The Last Men on the Moon

A doctor once told me I feel too much. I said, so does God. That’s why you can see the Grand Canyon from the Moon.

                                                                        from Jellyfish by Andrea Gibson.

Today would have been my father’s 102nd birthday. December 14th also marks the day, forty-eight years ago, that the last men walked on the Moon. Before the two astronauts returned to earth, the  Apollo 17 commander, Eugene Cernan read these words out loud:  ‘May the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind’. No one has returned to the Moon since 1972 and, since there is limited lunar atmosphere, the  commemorative plaque, the snapshot of Charlie Duke’s children and Alan Shepard’s golf balls will still be lying, undisturbed on its surface.

Dee O’Hara, the aerospace nurse to NASA’s astronauts, witnessed the ‘Earth rage’ many of them experienced  after they returned from the Moon. It was as if part of them had remained up there and couldn’t come down, she said. Michael Collins described it as ‘Earthly ennui’. The problem, as it is often portrayed, is that these men had achieved the pinnacle of their success. Where do you go after you’ve been to the Moon? Jim Irwin heard the voice of God and founded a ministry, Charlie Duke became a born-again Christian and Ed Mitchell joined a New Age movement in Florida. Others lost their drive and direction and became suicidal or alcohol-dependent. Many of the 12 astronauts got divorced soon after they returned from the Moon.

When the Moon-walkers speak about their experiences, it is often in terms of the new perspective they gained on the Earth; the place they, we, call home. Irwin describes the Earth as a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space. As we got farther and farther away, it (the Earth) diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble…. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man.

In 1991, Alan Shepard, who died of leukemia in 1998, described seeing the blue planet all by itself, as an emotional moment. Maybe if people had a chance to see this, they wouldn’t be so parochial, they wouldn’t be so interested in their own particular territories…. our world is finite, it is small, it is fragile and we need to start thinking about how to take care of it.

In his book Carrying the Fire, Michael Collins writes about not fully appreciating the first planet until he saw the second one. The Moon is so scarred, so desolate, so monotonous, that I cannot recall its tortured surface without thinking of the infinite variety the delightful planet Earth offers: misty waterfalls, pine forests, rose gardens. I have seen the Earth eclipsed by the Moon. I have seen the ultimate black of infinity. I have seen the sun’s true light, unfiltered by any planet’s atmosphere. I have been pierced by cosmic rays on their endless journey from God’s place to the limits of the universe, perhaps there to circle back on themselves and on my descendants.

Collins’ words describe something of what I felt in 2017 when I was having chemotherapy treatment. My destination was unfamiliar and potentially frightening. Would I come back from this scarred and desolate place? Recovering from cancer changed me. Returning to life and this delightful planet Earth which, to paraphrase Jim Lovell, holds everything I have ever known – my loved ones, my life with all its complications – made me realize how fortunate I am to have this body and this life on this Earth.