In his childhood, US astronaut Captain Eugene Cernan often spent time on his grandparent’s farm in Wisconsin and dreamed of owning a ranch. In his twenties, he was a pilot in the US Navy and as he says, at that age ‘there isn’t anything you can’t do.’ And, ‘there is no room for error if you get sloppy you kill yourself.’ The attitude was that ‘I won’t screw-up’. You have to have a big ego to be a naval aviator to compete with fellow pilots and tackle the complexities of bombing, or landing on an aircraft carrier at night. This background certainly served him well when he became an astronaut.
In this period, he met his future wife, Barbara and another significant milestone was in 1961 when Yuri Gagarin became the first man to be launched into space. Gene was excited by this, but thought everything would be achieved before he had a chance to get involved then he was unexpectedly invited to carry out written and physical testing. After that he got a phone call ‘we’ve got a job for you in Houston’ and he became part of the NASA space program. He and fellow trainee astronauts, were kept busy every day and became famous and ‘special’.
In 1965, he was allocated, with Thomas Stafford, as a backup crewmember for the Gemini 9 mission. The following year the prime crew for the mission was killed in an aircraft accident, so Gene and Thomas took their place. One of the main objectives was for them to carry out a 2-hour long space walk. The EVA was intensely hard work, Gene’s temperature steadily rose, and his bulky spacesuit caused several problems for him that could well have had fatal consequences. From this, they knew they had many lessons to learn, and Gene’s failures helped them eventually know how to do it right in future.
At NASA it was a ‘small band of brothers’ who worked and socialised together and they were a ‘little crazy’. In 1967, the Apollo 1 tragedy struck them all hard, when three astronauts were incinerated during a Launchpad test. Gene wondered if the space program itself would be buried along with their bodies, and he had to accept that this was the price of progress.
The astronauts worked so intensely they hardly saw their families and had to be selfish. The Apollo mission continued and Gene was selected for the Apollo 10 flight that went around the Moon, in preparation for Apollo 11’s actual moon landing.
Archive footage and home movies accompany Gene’s reminiscences about these events in his life, and he provides a human insight into what it is like to ride on the top of the huge Saturn V rocket and explain what it is like to look out of the spacecraft window. Due to human error a button wasn’t correctly set, the lunar module span around before they got it back under control, once more showing the dangers of being an astronaut.
Apollo 10’s success led to the launch of Apollo 11, which put Neil Armstrong’s boots on the lunar surface. Gene is shown giving an emotional tribute at Neil’s funeral service in 2012.
Gene would have loved to be the first to land on the moon, but he got his chance to go there with Apollo 17 in 1972. Yet, as they were deciding whom to send, he crashed a helicopter and narrowly escaped death. Fortunately, he was selected and achieved his personal ‘moment’ by having the opportunity to explore the lunar surface, and to have the honour of being the last rather the first there.
This is a poignant tribute to the Apollo program and to the life of Cernan, his family and everyone who sacrificed themselves to get a ‘man on the moon’.
THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: MARK CRAIG / STARRING: EUGENE CERNAN, ALAN BEAN, CHARLES DUKE, RICHARD GORDON, GENE KRANZ / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW