He didn't, and probably couldn't, have imagined at the time that his title would stand for three decades, but as of Saturday, Dec. 14, that will be the case. No human being has trod on lunar regolith since that date in 1972.
This is an anniversary to commemorate, but certainly not one to celebrate. If we, as a nation, wanted to return to the moon today, the conventional wisdom is that it would probably take us longer than it did the first time (about eight years).
Conventional wisdom is often wrong, but in this case, assuming that the current version of NASA does the job, it's probably about right.
There were many variations on a saying after the Apollo landings. "If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we (fill in the blank)?" The saying now should be, "If we can put a man on the moon, why can't we put a man on the moon?"
Many opinion pieces will doubtless be written about this dubious anniversary, talking about how sad it is that we can no longer do what we did 30 years ago, and what happened to the nation's spirit of adventure and vision, and why-oh-why can't we do what we once could, and lamenting the days of yore, when men were men, and rockets were rockets.
Since I hate to be redundant and derivative, I want to use the commemoration to make an entirely different (but I think highly, and perhaps even more relevant) point.
The focus of this mission should not be on Gene Cernan, but rather on his partner in the expedition to the lunar surface (and later U.S. senator), Harrison (Jack) Schmitt.
Jack Schmitt was not the last (hu)man to walk on the moon. He was second to last.
But he was both the first and last scientist, by profession, to walk on the moon.
Think about it.
There were six successful trips by men to the lunar surface. Eighteen men went on the mission, and 12 of them walked on the moon.
Leading up to that mission, several more men went into space. On the ground there were hundreds, thousands of engineers, accountants, secretaries and other support personnel, at both NASA and its myriad contractors, to afford them the opportunity to go into space.
And at the end of all that, they sent a single professional scientist.
In the military, there is an expression called the "tail to tooth ratio."
The teeth are the men (and now occasionally women) on the front lines, actually engaging the enemy. The tail is the entire logistics train that is required to get them to the front and provide them with the resources (food, weaponry, equipment) to allow them to do their job.
If the purpose of the Apollo program was science, and one considers the "science" done to be performed by someone who was actually trained to be a scientist (astronaut Schmitt had a PhD in geology), the tail-to-tooth ratio of Apollo was almost literally astronomical. We spent several tens of billions of dollars (in current-year dollars) to send a single individual to the moon. Everything that occurred up to that point was prelude.
And of course, once he spent his few days on the lunar surface, we brought him back, and no one, let alone another "scientist," has been back since.
Let's look at another example. In all of the Congressional debates about the International Space Station, and whether or not to fund it for yet another year, the undertone of the debate was always about how much "science" it would do.
Now let's look at reality.
The station currently has three astronauts aboard. Most of their time is consumed in simply keeping the space station functional. While there's now (borrowing from Star Trek) an official "science officer" aboard, it's more public relations than reality.
Whenever budgets are cut, the first place to look for savings is from "science."
There's no centrifuge aboard the station to provide controls for different gravity levels. Too expensive.
The power level of the station is barely sufficient to sustain the basic function of the facility--not to provide power for experiments.
Indeed, the program isn't even budgeted for enough spare parts to do planned experiments and research in the event of a breakdown.
The hassle factor involved to get an experiment aboard the station is tremendous, and in terms of time, a doctoral candidate might graduate, get married, have children and grandchildren before she could get an experiment on the station and useful results returned.
What's my point with these two examples? That we must spend even more money on the ISS and the manned space program in general to get "good science"?
My point is that the notion that we send men (or women) into space for science is absurd. Yet it's one of the prevailing and damaging myths of space policy debate.
If one looks at the federal budgets for space "science" versus non-space science, the former gets a significant percentage of the latter. But there's no reason to think that the science returned by manned space can possibly justify the expenditures, compared to all other types of science.
Space science gets more because, with the current ways of doing business, it costs more, and because those promoting it have managed to fool politicians and the public into thinking that the "science" thus returned is worth the expenditure.
Space endeavors are about many things, but science is, and should be, low on the list. What we're presently doing in space cannot be justified by science (just as Apollo, in any rational analysis, couldn't be--it was about international prestige, and fighting the Cold War).
In fact, it's hard to come up with any justification for what we're presently doing in space, even for those who, like me, want desperately to see us become a truly space-faring nation.
But 30 years after the last man (and the first and last scientist) walked on the moon, it is a useful time to reflect on why we, as a nation, want to do things in space. And after we decide that, we may have some chance of deciding what the best approaches are to accomplish those goals.
Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.