The Last Man on the Moon
By Eugene Cernan and Don Davis
St Martin’s Press (2000)
This highly entertaining memoir of an adventure-packed career as an astronaut on both the Gemini and Apollo programs was first published in 1999 and is being reissued now to coincide with the release of a full-length documentary on the life of Eugene Cernan.
Cernan graduated from Purdue University in 1956 with a degree in electrical engineering to become a naval pilot flying Fury and Skyhawk jets.
In 1963, at the age of 29, he was selected by NASA in their third draft of astronauts and went on to become a true veteran, launching into space three times – as pilot of Gemini 9A in June 1966, as Lunar Module Pilot of Apollo 10 in May 1969, and as Commander of Apollo 17.
As the title of the book says, he became the eleventh and last man on the moon when he brought up the rear in the return to Apollo 17’s lunar module Challenger.
His life at NASA was filled with thrills – and some spills – during the most exciting but dangerous period of the entire space program.
His debut in space on the Gemini 9 mission came as a result of tragedy after the original crew were killed in a plane crash. The mission itself included Cernan’s hair-raising spacewalk – a procedure pioneered only a year before, first by Russian Alexey Leonov and then by American Ed White.
It is typical of Cernan’s straight-talking style that he doesn’t flinch when describing the fear and stress of the experience.
He is similarly direct in the emotional account of his feelings on hearing the news that his good friend and neighbour Roger Chaffee had died during a pre-launch test for the Apollo 1 mission.
Cernan never forgets the human touch, remembering gathering for Chaffee’s funeral at Arlington “not as space heroes, but as mere mortals, shorn of our cloaks of invincibility, with failure at our feet”.
This humility enhances the sense of triumph when things go right – and a glimpse of the raw emotions when they don’t – like the tension in the Apollo 13 control room as ground control worked to bring crew from the damaged craft safely home. For Cernan that meant working round-the-clock running flight scenarios in the mission simulator in Houston.
Cernan paints a credible picture of his comrades in the program – the competitiveness, the egos and the swaggering self-confidence that drives success as a test pilot and astronaut.
But he acknowledges the personal cost as well – the damage to his first marriage to Barbara and the strain his career put on the relationship with his daughter.
Eugene Cernan is a unique American who came of age as an astronaut during the most exciting and dangerous decade of spaceflight. His career spanned the entire Gemini and Apollo programs, from being the first person to spacewalk all the way around our world, to the moment when he left man’s last footprint on the Moon as commander of Apollo 17.
Disappointingly, though, Cernan does not credit the space program with the scientific importance it deserves and there are some dissonant passages – his poor relationship with Buzz Aldrin is one such sour note, as his dismissiveness of scientist Harrison Schmitt joining the Apollo 17 crew.
But those points aside, this is a highly entertaining and enlightening book describing a swashbuckling decade at the very dawn of the space age, the likes of which we may never see again.