I was at the press site at Cape Kennedy the night of December 7, 1972 at 12:33 a. m. (EST) when the last Apollo mission to the moon turned midnight into dawn and thundered into the darkness. I felt the hammering against my chest from the controlled explosions of those engines, enveloped by a roar so loud that I could not hear my own voice describing into my recorder what I was seeing. I cherish the memories captured by my still and my movie cameras in those moments. In my increasingly long life, I have hiked high trails in magnificent mountains, rafted in grand and great canyons, beheld sunrises and sunsets in hundreds of special places, watched two children being born, and other notable events. But nothing was as awesome as watching that Saturn V slowly, slowly lift off and then quickly become a dot in the dark sky, a rocket assembly so tall that—were it placed on the railroad tracks below the state capitol bluff—its escape tower would be as high as the statue of Ceres on the capitol dome. And the only thing that would return would be a capsule only one foot in diameter more than the center circle on a basketball court, and only one foot taller than the height of the basket. Inside would be the three men I had seen a day earlier at a press conference.
In more than forty years of covering politics and dabbling in covering sports I have seen and I have met a lot of famous people but I have seen and I have met only a few great people. It is in that small number of heroes that I place the men who rode that rocket—and their colleagues who dared greatly to push our spirits as well as our frontiers forward. I respect those who continue to ride rockets although their reach is well short of the men who began their journey so dramatically that early morning and the men who first risked everything to reach beyond our known world..
I worry sometimes about those who are considered heroes today in a time when we are less interested in testing our potentials as societies and as mankind and more focused on protecting the little that we are.
When Gene Cernan died last week, we lost more than the last man to walk on the Moon. We lost another of the dwindling few human reminders that greatness derives from reaching outward while mediocrity, narrowness, and failure result from looking inward.
In the stairwell leading to the library at my house is a poster created by Shelbi Burkhart commemorating the Apollo XVII mission. It is signed by Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt, the geologist who landed on the moon with him. It is framed with my Cape Kennedy and my Johnson Space Center press credentials from that mission.
Although my work gave me—and still gives me, I guess—a lot of opportunities to collect autographs, I collect only a few and those few are from those who have seen the whole earth as I will never see it (only six of them are left), or from fellow authors. One series is kind of a vicarious participation in the great adventure of exploring space. The other is kind of a compliment, a shared experience, with those who have gone through the discipline (and sometimes the agony) of writing a book.
But the signatures I cherish most are those who were, and are, heroes not just to me but to my generation. They are tangible reminders that greatness is not achieved by limiting what we can be by focusing within. I have met some of them and it is comforting to realize that people who look just like me or look just like you are capable of greater things than we often let ourselves think. And I wonder when the time will come when we will look outward again.