When Apollo 17 Astronaut Eugene Cernan grabbed hold of the lunar module's handrails and pulled himself free from the surface of the Moon, he left behind various geophysical experiments in strange metal boxes, a car (of sorts), an American flag and his daughter's initials, which he had carved into the grey dust moments earlier.
The year was 1972. All of the above remain on the Moon today, frozen in time along with Cernan’s footprints because in the intervening 44 years, no one has been back.
In the thought-provoking new film, The Last Man on the Moon, we see a sprightly Cernan, now in his eighties, return to the Saturn V launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Exploring the towering gantry, one-time Apollo 17 Mission Commander Cernan talks frankly about his experience of the Apollo program and how it changed his life, and the lives of all of the astronauts who took part. The launch pad now looks old and purposeless: creaking and rusted, it has the haunting atmosphere of an abandoned shipyard.
His curious accolade, “the last man on the Moon,” is not a title he imagined he would hold for long, let alone for a lifetime. An Apollo 18 mission had been lined up with its own mission patch and crew, even before the Apollo 17 crew had been selected.
At the tail-end of the 1960s, the space program represented the dawn of a thrilling new age for all humanity, as the lines began to blur between scientific fact and science fiction. Going to the Moon would surely soon become commonplace, now that the first brave pioneers had paved the way?
A young Cernan would never have believed that the Apollo program ultimately marked the end of that adventure, as well as its beginning. But by 1972, budgets were tightening, as interest in the program waned, and Apollo 18 never reached the launch pad.
As the film progresses, we learn a lot about both the space program and the mindset of all of those involved, not least from some stunning and previously unseen, archive footage. In one breathtaking and terrifying sequence, Cernan is seen on an early space walk, tethered to his craft by a 30 foot cord, floating in space. The section is cleverly recreated using a combination of archive footage and CGI (computer-generated imagery).
Astronauts are not generally known for emotional outpourings, but as Director Mark Craig (Talk to Me, The Flying Scot) puts it: "During the course of filming, our principal character really began to open up."And it's through this “opening up” that a subtle sub-story begins to emerge.
"We were very selfish," says Cernan, candidly in the film. An Apollo colleague explains visually, holding both hands up together symmetrically at chest level. "This is work-life balance," he says. Dropping one hand down onto his lap and raising the other high above his head, he adds, "This was us."
Cernan still carries the burden of this imbalance. The intensity of the astronauts’ training schedule, which involved survival missions in the desert and the jungle, was not entirely of their own making but the guilt at being an absent father for so much of his daughter's early childhood clearly weighs heavily on his conscience, even to this day.
In one scene, Cernan revisits the astronaut's pre-mission living quarters to read a letter he wrote to his daughter just prior to his first launch (Cernan was Lunar Module Pilot for the exploratory but non-landing Apollo 10 mission), in which he promises to take her camping when he gets back from his travels. Later in the film he explains how, on return from the Moon, he recalled with great drama and excitement his other-worldly adventures to a nonplussed child, whose response was simply, "Daddy, can we go camping now?"
Not that Cernan is ungrateful – far from it. At times he struggles to find words grand enough to convey the surreal opportunity that life presented to him. Standing in London’s Science Museum looking at the scorched command module that brought him home back in 1972, Cernan asks himself whether he dreamt such an incredible journey.
But for his family, work was far from over with the return to Earth. Like all the returning Apollo astronauts, Cernan then began a relentless global PR campaign – a life of private jets, hotel rooms, endless drinks receptions, speeches, interviews and grip-and-grin handshakes for the cameras. It was this campaign, more than the mission itself, that cost him his marriage. "I just wanted to go back to being normal," explains his ex-wife. The divorce rate among Apollo couples was 60%.
As one of the world's three fastest humans (his re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere topped speeds of 24,000 miles per hour) Cernan, on the other hand, has never quite learnt to slow down.
He now has a ranch where he seems to have found some solace – although his schedule of conventions and publicity meet-and-greets is only marginally less hectic than ever. "He needs to start taking it easy," says a concerned friend and former fighter pilot colleague.
Throughout all of this, director Mark Craig presents us with a cautionary tale. Few of us will ever be burdened with the kind of pressure under which the Apollo astronauts worked. But we can all get too caught up in our own ambitions, our work, and the details and complexities of modern life.
Sometimes we need to slow down, take a step back...
It’s certainly well worth taking time out to watch Craig’s film, an artful combination of heart-stopping footage and touching personal reminiscence.
Sometimes we need to slow down, take a step back, and appreciate the simple things in life: the love of our family and friends. Take it from an 80-year-old former astronaut – one of just 12 people to stand on another celestial body and look back upon the Earth. Even initials carved in Moon dust are no substitute for time spent with the ones we love.