In conversation with Gene Cernan, Captain of Apollo XVII
by Zoe Dickens
As the captain of the Apollo XVII space mission and the last man to walk on the moon, Gene Cernan has experienced things most people can only dream about. As he visits London to open Omega’s new Sloane Street store, we sit down with the astronaut to talk watches, moon walks and what the Earth really looks like from space.
Many children grow up dreaming about becoming astronauts but before your generation the job didn’t even exist. How did you get involved with the space programme?
I was a naval aviator. Flying aeroplanes off aircraft carriers was my childhood dream. When the opportunity to get involved in the space programme came along there were no rules and we didn’t know what to expect or where we’d be going. It was an opportunity no normal human being would turn down.
What was the best thing about being an astronaut?
The best part of space flight was space flight. It was going where no man had gone before and doing what no man had done before. It gave us a chance to see whether we were good enough. We ended up being in the limelight thanks to the press but that’s not why we did it. I was excited and apprehensive but not scared. If you’re scared you shouldn’t go.
What does the earth really look like from space?
Nothing like the movies! You’re standing in sunlight but you’re surrounded by blackness. The earth has all these multi-coloured blues of the oceans and snow and clouds. It’s three dimensional and dynamic but it has order: every 12 hours you see the other side. On the other hand, it’s surrounded by the endlessness of time and space. That’s what the blackness is, it’s infinity.
It was almost like you could reach out and grab the world and say, ‘Here’s what it looks like’. That sight reinforced a feeling I had that there was too much order and purpose and beauty for it to be an accident. There’s got to be somebody who put it all together, some creator or god. We didn’t even have pictures of the Earth at that point so to be able to come back and share that with people was really gratifying.
You wore the Omega Speedmaster on all your space flights and have been a proud Omega ambassador for a long time. What made Omega watches ideal for space?
Space is a very hostile environment. There’s zero gravity so automatic watches won’t work, temperatures range from -150 – 250 degrees and there are tremendous G forces. NASA tested 11 watches and the only one that passed without any modification was the Speedmaster. In fact, this watch is the reason Apollo VIII made it home. They had to make a very critical rocket burn to get back to Earth but didn’t have any electrical power so they used the stopwatch on the Speedmaster to time the burn. A second or two either side would have made a huge difference but it turned out perfectly.
For me it’s more personal. My daughter was 9-years-old during Apollo XVII, every day [on the moon] I would watch the sun rising on Texas and because I had one watch set to Houston time I knew she was getting up and going to school. Later I would watch the sun set and would know she’d had her dinner and was going to sleep. Knowing what was going on at home was like a security blanket. To me the Speedmaster is far more than a piece of hardware.
How would you compare space to other extreme environments like the bottom of the ocean?
Space is infinite whereas there is a limit and a bottom to the ocean. Granted there is a lot we don’t know about the ocean but it is a finite world. There’s no bottom to space. We don’t even know what questions to ask much less the answers. If you believe, as I do, that there is a greater universe, how could we be so egotistical as to believe we are the only intelligent life? Will we ever find it or will it find us? I don’t know those answers and that’s the point.
What would you like to see happen in terms of space exploration in the future?
There’s more technology in your iPhone than I had when I went into space so I’d like to see us go back to the moon and then to Mars. The difference is we were motivated; we had a mission, a goal and a timetable. The President said in May 1961 that we would land on the moon within a decade and in July 1969 we did. Although we can now do it more safely, more effectively and more efficiently it would probably take us twice as long because you need the incentive. The passion is there in the younger generation but we’ve got to give them the opportunity. It’s been 42 years – it’s time we got a man back on the moon.
The new Omega boutique at 9 Sloane Street, London SW1 is open now.