Gathered at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston to pay their final respects to one of their own, these heroes of old shone brightly beneath the veneer of mourners garb and the thin, gray hair that betrays their age and mortality we all must face.
I was but a trespasser, a lone interloper stealing a moment in time among the great and powerful men who broke the bonds of earth and traipsed among the heavens. I didn’t belong with them but there I was, clad in a cheap suit and outdated tie, nearly indistinguishable among the distinguished. These men rode giant, thunderous rockets, floated in the vast void of nothingness and placed their footprints in the gray, powdery dust of another world.
What they accomplished, they did for all mankind. They did it for me, for you and for generations unborn. They are a dwindling fraternity of space pioneers who traveled where no one had gone before or since. On Tuesday they were united once again to memorialize Capt. Gene Cernan, the 11th of their ranks to step upon the moon and the last to leave it.
The funeral service for Cernan was open to the public, so I came, appearing staid and sorrowful yet wide-eyed with wonder. I was but a lad in my single-digit years when these men went to the moon. Their adventures were my adventures. Too young to fully appreciate what they were doing, I grew up with an ever deepening respect of not only the astronauts themselves but also the countless men and women who worked tirelessly on the ground to propel these mighty men on a journey through space and history.
I am blessed to have two of these ground-based warriors as my in-laws. I’ve been privileged to have met and interviewed many who worked at NASA during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo eras, as well as those who shuttled to low-earth orbit.
What these adventurous space pioneers accomplished, they did out of a dream turned goal turned reality. I’m but a lowly chronicler — a watcher, not a doer. Yet in watching, I do. My dream, turned goal, was to meet as many of the surviving moonwalkers as I could. I realized in 2012 when Neil Armstrong died that time was getting short. Then last year Edgar Mitchell left us. That added a sense of urgency to my quest. I made a plan to write a story about the men on the moon. It was an excuse to at least reach out and try to meet them before they were all gone.
My plan was to begin seeking them out this spring after the Super Bowl. It’s a very busy time for me and not a good time to put a major project like that on the front burner. Then on Jan. 16, Cernan slipped the bonds of earth a fourth and final time as his spirit soared back into the heavens. That created even more urgency — and an opportunity. His funeral service would be nearby and open to the public. I knew many of his fellow spacemen would be there. I determined I would be, too.
I arrived early. Although hundreds of people attended the funeral, very few seemed to be from the general public. Most knew him. I only knew of him. I took a seat in the first pew that was not reserved. I sat and marveled. St. Martin’s is an incredibly beautiful church and its magnificent organ produced mesmerizingly stunning music.
As the service started, the world about me began to change. Sunlight streaming through the ornate stained-glass windows slowly crawled across the sanctuary, alternately painting with vibrant colors and splashing bright light. It was as if the heavens were beckoning Cernan home.
As the speakers began to recount Cernan’s life and their portion of his journey with him, a new realization washed over me like the sunlight’s luminescent beams: I don’t belong here.
This isn’t some public ceremony, this is a funeral and these are close family and friends. They are not paying tribute to some great historical figure, they are saying goodbye to a husband, father, grandfather and friend. As Fox News anchorman Neil Cavuto, Apollo 13 Commander James Lovell, and retired Navy Commander Fred “Baldy” Baldwin spoke and the Rev. Dr. Russell Levenson Jr. gave the homily, it became apparent that I was privy to the private side of a public man. This was as “inside” as an average man could get to these rare and mighty men.
As the service drew to a close, a new feeling washed over me. I do belong. I may not be one of them or part of the family, but Cernan’s extended family was all mankind. He knew and understood that by walking on the moon, that he and the 11 others went there for all mankind. History demanded that they forever be shared with the billions of us who will never do what they did. He was a man of the people and I represented the people.
At the conclusion of the service, as the crowd filed out of the sanctuary and over to Bagby Parish Hall for the reception, I became star struck. Walking by me were many of the men I had idolized and longed to meet. Some I had met before and many others were distant legends from television and books.
I followed them to the hall. There, I ate their cookies and drank their coffee and wondered among these aging stars. I felt simultaneously at home and out of place. They all knew each other. They talked and hugged and laughed and shared stories and caught up on what one another was doing now. Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, was holding court, jovially visiting with a circle of friends. Next to him was Harrison Schmitt, the 12th man on the moon and Cernan’s moonwalking partner. I couldn’t resist but to casually stroll between them.
Everywhere I turned I encountered another historical figure. All but one surviving moonwalker was there: Aldrin, Schmitt, Alan Bean, Dave Scott and Charlie Duke. Only John Young was missing. Several others who had flown on Gemini and Apollo missions were present, including Lovell, Walt Cunningham, Fred Haise, Gen. Tom Stafford and Michael Collins. Flight directors Gene Kranz, Glynn Lunney, Gerry Griffin and Milt Windler were there along with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, JSC Director Ellen Ochoa and former Deputy Administrator Dava Newman. There were many others from the NASA family present than I can recall or recognize. You could tell they were NASA because of their bearing and character.
I experienced ecstasy and agony during the few minutes I was among them. Signs and audible warnings made it clear that there would be no photos, autographs, videos, etc. I was aching to do just that. At one point I snuck out to use the restroom. As I exited the men’s room I held the door for an elderly man and he thanked me. I did a double take. It was Michael Collins, the command module pilot from Apollo 11!
As the hour grew short and the crowd thinned out, I knew it was time to leave. I had arrived with trepidation but I left with my head in the clouds. I doubt my feet touched the ground. I felt so out of touch with reality that I could have been on the moon myself. I came home and watched Cernan’s autobiographical documentary, Last Man on the Moon. It was like living the afternoon all over again, except this time hearing the stories from the man himself.
Even now, days later, I find myself transfixed on that moment in time when I walked among these gods of history and space and realize that someday the time will come for each of us to be released from our mortal bonds and then we too can reach out to the stars and touch the face of God.