Eugene Cernan – the last man to walk on the moon

Love Medway Team

30 May 2022

As Rochester Cathedral welcomes Luke Jerram's Gaia, we look back 50 years to the moment Eugene Cernan boarded Apollo 17, homeward bound, in the process becoming the last person to set foot on the surface of the moon.

There’s a strange conflict at play right now. We are in an era where the world’s richest people have an obsession with space travel that is every bit as great as the early pioneers of space travel way back in the 1960s.

In Sir Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, there are three super-rich entrepreneurs whose energy, drive and passion for exploration, as adults, is a direct reflection of the wonder and amazement they sensed as a generation watching the likes of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin lay down the early markers of space travel.

The conflict, as mentioned above, therefore comes in the way such driven and dynamic explorers, with a vastness of capital that would make most space endeavours possible, also reside in an era where, by December of this year, it will have been 50 years since someone last stepped foot on the moon.

Indeed, when Eugene Cernan boarded Apollo 17 in 1972, few could have imagined the moon’s surface would remain untouched by man again for such a period of time. After all, in the three years preceding it, 10 others had made the journey and experienced the sensation of touching down on the Earth’s only natural satellite.

The ability to reach an orb that had mystified people for thousands of years almost created a normalising of space travel, and from there we were supposed to look further. In fairness, we have – such is the technology today that unmanned missions can reach well beyond the confines of what human participation makes possible, yet it is with a certain level of sadness that the ultimate journey, one fantasised over by astronauts, authors, filmmakers and generations of children all across the world, is one that has been five decades without repeat.

Cernan was the commander of Apollo 17, and set off with his three-man crew to venture to the moon on December 7th. He was joined by Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt, while Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans orbited above.

The crew remained at the moon for 75 hours, making three moonwalks, each of around seven hours. At the end of the third, and just before the module was set to leave, Cernan dropped to one knee and etched his daughter's initials, ‘TDC’, on the moon's surface; and because there is no wind nor atmosphere present, those letters will likely remain there forever.

The trio began the return journey on December 16th, with the trip back to Earth taking three days. They landed safely in the South Pacific Ocean.

Further missions had been planned to the moon, but even before Apollo17’s departure, NASA had already cancelled Apollo 18 and 19 because of congressional cuts. There was also a feeling after the Apollo 13 emergency that NASA risked having its entire manned space program cancelled if a crew was lost on another Apollo mission.

Cernan passed away in January 2017; Evans had died aged 57 in 1990. Harrison Schmitt, who from 1977 to 1983 was United States Senator from New Mexico, is the lone survivor, joining only three other men who have walked on the moon (Aldrin, Apollo 11; David Scott, Apollo 15; and Charles Duke, Apollo 16), to still live today.