"Earth’s distant orb appeared the smallest light that twinkles in the heaven; whilst round the chariot’s way innumerable systems rolled and countless spheres diffused an ever-varying glory. It was a sight of wonder: some were hornèd like the crescent moon; some shed a mild and silver beam like Hesperus o'er the western sea; some dashed athwart with trains of flame, like worlds to death and ruin driven; some shone like suns, and as the chariot passed, eclipsed all other light." From "Queen Mab" by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1813)

Friday, 12 March 2010

The Last Man On The Moon

When Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan got an itchy nose while wearing his space helmet he could scratch it by moving his head toward a little piece of velcro specially placed inside the helmet for just such an occasion. I didn’t know they did that. I learn something new with every astronaut autobiography I read and by the time I finished reading Gene Cernan’s autobiography last night I’d learnt quite a bit more than the little bit of space trivia about scratching your nose.

“The Last Man On The Moon” is just excellent, a thoroughly enjoyable read and if you haven’t read any astronaut autobiographies before I’d recommend this one as a good place to start, despite it being the last in the series, so to speak. Although for a really detailed look at Gemini and Apollo you can do no better than Michael Collins autobiography “Carrying The Fire”.

Cernan’s book follows the story of the space race as seen through the eyes of a Navy aviator watching the unfolding events of Sputnik, Gargarin and Mercury right through to his own considerable involvement in Gemini and Apollo. It captures the competitiveness of astronaut life including the revelation that Cernan had a serious leg injury that he and one of the NASA doctors played down to avoid him losing the historic Apollo 17 flight. Cernan speaks about the result on family life of large egos, a massive work load, extreme pressure and the worry over whether a spouse would actually come home at the end of the day, not just from space flight but from all the other flying undertaken during an astronaut’s working day on earth. Astronaut wives were taken for granted by NASA and let’s be honest by the astronauts themselves. It was expected that they put on a show for the press for ever telling them they were “proud, thrilled, and happy” while they almost certainly felt stressed out, under pressure and scared and Cernan acknowledges this in his book. Although he survived his time as an astronaut, his marriage did not and he takes the blame for it.

Gene Cernan may well be the last man on the moon for many years to come. I suspect the next person on the moon will either be Chinese, and good luck to them I hope they make it, an extremely wealthy individual with as much courage and skill as money, or maybe a very fortunate person with those abilities who has the financial backing of an extremely wealthy individual or corporation. Whoever it is though could do worse than to read a few astronaut autobiographies before they go because nothing about being in space is easy or safe, something highlighted in Cernan’s book.

Working within the confines of a space suit makes the simplest task a huge undertaking and while space suits have improved and developed since Apollo that is a fact that cannot be altered. Working or even just manoeuvring in the totally weightless environment of space brings about problems of leverage and action/reaction. Even on the lunar surface with its low gravity, forcing a drill bit into the solid moon rock found under all the surface dust is still very strenuous work.

On the moon, even something as simple as holding on to a rock or a tool involves using a very tight grip through the many layers of a protective glove. Both Cernan and his fellow Apollo 17 moon walker Harrison Schmitt had blisters and cuts all over their hands as well as aching arms and legs that would stop most of us in our tracks. They had to work through the pain for three days on the lunar surface. When things broke or didn’t work properly it was tough, exhausting and time consuming to persevere or make repairs, if repairs could be made at all.

Living and working on the moon is never going to be easy and it’s tragic that we aren’t able to take advantage of the experience of those who have already worked in those conditions while they’re still with us. The giant leap and those few first steps should have lead us on to a running pace by now but the next time the moon has visitors from earth, they too will have to make small steps.

I don’t expect that Gene Cernan will remain the last man on the moon. Almost certainly one day, and it may be 50 years from now or 500, but one day people will again walk on the lunar surface. However, Cernan will always be the last Apollo astronaut and the last man in the twentieth century to kick up the dust of that magnificent desolation that is the surface of the moon and you can share in that experience by reading his book.

As for me, my next astronaut book is Deke Slayton’s autobiography. He was one of the Original 7 Mercury astronauts but who was grounded by health concerns. Although he missed the opportunity to fly as part of the Mercury, Gemini or Apollo moon missions he was in charge of all the other astronauts at NASA and he finally got to earn his astronaut wings as the docking module pilot of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. We have lift off, again.

Suggested reading: “The Last Man On The Moon” by Eugene Cernan


  1. Houston, we have a problem.

    Ok Space Cadet....this has to stop. You are costing me money. Or, to be more precise you are costing Ricky money.

    Reading your blog has stirred up my minor interest in Apollo and caused me to buy something from ebay on Friday. It also caused me to buy the Apollo 13 double DVD from Amazon on Saturday. Oh dear. Both of these transactions have their own issues.

    The ebay purchase was a cheap pdf file. ( I won it with my bid of £1.70....no postage( or parking fees come to that )....but I later found the file available for free on Google...ooopps....lesson learnt. Extra point of reference to Mrs Kitch and her blog - EVERYONE makes mistakes which is fine as long as we learn by them ! . But whilst surfing for the DVD I came across a book that looks really interesting. I stopped at the purchasing point however as I thought I'd better slow down a bit. Have you read "Failure is not an option" by Gene Kranz ? Is it as good as most of the reviews seem to say. I'll probably end up buying it anyway.....well, Ricky will.

    Over and out.

  2. Copy that AC. I'm so glad you are getting turned on to the whole Apollo thing. I haven't read "Failure Is Not An Option" yet but it is defo the next book I'm going to get on the subject. It's a must for any Apollo buff as this man was an integral part of the whole programme. Also “Apollo 13” is such a great film, I well up at the end every time. You should also check out “From The Earth To The Moon” which was the TV follow up to the “Apollo 13” film. Tom Hanks produced it and introduces each of the episodes. It’s fairly accurate and really captures the spirit of Apollo. Oh dear, I do believe you have got me started. I’ll stop there but if you want to know any more call me.

    What was the pdf you bought, I’m intrigued? And tell Ricky it’s all money well spent, this was after all mankind’s greatest achievement. Well, a close second to his swimming pool.