The death of Gene Cernan, the last moonwalker, was mourned not only for the passing of an American hero but also for the fact that he did not live long enough to see his greatest desire fulfilled, to no longer be the last man to walk on the moon. He had not yet left the lunar surface for the last time that December day in 1972 when he said the following, as much a plea as a promise:
“As I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come (but we believe not too long into the future), I'd like to just say what I believe history will record: That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind.”
Cernan breathed his last not knowing when human beings would return to the moon and who they might be. The sentiment that this fact is a blot on our civilization was best expressed by the celebrity astrophysicist, Neil deGrass Tyson, when he tweeted, “In 1927 Lindbergh flew from NY to Paris. 45 yrs later, in 1972 we last walked on the Moon. 45 yrs later, in 2017 we… we… we…”
The tweet, as they often do, caused a social media firestorm. Many pointed out that a great many worthy things have happened in space since #Apollo 17. A rover the size of a car even now rolls across the surface of Mars. New Horizons revealed Pluto to be a strange, hitherto unknown world of nitrogen glaciers and water-ice mountains. Astronauts are pushing back the frontiers of knowledge on the International Space Station. The dawn of commercial space flight and exploration is at hand.
The critics miss the point. Robotic space probes have done great work in the decades since the Apollo moon landings. Doing science research in orbit and opening the #High Frontier of space to commercial companies are all laudable endeavors. But nothing can match the grandeur or the undoubted benefits, tangible and intangible, of astronauts exploring the surface of another world. The moon and worlds beyond, such as Mars, contain the promise of wealth, commercial, political, and scientific that have yet been unrealized.
It’s not like the United States hasn’t tried to jump-start space exploration. Two presidents, both named George Bush, tried to take America back to the moon and beyond. Both efforts collapsed in a miasma of politics, caused in part by bad presidential leadership. #Gene Cernan campaigned against the cancellation of the last such effort, Project Constellation, by Barack Obama, testifying before Congress alongside the first moonwalker, the late Neil Armstrong, as to the folly of that decision.
Currently, NASA is embarked on a program it called the Journey to Mars, an underfunded, directionless political compromise that purports to lead to astronaut boots on the Martian surface 20 or so years from now. The best that can be said about that program is that it is a shiny object designed to distract people from the fact that, given the current of affairs, Americans are not going to touch the face of another world for the foreseeable future.
The people advising Donald Trump on space policy are said to favor a course correction and send NASA on an early return to the moon. Such an effort would not be a replay of Apollo, though that would not be an entirely bad thing. A lunar return would involve international and commercial partners and would not just include a few footsteps and flags, but the establishment of the first permanent community of humans on another world.
What a tribute to Gene Cernan, not to mention a great project that would lift the current century out of the malaise it is mired in currently, if men and women from Earth, from many nations, could start the opening of the high frontier of space by going back to the moon. Mars and the rest of the solar system lie beyond and beckon. Cernan, in whatever afterlife he resides in, would be pleased.