The last man on the moon dreams of new worlds
Gene Cernan now commands a Texas ranch, but he has big plans for the slumbering space program
They came from around the world to see him, arriving in Cocoa Beach, Fla., by the thousands in buses and rental cars, mobile homes and limousines. When the hotels were full, they put up tents and laid out sleeping bags on the ground.
For one week in December 1972, Gene Cernan was the most famous man on Earth -- just as he was about to leave it. As the commander of Apollo 17, the last manned mission to the moon, Cernan was in all the big magazines. Photographers and groupies rushed at him in parking lots. John Connally, the former governor of Texas, tried to talk him into running for Congress.
But during the 30 long years since, Cernan has watched his space program fall from grace. So one day last year, he shot off a letter to the head of NASA, proposing a revolutionary idea to get the agency back in the spotlight. His plan: Blast teen-agers into space. Actually train them, stick them in spacesuits and shoot them into orbit with a true scientific purpose.
Pitching this idea to a reporter, Cernan stops short, the sudden halt tossing sweat from his face in a sheet. He has been climbing the steep grade from his horses' grazing ground to his Italian Riviera-style ranch house overlooking Kerrville, his guests straining to keep up. It's at least 90 degrees on a muggy summer afternoon, and Cernan got home just half an hour ago from a golf tournament -- which he won.
"Let me put it this way: Can you name any of the astronauts on the most recent shuttle mission?" Cernan asks, leaning in close. This is the key point, our space farers' place in the public consciousness, his place as one of its revered elder statesmen. "No one can," he insists, almost hissing. "Nobody knows and nobody cares about the space program today. We're not going anywhere. It's not exciting. It's boring."
Standing there in the heat, his eyes watering from exertion, he can barely believe he's saying this. For the first time in his adult life, he's glad he isn't working on a NASA mission. For if there's one thing Gene Cernan can't handle, it's boredom.
Ever since he lifted his foot off the chalky plain of the Valley of Taurus-Littrow, telling a worldwide television audience that "America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow," Eugene A. Cernan has carried a memorable monicker: The Last Man on the Moon. It's become so much a part of his public persona that it's the name of his autobiography -- even though it rubs him the wrong way.
"I've carried that damn label for 30 years," says Cernan, biting off his words like Charlton Heston telling those talking apes to keep their dirty paws off him.
At 68, Cernan even looks a little like Heston -- a handsome, quintessentially American face, creased and ridged and peeling as if put together in a beginner's art class. His eyes -- bright and hard -- lock onto his subject with baleful concentration. They're the eyes of a sprinter on the blocks who knows he's about to break a world record -- the eyes of a man who won't be moved from a goal.
Cernan hasn't worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for 25 years. He's been a successful oil executive. He's run his own company, the Cernan Corp. He owns a working ranch in the Texas Hill Country. But he's never stopped being an astronaut.
"It is very disappointing to me that I still carry that label, last man on the moon," says Cernan, settling into a large leather chair in a living room that doesn't have a single memento of his astronaut career. He's an expansive, open-faced host, offering drinks, tours of the compound, anything to make his guests feel at home. But now he's getting down to business.
"I thought that by the end of the century not only would we have been back to the moon but be well on the way to Mars," he says. "I said then, 'This is not the end, it's the beginning.' I got on a soapbox: 'We're going to Mars. It's gonna happen.' "
Cernan's back on his feet already -- and back on point. He reaches out a stubby arm, beseeching his audience to grasp what he's saying.
"If we can send a 77-year-old into space, why can't we send a 17-year-old?" he asks, referring to Sen. John Glenn's 1998 ride aboard the space shuttle. "We can send a cadre of 10-15 kids, put them up there with a purpose, a real science project. We talk about a generation needing heroes; they can create their own heroes."
Of course, that's not the only reason he wants to send the Britney generation into space. "This is the generation that's going to decide when/how/if we go back to the moon and on to Mars," he says. "Let's give them some ownership, some knowledge, and a piece of the action. The Space Station is uninteresting, but it's the only game in town, so let's make use of it."
Just talking about it seems to light something in Cernan, provoke the old itch to get out there and explore. He knows he's not the only one.
"I find a lot of nostalgia this year," he says, having just toured the country on behalf of Omega watches, which has issued a commemorative atomic watch to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his moon shot this year.
