Gene Cernan has been to space three times, to the Moon twice, and walked on its surface in 1972. In fact, he’s the last man to step foot on the Moon. But a new biographical documentary aptly titled The Last Man on the Moon doesn’t focus on Cernan’s life — it’s about his story, one that he hopes will inspire future generations to dream the impossible and make it happen.
Cernan’s career is pretty outstanding. A graduate of Purdue University, he joined the United States Navy as an aviator and was commissioned as an Ensign through the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps. During his tenure he logged more than 5,000 hours in the air, 4,800 of which were done in jet aircraft, but it didn’t put him on a track to space. He watched as the first group of astronauts became national heroes and knew he wouldn’t be among them. He didn’t meet the qualifications. He was, in his own words, a “red hot arrogant jet pilot” but he wasn’t a test pilot.
The Navy had other ideas. He was handpicked by the Navy Department of Special Projects as a candidate for NASA’s astronaut corps. A couple of months after a strange trip to Houston where he was among 400 ace pilots all checked into the same hotel under the name Max Peck, Cernan got a call from NASA. Against all odds, he had been selected as one of the agency’s third group of 14 astronauts. It was a “Golly, why me?” moment that for Cernan underscored the role of fate in his life.
Cernan spent three years learning how to be an astronaut before he made his first trip to space as the pilot of Gemini 9. His main task on the flight was to test a jet pack-like maneuvering system. But it was still early days for NASA; the agency was still figuring out how to really work in space. He never tested the jet pack. The effort of retrieving and putting it on was so physically taxing it nearly killed him.
It was typical for NASA to run into unexpected problems. The agency trained its astronauts and flight controllers to deal with problems, but they couldn’t imagine all the problems that might crop up in flight. As Cernan describes the era, everyone working at NASA at the time was both “smart and arrogant enough” to find ways out of bad situations. Everyone accepted that the astronauts were putting themselves in a hostile environment. The best they could do was be as technically smart about it as possible. “If you’re afraid of not getting back,” he says, “then you shouldn’t go.”
Cernan’s second flight was as the Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 10, NASA’s dress rehearsal for Apollo 11’s landing. He and commander Tom Stafford took the Lunar Module Snoopy towards the Moon but didn’t land; they stopped about 60 nautical miles from the surface. But Cernan went all the way on his last flight. As the commander of Apollo 17, he has spent more time than any man on the lunar surface, returned more samples, and left the last bootprints in the dust. He says he was aware that those prints would last forever, but in also felt certain there would be more bootprints on the Moon some day.
So while The Last Man on the Moon is all about Cernan’s life and spaceflights, he isn’t its subject. The movie is about his story, a story that he wants to preserve for the next generation of kids. Growing up, Cernan’s father only wanted his son to get the education he never got, and Cernan wanted to fly planes. He did both, got an education and learned to fly, and though there was no space program at the time it was the first step on his path to space. He says that fate was instrumental in getting him to the Moon, but he also believed in himself and took chances to get where he did.
Everyone has the right stuff embedded in them, Cernan says. “The right stuff to me is if you believe what you’re doing is the right thing to do and [are] willing to accept the challenge and accept the risk to get it done.” The movie isn’t about space or about Cernan, it’s about tapping into that right stuff that everyone has. Whatever you do, Cernan says, just do your best, and you’ll surprise yourself.
Whether you’re an Apollo fanatic or just like a good inspiring story, Last Man on the Moon is compelling and well worth watching. The film premieres tonight at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas.