Gene Cernan 1934 - 2017

By Al Reinert

Astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, signs a For All Mankind poster with filmmaker Al Reinert. Photo Courtesy Al Reinert

The Last Man has left us. January 17th, 2017 brought the sad news that Eugene Cernan passed away and we are all diminished for it. Gene’s perspective on the human race, the lovely planet we occupy, and our place in the universe was rare and wise and demands remembrance. He once described for my microphone what it felt like to look out the window of his Apollo spacecraft en route to the moon:

“When the sunlight shines through the blackness of space, it’s black. But I was in sunlight and I was able to look at this blackness. I mean what are you looking at?Call it the universe but it’s the infinity of space and the infinity of time. I’m looking at something called space that had no end, and at time that has no meaning. You can really focus on it because you’ve got this planet out there, this star called Earth, which itself is in this blackness but it is lit up, because the sunlight strikes on an object, it strikes on something called Earth. And it’s not a hostile blackness. Maybe it’s not hostile because of the beauty of the Earth, that sort of gives it life.”

I was twenty minutes late for my first appointment with Cernan and he gave me grief for it. Like most ex-fighter pilots he wore a watch the size of a hockey puck and like all ex-astronauts he scheduled his day by it precisely. He berated my tardiness for five minutes and ended the interview before I had even turned on my tape recorder.

But he welcomed me back a month later because, he said, what I was doing was worthwhile. At the time, in the mid-1980s, I was trying to interview all of the Apollo astronauts for a documentary film about their lunar voyages, and he thought he might have something to contribute to that. I was a first-time filmmaker then, not altogether sure I knew what I was doing, and Gene’s encouragement pushed me to keep at it. We had half-a- dozen sessions over the next couple years and I ended up using more of him than any of the other twenty-one men I interviewed. A decade later, after DVDs had been invented, he recorded the commentary track for Criterion’s release of “For All Mankind.”

He also wrote a book called “The Last Man on the Moon” even though he resisted that title for himself. As commander of Apollo 17, the final lunar mission, he was in fact the last person to stand on that distant world, but he always hoped and expected that someone would follow him. As long as I knew him he was deeply disappointed that nobody had. His last words from there are the way we should remember him:

“As we leave the moon, we leave as we came, and, God willing, we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”

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