that somewhere in the pages of that book, to be an inspiration to you.”


Gene pointed directly at a young child in the audience and summed it all up, “Nothing in your life is impossible; so take it out of your dictionary. I’m standing here telling you that I went to the Moon before you were born. I want you to tell me what you can’t do in your lifetime! That’s the challenge that I’ve tried to put in my book.”