On 40th anniversary, Apollo 17/Cernan still inspires

December 14, 2012

Today is the 40th anniversary of Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan becoming the last human to imprint his presence upon the surface of the moon.

Sadly, millions of Americans will go through today knowing neither of the man nor the significance.

Since that day, we have added over 3 billion people to our planetary population but not a one of them has returned to continue in Cernan’s last step.  Think about that for a minute, let it fully soak in, 3 billion with a B and not a one to return.

Years ago I had the honor of meeting Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan during a dinner at the Kansas Cosmosphere and though the actual encounter was shorter than an orbital correction burn, the memory has and will remain with me forever.

One of my library’s most prized compendiums of the written word is a signed copy of Cernan’s memoir of NASA’s greatest years “Last Man on the Moon”.  Very few books are able to relay fully the dynamics of the human element during extraordinary events, Cernan’s does and I highly recommend. (No, you may not borrow mine.)

Growing up as a Kansas farm boy in the 60’s, NASA and her astronauts was the Mt. Olympus and the Gods to whom I bowed.  Having the advantage of those brilliant night skies, my young mind traveled to the moon and beyond more times than can ever be recalled.

One thought that is recalled though as if it was just yesterday is “what next”?  Where would we go AFTER the moon?  Mars, Mercury, the rings of Saturn?

America may have been the last of the lands to be discovered here on earth, but here she was, just two short centuries later, preparing to not just be the first to explore the vastness of space, but to be the ambassadors of that earth as the secrets of the universe revealed themselves one secret at a time.

The moon was a given.  There was never a doubt in my naïve little mind, and when I watched that landing on the ol RCA, my confidence assured, it wasn’t a “well that was nice, we can all go home now” moment, it was “now the bases, and the planets beyond” moment.

Barely 3 years after that moment of unlimited possibilities a now adolescent mind got its first lesson in budgets, apathy and just how small some minds can be. Though I was disappointed with the ending of Apollo, the space shuttle was coming and it was only a matter of time before America would certainly be right back in the saddle of riding her rockets “to infinity and beyond”.

Never in my mind did the thought ever cross that I would live to see the day when America would voluntarily cede sovereignty of manned spaceflight to a foreign nation.

Such a thought was akin to what those born at the turn of 20th century must have thought about living to see the day of an American walking on the moon.  (But then again, neither of us could have ever dreamed that the day would ever come when a committed left wing community organizer would occupy the oval office either, so go figure.)

While it may seem to some a useless distraction to ask you to think back on that day, I’m going to ask you anyway.  If you’re old enough, you’ll remember, if you’re not, try to imagine.

I urge you to take a moment to reflect upon what we’ve already lost and what’s at stake if we continue down our current path of societal devolution.

Forget about returning to the moon, instead ask yourself why the only nation on earth to have achieved it at all, is now a nation so hell bent on rushing to its own demise?

The Joplin Globe editorial today ends with the last two stanzas of an obscure little poem that tried to capture the essence of Cernan’s passion for space exploration.  As the author of that feeble attempt, I now relay the full text, written the night I met that “Last Man on the Moon” so many moons ago:

From the time of man’s beginning, I’ve mystified his soul. Providing him the challenge, What secrets I behold?
In years I am not measured, I alone transcend all time. From the ancient’s to the modern, Man’s future I define.
I’ve seen man’s greatest follies, His triumphs, his defeats. Saw the Wright’s at Kitty Hawke, Felt Armstrong’s giant leap.
I am the heavens, the planets, the stars, Man’s destiny, his fate, Do not lose sight my challenge, Your arrival, I await……

The Globe’s full editorial is reprinted below:


Today, America marks yet another milestone on her long, slow descent from her apex of greatness.
On December 14th, 1972, astronaut Eugene Cernan lifted the last boot from the surface of the moon and spoke these words to his fellow earthly denizens and anyone else who might be listening from their own little corner of the universe:

…as I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I’d like to just (say) what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus–Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”

And with that, the hatch was closed, the ignition button pushed, and lunar module Challenger blasted back into the darkness for its rendezvous with command module America.

Five days later, Cernan and his fellow star travelers, Ronald Evans, and Harrison Schmitt, splashed down in the South Pacific and with that the bravest and boldest scientific endeavor ever undertaken by the human element came to an end.

Though the United States would continue on to new milestones with the space shuttle, nothing again would ever match the brilliance of a Saturn V lighting up a Cape Canaveral night sky.

With our current fiscal crisis of today, government funding for manned space flight for tomorrow is nothing more than a nostalgic dream.  The Constellation was officially ended in 2010 by President Obama and the centuries of collective scientific and engineering knowledge of its staff scattered to the unemployment winds.

But while that debate has passed, what cannot be debated is that there was a time in this country when big things, were not mired in “we can’t” but were embraced by “why not”?

On this 40th anniversary of the “last man on the moon” ask yourself “what if” instead of stopping we had heeded Cernan’s words and embraced the ending of an obscure poem instead:

I’ve seen man’s greatest follies,

His triumphs, his defeats.

Saw the Wright’s at Kitty Hawke,

Felt Armstrong’s giant leap.


I am the heavens, the planets, the stars,

Man’s destiny, his fate,

Do not lose sight my challenge,

Your arrival, I await……


What if, indeed.

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