The Barron Hilton Flight and Space Exploration Archives within Purdue Archives and Special Collections contains collections from many distinguished astronauts. Neil Armstrong, David Leestma, Jerry Ross, and Janice Voss have all left their mark on Purdue and humankind. Yet the Eugene A. Cernan papers cast a long shadow of their own. Comprised of 74 boxes organized into 11 series, the collection houses materials which span Cernan’s entire life, from his birth certificate to a letter written to his fellow Boilermakers just last year. It’s enough to keep anyone busy. I would know—I helped to organize it for almost a year.
What exactly is in all those boxes? Some items are simply cool to behold, like the mapbook of the lunar surface and one of Cernan’s spacesuit gloves, worn during Apollo 17 and still covered in grey-like moon dust. If you’re looking for the kinds of technical minutia that will help you build your own lunar module, you might be disappointed. Sure, there are reports for several Apollo missions, as well as a transcript of Cernan’s log from Gemini 9. The real value of Cernan’s collection is how it brings NASA’s iconic programs back to Earth. It brings space exploration closer to us, without all that expensive rocket fuel, by provoking questions about who an astronaut like Eugene Cernan really was.
Astronauts were not born in their spacesuits, so how did they grow to fit one so nicely? Cernan played sports throughout his youth and engaged actively in the communities at Proviso East High School in Maywood, Illinois and at Purdue University. Between athletics, the Naval ROTC, joining the Purdue chapter of Phi Gamma Delta, and editing two yearbooks, Cernan must have hardly had a moment to himself throughout his education. He even majored in Electrical Engineering, whose students today only have time to sleep while their code compiles. Cernan later got a Masters in Aerospace Engineering from the US Naval Postgraduate School while also serving in the Navy. Cernan’s ascent, it seems, started long before he climbed aboard a rocket, or even joined NASA. It took drive and effort and recognition, but also choice. I’m no scientist, but launching into space appears to involve momentum.
Eugene Cernan is human, but when did he become superhuman? Newspaper records abound in the collection and honed in on every last detail of Cernan, his family, his colleagues in spacesuits, and the missions he participated in. As much as it mattered to the nation what exactly his missions would accomplish, it mattered how Cernan trained and what he ate for breakfast. It mattered how his wife, Barbara Cernan, felt about her husband’s chances. It mattered whether his daughter, Tracy Cernan, was worried or excited about her father’s mission. It definitely mattered when Cernan broadcast expletives to the entire nation because ‘Snoopy,’ the lunar module, rolled unexpectedly above the moon during Apollo 10. And it mattered not only that Cernan and his colleagues landed safely after each mission, but also how they subsequently engaged with the nation through interviews and tours. The Space Race was won beyond Earth’s atmosphere by a relative few, but it’s impossible to imagine everyday Americans as mere spectators. NASA’s space exploration programs were cultural as well as scientific or political endeavors, and culture only takes on meaning when it is shared among people.
What (conceptual) space in terrestrial American society do astronauts play? Astronauts were and are icons, and the Cernan collection shows it. Telegram after telegram, letter after letter from celebrities, politicians, and business leaders. No fewer than seven sitting presidents corresponded with Cernan to varying degrees. Photos join the correspondence and show Cernan meeting some of those presidents, playing in charity golf tournaments with Bob Hope and Jimmy Demaret, showing NASA facilities to Barbara Eden, taking part in international tours, carrying the Olympic torch, and waving with Neil Armstrong at Ross-Ade’s fifty yard line at a Purdue football game. Astronauts have long been seen as a representation of the best of humanity. They helped the nation better understand its own potential. The Eugene Cernan papers shows this process was personal, not ethereal.
How do astronauts make meaning of their experiences? A central piece of the Cernan papers records the research and writing process of Cernan’s autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon. Cernan didn’t write the book based on memory alone, but rather reconstructed and reflected upon his experiences using hundreds of personal records which Purdue now houses. For feedback, he called upon the vast array of friends and acquaintances gathered over a lifetime of accomplishment. Their support was later joined by scores of fan letters. In crafting his reflections, Cernan grounded his individual experiences firmly in the broader machinations of society, situating himself as a person who became an astronaut who became a celebrity.
Smarter researchers than me will find the answers to these questions flowing incorporeally through the many pages and artifacts of Cernan’s collection. Which brings us to the heart of the matter: not what the collection offers, but why it exists at all.
During a visit to Purdue’s main campus last year, Cernan observed what’s become of his papers when the Cernan and Armstrong collections were opened for research. I imagine (and I stress the word ‘imagine’ here) that when just about everyone else in the room is clamoring to speak to you, it’s difficult form a cogent thought let alone have a moment of genuine reflection. But the revered Purdue alumnus did reflect, and he had a lot to say. One thing in particular stuck with me: the Cernan papers are here within Purdue Archives and Special Collections to be viewed. This collection could have ended up in the Smithsonian. But it didn’t. Instead Cernan’s papers made their final touch down about a thousand feet from Harry’s Chocolate Shop.
Captain Cernan donated to people: to thinkers, to doers, to Boilermakers. Everything from the dusty glove to his boyhood scrapbook is here to help us better understand Cernan’s life and by extension humanity’s first (and last—er, most recent) steps on the moon. If this collection makes anything clear, it’s that those steps were a shared experience on individual and deeply touching levels.
You’ll see it in the fan mail from a young woman pursuing a career in space exploration.
In Cernan’s letter to his mother, written before he knew whether he’d make it back to Earth.
In the newspaper photo showing a young Tracy Cernan pretending to radio her spacewalking father.
In Cernan’s scribbled personal notes, organizing his thoughts before drafting The Last Man on the Moon.
“In the Apollo 17 crew’s dinner menu right after splashdown. “Mare Imbrium Papaya,” for the record, sounds delicious.”
And in the photographed eyes of a young man applying for the NROTC in 1952, not yet aware of the adventures ahead of him.
The Eugene A. Cernan papers promise no more or less than any archival collection: to provide a slice of insight into the shared experiences that shape human lives. But it’s the promise that’s special—the promise of personal enlightenment through the embrace of our collective past. Eugene Cernan has opened the record of his past with this notion in mind, and it’s closer than you might think.
Editor’s Note: Essayist Brian Alberts is a graduate student within the Purdue University Department of History. He served as a graduate research assistant within Archives and Special Collections and was part of the team that processed the Eugene A. Cernan papers.