A TRUE LU­NAR LEG­END

As­tro­naut Eu­gene Cer­nan the sub­ject of doc ‘ The Last Man on the Moon’

Chicago Sun-Times - - ENTERTAINMENT - RICHARD ROEPER Fol­low Richard Roeper on Twit­ter: @ richardroeper Email: rroeper@sun­times.com

Just a few days be­fore Amer­i­can as­tro­naut Scott Kelly re­turned to Earth af­ter spend­ing nearly a year aboard the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, a doc­u­men­tary was re­leased chron­i­cling the life and times of one of Kelly’s pre­de­ces­sors: Eu­gene Cer­nan, “The Last Man on the Moon.”

When Cer­nan was grow­ing up in the western sub­urbs and at­tend­ing what was then known as Pro­viso High School in Maywood, he had am­bi­tions to be­come a pi­lot, but he never thought about be­com­ing an as­tro­naut— mainly be­cause space travel was the stuff of sci­ence fic­tion in the 1940s.

“I go back to be­fore God cre­ated wa­ter,” said Cer­nan, 81, in a phone in­ter­view. “They’d show news­reels be­fore the movies, and I saw planes tak­ing off from air­craft car­ri­ers, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.

“I came fro­man av­er­age, blue- col­lar fam­ily. Mom and Dad didn’t go to col­lege . . . so fly­ing a plane was just a dream, but I never lost that dream.”

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Pur­due, Cer­nan be­came a naval avi­a­tor and, af­ter log­ging thou­sands of hours of flight time, was se­lected by NASA in 1963 to par­tic­i­pate in the Gemini and then the Apollo mis­sions.

“When [ Pres­i­dent John F.] Kennedy chal­lenged us to go to the­moon, we didn’t know beans about go­ing to the moon,” said Cer­nan. “Two things about the ’ 60s. There was the cam­pus un­rest, civil strife, very un­pop­u­lar war— but we also sent three Amer­i­cans to the­moon, and it was what this coun­try needed and proved it could do.

“We need an­other JFK, quite frankly.”

In May of 1969, two months be­fore Apollo 11 and Neil Arm­strong set­ting foot on the­moon, Cer­nan com­manded Apollo 10, which was in essence a dress re­hearsal for the moon land­ing.

“I used to tell Neil, God bless his soul, some­one had to paint that white run­way strip from the Earth to the moon so he wouldn’t get lost,” says Cer­nan with a chuckle.

An ur­ban leg­end of sorts about the Apollo 10 flight resur­faced last month when a TV se­ries re­vis­ited the story about the crew hear­ing “outer- space mu­sic” on the dark side of the moon dur­ing the mis­sion.

“Oh golly, ev­ery con­spir­acy the­o­rist in the world has called me on that one,” said Cer­nan. “And to be hon­est with you, if it were re­ally some­thing, it would have been in a de­brief, and I’m sure I’d re­mem­ber it— but I don’t re­mem­ber it.

“We had two ve­hi­cles that were sep­a­rated. You’re on the other side of the moon, al­most in a dif­fer­ent what I would call elec­tronic en­vi­ron­ment. There was static in­ter­fer­ence.

“I don’t know what it was. I’d like to be able to tell you that along with that noise I saw an odd- look­ing winged craft next to us, and the guy stick­ing his head out the win­dow had long green ears — but I can’t.”

Cut to De­cem­ber 1972. On the last of his three days on the­moon, Eu­gene Cer­nan spent more than seven hours out­side the Lu­nar Mod­ule. He drove the Lu­nar Rov­ing Ve­hi­cle, he col­lected sam­ples, he took mea­sure­ments.

“When I made those steps on the moon, inmy life I felt as if I’d ar­rived. Those steps were very mean­ing­ful tome.”

In a ges­ture that lives on in space travel lore and the pop­u­lar cul­ture, Cer­nan scrawled his daugh­ter’s ini­tials into the lu­nar sur­face, where they re­main to this day as the coolest graf­fiti ever.

“Peo­ple ask me if I planned it, but I didn’t. I had

no idea it would be such a big deal to the folks. When my daugh­ter was grown, she ap­pre­ci­ated it, and now my grand­daugh­ters, they tell me it was a re­ally, re­ally neat thing for me to do. Their mother’s ini­tials are on the moon. That gives me a great deal of joy.”

With the re­lease of the doc­u­men­tary, Cer­nan finds him­self in the pub­lic eye again.

“If that helps me in­spire peo­ple, ter­rific. I’m a very strong ad­vo­cate of space ex­plo­ration; I lived on God’s front porch for three days. But I’m also a strong ad­vo­cate of young peo­ple pur­su­ing all sorts of dreams. So many kids to­day have tal­ent, if we could just get them to fo­cus. . . . I want doc­tors, I want teach­ers, I want kids to de­vote them­selves to be pas­sion­ate. Let’s get that gen­er­a­tion in­spired.”

| NASA

ABOVE: Eu­gene Cer­nan walks on the moon in 1972.

| MARK CRAIG

LEFT: Cer­nan vis­its the John­son Space Cen­ter in Hous­ton in a scene from “The Last Man on the Moon.”

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