What could be just as special as being one of 12 and the very last man to walk on the moon? Watching the awe and wonder on your grandchild’s face when you first tell her about this out-of-this-world adventure. That was the experience of former astronaut Eugene Cernan one summer evening as he looked up into the night sky with his granddaughter Ashley.
Cernan was part of the Gemini IX, Apollo X and Apollo XVII space missions, and in 1966 he became the second American to walk in space. He went on to become chairman and CEO of the Cernan Corporation and is a National Aviation Hall of Fame inductee.Cernan’s love affair with space continues to this day.
Last Halloween Cernan was in China talking about seeing the Great Wall from his space capsule. In his autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon, written with The New York Times best-selling author Don Davis, Cernan writes about his NASA experiences and his personal joys and sorrows. In this book excerpt, Cernan shares a magical moonlit evening with his granddaughter Ashley.
With a fire crackling in the stone hearth at the end of the open porch on a cool evening, Jan [his wife] and I watch the deer come down to drink from the ponds and graze unafraid among the cattle. Our three Labs sprawl in a lazy pile, and grandchildren prowl about. The feeling is idyllic.
It was on one such evening that I watched the Moon rise full and achingly bright. When I see it like that, I can instantly transport myself back to the valley I once called home, a place where I had a house, a job, a car and commuted to work. The sun bathes the boulders and massifs, and I again tingle with the absolute stillness and understand the presence of our Earth in the heavens.
The crisp memories are not unlike those of childhood, such as the barn and cornfields of Grandpa’s farm, or when Mom and Dad would take my sister and me on vacations to places of which we had only dreamed. Some things are no less real just because they belong to the distant past.
On this evening, as the Moon climbed slowly above the hills, I scooped my five-year-old granddaughter Ashley into my arms, just as I had once held her mother, Tracy, beneath a similar night sky. I thought that now perhaps she was old enough to understand, to remember, and I prepared to tell her the story.
But before I could speak, she pointed straight up, and declared in an excited voice, “Poppie, there’s your moon!” She had always called it that, never knowing why.
“Do you know how far away the Moon is, Punk?” I asked.
She seemed puzzled, for a child of that age could not possibly grasp such a distance, so I rambled on, using words familiar to her.
“It’s way, way far away in the sky, out where God lives,” I said. “Poppie flew his rocket up there and lived on that Moon for three whole days. I even wrote your mommy’s initials in the sand.”
Ashley gazed at it a little while longer, and then lowered her eyes to meet mine, and she saw not some mighty suited-up space hero from an age before she was born, but only her silver-haired grandfather. Insects and animals were beginning their night song and a few antelope scurrying among the shadows drew her attention. She wiggled, growing anxious because she wanted to give the horses a carrot before going to bed. But she glanced up again then back at me. “Poppie,” she said, “I didn’t know you went to Heaven.”
I felt a jolt, almost an electrical surge, as I considered her statement. Her innocent view of life unlocked the riddle that had puzzled me for so many years. My space voyages were not just about the Moon, but something much richer and deeper, the meaning of my life, weighed not only by facts from my brain, but also by the feelings from my soul.
For a moment, I was again standing on another world, watching our blue Earth turn in the sable blackness of space. Too much logic. Too much purpose. Too beautiful to have happened by accident. My destiny was to be not only an explorer, but a messenger from outer space, an apostle for the future.
Too many years have passed for me to still be the last man to have walked on the Moon. Somewhere on Earth today is the young girl or boy, the possessor of indomitable will and courage, who will lift that dubious honor from me and take us back out there where we belong.
Listen. Let me tell you what it was like….
I gave Ashley a big squeeze. She had just bathed and smelled fresh and clean and alive; her baby powder so much more enchanting than the distant, dusty perfume of the goddess Luna. I have a wonderful set of yesterdays. Jan, my kids, and the grandchildren are the promise of tomorrow.
“Yes, Punk.” I carried the laughing girl over to the corral. “Your Poppie went to heaven. He really did.”
The Last Man on the Moon is published by St. Martin’s Press. It is available through online booksellers and by visiting www. grandmagazine.com. For more information about other St. Martin’s Press
Originally Published on GRAND Magazine in January-February 2007 Issue.