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Last Man on the Moon

Craig D. Wandke

On May 30, Apollo 17's Capt. Eugene Cernan, the last man on the moon, spoke to a group of enthusiastic and appreciative students at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. I found out about his appearance quite by accident, through a fellow worker who had been to the school earlier in the day.

Not being able to pass up the chance to hear yet another astronaut in person, I came home, grabbed my lunar globe and camera, and rushed over to the school. It was quite by chance that he was speaking on the very day that I myself was giving an evening talk on the moon to the Friends of the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy, and I had my lunar samples with me which had been sent by NASA. I decided that I would take the samples with me and hope that they would give me an "entry" to seeing him if I encountered any hesitancy on the part of school officials!

I spoke with one of the Public Affairs officers at the school and identified myself as a member of several astronomy clubs and public lecturer on the moon, and was thrilled to be told I could speak to Capt. Cernan at a particular room downstairs where he would be meeting briefly with several museum officials. I was pleasantly surprised at how accommodating the officers were to my request to meet Cernan!

I headed downstairs to the museum, and, moments later Cernan came in, surrounded by four Navy officers in uniform. Cernan is a man of obvious presence, with a charming and captivating smile. He spoke with the four officers about business matters as I stood off to one side, in total awe to be near the last man to have walked on the moon. I nervously held my moon globe in a plastic bag, a globe that held the autographs of Buzz Aldrin; the three Apollo 12 astronauts - Pete Conrad, Al Bean, and Richard Gordon; and Alan Shepard.

I stood with my heart pounding in my chest with excitement at the potential of speaking to him, and yet prepared for the disappointment of having an officer tell me that Capt. Cernan might be running behind schedule and needed to go over the auditorium where hundreds were waiting for him. As he finished talking and was starting to leave the room, I approached him and asked if he would sign my globe, which he most graciously did with a wonderful smile and large, sweeping stroke of the pen just north of Mare Crisium! I asked if I may have my picture taken with him, and he stood next to me while one of the officers took our picture. I briefly showed him the moon rocks which I had brought with me, and we chatted for a couple of seconds about the various samples in the Lucite disk.

Moments later, he excused himself as he and the group of officers left for his afternoon speaking engagement in the auditorium, and I walked - or rather, floated! - across campus to hear his speech.

Cernan had an absolutely delightful presence, while speaking for about 45 minutes to a rapt group of students; he was a particularly engaging speaker, since he himself had graduated from the Naval Postgraduate School in 1963. His speech, replete with wonderful anecdotes and reflections on his moon trips, was full of "if-I-could-do-it, you-can-do-it" enthusiasm, and it was interrupted several times by appreciative, raucous applause from the students.

I was one of the few "civilians" in the auditorium and was very thankful that I had been allowed to be present for his speech. Cernan is an eloquent, reflective, and sensitive speaker, and I listened with zeal, mesmerized to be in his presence and so very thankful he had given me the couple of moments to sign my moon globe.

I must confess to a certain amount of age-related wistfulness as he spoke, using terms like "before most of you were born," as he described many anecdotes of his 1972 flight - well known to those of us who were witnesses to his flight on Apollo 17 or who are consummate space enthusiasts. His wonderful stories drew repeated gasps, laughter, and applause from the audience who appeared to be hearing them mostly for the first time. In one example, Cernan spoke of how he repaired the fender of his lunar rover with duct tape and a lunar map, and the crowd howled with laughter. When he reminded us that his last words on the moon were neither sublime nor inspirational, but rather, "Let's get this mother outta here!" the charmed audience once again roared.

His speech was clearly inspirational, as he periodically referred to "sitting in these very seats where you are sitting, nearly forty years ago." He urged the exploration of space and our return to the moon, and talked of the role of engineers in making the machines that will take us to the stars. At one point he said, "Aim for the moon ... if you miss, you'll land on a star!"

Cernan also reflected on the grandeur and majesty of the moon missions, and reminded us that he flew twice to the moon, once on Apollo 10 and again on Apollo 17. In a clear spiritual reference, he talked of "sitting on the front porch of God's house," and spoke of his little area of the Taurus-Littrow Valley, his landing site, as "my little Camelot." He said that his lunar mission had in a true sense been a "spiritual voyage," where he could cover the earth with one of his hands. He noted that, even today, it is hard for him to realize he actually went to the moon.

As he finished his speech, he showed several slides of his mission, stepping away from the podium and becoming clearly more relaxed, as the students asked questions. After the question-and-answer period he was presented a plaque with the school emblem, and he then moved to the foyer of the auditorium, where perhaps seventy of us were waiting for him to autograph his book, "Last Man on the Moon."

I again stood anxiously in line, but smug with my already-signed lunar globe. As it was my turn to have my book signed, he said, "Ah, you're the man with the moon rocks!" and he took a couple of minutes to examine the sample, commenting on the ones that might have come from his mission.

As I left the table, I was once again thrilled to have been in the presence of another man who had actually walked on the moon. It was, however, a particular pleasure for me to meet Cernan, who ultimately is, as he himself said, "a common man who happened to do uncommon things." I was touched by his humor, his lack of pretense, his graciousness in giving each of us a couple of seconds, his charm, and for sharing with us his reflections on life and his trips to the cosmos.

Mail to: Craig D. Wandke
Copyright © 2000 San Jose Astronomical Association
Last updated: July 19, 2007

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