In 1972, Eugene Cernan and two fellow astronauts began what would become the last mission to the moon, Apollo 17.
On December 14, 1972, after scratching his daughter’s initials in the lunar dust and setting up a remote camera, he stepped into the lunar lander and left the moon.
Cernan assumed someone else would go back but, in his view, the U.S. space program then took a wrong turn.
“There is no space program,” he said — a situation he finds disappointing. “We cannot even put an American in space on a made-in-America piece of hardware to go to our own space station.”
Cernan went to Austin, Texas, last week to the annual South by Southwest film festival to help promote a film about him, aptly called "The Last Man on the Moon."
The film tells of a time in the 1960s and early 1970s when the United States was launching men into space every few months. It mixes archival footage of a young Cernan with shots of the older man of today, revisiting sites associated with his space adventure.
There is triumph, but also sadness, as Cernan recalls the cost his family paid for his all-out commitment to his career.
Director Mark Craig said it was not hard getting frank, honest comments from Cernan.
“Luckily for us, Gene is a very articulate character anyway, and so he was able to express his own feelings and emotions,” Craig said.
Cernan knows his days in space are over, but he hopes others will follow up on what he and his fellow astronauts started. “All we've got to do is inspire those young kids and give them the opportunity that someone gave myself and all my colleagues,” he said.
And what does it take to be a space explorer?
“If you believe that what you are doing throughout life is the right thing to do and you are willing to take the challenge and accept the risk to get it done," he said, "you have what I call 'the right stuff.' ”
And he hopes "The Last Man on the Moon" helps spread that message.