Former US Astronaut Eugene Cernan died on Monday, 16 January, aged 82.
He’s not the first death in 2017, and there have already been a couple of big names, too demonstrate that the trend from last year hasn’t necessarily with the change of this final digit, but none of those so far meant enough to me personally for a comment.
Nor should Gene Cernan, since his name was unfamiliar to me until the announcement of his death. But Mr Cernan held a distinction that went unremarked at the time, and that I had never considered. He was the last man to walk upon the Moon. The last man from this planet to stand upon the lunar surface, to stand on another body in the Universe.
It started me thinking. Only twelve men, between 1969 and 1972, did what Gene Cernan did. I remember the tremendous, the terrible sense of loss I felt in 2012, when the death of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon, was announced. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so deeply affected by the death of someone i didn’t personally know.
Armstrong the first and Cernan the last have now died. It is 45 years, almost three quarters of my life, since Gene Cernan stepped away from the Moon’s surface, to return to Apollo 17, to return to Earth. No-one, since then, has done what those twelve men did.
I had to know if he was really the last. it took a surprisingly long time to track down a simple list of those twelve who shared something none of us can ever imagine. Something that may never ever happen again the way things are going on, and not in my lifetime at any rate. But six men who did that are still alive. There are still a half dozen men among us who have stood on the surface of another world.
Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, David Scott, John Young, Charles Duke and Harrison Schmidt. The youngest of them is 81. Buzz Aldrin, who stood with Neil Armstrong, is 86. We have a survivor from that first mission still.
I could explain something of why this seems to be important to me, if you gave me time enough, and I can tell you all the reasons why not as well. But it is in me, in whatever passes for my soul, to look outwards, to yearn outwards. To say that we must, one day, resume that journey into space. I simply cannot be without wanting that.
Eugene Cernan cannot be the last ever. But he is the last now. And he’s no longer with us. One of our most astounding achievements as a species lies behind us ad it gets ever further away with every minute. Which is why I commemorate the passing of someone whose name I did not know less than an hour ago.