This year, SXSW placed a special focus on Science and Science Fiction, whether it was intentional or not. Science Fiction has always pushed audiences to dream bigger, and science fiction has often become science fact as the years go by. The Apollo program realized George Melies TRIP TO THE MOON, minus the leaping lizard aliens.
The final mission, Apollo 17, featured Chicago-born, Purdue-taught, navy fighter Captain Eugene Cernan. The documentary THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON follows Cernan’s inspiring journey from childhood to the moon, and then around the globe as an advocate for the space program. Told in Cernan’s own words, the story plays out visually with home footage, interviews, and breathtaking footage from space and the floor of the moon. Throughout, Cernan’s charm comes through. He still seems surprised that he lucked into his place in history, proud of his accomplishments but very humbled by the nature of the whole attempt.
“I graduated in 1956, there was no space program,” he tells me the morning of the film’s North American première, “ten years later I was outside a space craft walking around the world for three hours.” The team selected for the Apollo program, the third group of astronauts, did not really spend a lot of time thinking about their place in history. “We were just given an opportunity to do something new and different,” Cernan says. One of the most enjoyable sequences in the film is the arrival and testing of the astronauts, using old government footage, including everyone checking in at a Houston hotel under the same name. Unlike today, when we can send teachers and biologists and such into space, the original team was made up of military men, specifically fighter pilots. “There weren’t enough experts around to know what kind of environment we were going to be in, zero gravity, the unknown, and fighter pilots generally are confronted with that all their lives,” he explains, “they needed folks who were ready for the unknown.”
THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON is such a success because, though it covers the story of going to the moon, it’s not a historical record of the incident, it is an experience shared by someone who lived it. Cernan shares what it was like to be on the inside of one of the best kept secrets of the last century, and even his own personal fears about his missteps and mistakes. “I was reluctant to do the film for a while – who wants to see a movie about me?” he asks. But he does not view the film as a space movie, it is an opportunity for inspiration. “It’s the story of the film that’s important to me,” he says, “I want young kids to say ‘why can’t I do that?’ whatever ‘that’ is.” He is very quick to give credit for his trip to John F. Kennedy and the motivation he gave the country when he challenged us to go to the moon. “Was Kennedy a dreamer or a visionary or politically astute?” he asks me, “probably a bit of all three. We need a few more Kennedys around.”
And that’s what makes a film like THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON so important. Since Cernan walked on the moon in 1972, we haven’t been back. If you want to rev up the space hero, ask him about the current state of the space program. “Today we are not exploring space anymore, today we are exploiting space,” he tells me, “The space station is a research vehicle.” For years before the Challenger explosion, Cernan petitioned NASA to take a 17-year-old up in space, to give the next generation their own heroes. “We were at the peak of American exceptionalism, it was visible to the whole world,” he says, continuing: “I walked on the moon 42 years ago. At one time in the Apollo program we were sending Americans to the moon every 60 days, how does it make you feel that we can’t even put an American in space on an American rocket to get to our own space station?”
Cernan is referring to our current work on the international space station, work that requires us to send our people up in, of all things, a Russian rocket. When I mention the recent news about the thinning of the potential candidates for the Mars-1 settlement, he is quick to bring up the Constellation program, a NASA initiative that was supposed to establish a moon base where we could live and work for six months at a time. From there, the hardware could easily be upgraded to take us to Mars. The project was cancelled six years ago. “Nasa doesn’t have a goal, it doesn’t have a mission, it doesn’t have a purpose in life,” he says, mentioning the funding issues, “people can come up with whatever reason if they don’t want to do something.”
Still, despite the current climate, Cernan is hopeful we will get back to the moon, and then eventually on to Mars. Of course, he thought as much when he returned from the moon, predicting a Martian landing by 2001. “27 years I gave myself to be proven wrong,” he says, “well, we are going to go to Mars, but my time table was a little off.” Cernan believes there is an excitement among the youngest generation about space and science, mentioning speaking at one of his grand daughter’s school, and their responses. Even their parents, he said, came up to him to thank him for going to moon, saying they were a doctor or scientist because of what he had done. “It wasn’t what I did,” he says, “its what the country was doing.”
Because I’m a natural-born conspiracy theorist, and because there is actually a film playing at SXSW about faking the moon landing, I have to ask him about how he feels when he meets one of the doubters. “That’s fine,” Cernan says, smiling, “they can never take those footsteps away from me, they can never erase my daughter’s initials that are on the moon, and they just missed one of the most exciting periods in the history of modern mankind
THE LAST MAN ON THE MOON finishes it SXSW run Wednesday night at the Vimeo Theater in the conference center, a huge screen where it looks amazing Gaze upon the stars tonight, and come see the movie inspired by a man who lived a dream.