Flying to the Moon (Apollo 10)
There was more than enough time for me to become contemplative and again ask
myself that question I pondered so often in space: Is it possible that this was
really happening to me? Obviously it was, but the power of the situation was
simply overwhelming. One result of space travel was that I had become much more
philosophical, at times unable even to focus on minor problems back on Earth
because they just seemed so small in comparison to what I had experienced and
the places I had been. My fellow astronauts who went to the moon encountered
varying degrees of the same disease; we broke the familiar matrix of life and
couldn't repair it.
For instance, looking back at Earth, I saw only a distant blue-and-white star.
There were oceans down there, deep and wide, but I could see completely across
them now and they seemed so small. However deep, however wide, the sea has a
shore and a bottom. Out where I was dashing through space, I was wrapped in
infinity. Even the word "infinity" lost meaning, because I couldn't measure it,
and without sunsets and sunrises, time meant nothing more than performing some
checklist function at a specific point in the mission. Beyond that star over
there, Alpheratz, is another and another. And over there, beyond Nunki, the
same thing. Behind Formalhaut, even more stars, stretching beyong my
imagination. Stars and eternal distant blackness everywhere. There is no
I'm not an overly religious person, but I certainly am a believer, and when I
looked around, I saw beauty, not emptiness. No one in their right mind can see
such a sight and deny the spirituality of the experience, nor the existence of
a Supreme Being, whether their God be Buddha or Jesus Christ or Whoever. The
name is less important than the acceptance of a Creator. Someone, some being,
some power placed our little world, our sun, and our moon where they are in the
dark void, and the scheme defies any attempt at logic. It is just too perfect
and beautiful to have happened by accident. I can't tell you how or why it
exists in this special way, only that it does, and I know that for certain
because I have been out there and I have seen the endlessness of space and time
with my own eyes.
Gene Cernan salutes the American flag, which
partially obscures the Lunar Module.
Landing on the Moon (Apollo 17)
I scanned for an empty space in a parking lot of boulders as big as
automobiles, and was concerned the powerful LM [Lunar Module] engine might kick
up a cloud of black dust that would blot my view. Instead, there was very
little, and I was able to eyeball the landing site. So close to the valley
floor, those surrounding massifs seemed damned big! The sheer North Massif to
our right stood as tall as eight-and-a-half Eiffel Towers and to the left, the
wretched slab of the South Massif would equal the height of about seven Empire
State Buildings stacked one atop the other.
A determined Jack [Schmitt, the LM pilot and a geologist, the only scientist
to go to the moon] stayed with his readouts. "Move her forward a little. Ninety
feet. Little forward velocity. Eighty feet, going down at three [feet per
second]. Getting a little dust. We're at 60 feet, going down at about two. Very
little dust. Very little dust, 40 feet, going down at three."
Almost there. I steadied the lander for the final hop as charcoal-gray dust
rose up and roiled about the windows, obscuring the view. "Stand by for
touchdown." "Standing by. Twenty-five feet, down at two," Jack said with
tense words. "Fuel's good. Twenty feet. Going down at two. Ten feet . . . ."
Wire sensors nine feet long trailed from the pads of the lander legs, and when
one brushed the surface, a blue light flashed on my console and I shut down the
rocket. We dropped the last few feet with a stomach-flipping thud, jolted once,
and came to rest slightly tilted in a shallow depression. We were only 200 feet
from the precise place picked as a target months ago on Earth.
It was 1:54 P.M. Houston time on December 11, 1972, and four days, 14 hours,
22 minutes, and 11 seconds had elapsed since we had blasted off from Florida. I
paused for a moment and slowly exhaled after making one of the smoothest
landings of my career.
More than two and a half hours of unrelenting dynamic action and steely
tension had drained my senses since we had undocked from America [the
command module], and now everything came to an abrupt stop. Instant silence
reigned. Not a word from Jack, who was as stunned as I, no pounding rocket, no
vibration, no noise. Not the song of a bird, the bark of a dog, not a whisper
of wind or any familiar sound from my entire life. I was totally enveloped by
such a thorough and complete stillness that I have difficulty comprehending it
even today. The only sound inside my helmet was my labored breath, and even
that slight disturbance seemed so terribly intrusive that for a brief moment, I
stopped breathing, too. Then there was nothing at all.
I broke the spell. "Okay, Houston, the Challenger has landed!" I
joyfully reported and pried my cramped hands from the thruster controls. "Yes
sir, we is here. Tell America that Challenger is at
Taurus-Littrow [the designated landing site]."
Above the South Massif, the Earth stood still in the inky southwestern sky, my
silent, guardian star.
