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Man on the Moon

What he describes is difficult to imagine, what he feels tough to comprehend, what he has seen out of this world. Literally.

Twenty-eight years and five months have passed since the historic American triumph on December 11, 1972. But Eugene Cernan, 67, commander of Apollo 17, the last spacecraft to land on the moon, has not forgotten the exhilaration he experienced then.

"It's a gulp at first. It's almost like your stomach floats up to your head instantaneously. All the artificial gravity produced by the rocket suddenly stops and you begin to float. Then suddenly, you can bounce and jump around which is impossible, just impossible, on earth."

The fact that 700,000 people from as far away as England and Australia assembled at the launch pad on December 6, 1972 did not help ease the pressure on Cernan and his fellow astronauts, Jack Schmitt and Ron Evans.

To top that, a computer failed and the take-off was put forward by more than two hours. Finally at 12:33 am, Florida time, Apollo 17, which witnessed the only last-minute glitch ever in the history of the Apollo series, left for the moon.

It was a mission that had been accomplished before. But still it went on to become a landmark in the history of mankind.

Eugene Cernan "I wanted it to be the best, most complete and obviously the safest mission. We weren't the first, but I wanted it to be the best," recalls Cernan.

Cernan's first space voyage was on Gemini 9, on June 3, 1966, when he made a record 130-minute space walk. His second flight was aboard Apollo 10 in May 1969. And his last, and most illustrious, was as the commander of Apollo 17 in 1972, where he spent over 22 hours walking on the moon, exploring 21 miles of its surface.

"People who had been to the moon do talk about it. But nothing prepares you for being there and looking through a quarter of million miles back at earth. That is a real experience that you just cannot simulate. Nobody can tell you about it."

And after three days, 12 hours, six minutes and 31 seconds into Apollo 17's flight, the moon appeared to the astronauts some 10,000 miles away.

"Boy, is it big! We're coming right down on top of it!" was what Cernan shouted when he saw the 'magnificent' body staring at him.

Apollo 17 was carrying the eighth and last crew to the moon, almost four years after Apollo 8 first began to weave man's first loops around the moon and three and a half years after the first men in Apollo 11 touched down on the moon.

Even today, the only description Cernan can think of for the moon is 'magnificent desolation'. "It's all grey, but those mountains rise above the flat valleys and they are truly magnificent. Even when you are in orbit around the moon, the horizon which is more curved than even the earth, shows the mountain peaks," he says almost as if envisioning the moon in front of his eyes.

This extract from The Last Man on the Moon, which Cernan co-authored with journalist Don Davis, captures his emotions effectively:

"Not the song of a bird, the bark of a dog, not a whisper of wind or any familiar sound from my entire life. I was totally enveloped by such a thorough and complete stillness that I have difficulty comprehending it even today. The only sound inside my helmet was my labored breath and even that slight disturbance seemed so terribly intrusive that for a brief moment, I stopped breathing, too. Then there was nothing at all."

Cernan says the change from gravity on earth to zero gravity in the spacecraft to 1/6th gravity on the moon is not as rapid and abrupt as people think. In fact, one tends to adapt very quickly to the changing atmospheric conditions.

He recalls how they assembled the lunar rover, picked up the 209 kg machine and actually turned it around. "You can do things in 1/6th gravity that you can't do in earth gravity. You're right. When you go to the moon and experience 1/6th gravity, you no longer take earth gravity for granted."

The one sight that in an inexplicable way kept him sane and going was the earth leisurely rotating on its axis, nights turning into days and days into nights, as the sun illuminated the planet with its blinding light.

He had set his watch to Houston time, so he would know exactly what his daughter Tracy was doing back on Planet Earth.

Cernan, though he graduated in electrical engineering from the Purdue University and did his masters in aeronautical engineering from the U S Naval Postgraduate School, doesn't speak the 'tech-lingo'.

"I cannot believe that anyone who goes to the moon doesn't come back a little more philosophical. I cannot express myself in pluses and minuses or in technical terms. How does one define fear, apprehension or love in technical terms?

"Technology is supposed to get me on the moon and off the moon. But while I'm there, it had no role in the feelings I felt when I looked at earth. There was history there. I was at a place that you may picture only through the words of poets, paintings or perhaps in the minds of philosophers," he says.

Although there are many things that Cernan wished he had done while he was up there, he is thrilled and thankful that he wrote his daughter Tracy's initials in the sand.

Eugene Cernan "You can't remember to say and do them all, but you have to accept what you have done," he says very practically.

Another feather in Cernan's cap is that he was the senior negotiator for the United States during its discussion with the Soviets on Apollo-Soyuz, the 1975 joint American-Soviet space mission.

So how was his experience on this mission with Russia, especially during those days of the Cold War?

"Challenging" is how Cernan describes it. "It was very easy to work with their cosmonauts because we all had something in common, but it was very difficult penetrating the Soviet bureaucracy," he says. But he admits a lot of good came from the trip because it enabled them to interact with people who they were treating as enemies for a long time.

"We found ourselves on a different plane than the politicians," he says.

At times Cernan gets a bit uncomfortable with all the attention that comes his way. But then, he is among the 12 people in the world to have walked on another planet.

Cernan is concerned that it's been almost 30 years since the last expedition to the moon. He attributes America's success in this regard completely to President John F Kennedy.

"This couldn't have happened without him," he acknowledges. "But since we no longer have a John Kennedy amongst us, we have to take it onto ourselves".

Cernan looks at himself as a normal human being who had his chance to do something unique. "I didn't want to come back with half a loaf of bread. I wanted to come back and have people to say that it was the best," he says.

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Photographs: Jewella C Miranda
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