"I hear it all the time," he says. "People want to know what happened to our ambitions. People ask me, 'Why didn't we go on and take the next step, when we were right there?' They say, 'My God, was it 30 years ago and we haven't been back to the moon since? How is that possible?' "
Thirty years ago, it didn't seem possible. That was the time to be an astronaut -- with the space race at the center of the American consciousness, the most tangible arena for the United States and the Soviet Union to compete for the attention and awe of the world.
"It was do-or-die," says Cernan. "The stakes didn't get any higher." When Cernan joined NASA in 1963 as a young Navy aviator, he says, "The Soviet Union owned space. The whole world was saying, 'What are you going to do about it, America?' "
That's where Alan Shepard and John Glenn and their successors -- Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean and Cernan -- came in. It would take special men, with special talents, to be America's astronauts. They had to be brave, certainly. They had to be immensely talented pilots, of course. They had to be able to endure rigorous training and handle facing the truly unknown. And since the Cold War was a PR campaign as much as anything, they also had to have star power. They had to be the kind of men whose pictures young boys would tack up on their walls, the kind of men whom mothers would dream about their daughters bringing home.
They were the antidote to cynicism -- the flip side to the Vietnam War and the exploding black ghettos and the marchers in the streets. They were America at its best.
And it worked. America responded with a thundering wave of adulation. The best writers (Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe) wanted to write about them. The biggest celebrities (Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson) wanted to hang with them. Pretty young women -- "Cape cookies," in astronaut parlance -- threw themselves at them.
When it was Cernan's turn to put his footprints on the moon, in 1972, he became a one-man media event. He gave endless interviews to newspaper reporters and TV anchormen, he spoke to schoolchildren and signed autographs by the hundreds. And he loved every minute of it.
The attention played to Cernan's strengths, says Alan Bean, who walked on the moon as lunar module pilot for Apollo 12.
"He's the most personable, the most likable and the most sincere person I've ever known," Bean says. "He loves to go out and promote something -- for Gene it could be as much fun as actually doing it. Hell, I wish I were more like Gene. I envy him; I wish I had his personality. I'd hate to be a salesman trying to compete with him."
Of course, it wasn't just that Cernan was a natural salesman. He was spurred by the belief that he was doing something important, something world-changing -- something worth daring "the very explosion of his flesh," as Mailer put it. It was a belief, as deeply rooted as religion, that all of the astronauts had about the space program. It was a calling, a personal and national epiphany, a tipping point in human history.
"Apollo affected everyone in the world," says Bean, "and it still does. It raised the bar. There are so many ways to think less of human beings. We see it every day. Apollo was a way to think more of human beings -- to show that we could do something impossible and wonderful if we put our minds and talent to it."
Cernan got used to the attention and adulation -- and he earned it. He flew into space three times, survived a harrowing space walk that threatened to put him into permanent Earth orbit, made a pinpoint moon landing between massive mountain clusters that could've been a scene straight out of a "Star Trek" movie -- and lost eight colleagues along the way in this most dangerous of professions.
Cernan scoffs at the notion that he's an American hero, and he starts to tell you that he's never thought of himself that way. But the alpha male in him -- the part that couldn't contain a whoop of excitement as he and Tom Stafford mountain-hopped over the surface of the moon in their lunar module -- can't honestly dispute it.
"If people want to say I'm a hero, OK," he says, hunkering down in his seat as if he's about to pull a ripcord. "But there's a responsibility there. Doing it isn't enough. You've got to act in a way that earns the right to be called a hero, particularly in this day and age with kids. Being a celebrity doesn't mean anything." He waves at the muted TV in the corner of the room, which has just shown Mike Tyson responding to a reporter's question. "You can be a rapist and be a celebrity."
That's something that has been particularly difficult for the Apollo astronauts to accept, as fame and infamy have increasingly blurred in the past three decades and their own fame has been subsumed. They can no more understand the desperate celebrity-seekers who eat bugs on TV's Fear Factor than they can comprehend the infinite possibilities of the universe they sought to explore.
"Gene never wanted to be famous -- he's the most unpretentious man you'll ever meet," says Carl Warwick, a former Texas Christian University and St. Louis Cardinals baseball star who's known Cernan for 35 years. "He's never worn his accomplishments on his sleeve; he's always thinking about what to do next."
That was another problem, a more pressing problem. What to do next. It was the question for the 12 Apollo astronauts who walked on the moon, and it sent some of them into seclusion and helped blow apart many of their marriages. (Cernan and his wife of 20 years, Barbara, split in 1981.) The difficult transition shouldn't have been a surprise. After all, theirs wasn't like other callings. Al Pacino has been able to keep making movies after winning the Oscar. Jack Nicklaus, years past his prime, continues to walk the greens at Augusta. But the Apollo astronauts knew they would never again be able to do what they had trained for and dreamed about for years. They now had to do something else.
