There are times when I find myself almost involuntarily gazing at the moon — looking back on a time in my life that seems unreal. Oh, I’ve been there, all right, and know that my last footprints, along with Tracy’s initials, will be there forever — however long forever is. But it is not the past that any longer challenges me, but rather the future. Our destiny is to explore, discovery is our goal — curiosity being the essence of human existence. I often ask myself if we will ever go again where humans have never been before and see again what has never been seen before. The answer is absolutely yes.
In 1969, the world took a giant leap into the future as the result of that one small step by Neil Armstrong. Many more steps were to follow Neil’s, launching us into a new era of science, technology and, perhaps most important, discovery led by a new generation of young, eager scientists, engineers and educators who were inspired to accept the challenge and committed to see their dreams fulfilled. Today’s media coverage of that epic moment seems to many like science fiction. But it wasn’t. It was science fact and continues to this day to have significant impact on our lives, on our future, and, indeed, on the entire world. The benefits that have followed were hardly imaginable at the time. One of the core lessons from Apollo is that the greatest advances in science and technology happen as a byproduct of the bold steps we take when committing ourselves to expanding human knowledge and understanding. Perhaps the most important byproduct of Kennedy’s vision that took us to the moon is the passion inspired in the hearts and minds of those generations who follow in our footsteps.We have again reached a challenge in human history. The moon, Mars and beyond — they are calling. The technology and systems to again reach for the stars are now within our reach. The benefits are there for us to claim. However, it will take the will of the American people, a sustained political commitment, and, once again, a leader with foresight and vision. Now is the time for America to recognize with pride our nation’s exceptionalism, regain our leadership in space and lead the free world on the next giant leap for mankind.
Today’s highly evolved and improved answer to Apollo is the Space Launch System and the Orion crew exploration spacecraft. Together they can open the door to the future, providing the capabilities we need, allowing us to finally reach the furthest frontiers of space. NASA and industry are making significant progress with the development of these deep space systems. American workers across the nation are making the probability of future space exploration again attainable. If I can call the moon my home before today’s generation was even born, what challenge can be beyond their reach? The driving force is the understanding that human space exploration is essential to the vitality of our nation, providing untold opportunity for generations to come.
Bipartisan support for space has remained strong since the days of Sputnik continuing to the present time. With determined leadership from the administration and ongoing support from Congress, we can enable NASA and industry to complete their work to build the systems we need to explore beyond the moon.
With SLS/Orion we are ready to seek out what the heavens have to offer — it is time for our nation’s leaders to commit to a clear logical destination, a mission, a goal with a timetable, plotting a course of new discovery. It is time to re-ignite, to re-energize the meaning of American exceptionalism. It is time to recognize what it takes to inspire young minds to dream big and accept the challenges their generation faces. We have the responsibility to provide them the direction and the opportunity to once again reach beyond their grasp in leading mankind into the future of discovery.
Cernan served 20 years as a Navy pilot, including 13 years with NASA, where he piloted Gemini IX, the lunar module on Apollo X, and was commander of Apollo XVII. He was the second American to walk in space and the last man to leave his footprint on the lunar surface. He etched his daughter Tracy’s initials into the dust. He died in 2017.