We Opened the Door to the Future”

The crew of Apollo 17 is honored on the 30th anniversary of their accomplishment

by Michelle Evans


“You can climb the highest mountain and walk the depths of the deepest ocean on this planet of ours and you’re still on Planet Earth. But when you land on the surface of the Moon, and you get out of that spacecraft, I realized I was standing on another body, another planet in this universe that is not Earth. For the first time standing on something that is not our home planet.”


Gene Cernan was the commander of the last flight of the Apollo program. Thirty years ago, when his boots left the surface of the Moon to climb back up the ladder into the ascent stage of the Lunar Module Challenger, he had no idea that his would be the last impressions human beings would make on another celestial body in the 20th Century.


This was a distinction he says he would rather not have. Like most of the people associated with Apollo (and many of us stuck here on Planet Earth) we wanted to continue outward, but were instead harnessed by political necessity to cancel the most glorious chapter in the history of exploration.


Today, instead of living and working in space and on other planets in our solar system, we are only able to vicariously share in these events through the senses of those who went so long ago. Anniversary events became a staple that was adhered to for each Apollo landing mission, now culminating in this final event as the 30th Anniversary of the Apollo 17 mission came upon us last December.


The newly-refurbished Cinerama Dome theater in Hollywood was the venue where the two surviving crew members of Apollo 17, Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt, came to join Flight Director Gene Kranz, and discuss their mission and their feelings about the general state of the space program.


Filmmaker James Cameron shared his support of space as he introduced the evening to the packed house. “The events in those years, in terms of space exploration and the entire Apollo program, what was accomplished I think will stand not only as one of the great high water marks in American history, but as one of the high water marks in human history for the next ten thousand years. So a night like this is so important to honor the past and what has been accomplished, but also to go forward and do these kinds of things again”


Following his remarks was the presentation of Al Reinert’s film, “For All Mankind.” This was a unique chance for many to see the wonders of the Apollo program on a large theater screen instead of small television sets, which is how it was seen by all of us when it transpired. Al created this movie using original film archives from the Johnson Space Center, with narration supplied only by the astronauts who actually participated in the historic flights.


Following the film, Cernan, Schmitt, and Kranz came on stage to talk and answer questions from the audience. Jack Schmitt remarked about how the film had brought back many memories for him and explained, “You wonder why we’re singing and having so much fun on the Moon? It’s easier than training, for crying out loud!”


But even then, it could be hard work, and they easily worked up a sweat. Schmitt pointed out that this was easy to fix: “We could reach back and increase the flow of that cold water [to our spacesuit undergarments] and stay cool on the Moon.” He then indicated that his mission commander didn’t necessarily need that water because, “Gene’s personality kept him cool!”


In the end, it was not just Cernan, Schmitt, and Kranz who appeared on stage. After they gave their remarks, they also invited all the others associated with space in the audience to come down and say a few words. These included Apollo astronauts Buzz Aldrin, James Lovell, and Ken Mattingly, as well as International Space Station Expedition 1 commander Bill Shepherd, former NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, and the maker of the film we saw that evening, Al Reinert.


The Orange County Space Society had a unique opportunity with this event in that at the last minute I was asked to extend invitations to our local OCSS members and affiliated partner groups such as the Traveling Space Museum and Yuri’s Night. In less than two days, I was able to arrange for 83 people to attend this function and have the opportunity to meet these exciting celebrities.


James DuRuvo of KABC TalkRadio told me afterward that, “I just wanted to say thanks for setting me up with tickets to last nights’ event. I got to do something I never dreamed I would do, I got to go to an event marking the 30th Anniversary of Apollo 17, and I personally met and talked with six of my boyhood heroes. It was an unbelievable evening that I will never forget.”

Richard Shope of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory said, “I'm still pinching myself to see if I’m really awake with the memories of being in the presence of so many space luminaries the other night! Thank you so much for making it possible for me to share this event with my whole family.”


An especially gratifying aspect of the evening was that many of the participants took the time to not just dwell on past accomplishments, but to look forward. Sometimes these comments involved sharp criticisms of NASA projects and policies

“If I had been designing the space program after Apollo,” commented Jack Schmitt, “I would have designed it very differently. But since we have a space station, and it has a tremendous capability, we ought to be maybe using it in a much smarter way than we are today.”


Gene Cernan agreed. “Everything that Jack said about the Space Station and Space Shuttle is true. It is a great asset. The Shuttle is probably the greatest flying machine ever conceived, designed, built, and flown. The problem is that it doesn’t go anywhere as far as I’m concerned.


“I’m still a dreamer,” Cernan continued. “Apollo was the beginning of a whole new era in the history of mankind. As valuable as the station is today, frankly it’s uninteresting and its unexciting. We threw out a plum to the next generation, and you’ve reeled in a lemon. We opened the door to the future. We opened the door to knowledge, to the universe, and that’s as far as it got; it just got cracked open.”


Defending his tenure at NASA, Dan Goldin wanted the audience to understand that we were on the right track. “Let’s not talk about what has been done in the past. I believe it is within the grasp of this nation and other countries, that in no less than ten years we could go to Mars. We don’t have to wait. It has nothing to do with technology, it only has to do with how the American people feel about going to Mars. America wants to do something, they can do it.”


There were great feelings of hope that came out of the night’s festivities. Gene Cernan explained how he believed that the anniversary event itself could have more impact on the long range plans for space exploration, “because people like you are beginning to ask questions and beginning to wonder why we quit, why we didn’t go on, and when are we going to go back.


“We need to give you the tools, the knowledge, and the opportunity. We have to find someone to inspire you so that you will once again dream so you can take us once again where no man has been before. There’s got to be a passion. There’s got to be a desire. Don’t tell me you can’t do it, because we called the Moon our home. You tell me what’s impossible in your lifetime? Nothing, if you want to do it badly enough.”