Astronaut Gene Cernan, Last to Walk on the Moon, Dies at 82

Astronaut Gene Cernan, the last to walk on the moon during Apollo 17, has died.
Astronaut Gene Cernan, the last to walk on the moon during Apollo 17, has died. Photo from NASA
Astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, died on Monday. He was 82.

Cernan wasn't as famous as some of the other NASA astronauts from the manned spaceflight program — everyone knows Neil Armstrong was the first man to walk on the moon — but Cernan has often been overlooked over the years, because he was the last.

Cernan, born and raised in Illinois, started out as a pilot, as so many of the astronauts did back then, according to a NASA release. Cernan clocked more than 4,000 hours flying jet aircraft before going out for a spot as an astronaut in the nascent federal space program. He was selected to be a member of the third group of astronauts in October 1963.

At that point, it wasn't a sure thing that any of those training to be astronauts would make it to outer space. Human spaceflight was being invented as they went and it was a dangerous endeavor for all of those who chose to do it. Of the 14 chosen to be a part of Cernan's astronaut class, four died in training accidents before they got to fly in space.

Cernan was originally the back-up pilot for Gemini 9. He ended up on the mission when the original crew was killed when NASA's jet trainer crashed. After that, Cernan moved on to the Apollo missions. In May 1969, he was the lunar module pilot of Apollo 10, testing out the lunar lander. The mission, which confirmed the performance, stability and reliability of the Apollo command, service and lunar modules, included a descent to within eight nautical miles of the moon's surface.

"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. Made it sort of easy for him," Cernan recalled in 2007 as a part of a NASA oral history interview.

In 1972, Cernan got to be the one in charge as commander of Apollo 17. By that time, it had already been announced that Apollo 17 would be NASA's last manned mission to the lunar surface. On the way to the moon, the crew captured NASA's famed photo of Earth from space, the "Blue Marble" picture.

Apollo 17 established several new records for human spaceflight, including the longest lunar landing flight (301 hours, 51 minutes); longest lunar surface extravehicular activities (22 hours, six minutes); largest lunar sample return (nearly 249 pounds); and longest time in lunar orbit (147 hours, 48 minutes).

During their three-day stay on the lunar surface, Cernan was part of three trips to craters and to the Taurus-Littrow mountains. Cernan's feet were the last to touch the moon. As he prepared to leave, Cernan wrote his daughter's initials in "We leave as we came, and, God willing, we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind," he said then.

In other words, Cernan knew that he probably wouldn't return, but he had hope — faith, really — that others would follow in the footsteps of Cernan and the other astronauts.

Cernan left NASA a few years later, in 1976, and went into the private sector. But he made pointed comments over the years, decrying the lack of forward momentum in the federal space program. Cernan said he felt that people have been slow to recognize how remarkable and important the Apollo missions were. "We did it way too early considering what we're doing now in space," Cernan recalled in 2007. "It's almost as if JFK reached out into the 21st century where we are today, grabbed hold of a decade of time, slipped it neatly into the sixties and seventies, called it Apollo."

People don't quote Cernan the way they do Armstrong, but in landing on the moon, Cernan knew what he'd accomplished. "Once my footsteps were on the surface of the moon, nobody, but nobody, could ever take, and to this day can't take, those footsteps away from me. Like my daughter's initials I put into the moon during that three days we were there. Someone said, 'How long will they be there?' I said, 'Forever, however long forever is.' I'm not sure we, any of us, understand that."
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray