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Cernan’s footsteps shouldn’t be the last

When astronaut Eugene Cernan left the surface of the moon after a very active Apollo 17 lunar expedition in 1972, he knew he was the last man on the moon, at least for awhile.

He didn’t suspect he’d be the last man on the moon for the rest of his life.

Cernan, who died Monday at age 82, didn’t have the all-American persona of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, nor the luck of being first, such as Alan Shepherd as the first American in space or Neil Armstrong as the first man to walk on the moon. But he was important to the space program as a true professional with a scientific heart and a pilot’s personality. His flights aboard an earlier Gemini mission and the lunar orbit of Apollo 10 were crucial to the six successful lunar landings, improving spaceflight all along the way.

He often teased that his Apollo 10 flight “painted the white line” for Armstrong to follow to the Sea of Tranquility in July 1969. He was a prankster, sliding down a banister during a White House visit, and it’s Cernan’s voice in a classic clip of astronauts dancing about in the lunar gravity singing a version of “Strolling Through the Park.”

But in addition to the fun of being on the moon — it was an adventure for the dozen men who walked its surface — Cernan commanded the most advanced of the lunar missions. He and fellow astronaut, scientist Harrison Schmitt, set the record for the longest lunar landing flight at nearly 302 hours, spent more than 22 hours walking and driving about the surface of the moon, and went the farthest from their landing craft, covering 22 miles in total, thanks to their lunar rover vehicle.

In addition to perfecting technology, they discovered orange soil amid all the lunar gray powder, a coloration caused by tiny beads of volcanic glass. In recent years, scientists have found microscopic water in the beads.

But all too soon, the science ended. The quest for answers, or more questions was stopped, for generations now.

The basic answers to the question, “Why?” are still unresolved. The Launch Pad 39 complex at Cape Canaveral never again roared and shook under the blast of a full Saturn V rocket, the most powerful vehicle devised by mankind, to send men out of Earth orbit.

Political will had changed from President Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the 1960s. It was achieved, and earthly troubles instead consumed the hearts and minds of Americans more than scientists and pilots roving about the moon.

Cernan, recognizing what he hoped for the rest of his days remains a temporary place in history, said as he climbed aboard the lunar module on Dec. 13, 1972, “We leave as we came, and God willing, we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”

Cernan spent much of the rest of his life trying to convince the world that the science of manned lunar expeditions does have merit.

His website notes this quote, and a fitting epitaph for the last man on the moon:

“Too many years have passed for me to still be the last man to have left his footprints on the Moon. I believe with all my heart that somewhere out there is a young boy or girl with indomitable will and courage who will lift that dubious distinction from my shoulders and take us back where we belong. Let us give that dream a chance.”

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