Gene Cernan is dead.
The last man to walk on the moon is not walking on earth anymore, and his death should be a sober reminder of how far the U.S. space program has fallen.
In 1957, the space race formally began when the Soviet Union beat the United States by launching a 23-inch diameter ball, the Sputnik satellite, into low altitude orbit which transmitted radio signals to the ground. Just four years later, in 1961, Soviet Yuri Gagarin manned a space craft and returned to earth safely, less than a month later American Alan Shepherd was launched into space in Freedom 7 where he was able to pilot the ship rather than effectively riding in the belly of rock thrown into the sky.
Six years after the Soviet’s Sputnik shocked the world, John Glenn became the first person to orbit the earth. Six years after that, on July 21, 1969, the world watched in awe as pictures were transmitted back from the moon with Neil Armstrong’s immortal step punctuated by the words, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” spoken thousands of miles from earth directly into our television sets. Millions of kids went outside with their parents, looked up at the sky and everything was different, because a man, and most importantly, an American was on the moon.
The bonds of earth had been forever broken, and the heavens were ours for exploration.
Just a year later, the Apollo 13 mission similarly riveted the world as both a catastrophic failure and a miracle of human ingenuity, that safely returned astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise home.
But the Vietnam War wore on, the daily body counts brought to the American people by the three television networks consumed us. The disruption in our streets and the corruption in our government took our eyes away from the stars downward to a meaner, less idealistic place.
By December of 1972, America was tired of spending money on moonshots. The goal had been achieved and there was little enthusiasm for another big mission, and less than four years after our hearts were lifted, Gene Cernan became the last person to walk on the moon, and few even noticed.
As difficult as it is to believe, no one who is forty-three years old or younger was alive when man last walked on the moon.
Few younger than the age of fifty-five remember the exhilaration of hearing a voice from the moon.
In less than six years, America went from putting a man in orbit to putting two on the moon, but it was not without cost. The first Apollo astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee were killed in a capsule fire during testing in an event that shocked the nation. Undeterred, the program went forward with a conviction that those men should not have died in vain and the mission would be accomplished.
Today after the retirement of the space shuttle, American astronauts have to pay for rides into space to go to a space station that was largely paid for by U.S. taxpayers in a Russian Soyuz space capsule that was redesigned using U.S. taxpayer dollars to join a crew that is predominantly Russian. And if NASA is to be believed, the new Orion spacecraft may not be ready for a manned mission until 2021 or even 2023, probably a flyby of an asteroid in lunar orbit. Don’t expect NASA to put a man on the moon anytime soon with that schedule.
Meanwhile individual companies are testing manned space vehicles with the goal of monetizing space travel. Companies with cool names like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Bigelow Aerospace, SpaceDev and Virgin Galactic are testing the earths bonds.
And while these are great, it almost makes one long for the days when America was united in a mission to go to the moon, and the world was astonished when it happened. While the obstacles of future big picture missions like Mars travel and colonization may seem daunting today, remember that our nation went from throwing a rock into space to walking on the moon and returning safely in a mere eight years, and all without the computing power that many of us mindlessly carry in our hands using for selfies in bars.
America, indeed the world, needs a new mission. One that encompasses the risks that greatness demands and stretches our minds and imaginations to their limits to accomplish. It is time for America to have a real space program again, one that reaches for the stars and ignites the dreams of young boys and girls.
It is time for America to put an astronaut on Mars by 2025.
Gene Cernan died but hopefully the dream that lifted him to the moon will be reignited through his memory.