Cernan: From Purdue to ‘God’s front porch’

By Dave Bangert

When word came last week about Gene Cernan’s death, our high school daughter and I put down the cards from a marathon session of gin rummy and talked about the times we’d been in the same room with the last man on the moon.

The last time — or, as Cernan preferred to say about the footprints he left on the moon, the most recent time — was in April 2014, when seven of Purdue University’s 23 astronaut graduates were lifted onto the Elliott Hall of Music stage, fog machine rolling and everything, for a reunion night of questions and answers.

That night, six shuttle astronauts and Cernan, hailing from Gemini and Apollo era, did more to talk about how ordinary they found themselves in real life, no matter the feats brought on by extraordinary careers in space. Lowering the halos, one of them said. (The fog machine and soaring music of the entrance, be damned.)

On that stage of equals, there was clear deference to Cernan. A legend among legends. And from Cernan, there was deference, too, for his friend Neil Armstrong, fellow Purdue grad and the front part of the bookend phrase the university shows off at every opportunity: The first and last men on the moon.

Cernan bowed to Armstrong, who had died two years earlier, as a “world icon” — one who handled the distinction of being The First Man with grace and dignity. (Cernan told the story about Armstrong being pressed a year before he died by a Marine deployed in Afghanistan about what was going through his mind as he was “cruising across the lunar surface with only 15 seconds of fuel left.” Cernan said Armstrong pondered and said, “‘Well, young man, we all know when the fuel gauge says empty, there’s a gallon or two left in the tank.’ Ladies and gentleman, that’s your Neil Armstrong.”)

Over cards on Monday, as the tributes rolled in, we pieced together that story and pondered a bit on our own. How amazing that must have been, all the details coming together in split-second fits of bravery and engineering know-how. (Another part of the astronaut story Purdue shows off at every opportunity.)

We also talked about how fortunate we were to hear those stories firsthand. She’ll be 69 when the 100-year anniversary of the first moon landing comes around; 72 for the same century mark for Cernan’s last steps. (By then, who knows, maybe they won’t still be the most recent steps.) She’ll still have that moment when she heard Cernan equate being on the moon with “sitting on God’s front porch.”

One of the blessings of being in Purdue’s backyard has been the ready access to astronauts, either for sessions on the West Lafayette campus or in Greater Lafayette classrooms.

(And not just as in still playing in Purdue Federal commercials, as Cernan was, his footsteps leaving moon boot prints across the fairway as he strolled to the next tee with Jerry Ross, a shuttle-era astronaut and spacewalking legend in his own right.)

Foerster, who said he met Cernan during the Teacher in Space selection process, told this story:

In the late-’80s, the staff at West Lafayette’s Burtsfield School had created a closed circuit TV system to interview notable figures about current history. Foerster, who was principal at the time, said students and teachers were invited to put Post-It Notes on a bulletin board with a question for someone who had been to the moon. The idea was to have students read the best ones to the school over the intercom in the principal’s office.

“I interrupted the first student as they began to share their question … ‘Wouldn’t it be better, if we actually had someone to answer your question who has been to the moon?’” Foerster said. “Little did anyone know, but I had arranged for Gene to be on standby, on the phone, for a conference call, which he gladly agreed to do. … Needless to say, the students were more than a little surprised.”

Cernan took questions for an hour. Foerster’s assessment: That’s just the way he was.

Dave Bangert is a writer for the (Lafayette) Journal and Courier. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.