Remembering Gene Cernan

“Too many years have passed for me to still be the last man to have walked on the moon.”

Gene Cernan holds the American flag during a spacewalk on the Apollo 17 mission on December 12, 1972.
Gene Cernan holds the American flag during a spacewalk on the Apollo 17 mission on December 12, 1972.  (NASA)

Gene Cernan, a U.S. Navy captain, veteran of three spaceflights, and the last man to walk on the moon, has died. He was 82.

Cernan died Monday, surrounded by family members, of ongoing health issues, according to a statement from his family on NASA’s website. He is survived by his wife, their children, and nine grandchildren.

In December 1972, Cernan and two other astronauts launched to the moon the final Apollo mission. For three days, Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, a scientist, maneuvered a rover in the Taurus-Littrow, a valley blasted into existence several billion years ago by an asteroid or comet. They collected 294 pounds of rock and soil samples, the biggest haul astronauts would ever return to Earth.

At one point, Cernan accidentally tore off one of the rover’s fenders with a rock hammer that was sticking out of his pocket. This was, obviously, not good. The fender was crucial to preventing any damage from the plume of lunar soil that shot up as the rover traversed the rugged terrain. “We had to fix it,” Cernan recalled years later in an interview with NASA. “And the bottom line, we came up with a fix where we took some geology maps and taped them together in the spacecraft with, of all things, duct tape.”

At the end of the mission, Cernan scrawled his daughter Tracy’s initials into the lunar dust and climbed into the Challenger module behind his fellow crewmates. “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,” he said. No one has returned to the moon since.

Eugene Andrew Cernan was born in March 14, 1934 in Chicago, Illinois. He earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University, and a graduate degree in aeronautical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School. He became a U.S. Navy fighter pilot in 1958, racking up 5,000 hours of flying time.

Cernan was a member of NASA’s third class of astronauts in 1963. In 1966, he was training as a backup pilot for Gemini 9, a low-Earth orbit mission, when Elliot See and Charles Bassett, the original crewmembers, died in a plane crash during training just months before launch. Cernan and Tom Stafford took their places, and launched on June 3, 1966 for a three-day mission.

Cernan conducted NASA’s second-ever spacewalk, and showed the space agency that future astronauts would need a lot more to hold onto than what he had: a single tether. “My slightest move would affect my entire body, ripple through the umbilical, and jostle the spacecraft,”Cernan said of the experience. “Since I had nothing to stabilize my movements, I went out of control, tumbling every which way, and when I reached the end of the umbilical, I rebounded like a bungee jumper, and the snake reeled me in as it tried to resume its original shape.” The spacewalk proved laborious in the stiff spacesuit, and as Cernan began to sweat, his helmet fogged up, obscuring his vision, and forcing him to rub some of the condensation away with his nose. Two hours and 10 minutes later, an overheated Cernan was back inside the module.

Cernan returned to space in 1969 on Apollo 10, the dress rehearsal for the mission that would put the first humans on the moon later that year. Cernan piloted the lunar module to within nine miles of the moon’s surface to test its capabilities for the planned landing. “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,” Cernan said in an interview in 2007, about eight years before Armstrong’s death. “Made it sort of easy for him.”

Cernan retired from the Navy and NASA in 1976. People never stopped asking him what it was like to stand on the moon and look back at humanity, and what it was like to be the last person to do it. He always said humankind would return to the moon someday, and had no doubt they would eventually visit Mars.

“Too many years have passed for me to still be the last man to have walked on the moon,” Cernan wrote in his memoir in 1999. “Somewhere on Earth today is the young girl or boy, the possessor of indomitable will and courage, who will lift that dubious honor for me and take us back out there where we belong.”