CHICAGO— NASA Astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt explored the surface of the moon during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, the last time anyone has left earth's orbit or set foot on the moon. During a 40th anniversary celebration of Apollo 17 in Chicago, the astronauts said they had expected their mission would start a path toward space travel, not become a history lesson.
Retired Astronaut Eugene Cernan is one of just twelve men who walked on the moon. He currently holds the distinction of being the last man there.
"It is tremendously disappointing that I am here 40 years later and still hold that title or have that yoke on my shoulders," said Cernan.
Cernan, along with fellow Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, celebrated the 40th anniversary of the December 1972 mission with fellow astronaut Jim Lovell at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.
As they returned to Earth on that long-ago December 19, Schmitt and Cernan didn't expect that 40 years later they would be commemorating it as the end of an era.
"To say that I thought it would be 40 years, or what is really going to turn out to be 50 or 60 years before Americans are back on the moon, I would not have guessed that at all," Schmitt noted.
"A half century ago, we went 250,000 miles, cracked the door open, and never walked through it into the future. The future is still out there," added Cernan.
A plan to return to the moon, which President George W. Bush proposed, was scrapped by President Barack Obama.
Amid deep budget deficits and an economy slowly recovering, U.S. lawmakers are not keen to spend more money on space exploration, something Cernan says is still only a small part of the overall U.S. budget
"We spend one half of one penny of every one of our tax dollars on space, all of space," Cernan noted.
Schmitt, once a U.S. Senator, says there is also a lack of willpower on the part of NASA.
"And from a fiscal point of view, it falls victim to being very small, and to not having a mission based on geopolitical reality, of the importance of the United States being the dominant space faring nation," Schmitt explained.
With the Space Shuttle now retired, the U.S.- based corporation Space X is developing a vehicle that can transport people to and from earth's orbit. A manned crew capsule could be ready in the next few years.
But for veterans of the Apollo program, that's not enough. They believe NASA should prioritize a return to the moon with Mars the ultimate destination.