On Jan. 16, a moonwalker died. Gene Cernan was 82, one of 12 earthlings to set foot on another world. Six now remain; the youngest is 81.
Cernan’s death should prompt us to reflect upon space exploration, coming, as it does on the heels of John Glenn’s passing in December.
That it should happen in January seems especially poignant. On Jan. 27, 1967, half a century ago, astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died when a fire engulfed the cabin of their Apollo capsule. On Jan. 28, 1986, 73 seconds into its mission, space shuttle Challenger disintegrated due to equipment failure, killing all seven astronauts aboard. On Feb. 1, 2003, seven more astronauts died when space shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry.
Cernan and Glenn, the crews of Challenger and Columbia, all the hundreds of astronauts and cosmonauts from dozens of countries are pioneers of the future. They were foreseen when Johannes Kepler and Galileo were first inching toward our modern understanding of the cosmos. In 1610 Kepler wrote to Galileo, “As soon as the art of flying is revealed, settlers (of the planets) from our race of men will not be stopped … let us build ships, and sails fitting for the heavenly breezes; there will be many who will not fear trying those wastes. And we undertake, as though they will soon travel that road, the making of star-charts.”
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The loss of those first trailblazers looms large, because their experiences are not likely to be repeated. With Glenn gone only two people—Russia’s Valery Bykovsky and Valentina Tereshkova – remain with the living memory of being launched, alone, into orbit. What will we lose when the last moonwalker dies?
We need the sense of perspective and wonder that space can give. Watch the Christmas, 1968 video from the Apollo 8 mission, broadcast from lunar orbit, and listen to astronauts Borman, Lovell, and Anders read the opening passages of Genesis and try not to cry just a little as Frank Borman wishes a Merry Christmas to “all of you on the good Earth.” All of you, Borman said, not the people of any one country. It’s a cliché, but you can’t see boundaries from space.
The undertaking channeled energy, passion and creativity. It was, as historian Wyn Wachhorst wrote, a central project, one of the historically rare “epic social feats embodying the worldview of a culture or the spirit of an age,” on a par with the building of the pyramids or a medieval cathedral. All of them sought, in their way, to reduce the distance between the heavens and the Earth.
All of them, at their best, articulated a view of our place in the universe.
Bound up in Cold War politics, the space program lost much of its momentum once Neil Armstrong took his small step. Since Cernan left the moon in 1972, manned space exploration has been stuck in low Earth orbit, where valuable science occurs but the moments of grandeur are fewer.
Immediately after Cernan’s death, astronomer Neil Degrasse Tyson reminded us that 45 years separated Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight and Gene Cernan’s walk on the moon, and that now it’s been 45 years since Cernan climbed into the Lunar Excursion Module for the last time to depart for Earth.
When he inaugurated the American race to the moon President Kennedy made clear that we undertook the labors involved “not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.”
It’s time to take up the challenge again. We were not done in 1972, something I think Kennedy would have told us had he lived. Every time we lose Gemini or Apollo veterans, it becomes easier to relegate their accomplishments to the past rather than keeping them in the living present. Let the prospect of a world without moonwalkers impel us to pick up the unfinished work they started.
Before leaving the moon Cernan inscribed his daughter’s initials in lunar regolith undisturbed for eons, a monument to last thousands of years. It was a human moment, and not the only such small celebration of life that occurred on the moon.
It shouldn’t be the last.
Michael G. Bazemore Jr. teaches history and lives in Wake Forest.