Forty-five years ago, the world knew his name, his words, and his footprints. Twenty years ago, I found myself scanning an airport crowd – looking for him. My job was to find this national hero, and bring him to the US Capitol – where he would testify before Congress. His message was expected to be stern, uncompromising, and tough – like the man himself.
The former naval aviator, fighter pilot, Gemini 9 astronaut, Apollo 10 lunar module pilot, Apollo 17 commander was tired of the political dawdling. He wanted America back in the space leadership business, not languishing or following. He wanted bold human missions, first to the moon and then well beyond. If John F. Kennedy could put us on the moon, some president, sometime, had to aim higher –for sustained human exploration of both the moon and Mars.
I scanned the crowd for Commander Gene Cernan, the “last man on the moon.” His footsteps were there, even now in the moon dust. They would be for a hundred thousand years. With 22 miles of tracks, led by his four-wheeled, foldout Lunar Rover. Coincidentally, he spent 22 hours exploring the Taurus-Littrow Valley, with fellow astronaut Jack Schmitt. “We leave as we came, and God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind,” said Cernan. And they came home. Today, Cernan was making footsteps through Reagan National Airport, and I could not find him.
The hearing was titled, “Defining NASA’s Mission and America’s Vision for the Future of Space Exploration.” I had to get him there. He was arriving from his home in Texas. Suddenly, out of the crowd appeared a man with bags in both hands, yet off a battlefield. His forehead was gashed side to side, a six inch row of ugly stiches holding the wound together.
Beneath the stitching, shone bright eyes and a smile. I hesitated. “Captain Cernan?” “Yes, sorry about this … yesterday evening, I was getting a 2,000 pound bull in a trailer … he kicked the steel door on me, threw me ten feet … but got him in.” I was speechless, an uncommon condition. “Spent the night on the operating table, but they let me go at five, caught the plane – and here now.” He sure was. Commitment took him to the moon and back twice, now brought him to Congress with a message.
After an exchange of stories, review of logistics, drop-off, preparation and seating, lights came up. “The last man on the moon” had a blunt message for Congress. Kindly by disposition, father of a teacher, patriotic and apparently indestructible, Cernan was in no mood to mince words. Asked to speak his mind, he did. Crediting his appearance to “a close encounter with a long horn bull,” he said “I apologize for appearing with this ballroom-brawl-looking complexion … suffice to say, it was natural disaster,” then cut to the core.
This Apollo 17 moonwalker, in 1997, spoke truth to power. “I believe it does not really matter what the date is, whether it be 2012, 2019, 2020 … Of far greater significance is that this Nation have an ambitious, attainable goal that reaches out a generation into the future, a goal the entire country, young and old, government and industry, can get our arms around … a continuing national goal that transcends political boundaries … one that is not changed, one that is not canceled only to be reborn every four years … Can America wait forever to renew our exploration of space?”
The engineer laid out details, cogent arguments, the case for a renewed, ambitious American commitment to space exploration. Then, he talked Apollo. “I would like to reflect for just another moment or two, because Apollo has been called by many the greatest technological endeavor in the history of mankind … I believe, however, Apollo was much more.” Members of Congress listened. “I believe it was a human endeavor … unmatched in human history. It was an endeavor not of a few chosen individuals, who had the opportunity to step on the surface of the moon, but rather a team of thousands of Americans, who were dedicated and committed to a goal … deemed by many unattainable.”
For a moment, all partisanship vanished. “Apollo required this Nation to reach further than Man has ever reached before. This team of Americans left an indelible mark on each of us here today, and on all of those to follow in our footsteps … Apollo encompassed the vision of a President and the effort, dedication, courage, self-sacrifice, and steadfast determination of an entire Nation …”
For a moment, Cernan paused on America’s “successful failure,” our Apollo 13 mission, moon-bound but lucky to get home. Apollo was “a human endeavor of immense proportions by those who dared to dream, by those who dared to reach beyond our grasp, and by those who were not deterred by failure.”
Cernan concluded with pointed questions – for America. “Will the time come again when we … explore the wonders of the universe? Will we ever … look back from a quarter million miles … at the majestic beauty of our own ‘star’ … the entirety of oceans and continents … an earthrise? Will our children and grandchildren, born after those final steps of Apollo, have the opportunity to see the stars as we once did … and perhaps conclude, as well, that there must be a Creator?” His words left the place silent.
Cernan closed with a smile and the words of William Jennings Bryan, before re-boarding a plane for Texas and his beloved longhorns. “Destiny is not a matter of chance; rather, it is a matter of choice.” How right he was, then. How right he still is, now.
This week, on January 16th, we lost Apollo 17’s Commander, Captain Gene Cernan. He set off for another horizon, became part of the ages. Still, we have his enduring example and inspiration, wit and smile. He was what you call a hero, one who dared to look up – and reach for the stars, literally. He loved America, fought for America, and knew the American heart – bigger than most credit.
Cernan just wanted to see us dream, again. Big dreams, reaching for the “unattainable” and getting there. To me, his passing brings to mind Robert Browning. Somehow, I think Cernan would approve. Said the poet, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Time to start believing again, in ourselves and our Creator, for sure. Also in the possible and the unattainable, and closing the gap between them. Godspeed, Gene Cernan – you taught us well, thank you.