THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The defining moment of the American space program occured on January 27, 1967. Every astronaut who was in the program on that date seems to begin their memoirs with their recollections of the horrors they felt when they first heard the news. Eugene Cernan, the eponymous author of The Last Man on the Moon, was testing an Apollo module in a simulated vaccum in California when the test was aborted and he heard the news that his good friend and next-door-neighbor, Roger Chaffee, had been killed when a test of the Apollo One caught fire on the pad.
Cernan's feelings upon hearing of Chaffee, Grissom and White's deaths is only the first of several times that Cernan shows the holes in his armor as "invincible, invisible, and bulletproof." Fear continues to show throughout the novel, with Cernan admitting that he thanks God he lived through his history-making spacewalk during Gemini.
Throughout the book, Cernan notes several friends and the camaraderie they felt, describing those people in some detail. While other astronaut autobiographies describe the closeness the men felt with each other, Cernan tends to go into more detail, painting his friends (both within and without the space program) as individuals, whether it is his Purdue University roommate, Bill Smith, suggesting they look at a car so Cernan will stop talking about a woman he saw at an airport or Roger Chaffee exasperating Buzz Aldrin with a cheap parlor trick, the reader knows how much these people have meant to Cernan over the years. At the same time, Cernan has some pretty negative comments to make about some of the other astronauts, most notably Buzz Aldrin.
Despite short chapters, The Last Man on the Moon does not have an episodic feel. Even when the young Gene Cernan is unsure of what he wants to do with his life, or how to achieve his goals, the book still provides a consistant and flowing narrative.
The years since Cernan was actively involved in the US manned space program have definitely given him the distance to look back on them and report without having his words colored by all the emotions of being in a race with the Russians. When Cernan discusses the failures and successes of the Soviet cosmonauts, he always qualifies his feelings by noting that he has since become friends, or at least admiring acquaintance, of many of the Russians, from Alexei Leonov to Valentina Tereshkova.
Many of the astronauts who have written their memoirs are still too close to their experiences and their books come across, in some ways, as NASA press releases. Cernan is not afraid to criticize the agency, but he is always advocating a manned presence in space. Given what he had to experience to get into space, that isn't surprising. Cernan is extremely candid about all of his missions and the NASA planners, including Deke Slayton, who appointed the crews. Although Cernan didn't always agree with Slayton's decisions, he did agree that Deke went out of his way to be fair.
Other than Aldrin, the scientists who worked with NASA come out with the short end of the stick in Cernan's account. Even years later, Cernan doesn't seem to feel that the science of the space program was particularly important. His resentment of having to include Harrison Schmitt, a scientist, on his Apollo 17 crew remains, even after Cernan demonstrates that he does respect Schmitt's abilities and his knowledge. The fact remains that Schmitt was a scientists, a geek, not a pilot.
The Last Man on the Moon is a fantastic look at the US manned space program from Gemini through Apollo. Cernan manages to capture much of the feel of the race between the two super powers. Furthermore, despite his claims to not be a poet, he is able to depict the awesomeness of floating free outside the Gemini capsule to the extent that the reader will grow envious, despite the physical exertion and frustration Cernan's Gemini 9 spacewalk entailed.
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