Funeral service held for Eugene Cernan in Houston
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — When most people think of the 12 men who first walked on the Moon, they probably don’t think of Eugene Cernan. They should. Cernan, a naval aviator, was one of the core astronauts that made the Apollo Program’s historic landings possible. His life after NASA was as important as his time with the agency training to ride fire.
Cernan died Jan. 16, 2017, at the age of 82. NASA Television provided coverage of Cernan’s funeral service which took place Tuesday, Jan. 24, at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church located in Houston. He will be buried at Texas State Cemetery in Austin with full military honors, the first astronaut to be buried there.
Hundreds of people attended the service. Three people were invited by Cernan’s family to give remarks: Neil Cavuto, an anchor at Fox News; Jim Lovell, who flew on two Gemini missions and two Apollo missions, including Apollo 13; and Fred Baldwin, who Cernan befriended while in the Navy.
“Naval aviation has an old and famous saying,” Lovell said during his remarks. “‘If you can’t be good, be colorful.’ Gene was not only good, he was also colorful. [He was] an excellent aviator, and an outstanding astronaut – perhaps the best representation of a patriotic American this country has.”
Cernan was born March 14, 1934 in Chicago. He would go on to gain a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1956 from Purdue University. His interest in engineering would aid him when he began flight training for the U.S. Navy in 1958. Cernan flew FJ-4 and A-4 Skyhawks as a member of Attack Squadrons 126 and 113. Once his time at Miramar had concluded he attended the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in 1963 where he received a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering.
Cernan’s career appeared to be on the fast track at this point as he was tapped to be one of NASA’s third group of astronauts in that same year.
His first flight into the black of space was heralded by one of the space agency’s first tragedies. The prime crew of the Gemini 9A mission, Elliot See and Charles Bassett, lost their lives when their T-38 training aircraft crashed into the McDonnell Aircraft building where the Gemini 9 spacecraft was being prepared for its mission.
The backup crew, consisting of Thomas Stafford and Cernan, moved into the prime position. Once launched, Cernan might have wondered if the mission was cursed. An array of problems arose during the flight which could have ended in the duo losing their lives.
The Agena target vehicle, which the Gemini capsule was supposed to rendezvous and dock with had the protective fairing still attached – and covering the portion of the vehicle that the Gemini 9 spacecraft was meant to dock to. The crew still completed simulated procedures and moved on to other objectives of the flight.
Also during the mission, Cernan conducted the second extravehicular activity in U.S. spaceflight history (and the third ever in human history at that point). However, he encountered problems almost immediately. There was no Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory at this time and astronauts were learning everything for the first time. Cernan’s blood pressure skyrocketed and his labored breathing caused his visor to fog up. Not only was the mission in jeopardy of failure, Cernan was in danger of losing his life. Mission control called an end to the EVA and Cernan can be heard saying that he didn’t want to go through that again.
The mission’s commander, Gen. (U.S. Air Force ret.) Thomas P. Stafford told SpaceFlight Insider that he had a conversation with Deke Slayton, the head of the astronaut office at the time just prior to the mission lifting off from Cape Canaveral’s LC-19 on June 3, 1966. Slayton had expressed the concerns officials had about the possibility of a dead astronaut being left in space. Stafford told Slayton that he was in charge and that he’d make the decision when the time came. Cernan had noted Stafford and Slayton conversing and asked his commander what the two had discussed.
“…He (Cernan) said, hey Tom, what did Deke talk to you about so long? and I said, ‘Geno! He said he hopes we have a real good flight today,” Stafford said with a smile.
While Gemini 9A might not have turned out quite like Cernan might have hoped, he and Stafford returned safely to Earth and he would fly with Stafford again on Apollo 10, the dress rehearsal for the mission that would see humanity first set foot on another world – Apollo 11.
For Apollo 10, Cernan, Stafford and John Young would travel to within just 59.2 nautical miles (109.6 kilometers) of the lunar surface. The trio launched May 19, 1969 atop their Saturn V (SA-505) rocket and they performed every critical step that the crew of Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins would be required to do two months later with one exception – landing.
Cernan traveled back to the Moon a short three and a half years later as commander of Apollo 17. This time, he would go all the way to the surface. He was joined by Ronald Evans, who stayed in orbit in the Command Module, and Harrison Schmitt, who traveled with Cernan in the Lunar Module to the surface.
This last flight was the longest human mission to another world to date, staying more than three days on the surface of the Moon, and included three moonwalks lasting some 22 hours. The mission’s Lunar Roving Vehicle took the two astronauts distance of 22.3 miles (35.9 kilometers) during 4 hours, 26 minutes of drive time. He and Schmitt also traveled the furthest from the Lunar Module – 4.7 miles (7.6 kilometers).
Additionally, the mission brought back the largest cache of lunar samples.
Cernan retired from NASA in 1976 and went into private business. He was executive vice president of Coral Petroleum before leaving to start his own business, The Cernan Corporation, in 1981.
Later in the 80s, he served as a contributer to ABC News and Good Morning America’s weekly “Breakthrough” segment, which focused on heath, science and medicine.
In 1999, his memoir, The Last Man on the Moon, was published. He was also featured in a documentary about space exploration called In the Shadow of the Moon in 2007 and The Last Man on the Moon, based on his memoir, in 2016.
Cernan died in a hospital in Houston on Jan. 16, 2017, after ongoing health issues.
“This one [the death of Eugene Cernan] hit me particularly hard. I heard about Gene’s passing at the same place and from the same people who told me about Neil Armstrong’s passing,” Jerry Ross, a seven time space shuttle veteran told SFI via a phone conversation. “Two of our best and brightest are now gone. Gene cared about space and our future and he’s gone.”
He wasn’t alone in this view. Fellow former astronaut Nicole Stott spoke to SpaceFlight Insider about Cernan’s commitment to keeping the public interested and involved in space exploration.
“The thing that impressed me most about Gene Cernan, this iconic hero to us all, is that he was so genuine and down to Earth,” Stott said. “I was fortunate enough to meet him several times with my son, and he always took the time to encourage him to work hard and pursue his dreams. He cared about inspiring young people and about inspiring us all to follow in his footsteps.”
“Truth needs no defense. Nobody, nobody can ever take those footsteps I made on the surface of the Moon away from me,” Cernan said at the close of Ron Howard’s In the Shadow of the Moon.
No Capt. Cernan, they most certainly cannot. And from those of those of us who you’ve inspired, thank you.
Video courtesy of NASA TV
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.