Posted on behalf of Elizabeth Gibney
The Moon landings – those grainy shots of men in bulky suits and stunning visions of Earthrise – have burned into the public consciousness for half a century. But to those who weren’t there to watch it live and who have seen human space travel since confined to Earth’s orbit, walking on the Moon seems like a distant fairytale (a fact that no doubt contributes to the conspiracy theory that it never happened).
The Last Man on the Moon, a new documentary film, is a beautiful and timely reminder of those extraordinary days when space exploration featured on prime-time television and the price of progress was fatalities of some of the world’s brightest and bravest pilots and engineers. Director Mark Craig captures this spirit from the astronauts themselves, while they are around to tell the story.
The film follows the life of Eugene (Gene) Cernan, a plain-spoken military man who in 1972 became the last person to walk on the Moon. Cernan started out as a young Navy jet pilot in the 1950s (a time when he says he felt “bullet-proof”), before heeding the call of President John F. Kennedy. At the height of the US space race with Soviet Russia in 1961, Kennedy challenged NASA to send a man to the Moon and back by the end of the decade. In 1963 Cernan was selected as one of the agency’s third group of astronauts. He reached space three times – first carrying out NASA’s second-ever spacewalk, as part of the Gemini 9 mission, then twice journeying to the Moon on Apollo 10 and Apollo 17.
The Last Man on the Moon is at its best in recreating the spirit of the time and offering insight into the lives of a brave yet fallible group of extraordinary people. The movie could only have been made with the cooperation of the energetic 82-year-old Cernan. His narrative forms the bulk of the film, which Craig brings to life using funny, poignant interviews with his wife and other contemporaries, as well as archive material ranging from news clips to home movies. Computer-generated visuals add a dramatic tension to Cernan’s hair-raising descriptions of the space sequences, while a period soundtrack adds extra zip.
We witness a tight-knit group of ambitious astronauts from Cernan’s 1963 intake whose young families settled as neighbours in suburban Houston, Texas. Wives became friends, and photos of their get-togethers depict classic scenes of the era with everyone partying hard — perhaps aware that any trip could be an astronauts’ last. The images are reminiscent of television series Mad Men, albeit with even fewer women in leading roles.
There is a joy to seeing now seventy- and eighty-somethings such as Apollo 12 crew Dick Gordon and Alan Bean, and Apollo 13’s Jim Lovell, recollect lives as the nation’s heroes. Yet from the get-go, the film reminds us that reaching space can carry a heavy price. Today most space missions are robotic, and failures waste money and time, rather than lives (though Virgin Galactic’s tragic SpaceShipTwo accident in 2014 served as a stark remind of how dangerous human spaceflight remains). Back then, NASA never hid the fact that human risk was the price of progress. Between 1964 and 1969, nine astronauts died while working on agency projects. Cernan’s close calls included one in 1966, when the training plane flown alongside his, piloted by fellow astronauts Elliot See and Charles Bassett, crashed and killed them. In 1971, Cernan crashed a helicopter in training, and kept his scorched helmet as a souvenir.
The film is no reveal-all exposé; nor is it too rose-tinted. Alongside the professional triumphs and tragedies, it touches on what Cernan’s family sacrificed. His wife Barbara quips: “If you think going to the Moon is hard, try staying at home.” Fellow astronauts in the film acknowledge their single-mindedness and that there was no such thing as work-life balance; 60% of the astronauts from Cernan’s set ended up divorced.
The film leaves the audience to answer whether the drive of these men was selfish. Its opening scene juxtaposes images of present-day Cernan watching a rodeo, where a young bull-rider struggles to stay on his mount, with shots of the 1960s astronaut programme. But it also makes it clear that, for Cernan at least, the goal wasn’t personal glory — although he was ambitious. As he says, “The entire world was on board that spacecraft with us.”
As one of just 12 people to ever set foot on the Moon, Cernan says his experiences belong to everybody, especially the generations who weren’t around to see it. Today his goal is to charge kids with a sense that they can do something just as extraordinary — on Earth or in space. Watching the film left me pondering over the way human space exploration, which has demonstrated its phenomenal power to inspire and drive human understanding, has been reined in for the past 40 years.
Elizabeth Gibney is a physics reporter at Nature. She tweets at @LizzieGibney.
The Last Man on the Moon is in cinemas from 8 April, with a nationwide live Q&A with Eugene Cernan on 11 April only. For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.