I don’t go around living in the past for the most part, but every once in a while you let yourself go back in time…
Recently released feature-length documentary The Last Man on the Moon is based on the autobiography of Astronaut Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17 in 1972 and the last person to have walked on the lunar surface. The film includes interviews with astronauts Alan Bean, Charlie Duke, Tom Stafford, Dick Gordon and Jim Lovell plus key figures from Mission Control, Gene Kranz and Dr. Chris Kraft. Combining these with archive footage and CGI sequences, The Last Man on the Moon not only tells Cernan’s own story but the shows the broader achievements and impacts of NASA’s race to the Moon.
The Last Man on the Moon is a title Astronaut Gene Cernan surely knew he would wear for some time. It was clear by 1972 that it would be many years before anyone would follow the path blazed by the twelve men who walked on the lunar surface during the Apollo years. Over 43 years later, Cernan retains this title and throughout the film it’s clear that he feels a huge sense of disappointment that humanity hasn’t reached beyond Earth orbit in the intervening years.
Now 82, we see him reflect on the journey that led him to that defining adventure in the Taurus-Littrow valley, but also talk honestly about the very human side of the space race – the price paid in terms of lost friends and broken relationships.
Cernan, like the majority of his astronaut colleagues, began his career as a military pilot – a naval aviator in his case. “At that point, 22-25, you’re invincible and you’re bulletproof – there isn’t anything you can’t do…risk be damned” he comments over a montage of carrier landings – some good, some disastrous. Although the narrative doesn’t dwell on the fact, he was amongst the first generation of operational jet pilots. All would have been well aware of the risky nature of their occupation and attended many memorial services for lost colleagues, but with a cast iron certainty that they were different, they wouldn’t make the mistake the other guy did. This unshakable self-belief and ability to take tragedy in their stride were amongst the key characteristics so valuable to the make-up of the early astronauts.
The film carries strong echoes of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, both in terms of the alpha personality displayed by the pilots, but also the unspoken deal accepted by their wives – know the risks, keep the home environment stable and just hope that knock at the door never comes. The Last Man on the Moon is all the stronger for the inclusion of reminiscences by Cernan’s first wife Barbara. As the story moves on through his astronaut selection – imaginatively rendered in a vintage animated sequence styled after Saul Bass – we see the couple set up home in Houston, surrounded by other astronaut families.
As the men form their competitive ‘band of brothers’, the wives create the social fabric and support network they need to get their families and themselves through the experience. Clearly there were many good times, playing hard and grabbing life fully while they could, but below the surface there was always the looming shadow of danger inherent to the enterprise.
We see Cernan examining the crash site where Elliot See and Charles Basset, the prime Gemini 9 crew, have just perished following a collision with a building at the McDonnell plant in February 1966. As the backup crew Cernan and Command Pilot Tom Stafford had to land their T-38 straight after the incident knowing that, as they grieved, the spacecraft they would now inherit sat in the very building that had just been hit. We also see the Cernans deal with the loss of their friend and neighbour Roger Chaffee in the Apollo AS-204 (later named Apollo 1) fire.
Cernan’s missions themselves are dealt with fairly briefly with Director Mark Craig avoiding the pitfalls of making this an overly technical documentary. From Gemini 9 we hear of the traumatic spacewalk, from Apollo 10 the heart-stopping gyrations of the LM Ascent Stage following separation from the Descent Stage above the lunar surface – Cernan exclaiming ‘sonofabitch!’ to a rapt America. But throughout we are reminded of the human story, the deeper impact of the experience on the astronauts and the significance of their achievements on those at home. In one particularly moving scene, we see Cernan read the letter he left for his young daughter Tracy as he flew to the moon in 1969, explaining that when he returns they will go on the often promised camping trip.
