PENSACOLA, Fla. - The last man to walk on the moon said getting there may have been mankind’s greatest technological feat, yet that aspect of the Apollo missions is mostly forgotten three decades later.
Instead, people have philosophical and spiritual questions about the lunar landings. They want to know how it felt and what it looked like, whether the astronauts were scared and if they felt closer to God, said Eugene Cernan.
“Without a doubt, the most memorable experience I’ve had was to stand there and ask myself if I fully appreciated where I was at that moment in time as I looked back at Earth,” Mr. Cernan said. “Obviously, I didn’t.”
Mr. Cernan recently joined three other moon walkers, all retired now, who also expressed wonder, amazement and even some guilt about their space voyages during the annual Naval Aviation Symposium.
Edgar Mitchell, 72, said he felt guilty about pausing to sneak an occasional glimpse at Earth and saying “Wow,” because there was so much scientific work to be done during his Apollo 14 mission in early 1971.
The same thing happened to Alan Bean on Apollo 12 in November 1969.
“Every once in a while I would say, ‘This is the moon. We’re really here,’” recalled Mr. Bean, who is 61. “Then I would look up there and I’d say, ‘That’s the Earth. Everybody else is back there.’ But the minute I did it I felt guilty, and I’d say, ‘I’ve got to quit doing this. I’ve got a job to do.’”
The four former astronauts who spoke at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola are retired Navy captains and former naval aviators. Mr. Mitchell is from Lake Worth; Mr. Cernan, Mr. Bean and John Young live in Houston.
They are among 12 men who walked on the moon during six Apollo landings from 1969 through 1972. Mr. Young, 72, and Mr. Cernan, 69, also were aboard Apollo 10, one of two missions that circled the moon before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made the first landing on the Apollo 11 flight.
Mr. Bean said his sense of awe began on Earth watching grainy black-and-white television pictures of Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Aldrin in July 1969, four months before his own flight.
“We were stunned, even perhaps more than the average citizen, because we knew how difficult it was and how many things could go wrong,” Mr. Bean said.
Astronauts, however, often get too much credit for bravery, he said.
“Our friends went to Vietnam,” Mr. Bean said. “We were facing the unknown. Nobody had done it before, but I’d rather face the unknown than be shot.”
Mr. Cernan said he experienced what might have been the quietest moment of his life shortly after landing the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. All of the lunar module’s systems, except those that kept him and Harrison Schmitt alive, were shut down to preserve power before they took their first moonwalk.
“You realized very quickly that you’re standing in sunlight, and yet you’re surrounded by the blackest black — not darkness — the blackest black that you can conceive,” Mr. Cernan said.
He said his experience was spiritual and dreamlike.
“I was witness to a small part of the universe that I happen to believe a creator up there put together,” Mr. Cernan said. “To me it was sort of like sitting on God’s front porch.”
All four astronauts believe humans will return to the moon, but they have different views of when and why.
Mr. Cernan called being the last man on the moon a “dubious honor” and said a return is overdue for the sake of exploration, if nothing else. He questioned the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s focus on the International Space Station because it is not exploration.
Mr. Young, who made his landing on the second-to-last moon mission, Apollo 16, in April 1972, said lunar exploration should resume soon.
The Apollo program developed technologies for getting to the moon and back, including the huge Saturn V rocket and lunar module for landing and taking off from the surface, but the astronauts could spend only limited time there.
Mr. Bean said the 30 years since Mr. Cernan last set foot on the moon is little time in the history of exploration. He noted more than a century passed between the time when Christopher Columbus found the New World in 1492 and the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
“Nothing that NASA does now, nothing the president does, or anybody else,” Mr. Bean said, “is going to change the inexorable motion of human beings off this planet and out into the universe.”