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Farewell Gene Cernan, the Last Man on the Moon

Cernan passed away Monday surrounded by his family. He helped crew three historic spaceflights, including the Apollo 17 Moon landing in 1972.

by Becky Ferreira
Jan 16 2017, 10:27pm

Cernan on the Moon in 1972. Image: NASA/Harrison Schmitt

Eugene Andrew Cernan, known to friends as "Gene" and to history as the last man to set foot on the Moon, passed away on Monday, surrounded by his family. He was 82. His cause of death has not been disclosed, but the family's representative confirmed it was an ongoing health issue rather than a sudden fatality.

Born in Chicago in 1934, Cernan was an accomplished pilot and a crew member on three historic NASA spaceflights. In 1966, he traveled off Earth for the first time with fellow pioneer Tom Stafford on Gemini IX-A. The pair were originally the mission's backup crew, but stepped up after the two original crew members tragically died in a jet crash. During this flight, Cernan completed a spacewalk in low Earth orbit that lasted over two hours.

In May 1969, Cernan served as the lunar module pilot for Apollo 10, which was considered the "dress rehearsal" for Apollo 11's momentous landing on the Moon two months later, on July 20. Cernan was paired with Stafford again for this mission, and together with command module pilot John Young, the two astronauts practiced crucial sequences in the docking, descent, and ascent maneuvers required to land on the Moon.

They also escaped a terrifying brush with death after feeding the wrong commands into the module's computer system, causing the spacecraft to roll violently. Without the team's calm-under-pressure, Apollo 10 would have crashed into the Moon.

Cernan in 1969. Image: NASA

The crew of Apollo 10 joked that they had been purposely deprived of fuel for a landing in case they went rogue and decided to go for it. But fortunately, Cernan did not have to wait long before he was given command of his own landing mission: Apollo 17, NASA's final manned mission to the Moon (at least, so far).

On December 11, 1972, he became the 11th human being to set foot on the lunar surface, after a safe touchdown in the Moon's Taurus-Littrow Valley region. He spent a total of 22 hours outside, driving around in the lunar rover, collecting samples, conducting tests, and caring for the five mice that had been sent along with the landing crew as part of the BIOCORE cosmic ray experiment.

Three days later, after his teammate Harrison Schmitt climbed back into the lunar module, Cernan took a moment to appreciate the position he would come to hold in history.

"Bob, this is Gene," he radioed back to mission control's Robert Parker. "I'm on the surface; and, 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."

Cernan's last words on the Moon, followed by some lunar pratfalls. Video: yellowzip/YouTube

This last message from a human on the Moon holds the same weight as the famous first words uttered by Neil Armstrong, echoing the sentiment that a "giant leap" had been achieved by the Apollo program.

Cernan spent his post-NASA years as a versatile corporate engineer and an enthusiastic advocate for space exploration and scientific research. He was a frequent contributor and personality on ABC News, Good Morning America, and several educational programs, and was the recipient of several awards and honors including the Distinguished Flying Cross, the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, and the Slovakian Order of the Double Cross. His 1999 memoir Last Man on the Moon, co-written with Don Davis, was the basis for a 2014 feature-length documentary of the same name.

Cernan married twice, and is survived by his second wife Jan Nanna Cernan, his daughter Tracy Cernan Woolie, his step-daughters Kelly Nanna Taff and Danielle Nanna Ellis, and nine grandchildren.

His wider legacy is sure to be defined by his gregarious personality, sense of humor, and tireless optimism about space exploration. As he concluded in his 2014 documentary: "Dream the impossible—and go out and make it happen."

"I walked on the Moon. What can't you do?"

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Gene Cernan