From the archives: In 1999, Eugene Cernan knew we’d make it to Mars

In memory of "the last moonwalker"

On January 16, 2017, Eugene Cernan passed away. Cernan held the title of “the last moonwalker,” which he called “a dubious honor.” In his memory, we are republishing “The Last Moonwalker”—a Q&A between Cernan and former Popular Science technology editor Frank Vizard—which ran in our July 1999 issue and coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

ON JULY 20, 1969, man landed on the moon for the first time. Apollo 11 had carried Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to their place in history. Over the next several years, a total of 12 men walked across the lunar landscape. The last man to do so was Eugene Cernan, the 37-year-old commander of Apollo 17 and veteran of the earlier Gemini 9 and Apollo 10 missions. Cernan left the moon on December 14, 1972, and since then no one has returned. To mark the 30th anniversary of the first moon landing, Cernan talked with Technology Editor Frank Vizard.

Meeting him, Vizard says, you can’t help wonder what it must have been like to see the Earth through his eyes and from so far away. The former astronaut isn’t quite so sentimental. Being the last man to walk on the moon, says Cernan, is a monkey he’d like off his back.

Popular Science: It’s been 30 years since man walked on the moon. What are your thoughts on this anniversary?

Cernan: How did 30 years go by so quickly? Is it possible that it was that long ago? It was the greatest endeavor in the history of mankind. And it was something a lot of people thought couldn’t be done.

Apollo 17 astronauts use the lunar rover
Apollo 17 landed on the southeastern rim of Mare Serenitatis, an area the astronauts explored in the lunar rover. NASA/Popular Science, July 1999

When President Kennedy said in 1961 that we were going to the moon, we had a grand total of 16 minutes of space flight experience. That’s one hell of a commitment. Kennedy was asking us to do the impossible. But you get the fever—to the point where you don’t believe it can’t be done.

Yet looking back, it sometimes seems unreal because we quit. We decided to stay home for the past 27 years. It’s as if Kennedy reached out into the 21st century, grabbed a decade of time, slipped it into the 1960s and 1970s, and called it Apollo. We went to the moon. Then we came home and here we are. We’re still home.

The disappointing thing is that I’m still the last moonwalker. It’s a very dubious honor to be the last man who walked on the moon.

Did you think we’d stay at home so long?

No, I didn’t. We had the momentum to be on our way to Mars in a decade. At the end of Apollo 17, I said, “This is the conclusion of Apollo, but it also the beginning of the future. Not only will we go back to the moon but we will be on our way to Mars by the turn of the century.” Publicly, I gave myself 28 years for that to happen. Now if you think I’m not a little disappointed, you’re wrong. I am.

Saturn V rocket
The Saturn V rocket that carried Apollo 17 lifted off from Kennedy Space Center on December 7, 1972. NASA/Popular Science, July 1999

How did we lose the momentum?

I’m not sure what brought us to this point. Apollo 13 didn’t help. The commitment was to send a man to the moon and bring him back. After Apollo 13, people started to say, “We can’t afford to lose a man up there.” [Editor’s note: Apollo 13 was nearly lost to an onboard fire while en route to the moon.]

Let me tell you about what we did to the generation that came after us, today’s 40-year-olds. We went to the moon. We said how great it was to go to the moon. And the thinking was we’d go on to Mars. We told them to go for it. We held out a big stick with a big plum on it. Then we took it away. A lot of people in that generation now say we left them hanging out to dry.

Would you go back to the moon?

Yes. Absolutely. Without question.

Will we ever live on the moon?

I lived on the moon for 75 hours. But it was like parking a car in the desert and living out of it. You need a habitat. We know enough about the basics to build in a lesser-gravity environment under hostile conditions. We can build a habitat. We know we need a vehicle like the lunar rover to explore. We can work in that environment.

There are only 12 people who have ever experienced anything except zero gravity and Earth’s gravity. I’d trade both of them in for the moon’s one-sixth gravity. It’s way ahead of zero gravity. It gives you the ability to move around in ways you can’t on Earth. Zero gravity is a sort of pain in the neck. It makes certain things easier but it makes other things very difficult.

Could we have stayed on the moon a few more days and not gotten bored? You bet your life! I wasn’t ready to come home after three days. But we were there longer than anyone else.

Speaking of zero gravity, what are your feelings about the International Space Station?

The station is going to have a long-term scientific and commercial value. I call it exploiting space as opposed to exploring space. We’re going somewhere we’ve been before. We’re exploiting the venue of space.

From a manned point of view, we’re totally ignoring exploring space. We’re no longer a space-faring nation. We’re exploiting our conquest. As a result, it’s not nearly as exciting as going to Mars.

Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt
Eugene Cernan was the commander of Apollo 17, while Harrison Schmitt (both pictured here) was lunar module pilot. NASA/Popular Science, July 1999

Are we going to Mars?

We’re going to Mars. Whether we go to the moon first, they have to figure that out. It won’t be by the turn of the century but it will be by the next generation. The crew of the first spaceship to Mars is sitting in our elementary schools today.

We’re going to find a better way to get there so we’re not subject to the laws of nature. We have to develop the propulsion technology that will get us there in a short period of time and which will allow us to come home whenever we want. In 200 to 300 years, we will inhabit Mars.

Some people think unmanned vehicles are more than sufficient when it comes to space exploration.

Would it have been enough to send a empty covered wagon pulled by a couple of horses across the Continental Divide? And to include some kind of device to tell us what it was like? We have to go.

But why? Is science the impetus?

Science, for the most part, has never been a stimulus for exploration. Scientists have always been a part of exploration. But Apollo evolved out of political international competition. There’s always another reason.

So we need a nonscientific reason to go to the Red Planet?

Yes. And that is going to be hard to find. It may be for commercial reasons like the mining of helium 3.

We’ll go to Mars, but it will be a quest for knowledge. Curiosity. Is there water on Mars? Was there life on Mars? Can we live there?

Would you like to see the next president challenge us to go to Mars the way President Kennedy challenged you to go to the moon?

In a minute. Somebody has to take the initiative. Somebody’s got to take the heat and jump out in front. We need to challenge the entire world. It should be an international undertaking, and there’s no better target than Mars.

We have a responsibility to give the kids a chance. Let’s give the children a chance to dream. Don’t take that away from them.