What Gene Cernan left behind

Gene Cernan
Gene Cernan. Image: NASA

The Apollo 17 astronaut's legacy says much about the lure of escapism over endeavour



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17 January 2017 | 0

Billy MacInnesThe last man to walk on the moon, Gene Cernan has died 44 years after he stepped off the surface to begin his journey home to Earth. As commander of the Apollo 17 mission, Cernan set a record by spending more than three days on the moon. Since he left, no human has spent even a second on the moon’s surface. No one has followed in his footsteps.

Even before Apollo 17 reached the moon, it was responsible for one of the most iconic images of our times when the crew took a picture of the Earth from the ship, often referred to as The Blue Marble. The picture gave us a view of our planet that all of human kind, past and present, bar a handful of individuals, will never witness firsthand.

For the first time, it showed us the planet from beyond ourselves. Humans had spent centuries and decades looking up at the stars and planets but now we had a picture taken by our own kind looking down at us from space. The fact the picture was taken moving away from Earth also served as a powerful representation of our potential to voyage beyond our earthbound existence into the huge expanse of the universe. The moon was a stepping stone on that journey.

Cernan reflected in 2007 that it would take up to a hundred years “before we look back and really understand the meaning of Apollo, really understand what humankind had done when we left, when we truly left this planet, we’re able to call another body in this universe home”.

As someone who was eight years old when Cernan left the moon, I never imagined that he would not be followed by others. The way things were going at that stage, most of us would have expected people to be living on Mars by now. That confidence in our space travel capabilities was only reinforced a year later when I looked up to the night sky in Africa and saw Skylab arcing across the heavens. Two years later, the success of the Viking probes and the incredible images they sent back from the surface of Mars in 1976 seemed to put the seal on the belief that the stars were within our grasp. What reasons did I, or anyone else, have to doubt that soon someone would be stepping on that very same surface?

Certainly, Cernan expressed similar sentiments when he left the moon, saying: “America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. As we leave the moon and Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”

But somewhere along the line, “man’s destiny of tomorrow” seems to have been distracted from looking up to the stars to looking down into screens. The worlds we could see up in space were superseded by the worlds other people created on our cinema and computer screens. Instead of travelling to other planets, human kind decided to go on a journey to fake space. Virtual reality may well represent another stage in that voyage.

In the meantime, we still haven’t returned to the moon. As for “peace and hope for all mankind”, it sometimes seems as far away as it was in 1972. Saddest of all, I’m pretty sure that when Cernan left the lunar surface in 1972, he did not expect his epitaph when he died to be that he was “still the last man on the moon”.

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