Science and Exploration

The Last Man on The Moon Wants You To Go Back

By Keith Cowing
February 26, 2016
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The Last Man on The Moon Wants You To Go Back
The Last Man on the Moon
The Last Man on the Moon

Nearly half a century ago we sent people on improbable voyages to another world – because we could.
Indeed, for a while, such voyages became routine. Then, suddenly, it was over. We stopped visiting the Moon before we had barely figured out to do so. We knew that it might be a while before we went back, but we would go back – right?

“The Last Man On The Moon” focuses on astronaut Gene Cernan, the commander of Apollo 17, the last Apollo mission to go to the Moon. Through the use of nicely restored vintage footage, new special effects, and deft editing, what is old seems astonishingly fresh in a “Mad Men” sort of way. Although I have seen countless documentaries from this time, the vantage point of this film was so fresh that I found myself thinking ‘did this really happen?’ But it did happen albeit far too long ago.

Toward the end of the film, Gene Cernan is shown walking around abandoned launch pads at Kennedy Space Center. He says “could I have imagined that it would come to this?” After a pause, surveying his surroundings, he draws a deep breath and half mutters “I don’t want to remember it this way. Its disappointing. I almost wish I did not come here today.”

The film’s title is somewhat depressing. ‘The Last Man on the Moon’ – it sounds as if someone has a knowledge of human history from a distant future perspective and knows that we never went back to the Moon. In reality, Cernan uses the self-imposed title as more of a kick in the butt to remind folks that we are far past the time when we should have gone back to the Moon. Much too far past.

While the Apollo missions were triumphs of engineering and daring do, they took a very real human toll. People often did not come home to see their families for dinner for weeks at a time. Indeed, some people never came back home at all. The stakes were high. Referring to the funeral for the Apollo 1 crew in 1967 Cernan said. “I wasn’t sure if we were burying three of our colleagues or whether we were burying the entire Apollo program.”

For all the astonishing accomplishments of Apollo, the very real people who made these missions happen lost family time that can never be reclaimed. Cernan’s first wife says “If you think going to the Moon is hard you ought try staying home.” There was a cost for all of this that was exacted but it was not without its own strange counterbalance. Referring to his time on the Moon Cernan said “this time is what I call sitting on God’s front porch. I was out there with opportunity to be somewhere – and to do something that only 12 human beings in the history of mankind have been able to do – or be – or see.”

I just turned 60. I was a child of Apollo and grew up being told that we would see people on the Moon before the end of the decade. And we did, right on schedule, just as I was getting ready to enter high school. But instead of all the future plans including trips to Mars, well, that stopped before I left high school. We were supposed to have humans on Mars by the early 1980s. Now NASA takes a sadly hollow joy in proclaiming that we are closer than ever to sending humans to Mars. Alas, that is still 20 years in the future – as it has been for decades. Instead of being a young man in his 20s watching humans walk on Mars, I will be someone in their 80s – Cernan’s age – if it ever happens at all.

There is a focused air of melancholy in the film – and it is used to great effect. For within the deepest part of Cernan’s own melancholy is an eternal, unquenchable desire on his part to see that self-imposted moniker revoked by someone – anyone. He may be ‘the last man on the Moon’ but there will be a ‘next person’ to go there. Like many of us, Cernan clearly wishes that this would have happened by now – but happen it will. Despite his age and complaints from family and friends he continues to keep an absurd schedule. Yet Cernan seeks out every opportunity he can to help inspire those who go out and explore space as he once did.

To me, the most enchanting part of the film is what Cernan recalls experiencing as he prepared to climb up the Lunar Module’s ladder to join Jack Schmitt who was waiting inside to begin the trip home. You’ll need to see the film to hear his words. Lets just say For that one moment Gene Cernan was humanity’s focused, collective consciousness and experienced something only a visitor to another world could ever experience.

And Gene Cernan really wants you to go there for yourself to see what it is like.

“The Last Man On The Moon” is now playing in select theaters. More information at the official website

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.