THE last man to walk on the moon has revealed how he left his camera behind on the lunar surface 40 years ago, only to find that no one went back to collect it for him.
Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan's camera is still sitting exactly where it was left with its lens pointing out into space; an experiment into solar cosmic radiation he hoped could be collected by future astronauts.
The retired U.S. Navy captain and veteran of three space flights said he still remembers the image of his last footprint as he left the Moon, but that he wished he had the photograph to prove it.
Speaking ahead of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 17 launch today he said: "I left my Hasselblad camera there with the lens pointing up at the zenith, the idea being someday someone would come back and find out how much deterioration solar cosmic radiation had on the glass.
"So, going up the ladder, I never took a photo of my last footstep. How dumb! Wouldn’t it have been better to take the camera with me, get the shot, take the film pack off and then (for weight restrictions) throw the camera away?"
Back in 1972, Cernan, 78, thought his voyage "wasn't the end but the beginning" for manned exploration of the Moon, and believed an astronaut would have set foot on Mars by the end of the century.
Instead, NASA's budget began to decline and three further missions planned to follow Cernan's crew were scrapped, bringing an end to the "golden age" of space flight.
The Apollo programme had cost American taxpayers more than $150 billion (£93 billion) in today's money – an amount which was seen as justifiable against the Cold War context of the 1960s.
But after Neil Armstrong's Apollo 11 crew effectively ended the "space race" with Russia in 1969, public support for the Apollo programme had begun to collapse as most Americans became more preoccupied with the Vietnam War and domestic tensions.
In a conversation with Bloomberg at an Explorers Club event Cernan said: “We cracked open the door and threw out a plum to young men and women who followed us – many far more capable – and they reeled in a lemon."
Recalling his last moments on the Moon – when he traced his daughter's initials in the Lunar dust – Cernan predicted that it could take another 40 years for the real significance of the Apollo missions to be appreciated.
Many experts believe any manned space mission today should be aimed at Mars, rather than retracing the steps laid by Cernan and Lunar module pilot Harrison Schmitt four decades ago.
But such a pursuit would of course be far more complex and present hurdles that would be best overcome by first establishing a base on the Moon, Cernan said.
"I do think we need to go to the moon first to set up a base so we can use more advanced propulsion techniques," he said.
"Am I willing to go to Mars? Yes, but I’m not willing to spend nine months getting there, then wait 18 more months until the planets align to come home.
"For Mars we need propulsion technologies to get us there in say, 60 days, then spend whatever length of time we want to spend – two months, six months – and return when we want to come home. That will require ion and nuclear propulsion and help from a base on the moon."
Nick Collins, Telegraph.co.uk