It was 1972 when Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan stepped off the moon, but it’s taken more than 40 years for him to share his story.
In an exclusive interview with National Geographic, the last man on the moon discusses what it’s like to be a part of history and why he’ll never tire of talking about space.
How did going to space change you?
Before considering change after you have gone into space, there are several things you have to consider and learn how to handle before you go into space. One is as soon as you are chosen to be an astronaut, long before there is any consideration about being given a flight, you suddenly become a hero in most people's opinions and you haven't done a thing.
Then after going into space, it solidifies that kind of thing in people's minds and you have to cope with the fact that you only did what you were asked to do, what you thought was the right thing to do, and what you were given an opportunity to do. So the most important thing is to realize that you still put your pants on one leg at a time.
What are your most lasting memories of being on the moon?
Looking back from a quarter millions miles away at the purpose and the beauty of the Earth, to me, it was like sitting on God's front porch for three days of my life. The other important thing to me was taking those first steps, although they had been taken by others, this proved to me that I was good enough to get the job done as commander of a flight.
So many years later, do you still have the same passion for the topic?
Absolutely. If I could go back to the moon today, I would be the first on board. If I had a chance to go to Mars, although that will only happen in my endless dreams, I would love to have the opportunity.
After going to the moon, how do you settle into a “normal Earth job”?
Initially, a normal Earth job is tough to transform into a challenge like going to the moon. However, I think it is important not to look at the past, but to the future and to what new challenges it may hold.
Do you think you’ll be the last man on the moon for the next few generations or will we take another trip?
I am only the last man of Apollo on the moon, or perhaps the last in the 20th century, but certainly there will be others who will follow in my footsteps as a stopover on the way to Mars. It will, however, take perhaps as long as another decade or maybe even a full generation.
How did the idea to make a documentary come about?
Mark Craig, the Director, was passionate about my story after he read my book and then spent two or three years convincing me the story needed to be seen by those who follow in the next twenty plus years. He convinced Mark Stewart, the eventual Producer, to read my book and then they collectively ganged up on me.
Back in the 70s, you thought we’d be on our way to Mars by the turn of the century – what happened?
A question I have always found great difficulty in answering because the fact is we not only could have been on our way to Mars a decade after I returned from the moon, but I sincerely believed at the time we'd be on our way to Mars by the 21st century, some 28 years later.
When we do go to Mars, what advice would you give to those astronauts?
Make sure your living conditions are as normal as you can possibly make them, as close to what you have become familiar with at home -- brushing your teeth, shaving -- anything and everything that ends up reducing the frustrations of living in zero gravity.
As a matter of fact, I would highly recommend incorporating in the Mars spacecraft a slight bit of gravity, certainly we know 1/6 gravity is compatible with human life.