'Last Man on the Moon' Shares Astronaut's 'Epic Tale' in New Documentary

The Last Man on the Moon
Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan, with the Saturn V rocket at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, looks back in the new documentary "The Last Man on the Moon,” opening on Feb. 26, 2016. (Image credit: Mark Craig/Last Man on the Moon)

As the new documentary "The Last Man on the Moon" opens, the camera pans across a crowd at a rodeo until it finds an older gentleman taking his seat.

The man, clad in a cowboy hat, padded vest and dark blue jeans with a large-buckle belt, doesn't stand out from those around him. Nothing about his appearance suggests he is a member of one of the most exclusive fraternities in all of human history.

In fact, as that scene was shot, only one person, out of the thousands surrounding him, recognized Gene Cernan.

"Just one — the man sitting next to him," said Mark Craig, director of "The Last Man on the Moon," which is openingin select U.S. theaters on Friday (Feb. 26).

Craig's film seeks to address that.

"It is basically the epic tale of one man's part in mankind's greatest adventure with quite a few laughs and tears along the way," Craig told collectSPACE.com. "We don't just dwell on the past, but see plenty of Cernan's life today, and what he shares with us on a personal level is more than any other moonwalker has ever done previously." [Watch the Trailer for "The Last Man on the Moon"]

Cernan, suffice to say, isn't just another face at the rodeo. Though he aspired to and now owns a Texas ranch, a fact that the film not just points out but features, Cernan is one of just 24 men to have flown to the moon, one of just three to have done it twice, and the last out of only 12 astronauts to leave his bootprint on its surface.

A naval aviator, Cernan was chosen as a NASA astronaut in 1963. He flew three times to space as a member of the Gemini 9A and Apollo 10 crews and commander of Apollo 17, the latter the final manned mission to land on the moon in December 1972.

"The Last Man on the Moon" recounts that history, as other documentaries have, but in doing so injects Cernan's own unique perspective on his journey.

"It wasn't just his story, but the way he told it that made a real impact," commented Craig, referencing Cernan's 1998 autobiography, which shares the same title and served as the initial inspiration for the film.

Five years in the making, "Last Man on the Moon" uses on-site shoots to bring Cernan back to the time and places where he made history. He visits the dormant launch pad where he left Earth for the moon, the museums where his spacecraft are on public display, and the Arlington National Cemetery, where some of his fellow astronauts were laid to rest.

"Every one of the film's locations had special significance for both Gene and for us on the small film crew, but in very different ways," Craig recalled. "The derelict launch pad at the Cape certainly stirred some strong feelings for Gene, and that in turn affected us on the crew. And how could a visit to Arlington [cemetery] not leave a powerful and vivid impression?"

The one location the filmmakers could not take Cernan – back to space ("We would love to have taken him back to the Taurus-Littrow valleyon the moon," Craig remarked) – is represented by archival NASA footage, where available, and Hollywood-style recreations, where not.

Movie poster for the new documentary "The Last Man on the Moon,” opening Feb. 26, 2016. (Image credit: Mark Stewart Productions)

"Very little footage of Gene's Gemini spacewalk exists. As it was such a defining and dramatic moment in his story, we needed to bring it alive for the audience so that they could see and understand his tremendous difficulties," said Craig of the re-staged EVA. "As for Apollo 10, it was the first time Gene left the planet Earth and headed way out someplace where that few had ever been before. There is some great on board archive footage, but very little of that conveys the vastness and majestic spectacle of space."

"I was partly inspired by Stanley Kubrick's '2001: A Space Odyssey,' and wanted to intercut the real footage with the visual effects to keep it feeling big, real and emotional," he described.

Other voices add to that emotion. In addition to Cernan's own recollections, the movie features new interviews with Apollo astronauts Alan Bean, Charlie Duke, Dick Gordon and Jim Lovell, as well as flight directors Gene Kranz and Chris Kraft. Cernan's first wife, Barbara, and current wife, Jan appear, as do his children and grandchildren including his daughter Tracy whose initials he left on the moon.

Although only implied on screen, the film's title, "The Last Man on the Moon," is something Cernan struggles with to this day. While Neil Armstrong will always be the first man, Cernan doesn't relish having carried the title of "last" for so long. It is that message, among others, that Cernan – and Craig – hope the public takes away from the documentary.

"Gene delivers a number of powerful messages in the film. I would rather audiences see and hear these in the context of his story than reveal them here," Craig said. "But I think if you were old enough to remember the age of Apollo you will have some surprisingly strong emotions stirred up. And if you were born after or are too young to remember, then I believe that a major chapter in history will be brought alive by a remarkable individual who was there in the thick of it all."

"We are lucky that he has the courage, wit and honesty to share it with us in such a human way."

"The Last Man on the Moon," produced by Mark Stewart Productions, opens in select U.S. theaters and is available concurrently on video-on-demand services including Apple iTunes, on Friday (Feb. 26). It will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on April 26. For more information, see thelastmanonthemoon.com.

Watch the trailer for "The Last Man on the Moon" at collectSPACE.com.

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Robert Z. Pearlman
collectSPACE.com Editor, Space.com Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.