The Last Man on the Moon really gets to the heart of many truths inherent to Project Apollo, often unintentional or not fully appreciated at the time. Apollo was a political initiative, a proxy war to prove to the world that a free society could achieve far greater goals than the secretive Soviet Union, but the lasting legacy was the ability for humans to look back at the Earth in its isolation and truly begin to appreciate the value of what they had left behind. Cernan tells of his few moments of peace and reflection on the lunar surface during Apollo 17, of leaving his daughter’s initials written in moondust and his wish as he looked to the Earth prior to leaving the surface that he could have reached out and grabbed the moment so he could bring it back for the world to share. We also see how, by the time astronauts reached the moon, their country and the world had moved on – Cernan explains how isolated from contemporary events such as the Vietnam War they felt within the all consuming world of Apollo.
In a sense, the film is unapologetically romantic capturing the awe and wonder of the moonwalker’s experience, but rather than get lost in a celebration of this we see how the return to reality was very different, the constant demands of world eager to hear more from Cernan and his colleagues leading to pressures that their marriages could rarely sustain. While Cernan talks of the high divorce rate amongst astronauts, what goes unmentioned was that this was the same across the programme as a whole with all involved devoting themselves fully to achieving Kennedy’s vision. The word ‘selfishness’ is used many times to describe the life of the astronaut, the duty and demands of the role far outweighing more earthly concerns.
We see the older Cernan, now remarried, portrayed as more appreciative of his family and friends, acknowledging his ego and the role it played in the breakdown of his marriage, but we also see a man still driven and pushing hard through his latter years. Partly this is a reflection of the alpha personality, but it also seems Cernan senses a debt he must pay off to the people who sent him on his great adventures – a need to remind people what was achieved and the price paid before, one day, no moonwalkers remain to do so.
Perhaps the most poignant scene of The Last Man on the Moon involves a visit by Cernan to a deserted Launch Complex 39, juxtaposed with images of Apollo’s glory days and the amazing fiery night launch of Apollo 17. As he tours the site, the pad appears as a monument not only to the past ambitions of Apollo, but also to the Shuttle programme that followed. Much has happened in the 43 years since Cernan, Schmitt and Evans departed on that final voyage to the moon, yet how much has really been achieved?
Looking upwards at the gantries Cernan reflects “Could I have imagined that it would come to this? I don’t want to remember it this way – I almost wish I didn’t come here today”. These comments, along with a few snippets of Cernan in his many media engagements, are as close as the film comes to addressing or passing any opinion on the current state of NASA, but the fact remains that Cernan is likely to hold his title for many years to come.
The Last Man on the Moon stands as an important document of the age of Apollo, a time of ‘can-do’ attitudes and an attitude to risk that would be seen as unacceptable today. As such it forms a beautiful but bittersweet elegy to the men and women who made Apollo happen – to their many amazing achievements, but also to the price that they paid along the way.
And Cernan? He appears to handle his legacy with dignity rather than dwelling on glory days, but occasionally he still allows his mind to wander…
I look up there and I might just reflect for half a minute or so…. I can take myself there at the speed of thought
The Last Man on the Moon is out now via limited cinema release or available online via iTunes and Amazon
For more details see http://thelastmanonthemoon.com
For more of my own reflections on the legacy of Apollo, see Apollo, I still love you but…
For anyone interested in reading more about NASA’s journey to the Moon, there are a huge number of histories and astronaut autobiographies available, but I recommend the following:
A Man on the Moon – Andrew Chaikin
A fantastic and thoroughly readable account of the missions themselves and the astronauts that flew them.
APOLLO: The Race to the Moon – Charles Murray & Catherine Bly Cox
In many ways the perfect companion to Chaikin’s book, this deals with the foundations of manned spaceflight in the newly formed NASA and follows the behind the scenes stories of often uncelebrated individuals that made the missions possible
Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys – Michael Collins
One of the most eloquent and honest astronaut autobiographies, Collins recalls his journey to Apollo 11 and what it meant to be the guy who stayed in orbit.