On Wednesday, as students straggled into school, hungover from Halloween candy and the revelries of parading late in their costumes, the STEM teacher and I aired the documentary, “The Last Man on the Moon.” This documentary chronicles the life of Eugene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17, the last of America’s lunar landing expeditions.
To say I have even casual interest in space science would be a generous stretch. While I’m awed when the occasional Hubble Telescope photo crosses my path, I usually glaze over when reading sentences like the one at the bottom of the previous paragraph. As a writer of realistic fiction, my imagination is decidedly terrestrial. I’m lit up by human stories and expeditions to that vastest of interiors: the human heart.
So I was ready to pass a sleepy morning in the company of pacified 7th and 8th graders and if I gleaned some space science knowledge, so much the better. What I got instead was a fascinating exploration of the paradoxes and emotional minefields which no rocket shot can shake from the human heart. Perhaps it was the extremis of being an astronaut — literally out of one’s element, suspended above the world — that dialed up the volume on the constant human scuffle between loneliness and connection. “I felt that all of humanity was with me on that mission,” Cernan says of his first spaceflight with Gemini IX. And yet later, when looking back at his three days on the moon during the Apollo 17 mission, the Earth rising like a blue pearl in the distance, he spoke of incredible loneliness. Accompanied by all humanity and yet, at once, all alone: Isn’t this a striking picture of our perennial condition?
On the lunar surface, Cernan traced his daughter’s initials in moondust. This heartfelt act of bestowing what he cherished most to that distant surface struck me. It was as if marking her initials there made them timeless, delivering them to a place where moth and rust cannot destroy. And yet, his relationship with his daughter and wife were fraught; sabotaged by the intense singular focus of his career, marked by his absence. “You think going to the moon is hard, try staying home,” his wife reflected on watching the broadcast of her husband out there on the spearpoint of human technology. Eugene Cernan made it back, but ultimately his marriage didn’t survive. Some frontiers are too vast to cross. Some journeys end with loss.
I’ve been thinking about Gene Cernan and the moon a lot over these past few days. In what ways does loneliness and deep human connection nudge shoulders in my life? How much I want what I most love to be lifted above time, to be kept safe from the world’s corrosive effects. But even now, while I have breath and life, am I giving the earth-bound, time-bound things I love my full presence?
On August 25, 2012, Gene Cernan climbed the steps to the pulpit at Washington National Cathedral to eulogize his friend and fellow astronaut, Neil Armstrong. “Neil, wherever you are up there, almost a half century later, you have now shown once again the pathway to the stars…You can now finally put out your hand and touch the face of God.”
I, for one, don’t know much about pathways to the stars. I’m the type who firmly stands with Robert Frost when he says, “Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” But Cernan’s words over his friend’s casket resonate all the same. I hear in them a rich longing for the infinite resolution to all our finite journeys. No rocket can lift us there–yet daily, we are invited on this most daring expedition.
P.S. You can watch the entirety of Cernan’s moving eulogy for Neil Armstrong here.