Gene Cernan Dies

Gene Cernan: Last Man To Walk The Moon Passes At 82

Gene Cernan, the last man to set foot on the moon, has died. The NASA astronaut died on Monday, following persistent health complications; he was 82. Bob Jacobs, spokesman for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration made this known in a statement released on behalf of the family. The family revealed that despite his age, the iconic astronaut was still enthusiastic about space exploration and wanted the American government to still send people to the moon.

“Even at the age of 82, Gene was passionate about sharing his desire to see the continued exploration of space and encourage our nation’s leaders and young people to not let him remain the last man to walk on the moon.”

According to Fox News, Cernan was commander of Apollo 17 in December 1972, one of the final Apollo flights and the last lunar mission. When Cernan came out of the lunar module Challenger, he was deemed the 11th person ever to walk on the moon. His lunar module pilot, Jack Schmitt was the 12th person. Gene Cerman entered the lunar module after Schmitt, so he is regarded as the last person to walk on the lunar surface.

Cerman had traced his only child’s initials in the dust before climbing the ladder back into his spaceship. The iconic astronaut had traced the letters “TDC,” the initials of his daughter, Teresa Dawn, who was 9-years-old at the time on the dusty lunar surface. The commander of NASA’s Apollo 17 mission, who set his foot on the lunar surface on his third space flight, described the feeling as unbelievable, adding that he wanted to freeze the historic moment in time.

“Those steps up that ladder, they were tough to make. I didn’t want to go up. I wanted to stay awhile. It’s like you would want to freeze that moment and take it home with you. But you can’t.”

Gene Cernan was born in Chicago in 1934. He finished from Indiana’s Purdue University with a degree in electrical engineering in 1956. He earned a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California and was a Navy attack pilot before being drafted by NASA in 1963 as a member of its third astronaut class.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Cernan was one of 14 astronauts selected for the Apollo program fashioned to send humans to the moon. He participated in Gemini missions, NASA’s second human spaceflight program which was meant to provide support for ensuing Apollo missions. In 1966, the father-of-one became the second American to walk in space. Cernan spent over two hours outside the Gemini spacecraft. He would later describe it as the “spacewalk from hell,” after he sweated so profusely that he lost 13 pounds. The experience led NASA back to the drawing board.

On his second flight in May 1969, the former Navy attack pilot flew the Apollo lunar module. It was a dry run for the lunar landing on the next flight. Cernan and Mr. Stafford were on board, Snoopy and came within eight miles of the moon’s surface. The mission was marred with a complication when the lunar module went out of control because the wrong guidance system was on. Mr. Stafford took the reins and eventually brought it all under control. The May mission was a dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 mission two months later.

In December 1972, Cernan made his third space flight, this time he was spacecraft commander of Apollo 17. He was supported by lunar pilot, Harrison Schmitt and Ronald Evans who was pilot of the command module which orbited the moon while Cernan and Schmitt landed on the surface. This would be the last manned mission to the moon by American astronauts.

The former Navy pilot and Schmitt, who doubled as a geologist would make the moon’s Taurus-Littrow valley their home for three days making three trips to the Taurus Mountains and close at hand craters. The pair spent over 22 hours outside their lander and collected 249 pounds of lunar sample.

The mission established several records for a manned space flight. It was the longest manned lunar landing flight, pegged at 301 hours and 51 minutes. It also set a record for the longest lunar surface for extravehicular activities penciled at 22 hours and 6 minutes. In an interview with CNN, Cernan would later recall the eerie silence on the moon as he shut down the engine of the spacecraft.

“That’s where you experience the most quiet moment a human being can experience in his lifetime. There’s no vibration. There’s no noise. The ground quit talking. Your partner is mesmerized. He can’t say anything.”

In his autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon published in 1999, Cernan described his experience as something that had changed him forever.

“It was the perhaps the brightest moment of my life and I can’t go back. Enriched by a singular event that is larger than life, I no longer have the luxury of being ordinary.”

A documentary about his life, The Last Man on the Moon, was released last year. Gene Cernan was married in 1961 and divorced 20 years later. He later married in 1987 and lived with his wife, Jan Nanna in Houston until he died. His death means that only six living astronauts remain that have walked the moon. He is only one of three men who have flown twice to the moon.

[Featured Image by Dennis Van Tine/AP Images]