Eugene Cernan, the last astronaut to set foot on the moon, died on Monday surrounded by family, according to a report from NASA. He was 82.
Known to friends and family as Gene, Cernan was remembered by NASA as an astronaut who made three spaceflights in his tenure with the agency, including two moon missions. Following Edward White in 1965, Cernan was the second American to walk in space, and as the leader of the last human-piloted moon mission in 1972, he became the last person to walk on the moon.
Born on March 14, 1934, in Chicago, Cernan was a U.S. Navy captain who was part of a batch of 14 astronauts chosen by NASA in October 1963. However, even before that, he was putting himself to the test, opting to serve in the military as a naval aviator and fulfill the daunting task of landing airplanes on an aircraft carrier. According to NPR, Cernan took this route because he was “constantly pushing himself to do better and be better.”
“My dad always used to say, ‘Just go out and do your best. You’re not going to be better than everyone at everything.’ And he was right. I wasn’t. But he was also right one other time when he said, ‘Someday you’re going to surprise yourself. Just do your best and someday you’re going to surprise yourself.'”
— The Foreign Desk (@ForeignDeskNews) January 16, 2017
Eugene Cernan’s first space flight took place in June 1966, when he and Thomas Stafford piloted the Gemini 9 mission. Three years later, he served as Apollo 10’s lunar module pilot, as he took the module within eight nautical miles of the lunar surface, testing the lunar lander months ahead of the historic Apollo 11 mission.
In 2007, Cernan recalled this test mission, taking pride in how he helped “make it sort of easy” for Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins.
“I keep telling Neil Armstrong that we painted that white line in the sky all the way to the Moon down to 47,000 feet so he wouldn’t get lost, and all he had to do was land.”
It was Cernan’s role in the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972 that truly helped make him a household name among U.S. astronauts.
NASA’s press release noted how Eugene Cernan and crewmates Harrison “Jack” Schmitt and Ronald Evans took a photo of Earth while headed to the moon, showing a fully-lit “whole Earth” view of Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and the South Pole’s ice cap. This photo, unofficially dubbed as the “Blue Marble,” has since achieved legendary status in the area of space travel.
Also noteworthy about that mission was how Schmitt and Cernan became the next-to-last and the last people respectively to leave their footprints on the lunar surface. Cernan was particularly excited to set foot on the moon, offering a memorable quote that showed how happy he was to have accomplished such a feat.
“We’d like to dedicate the first steps of Apollo 17 to all those who made it possible. Oh my golly! Unbelievable!”
In 2015, Cernan was still proud of his being the last person to walk on the moon, telling NPR that the occasion was special not because he was the last, but rather because “those were (his) first steps” on the moon.
Looking back at the Apollo 17 mission, NPR wrote that it’s often hard for astronauts to describe the experience of being in space from a human standpoint — how it feels to be one of the few people to do what they are doing. According to San Diego Air and Space Museum director of education Francis French, that was one remarkable thing about Eugene Cernan — his ability to articulate the thrill of space travel as someone who experienced it.
“Many of the astronauts didn’t really know how to describe that because that’s not what they were going there for,” French said. “Gene Cernan in the decades after his mission really reflected on that and he (very well described) what that’s like.”
As of this writing, Eugene Cernan’s cause of death has yet to be confirmed, though NASA wrote that he had been suffering from “ongoing health issues.”
[Featured Image by Alex Wong/Getty Images]