Listen to Gene Cernan talk about "one of the most proud moments of my
life," as he and Jack Schmitt plant the American flag on the moon's
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Stepping Onto the Surface (Apollo 17)
Dreams really do come true. Four hours after landing on the moon and wearing
the backpack that contained my life-support system, I wriggled backward through
the tiny hatch, got to my knees on the small porch, and cautiously descended
Challenger's ladder, a rung at a time, until I stood on the saucerlike
footpad. The sun glared bright all around as I had my first good look at the
vast emptiness, while the canopy of sky remained thickly black from horizon to
horizon, a contradiction that played How can this be? with my logical
No fear, no apprehension, but a tremendous sense of satisfaction and
accomplishment welled within me. My size-10-1/2 boot was poised just inches
above the surface of this almost mythical land that mankind had watched so
closely for uncounted eons and to which we had assigned properties ranging from
religious icon and symbol of romance to maker of werewolves and clock for the
harvest. Every night of my life it had been up there, patiently waiting for my
I lowered my left foot and the thin crust gave way. Soft contact. There, it
was done. A Cernan bootprint was on the moon.
I had fulfilled my dream. No one could ever take this moment away. "As I step
off at the surface of Taurus-Littrow, I'd like to dedicate the first steps of
Apollo 17 to all those who made it possible," I called to Houston. "Oh,
my golly. Unbelievable."
My God, I was standing in a place no one had ever been before. The soil that
was firmly supporting me was not the dirt of the Earth, but of a different
celestial body, and it glittered in the bright sun as if studded with millions
of tiny diamonds. The sun, low in the lunar morning sky, cast a long shadow
beyond the parked Challenger.
I slowly pivoted, trying to see everything, and was overwhelmed by the silent,
majestic solitude. Not so much as a squirrel track to indicate any sort of
life, not a green blade of grass to color the bland, stark beauty, not a cloud
overhead, or the slightest hint of a brook or stream. But I felt comfortable,
as if I belonged here. From where I stood on the floor of this beautiful
mountain-ringed valley that seemed frozen in time, the looming massifs on
either side were not menacing at all. It was as if they, too, had been awaiting
the day someone would come and take a walk in their valley. I wasn't worried
about what might happen next, whether some unknown danger lurked at my elbow,
nor did I give much thought about how we would get out of this place when the
time came. We had gotten here, and we would get home. For the next three days,
I planned to live my life to the fullest, to milk every moment of this rare and
Apollo 17's Lunar Rover was left on the moon, eternal
testimony to a successful mission—our last, Cernan wrote, "for too many
years to come."
The Last Man on the Moon (Apollo 17)
Back at Challenger, we dusted each other off, loaded our final boxes of
rocks, then Jack climbed the ladder and disappeared into the hatch. By then, we
had stayed longer and traveled further on the surface of the moon than any
other crew. We had covered about 19 miles and collected more than 220 pounds of
rock samples and, even before we were aboard, scientists in Houston were
crowing that this had been the most meaningful lunar exploration ever. We were
living proof that the Apollo program had paid dividends.
While Jack cleaned up inside, I drove the Rover about a mile away from the LM
and parked it carefully so the television camera could photograph our takeoff
the next day. As I dismounted, I took a moment to kneel and with a single
finger, scratched [my daughter] Tracy's initials, T D C, in the lunar dust,
knowing those three letters would remain there undisturbed for more years than
anyone could imagine.
Alone on the surface, I hopped and skipped my way back to Challenger,
my thoughts racing wildly as I sought to encompass this experience. Just being
there was a triumph of science to be celebrated for ages, but it was more than
a personal dream come true, for I felt that I represented all humanity.
There was a sense of eternity about Apollo. Sir Isaac Newton once said, "If I
have been able to see farther than others, it is because I stood on the
shoulders of giants." Every man and woman who put in long hours to get us to
the moon now stood with me beside the lunar lander in that odd sun-washed
darkness. Every astronaut who had gone into space, who made it possible for me
to fly a little higher, stay a little longer, was at my side. These were the
giants upon whose shoulders I stood as I reached for the stars. I could almost
feel the presence of [Roger Chaffee, Gus Grissom, and Ed White, the astronauts
of Apollo 1 who died in a launchpad fire], and all other astronauts and
cosmonauts who died in the pursuit of the moon. We had carried on in their
I took one last unfiltered look at the Earth and was enveloped by a sense of
selfishness, for I was unable to adequately share what I felt. I wanted
everyone on my home planet to experience this magnificent feeling of actually
being on the moon. That was not technologically possible, and I knew it, but
there was a bit of guilt at being the Chosen One. I put a foot on the pad and
grabbed the ladder. I knew that I had changed in the past three days, and that
I no longer belonged solely to the Earth. Forever more, I would belong to the