In 1976, Cernan was ready to leave NASA and the military. He was 42 and the youngest captain in the U.S. Navy. But Apollo was over, and since he had been loaned to the space program for 13 years, he didn't have the experience necessary to achieve his one remaining ambition as a naval officer: to be the skipper of an aircraft carrier. He had been offered a big-cheese Pentagon desk job – head of the tactical space program -- but it just didn't get his pulse going. "My Navy was an adventurous Navy, an exciting Navy," he says. "Going back to Washington just didn't seem very exciting."
Besides, there were other considerations.
"I had walked on the moon, and I was making $40,000 a year," says Cernan, who grew up in a blue-collar family outside Chicago. "And someone offered me $100,000 to work for them. Boy, that sounded awfully good."
It was something all the Apollo astronauts faced -- and Bean says it was rife with pitfalls.
"People come at you from all directions with good ideas, monetary and otherwise, for jobs or projects," Bean says. "You have to be careful because you can get away from your dream so easily. You can forget what your dream is and you end up pursuing someone else's dream, and that's never very satisfying."
Cernan, who had worked his way through engineering school at Purdue University, went into the energy business, first with Coral Petroleum. He later started his own company, which contracted with NASA to provide crew training and software development. Trouble was, businessmen don't typically get the attention that NASA astronauts get, or have the thrilling challenges. The change
-- from laser-focused purpose to just making money, from golfing with Sinatra to keeping business meetings on track -- took its toll.
"Enriched by a singular event that is larger than life, I no longer have the luxury of being ordinary," Cernan wrote in "The Last Man on the Moon."
"I didn't feel adrift or anything like that, but I did realize later that there was something missing," Cernan elaborates. "I was always restless, and I finally admitted to myself that I was looking for the next big mountain to climb. But it's tough to find something so absorbing, that just gobbles you up, like the space program."
That experience, the feeling of loss and incompleteness, was shared by almost all of the Apollo astronauts. It was, says Bean, who's become a successful artist since leaving NASA, almost inevitable. "When you grow up, you have a dream, and for us it was to be pilots," Bean says. "And then there's your dream and it's even bigger than you imagined -- you're going to the moon. I don't think there are many astronauts who have found that next dream very easily."
But in time, and after a number of false starts, Cernan discovered that he didn't really need that mountain to climb anymore. At long last, he discovered the little things.
"I'm finally over that hump now," he says, adding that the credit goes to his family. Cernan has a daughter, Tracy, from his marriage to Barbara. And when he remarried in 1987, interior designer Jan Nanna brought two daughters to the marriage. He now has nine grandchildren, all of whom are younger than 10.
"I've got grandkids, and that kind of changed everything," he says, an easy smile rolling over his face. "I love watching them play baseball, and having them come out to the ranch. And I'm also finally taking the time to enjoy great friends I've had for so long."
There was also something else, something even this good Catholic boy from Chicago never expected: a calming spirituality. "I lived on another planet and looked back at Earth," Cernan says, holding his arms out. "It was a spiritual experience, looking back at it: It's too beautiful, too perfect, to have happened by accident."
All this newfound mellowness doesn't mean Cernan has become a couch jockey. He still speaks at schools and makes appearances on TV to push his vision for the space program. He promotes Omega and Lear jets. He gets up to his ranch as often as he can and gets out into the rolling fields.
Though he maintains a residence in Houston, he feels most at home here at the ranch.
"I never knew Gene wanted to be a rancher," says Bean, "but he sure does. He's up there all the time, digging post holes for fences. I think, 'Gee, that sounds terrible,' but he loves it."
And, of course, there's always flying. Cernan owns a Cessna 421, and he takes it up as routinely as most people climb into their cars. Even after all these years, flying's still the foremost passion of Cernan's life.
"When they take my airplane away from me, I'm in deep trouble," he says. "I'll fly anything. I have flown everything. I get a lot of fulfillment out of it. I'm not a stay-at-home guy."
Nor does he believe anyone should be. Life is to be lived, he says. Dreams -- big, world-changing dreams -- are there to be chased.
"I tell a fourth-grader today, 'You tell me what's impossible in your lifetime. If I can go to the moon, you tell me what's impossible and go out and make it happen. That's something worth being famous for.' "
– By Douglas Perry, published in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 2002