They were but twelve. Today just eight remain, and the youngest of them is 77 years old. But there was only ever one who was first, and now he’s gone.
Neil Armstrong (the baby-faced fellow on the left) was 82 years old, and he lived a life filled with such adventures as very few of us can even imagine. I certainly can’t. But even so, he was among the quietest of a group of strong, generally silent men who could. And he was the first human to walk on the moon. Eleven of those other fellows with the right stuff followed him. But he led.
At my age, I’ve watched any number of historic events take place, albeit mostly on television. Most of the time, I didn’t realize that I was watching history unfold.
But I do remember the 20th of July, 1969. And I knew at the time that it was history, that what I was seeing would never happen again; could never happen again. Never again could the first man climb out of his spacecraft to leave footprints in the dust of another world for the first time in human history.
It was 11 o’clock at night on the east coast, and I was allowed to stay up late to see the moonwalk. I – unlike the astronauts, who realized they would never be able to sleep at that moment – had to take a nap first, though. And then my family and I, along with 600 million others, watched as two men walked on the lunar surface, a quarter of a million miles away. One giant leap, indeed.
Three years later, just before Christmas, I watched as Gene Cernan followed Harrison Schmitt up the ladder into his lunar module at the end of the Apollo 17 mission. I don’t remember that moment as well, but I feel sure that I saw it; I was that kind of geek. At the time I didn’t realize that I was watching history again. We all knew it was almost certainly the last of the Apollo lunar landings, but we had no idea we were watching, as he closed the hatch that day, the last man to walk on the moon.
Just as he was about to mount the ladder, Cernan said, “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. God bless the crew of Apollo 17.” These were the last words ever spoken by a human with moondust under his boots.
Gene is now 78 years old and, at this point, it’s not likely that he will live to see mankind return, in peace, hope or otherwise. And I’m beginning to believe that I won’t, either.
The thought that we never followed up on those six intrepid forays – those initial scouting trips into what I always assumed was our future – used to make me angry; angry at NASA, angry at my country, angry at the human race for being so ignorant and blind.