40 Years Ago Today: The Last Human Left the Moon

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Dec. 14 2012 1:09 PM

40 Years Ago Today: The Last Human Left the Moon ... for now

Gene Cernan on the Moon
Astronaut Gene Cernan, the last human on the Moon.

Image credit: NASA

Today marks a bittersweet anniversary: It was 40 years ago that a human being left the last bootprint on the Moon. Astronaut Gene Cernan stood on that barren surface, took a final look around, made a short statement, and stepped back onto the lander.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death from the Skies!  

My friend, space historian and author Andrewy Chaikin, made a video to mark this date.

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I agree with Andrew: Exploring the Moon should be a priority for NASA, which at the moment does not have—and most certainly needs—a big goal. I would love to see us go to Mars, but I suspect that may be too big a step without an intermediate goal first. The travel times are so long that a host of challenges are introduced, including bringing supplies, protecting people from radiation exposure, and the natural atrophying of the human body in prolonged weightlessness. All of these issues are avoided or hugely minimized by going back to the Moon.

These are the words Cernan spoke before leaving the Moon:

I'm on the surface; and, 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. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.

Melancholy words, perhaps, but a little while later Cernan followed up with this:

Too many years have passed for me to still be the last man to have left his footprints on the Moon. I believe with all my heart that somewhere out there is a young boy or girl with indomitable will and courage who will lift that dubious distinction from my shoulders and take us back where we belong. Let us give that dream a chance.

Dreaming is something we do very well, and turning those dreams into reality is what NASA can and will do. The dream is alive, and it’s time once again to make a giant leap.