When my daughter was 2, she loved the moon. She still loves the moon. "Luna!" she used to call it, after the character on "Bear in the Big Blue House." I helped her to love the moon, by talking about it and playing music about it and buying her certain books and reading them over and over. She used to love Margaret Wise Brown's "Goodnight Moon" and Eric Carle's "Papa, Please Get the Moon for Me" in which a little girl's daddy uses a very long ladder to climb into the sky to bring the moon down to earth. (Later she moved on to Tintin and his moon explorations, drawn by Hergé long before the real moonshots.) We live in New York City, so it is often hard to see the moon. There are a lot of lights and a lot of buildings in the way, and while some people keep their toddlers up late in this city we used to put ours to bed before the sun even went down. But one day back in 2002 my wife was pushing her in the stroller to the library and our daughter was craning her neck at the sky and pointing, very excited. It was broad daylight. My wife looked up. The moon was out. Weird. But not so weird. It happens all the time. My daughter, who is now 8, still spots Luna, peeking around the side of a skyscraper, when I'm looking at the traffic or the sidewalk.
There's something magical about the moon. We humans have always felt an affinity for it, that light in the sky. It has kept us company for centuries on lonely dark nights. Maybe we don't think about it so much anymore in this country, now that we have electric lights and good roofs over our heads most of the time. But when I was a kid, it seemed like people talked about the moon all the time. I remember watching the first moon walks in a grainy black and white image. You'll remember this for the rest of your life, my father told me. And now I can watch it on YouTube, too, whenever I want, which is kind of amazing.
It's hard to convey how astonishing this walking-on-the-moon business was to everybody then. We've had a few decades to get used to it. The closest emotional truth I've seen is a headline in "Our Dumb Century" by the humorists of The Onion, not for the eyes of 8-year-olds.
But that headline is about right. That's what it felt like.
This may be the last time in this century that men will walk on the moon. President Richard M. Nixon Dec. 14, 1972
Whether that turned out to be true or not, it was an inappropriate statement for the President of the United States to make. Harrison Schmitt, second-to-last man and only scientist to walk on the moon, and one-term U.S. senator (R-N.M.), in 1992
Everyone knows the name of the first man to walk on the moon and what he said when he got there. (Or, at least, what they thought he said: Turns out we missed a word.) Not as much is known about the 11 other men who walked on the moon in the last century. Fewer people could name the last man to walk there, 36 years ago this December. He is still alive. He can't believe he was the last. He wishes he wasn't. That final mission, Apollo 17, was actually one of the most productive. They thought it was a new beginning. In fact, it was the end.
Quite a while ago, I heard something interesting about the last man on the moon. He had a daughter, too. She was 9 in 1972, the year of the last mission, Apollo 17. (I turned 10 that year.) She wanted him to bring her a moonbeam. He didn't bring her a moonbeam, but he did something almost as cool. (The story and other details about the Apollo program can be found, among other places, at this nearly 10-year-old PBS site about a two-hour Nova special, "To The Moon." The Apollo missions have inspired art and poetry.)
Standing on the moon I'm feeling so alone and blue I see the Gulf of Mexico As tiny as a tear The coast of California Must be somewhere over here
Standing on the moon I see the battle rage below Standing on the moon I see the soldiers come and go There's a metal flag beside me Someone planted long ago Old Glory standing stiffly Crimson, white and indigo Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia (1984)
It's an incredible view, to be sure.
Some people hope we'll be going back to the moon one of these days, although there doesn't seem to be a lot of scientific or economic interest in making the trip. We went to the moon for all the wrong reasons in the first place. It was about the cold war; science was a secondary matter. The United States had been humiliated in 1957 when the Soviet Union astonished the world by putting a satellite, Sputnik I, into Earth orbit. NASA was created in 1958. In 1961, after a Russian cosmonaut became the first man to orbit the earth in space, President Kennedy called for a man on the moon by decade's end. And by a man, he meant: An American.
There were martyrs: the first Apollo mission ended in a ghastly triple death on the launch pad. The Apollo 13 mission nearly ended in disaster, too. But you've probably seen that movie. Or the HBO miniseries about the Apollo program.
Of course, some people think the whole thing was a hoax. One guy says it was all a movie, directed by none other than Stanley Kubrick. Again, I prefer the Onion version.
The biggest problem with the manned missions was always the expense. It costs a lot of money to keep a human alive in that environment. Many scientists thought unmanned probes were the most cost effective and safest way to explore the moon and planets. The European space agency is planning some missions that will use high-tech scanning to take the first good look at the moon in 30 years.
Still, there's just something romantic about a human being standing and looking at earth.
Let's get this mother out of here. Capt. Eugene Cernan, Dec. 14, 1972
Captain Cernan left the last bootprint on the moon, and those were the last words spoken there. Granted, they do not have the same poetry as the first. Captain Cernan said them as he got in the capsule and became what he did not expect to be, the last man to walk on the moon in that century. Many years later, he wrote a book that had a bit more poetry in it, and there are excerpts and other materials at the Nova site.
Cernan is not exactly a household name, but he pops up in the news from time to time. He's 74 now, in 2008. He started as a fighter pilot, getting picked to be an astronaut in 1963. In 1966, he was the pilot of Gemini 9. While he was outside the ship testing a piece of equipment, his helmet fogged up and froze over. Blinded, he found his way back after a then-record spacewalk of 2 hours, 9 minutes.
Captain Cernan describes the walk in his book, "The Last Man on the Moon" (1999):
When the hatch stood open, I climbed out. Half my body stuck out of Gemini 9, and I rode along like a sightseeing bum on a boxcar. This was like sitting on God's front porch. We crossed the coast of California in the full flare of the morning sun, and in a single glance I could see from San Francisco to halfway across Mexico.
By the time he got to the moon, though, a lot of the romance was gone. The media had lost interest, and NASA had to fight for coverage. We had beaten the Russians, meeting a political goal. The science fell by the wayside. It's too bad. By many accounts, Apollo 17 was one of the most productive and memorable missions. Cernan and Schmitt spent three days on the moon -- a record -- and took three seven-hour excursions in the moon buggy. They brought back 240 pounds of rocks and dust, adding to the total 843 pounds that became part of a strange story of theft and government ineptitude that continues.
In his book, Cernan is prone to some of the hokey poetic spiritualism that seems to affect people who have been off the planet. It must be a remarkable experience, one I'll never have, so I can't blame astronauts for waxing lyrical.
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.
He describes stepping on the surface:
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 visit. I lowered my left foot and the thin crust gave way. Soft contact. There, it was done. A Cernan bootprint was on the moon.
He was standing on a place where no human had ever been before, feet planted in the dirt and dust of a celestial body different from his place of birth.
On the last day, he did the cool thing for his daughter, Tracy.
He stopped, knelt and used a single finger to scratch her initials in the lunar dust: T D C.
There is no wind on the moon. He knew her initials would remain there undisturbed for "more years than anyone could imagine." (He later kicked himself for not writing her full name somewhere.)
I like to imagine her, a woman about my age, looking up there thinking about those letters every now and then. Her dad couldn't bring her a moonbeam, but he gave her that.
For E.C.L. First draft, February 2003. Revised, November 2008. Moon photo at top is public domain, courtesy of PDPhoto.org. This moon obsession runs in the family: read a chapter from my wife's novel, "Sending Mommy to the Moon," published in The Adirondack Review. And thanks to my brother Mike, who has been peppering me with corrective details. My daughter still points with wonder at the moon.