Illustration: Chris Morris
Illustration: Chris Morris

We caught up with the rancher and astronaut to talk about his autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon, and the documentary film adapted from the book.

Cowboys & Indians: Most kids say they want to be a cowboy or an astronaut when they grow up. But in your case ...
Gene Cernan: Well, I thought I’d like to be both. [Laughs.] But I think I may have been better at one than the other. I’ve got a little ranch out in Kerrville, Texas, where I have some longhorns, some horses. It’s my personal Tranquility Base. And I love it. See, my dad loved the outdoors. And I spent a great deal of time growing up on my grandparents’ farm up in Wisconsin. So I always wanted a ranch somewhere. At one point, I thought of having it in Montana — which, to me, is big-time cowboy country. But that wasn’t for me. This is the closest thing I’ve got to it. And, yeah, I’m a cowboy when I go out there.

C&I: Who would you say were your greatest influences during your childhood?
Gene: I’ve got two major heroes in my life. Well, maybe more than that. But, of course, the first one is my dad. And the other one is John Wayne. I always wanted to be like John Wayne. The closest I ever came is when I crashed that helicopter out in Florida [in 1971]. I got out and swam to the surface — and saw the helicopter was a blazing ball of fire. And I thought, I remember John Wayne in one of those movies where he was on a merchant ship that got torpedoed. And what he did was, he’d go down under the water [to avoid the fire] and then kick his way back to the surface. And that’s what I did.

C&I: You’ve been forthcoming while sharing your experiences in your autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon, and in the documentary film based on that book. Do you hope to inspire young people with your story?
Gene: From my point of view, that’s the purpose of the film. Forget me. It’s not about Gene, the last man on the moon. It’s about inspiring those young kids to have a dream like I did. There was no space program when I was a kid. My dream was flying fighter planes off aircraft carriers. And I did. I believe the important thing is to have a dream, and believe in yourself, and commit yourself to that dream. Did I ever think that dream would ever lead to my calling the moon my home? Not in a million years. But you’ve got to start somewhere.

C&I: What convinced you to trust these particular filmmakers to tell your story?
Gene: Because [director Mark Craig] was so passionate when he first came to me and we met for an interview. He said, “Gene, this movie has got to be seen by kids 20, 25 years down the line.” It took me a long time to understand what he was talking about. But once we got into it, it became very obvious that [laughs] — look, I don’t need anyone to tell me how wonderful I am. People have been telling me that for 40 years. I don’t need to be on another magazine cover or anything like that. But walking on the moon gives me a platform to tell kids, “Look, if I can go to the moon, what can’t you do?” That’s the message of this movie.

C&I: What do enjoy most in the documentary?
Gene: What I really like about the movie is it does not go Hollywood. There was nothing scripted. The closest they ever came to having a script is when Mark came to me and said, “Gene, when you were outside the Gemini 9 spacecraft, you knew you were in deep trouble. Let’s talk about that.” And that was it. Nothing Hollywood.

C&I: There are many powerful moments in The Last Man on the Moon. At one point, for example, we see you watching a tape of President John F. Kennedy’s famous 1962 speech at Rice University, where he boldly set forth his plan to send a man to the moon — and bring him back — before the end of the decade.
Gene: The remarkable thing is, when Kennedy said that — and I wasn’t even in the space program yet, I was still flying for the Navy — we had [a limited amount] of space-flight experience. Think about it. ... Here was this young president challenging us to do what most people thought was impossible. So a huge part of this movie is reminding people of what American exceptionalism is all about: what we can do when we put our minds to it.

IMPOSSIBLE DREAM: Even for Gene Cernan, some goals seem out of reach. At least, that’s the impression he got when conversing with former Texas governor Rick Perry. “I told him, ‘Rick, I’ve lived in Texas more than 50 years now. Isn’t it about time you make me an honorary Texan?’ And he said, ‘Gene, I’m sorry – only God can make you an honorary Texan.’”

FAREWELL ADDRESS: Gene hopes he’ll live to see the day when he no longer holds what he calls “the dubious honor” of being the last human to walk on the moon. His final words when he left the lunar surface in 1972: “We leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. God speed the crew of Apollo 17.”

From the August/September 2015 issue.