CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- The last man to walk on the moon, 15 years ago Saturday, says time has not dimmed his memory of standing on the powdery surface and gazing at the fragile beauty of Earth in the deep black of space.
'You're at a vantage point that's so unique it's almost difficult to accept,' said Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan. 'It's that memory of actually standing on something solid and actually realizing that your're really there and looking back across space at the beauty of Earth.
'It's beauty beyond comprehension,' he said in a telephone interview from Houston. 'Although not a religious experience for me, it was a spiritual experience. You've just got to believe it's too beautiful to have happened by accident.'
Cernan, geologist Harrison Schmitt and Ronald Evans blasted off Dec. 7, 1972, on the last Apollo mission to the moon. Four days later, Cernan and Schmitt touched down on the lunar surface, leaving Evans in orbit aboard the Apollo command module.
'We is here,' Cernan radioed mission control in Houston. 'Man, we is here!'
Cernan and Schmitt, the first scientist sent to the moon, spent a record 75 hours exploring the Taurus-Littrow region and collected 250 pounds of rock and soil samples that were returned to Earth.
A small plaque attached to one of the four legs of the lunar module 'Challenger' showed a map of the moon and Earth along with the words: 'Here man completed his first explorations of the moon December 1972, AD. May the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind.'
It was signed by the three astronauts and President Richard Nixon.
'This is our commemoration that will be here until someone like us, until some of you who are out there, who are the promise of the future, come back to read it again, and to further the exploration and the meaning of Apollo,' Cernan said from the moon.
The crew of Apollo 17 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at 2:24 p.m. EST on Dec. 19, 1972. The glory days of the Apollo program were over.
Cernan, now in private business in Houston, followed Schmitt into the lunar lander and thus was the last of 12 Americans to stand on the moon. He said he is frequently asked about his memories of the 13-day mission and what it was like to stand on another planet.
'I think the memory that can never be erased in my mind (is) when I stood in that valley, a valley that is deeper than the Grand Canyon, surrounded by some of the most beautiful and majestic mountains imaginable, and looked at the earth a quarter of a million miles away, I guess what's most important, that's home, that's everything you can attach to everything you can understand.
'The only regret I have is those 13 days ... happened so fast you don't have time to relish them during the process.'