I was born just in time to say that I am a child of the Apollo era (except for arriving too late for Apollo 11, but I really don’t mind as it beats the alternative). Among my very early memories are those of the tail end of the program, and ultimately the very end with Apollo 17 in 1972 (1)Sure there was Apollo-Soyuz but it was more of a coda than an end.
That mission was commanded by Eugene Cernan, Captain, USN. Cernan was pilot of Gemini 9, Lunar Module pilot of Apollo X (which got him to within 47,000 feet of the lunar surface), and commander of Apollo 17, which closed the remaining 47,000 feet. I found this clip on YouTube which summarized Cernan’s last mission:
Until Apollo 17, every NASA astronaut was a current or former military test pilot. But this final mission included NASA’s first scientist-astronaut, Harrison “Jack” Schmidtt, a geologist. I love the genuine excitement in Schmidtt and Cernan’s voices as they find the orange rocks they were hoping to find in the Taurus–Littrow valley.
“We leave as we came, and, God willing, we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.” — Cernan’s closing words on leaving the moon at the end of Apollo 17
Eugene Cernan was the last man to ever walk on the Moon; the last human being to ever walk on another world. And now he has left this world one final time.
The movie points out who’s talking, both from the Eagle lunar module and from mission control in Houston. It shows you the footage from Eagle’s landing camera, it’s orientation with respect to the surface of the Moon, and even Neil Armstrong’s heart rate (which, understandably, increases the closer he gets to the surface.)
Best of all, all of this is played back in real-time, so you get a sense of all of the events that were happening simultaneously on the Moon and in the Mission Operations Control Room in Houston. While the rest of the world watched and held their breath, these men were working feverishly yet diligently to bring Eagle to a safe landing – even as they were rapidly running out of fuel on the descent engine.
It’s a riveting watch. Though I’ve seen similar playbacks before, I found myself yet again watching and even holding my breath at times as the events unfolded. It’s an amazing fusion of data, events, and history. Most of all, it’s a reminder that we did this. We sent humans to the Moon.
Today, Neil Armstrong was laid to rest in a private burial at sea in Navy tradition. Of course, Armstrong’s passing will spark the recurring question of when or whether NASA will return astronauts to the Moon or beyond. But for today, I wanted to remember Armstrong in the seminal moment that defined his life, and set a marker that would forever define the history of the human race into two halves – one when humanity was confined to Earth, and another in which humanity walked upon another world.
Over the years, I’ve seen several paintings and photos of those incredible forays on the surface of the Moon. But this painting, created by the late space artist Paul Calle in 1969 is, to me, striking for its sheer loneliness of being the first human to set foot on another world.
Of course, Buzz Aldrin was in the Eagle Lunar Module ready to descend the ladder a short while later and yes, there were thousands of engineers and technicians who worked for years to make this moment possible, to say nothing of the millions of people around the world watching the events unfold on television. But for a moment, there was just Neil Armstrong, alone, standing on the surface of the Moon.
Thank you Neil, for that giant leap for all of us.