The story of the last man on the moon

4 min read

The story of the last man on the moon
In an extract from astronaut Tim Peake's book Space: The Human Story, we look back at Eugene Cernan, known as "the last man on the moon", and ponder on the future of space exploration
On 14 December 1972, at the end of a seven-and-a-quarter-hour shift, Eugene Cernan lifted his foot onto the bottom rung of the Lunar Module’s short aluminium ladder and began to haul himself up. He had thought hard about what he would say at this moment, knowing what it signified. 
"We leave as we came," he began, his voice crackly and breathy over the intercom, "and God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. As I take these last steps from the surface for some time to come, I’d just like to record that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. God speed the crew of Apollo 17."
"We leave as we came…and God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind"
Cernan had been camped on the Moon for nearly three days at this point, and he would be there for a little while yet. Once inside the module, with the hatch secured and their dust-covered spacesuits and oxygen packs removed and stowed, he and his colleague, Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, still had a long and complicated list of preparations and pre-flight checks to complete, not to mention a scheduled eight-hour sleep to fit in—their last spell of rest in the tiny metal container which had been their shelter a quarter of a million miles from home. 
Eventually, though, it was time to go. On the ground at Mission Control in Houston, amid the banks of screens and the plumes of cigarette smoke, the usual atmosphere of taut concentration was mixed on this occasion with something more poignant. To the disappointment, frustration and even outright dismay of nearly everyone at NASA, there would be no more government funding for the Apollo lunar programme beyond this mission. After a hectic three-and-a-half-year period in which America had landed six pairs of astronauts on the surface of the Moon, the plug had been pulled. When Apollo 17’s lozenge-shaped capsule eventually descended into the Pacific Ocean under its three red and white striped parachutes, it would also be bringing down the curtain on human lunar exploration. When, if ever, that curtain would go up again, nobody knew. With calculated irony, Mission Control chose to rouse Cernan and Harrison from their slumbers by piping into the module the sound of the Carpenters singing "We’ve Only Just Begun". 
"Now," Cernan said, when the checks were done, "let’s get off."

The journey home to earth

He entered the Proceed code into the on-board computer, the ascent engine ignited, and, in a flash of light, the module lifted off the surface and rose into lunar orbit. And with that, the astronaut who would be known for the rest of his life as "the last man on the Moon" began to make his way back to Earth, and the most astonishing chapter to date in the story of human exploration came to an end.
Now come forward fifty years, to 11 December 2022. Half a century to the day since Cernan and Schmitt landed on the Moon (and a little under six years since Cernan’s death at the age of eighty-two), another tiny cone-shaped spacecraft floats down from the sky under three striped parachutes and drops into the Pacific Ocean, this time just west of Baja California, where the waiting USS Portland moves in to begin the recovery process. 
NASA SLS launch
This is the conclusion of the Artemis I mission. For those whose Greek mythology is a little rusty, Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo, and that capsule now bobbing in the water is just back from a 1.3 million-mile voyage in deep space, including six days on a distant retrograde orbit of the Moon and two lunar fly-bys, passing just 80 miles above the Moon’s surface. Amid temperatures rising to 2,700ºC, it has just plummeted back into the Earth’s atmosphere at a speed in excess of 24,000mph, before those parachutes opened to break the capsule’s fall and eventually bring it floating down to the water at a more sedate 20mph. 
In the Commander’s seat: Captain Moonikin Campos. On either side of him: Helga and Zohar. The Captain is a male-bodied mannequin named after Arturo Campos, the NASA engineer who played a major role in the rescue from disaster of Apollo 13. Helga and Zohar are female-bodied model torsos, named by the German and Israeli space agencies respectively. Also on board: a small plastic Snoopy and, flying the flag for the European Space Agency, who are also involved in this multi-national project, a model of Shaun the Sheep. 
" Cernan will be relieved of the title he never wanted to hold by the next man on the Moon—who, incidentally, will most likely be a woman"
No humans, then. But that’s for next time. The follow-up mission, Artemis II, scheduled at the time of writing to launch in late 2024, won’t land on the Moon either, but it will attempt a final trial journey with four astronauts on board, much as in May 1969 Apollo 10 (with, incidentally, Eugene Cernan in its crew) closed to within 9 miles of the Moon’s surface for one last recce before Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 went all the way and landed. And then, all being well, the path will be laid for Artemis III to take humans to the surface, possibly in this decade. 
At which point, Eugene Cernan will be posthumously relieved of the title he never wanted to hold by the next man on the Moon—who, incidentally, will most likely be a woman. 
Tim Peake_SPACE_Book Jacket
Buy Space: The Human Story by Tim Peake (Penguin, £22) here
Cover photo: NASA
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