The last man on the Moon, Gene Cernan, passes away at 82
Astronaut Eugene “Gene” A. Cernan died today, Jan. 16, 2017, at the age of 82. He flew into space three times – aboard Gemini IX in 1966, Apollo 10 in 1969, and as commander of Apollo 17 in 1972. Cernan was largely known by the title noted in his autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon.
Cernan’s family announced his death following ongoing health issues via a release:
It is with very deep sadness that we share the loss of our beloved husband and father. Our family is heartbroken, of course, and we truly appreciate everyone’s thoughts and prayers. Gene, as he was known by so many, was a loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend.
Even at the age of 82, Gene was passionate about sharing his desire to see the continued human exploration of space and encouraged our nation’s leaders and young people to not let him remain the last man to walk on the Moon.
Cernan is survived by his wife, Jan Nanna Cernan, his daughter and son-in-law, Tracy Cernan Woolie and Marion Woolie, step-daughters Kelly Nanna Taff and husband, Michael, and Danielle Nanna Ellis and nine grandchildren.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden also released a statement:
Gene Cernan, Apollo astronaut and the last man to walk on the Moon, has passed from our sphere, and we mourn his loss. Leaving the Moon in 1972, Cernan said, “As I take these last steps from the surface for some time into the future to come, I’d just like to record that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow.” Truly, America has lost a patriot and pioneer who helped shape our country’s bold ambitions to do things that humankind had never before achieved.
Gene’s footprints remain on the Moon, and his achievements are imprinted in our hearts and memories. His drive to explore and do great things for his country is summed up in his own words:
“We truly are in an age of challenge. With that challenge comes opportunity. The sky is no longer the limit. The word impossible no longer belongs in our vocabulary. We have proved that we can do whatever we have the resolve to do. The limit to our reach is our own complacency.”
In my last conversation with him, he spoke of his lingering desire to inspire the youth of our nation to undertake the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) studies, and to dare to dream and explore. He was one of a kind and all of us in the NASA Family will miss him greatly.
Also noted in the Cernan family’s statement was that, humbled by his life experiences, particularly as an Apollo astronaut, the retired Naval officer recently had said, “I was just a young kid in America growing up with a dream. Today what’s most important to me is my desire to inspire the passion in the hearts and minds of future generations of young men and women to see their own impossible dreams become a reality.”
Former members of the NASA family gave their thoughts about what the passing of the Moonwalker meant to them.
“This one [the passing of Eugene Cernan] hit me particularly hard,” Jerry Ross, a seven-time Space Shuttle veteran told SpaceFlight Insider. “I heard about Gene’s passing at the same place and from the same people who told me about Neil Armstrong’s passing. Two of our best and brightest are now gone. Gene cared about space and our future, and he’s gone.”
Additionally, former Shuttle astronaut Charlie Precourt, now vice-president and general manager of propulsion systems at Orbital ATK, told SpaceFlight Insider he felt blessed to have known Cernan and that he is deeply saddened by his passing.
“He was a true American Hero – One of the greats. Ad Astra, Gene Cernan,” Precourt said.
Born in Chicago in 1934, Cernan graduated from Proviso Township High School in Maywood, Illinois; received a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University in 1956 and a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
While pursuing his degree at Purdue, he signed up for the U.S. Navy’s ROTC program, then trained to become a pilot once on active duty. He flew with Attack Squadrons 26 and 112 at the Miramar, California, Naval Air Station. He logged more than 5,000 hours flying time with more than 4,800 hours in jet aircraft and over 200 jet aircraft carrier landings.
Cernan joined NASA as part of the agency’s third class of astronauts in 1963. His first spaceflight was on June 3, 1966, as pilot alongside Command Pilot Tom Stafford in Gemini IX. That flight became dangerous for Cernan, whose extravehicular activity (EVA) included testing the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit (AMU), an experience he later called a “spacewalk from hell”. The effort to put on the AMU, lacking adequate foot restraints, caused his heart to race and his visor to fog up.
While the test of putting on the inflexible AMU was a failure, Cernan safely returned to the spacecraft, having lost ten pounds (4.5 kilograms) in the effort. Gemini IX also tested three different techniques to effect rendezvous with the previously launched Augmented Target Docking Adapter.
On his second spaceflight, he was lunar module pilot of Apollo 10 (which took place from May 18 to 26, 1969). The mission was the first comprehensive lunar-orbital qualification and verification test flight of an Apollo lunar module.
He was again accompanied by mission Commander Tom Stafford as well as Command Module Pilot John Young. Apollo 10 served as the final dress rehearsal for the first lunar landing, which was conducted by the crew of Apollo 11 in July 1969.
Apollo 10’s lunar module, Snoopy, descended to within about 10 miles (16 kilometers) of the lunar surface, testing everything except the final descent sequence before activating the ascent motor to rendezvous with the command module, Charlie Brown.
Cernan’s third mission was as commander of Apollo 17, the last flight of the Apollo series (December 6–19, 1972). His crew included Ron Evans, who served as the command module pilot of the America spacecraft and geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, who served as lunar module pilot next to Cernan aboard the Lunar Module Challenger. Challenger landed at the Taurus-Littrow valley on the southeast edge of Mare Serenitatis.
Cernan was a chatty astronaut on the Moon, conveying for many the wonder and excitement of the experience (something he would continue to do in his post-NASA efforts). He and Schmitt at one point started singing the song “While Strolling Through the Park One Day”, substituting “on the Moon” for “through the park”. Cernan also scrawled his daughter Tracy’s initials in the lunar regolith.
In his last moments on the surface of the Moon, before heading back into the Lunar Module to prepare to launch and rendezvous with the Apollo Command Module, Cernan said the following:
As I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I’d like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.
Apollo 17 set several records for human space flight: the longest manned lunar landing flight (301 hours, 51 minutes); the longest lunar surface extravehicular activities (22 hours, 6 minutes); the largest lunar sample return (an estimated 249 lbs (115 kg); and the longest time in lunar orbit (147 hours, 48 minutes).
By the time his crew returned back to Earth and set foot on the deck of the U.S.S. Ticonderoga, Cernan had logged 566 hours and 15 minutes in space, with more than 73 hours of that time spent on the surface of the Moon. To date, he is one of only three people to have made the journey to the Moon twice, the other two being Jim Lovell and John Young.
Following Apollo 17, Cernan served as special assistant to the program manager of the Apollo Program at Johnson Space Center, where he assisted in planning, developing, and evaluating the joint United States / Soviet Union Apollo-Soyuz mission. He also supported the program manager as the senior United States negotiator with the USSR on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.
In July 1976, Cernan retired from both NASA as well as the U.S. Navy.
Life after NASA
After working for a petroleum company in Houston, Cernan started his own company, The Cernan Corporation, in 1981, supporting the interests of the energy, aerospace, and other related industries. He later became Chairman of the Board for Johnson Engineering Corporation.
Cernan also served as a co-anchorman on ABC-TV’s presentations of the flight of the Space Shuttle. In 1998 he published his autobiography detailing his space experiences, titled Last Man on the Moon. The book was subsequently made into a documentary film in 2014.
In 2010, Cernan and fellow Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong testified before Congress in support of the Constellation Program to send humans to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. During the remainder of his life, Cernan continued to be a public speaker and advocate for space exploration.
Bart Leahy is a freelance technical writer living in Orlando, Florida. Leahy's diverse career has included work for The Walt Disney Company, NASA, the Department of Defense, Nissan, a number of commercial space companies, small businesses, nonprofits, as well as the Science Cheerleaders.