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Meeting the last man to walk on the Moon

Photo of Eugene Cernan

Eugene Cernan speaking at Sheffield Doc/Fest.

By James Dacey, reporting from Sheffield

“I wanted to make a film about an old space cowboy” is how British director Mark Craig introduced his new film on Sunday afternoon here at Sheffield Doc/Fest. The Last Man on the Moon takes a fresh look at the the Apollo era through the story of Eugene Cernan, who was the last person to set foot on the lunar surface when he did so in 1972 as commander of Apollo 17.

The documentary interleaves a profile of “Gene” Cernan with NASA archive footage and special effects, focusing on the personal stories of the astronauts and their families. To give you a flavour, the film opens in the present day with close-ups of Cernan’s facial reactions at a rodeo event as he admires the spectacle and the bravery of the men being thrown around on the back of bulls. Later in the film, Cernan recounts his experiences of being rotated rapidly in space during the Gemini 9A and Apollo 10 missions.

Immediately after the showing, Cernan and Craig stayed for a Q&A session and the audience gave an extended standing ovation as the 80-year-old astronaut walked to the front of the auditorium. I was fortunate to catch up with the pair this morning to get some insights into the inspiration for the film and how it was adapted from the book Cernan co-authored in 1999.

Cernan talked about how watching the film had allowed him to look back at some of the events of the space-race period with a fresh pair of eyes. He said that one scene that grabbed his attention was the footage of the aftermath of the training crash that killed the primary crew members of Gemini 9: “I was picturing me, right there after the fire and the airplane was sitting there right in front of me and I don’t remember seeing it…until I saw it in the film when they were literally holstering what was left of a charcoaled, burned T-38 and putting it onto the back-end of a truck.”

In this audio clip, Cernan talks about how his book and the film address what it was like to experience the emotion of the great triumphs and the personal tragedies.

The last man to walk on the Moon
A personal take on space from Eugene Cernan
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In an earlier session at Doc/Fest, Craig spoke about how he was in the unusual position for a filmmaker of drowning in great archive footage thanks to NASA’s extensive collection. But he didn’t want to just make yet another historical film about all the people and the technologies of this well-documented period. In this audio clip, Craig tells me about why he decided to concentrate on the story of Eugene Cernan, whom he told me was by far the most eloquent of the Apollo astronauts.

Filmmaker's fresh take on the Apollo era
Mark Craig on the most eloquent of astronauts
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Before moving into documentary filmmaking, Craig worked as a graphic designer on TV programmes. This background shines through in the film. For example, there is a quirky animation in this film describing the recruitment process for becoming a NASA astronaut: how Cernan had to go a hotel using a fake name and undergo a series of mental and physical competency tests.

If you’ve ever wondered what it felt like to be an Apollo astronaut, then this is a film you should not miss.

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