If I was to say “Moon landing” I am sure that many people would instantly think of Neil Armstrong, who used the famous words “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” when he became the first man on the moon on the 20th July 1969 followed by his fellow moonwalker Buzz Aldrin.
However another ten men landed on the moon on the following missions and I had the privilege of recently meeting the last man to land on it, Gene Cernan, and asking him a few questions about what it felt like to walk on the moon, but more specifically, what it was like to drive the super cool lunar rover.
When the space race came to the USA in the 1960s Gene soon realised he wanted to be a part of it and he became one of the first astronauts, flying into space for the first time as part of the Gemini 9A crew in June 1966. He then became an important member of the moon exploration programme called ‘Apollo’ and in May 1969, just two months before the first moon landing, he flew the closest that anyone had ever flown to the moon in the Apollo 10 mission.
After this, he spent a lot of time supporting the programme’s other moon landings, until finally getting his own chance to stand on the moon’s surface in December 1972, when he and his fellow astronaut Harrison ‘Jack’ Shmidt spent three moonwalks and a total of 22 hours on the moon, leaving with the famous last words "We leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind."
One of the most incredible facts about Captain Cernan’s moonwalk is not the driving of the moon buggy or the actual moonwalk but the fact that, all these years later, he is still the last person to have walked on the moon and nobody from any nation on Earth has been back since! Sadly, while neither the USA or the Russians have no plans to go back there, it seems that this title might last a little bit longer.
When I knew I was going to meet Gene, I spoke to some of the primary pupils in my schools science rockets to rovers workshops and it was pretty clear that what they really wanted to know about was what it was like to drive the lunar rover, which after all these years is still parked on the moon where he left it, just after he had set the lunar rover speed record of just 11 miles per hour! I knew I would only have a couple of minutes with him so I decided to ask him about this.
Mr B and Gene holding a genuine Apollo medal that you can hold in our rockets workshop!
Mr Cernan was a fighter pilot in the 1960s who reached the rank of Captain in the US Navy. Among many other daring missions and difficult pilot training he has said in other interviews that the tricky night landings on American aircraft carriers in the 1960s were actually more difficult than the moon landing! When it was difficult to even see the ship, never mind land a plane on it!
Gene on the moon in December 1972
The first thing I wanted to know was whether or not it was easy to drive.
“Very easy,” he replied, “ You’ve got to remember that the moon only has 1/6 of the Earth’s gravity so it wasn’t a problem at all.”
This is a good point that you might not instantly think of when you see a video or a picture of the moon rover. Although it looks very big and complex, it actually only weighs the same as a small go kart!
Did that mean that the steering was very light? I asked.
“Yes! So light that I spent most of the time driving around on three wheels because each corner kept lifting from the ground when I went over a bump!”
This made me smile because this is the first thing that many of the pupils in my workshop notice when they watch the video of Gene driving the lunar rover. It seems to bounce along on the moon and often does wheelies with one of its corner wheels.
I then asked him if he regretted leaving it behind when it was such a beautiful (and expensive) machine. Each lunar rover cost over 33 million dollars to build, which would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars in today’s money.
“Yes, of course, but I did bring the fender back with me,” he said with a smile.
I asked him what he meant by that.
“We had to repair the fender when it got damaged on the moon, so I brought the broken part back. It’s now in the Smithsonian museum back in the USA.”
With that, unfortunately, our time was over, but not before Gene had time to say “Keep up the good work” and pose for a photo holding a very special Apollo medal that children are able to look at and hold in our science workshops, made from metal actually flown in space on the Apollo missions. He also very kindly signed a picture of him driving the moon rover signed "To Mr B from the moon, Gene Cernan Apollo XVII"!
So what do you think? Would you like to drive a moon rover like Gene or would you prefer to hop along on the moon singing like Gene and his fellow moonwalker Harrison Schmidt did at the end of their mission? (See here for a video of them singing). Also, how would you feel if you knew you was going to be the last person on the moon? Would you be proud or sad, or both?
Our photo signed "to Mr B from the moon" by Gene Cernan!