The last astronaut to ever set foot on the moon has died at 82 – Business Insider
Former astronaut Gene Cernan, the last of only a dozen men to
walk on the moon who returned to Earth with a message of “peace
and hope for all mankind,” has died. He was 82.
NASA announced that Cernan died Monday surrounded by
his family. NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs confirmed the death but had
no immediately details.
Cernan, commander of NASA’s Apollo 17 mission, set foot on the
lunar surface in December 1972 during his third space flight. He
became the last person to walk on the moon on Dec. 14, 1972,
tracing his only child’s initials in the dust before climbing the
ladder of the lunar module the last time. It was a moment that
forever defined him in both the public eye and his own.
“Those steps up that ladder, they were tough to make,” Cernan
recalled in a 2007 oral history. “I didn’t want to go up. I
wanted to stay a while.”
Cernan called it “perhaps the brightest moment of my life. …
It’s like you would want to freeze that moment and take it home
with you. But you can’t.”
Decades later, Cernan tried to ensure he wasn’t the last person
to walk on the moon, testifying before Congress to push for a
return. But as the years went by he realized he wouldn’t live to
witness someone follow in his footsteps — still visible on the
moon more than 40 years later.
“Neil (Armstrong, who died in 2012) and I aren’t going to see
those next young Americans who walk on the moon. And God help us
if they’re not Americans,” Cernan testified before Congress in
2011. “When I leave this planet, I want to know where we are
headed as a nation. That’s my big goal.”
On Dec. 11, 1972, Cernan guided the lander, named Challenger,
into a lunar valley called Taurus-Littrow, with Harrison “Jack”
Schmitt at his side. He recalled the silence after the lunar
lander’s engine shut down.
“That’s where you experience the most quiet moment a human being
can experience in his lifetime,” Cernan said in 2007. “There’s no
vibration. There’s no noise. The ground quit talking. Your
partner is mesmerized. He can’t say anything.
“The dust is gone. It’s a realization, a reality, all of a sudden
you have just landed in another world on another body out there
(somewhere in the) universe, and what you are seeing is being
seen by human beings — human eyes — for the first time.”
Three days earlier, Cernan, Schmitt and Ronald Evans had blasted
off atop a Saturn rocket in the first manned nighttime launch
from Kennedy Space Center. Evans remained behind as pilot of the
command module that orbited the moon while the other two landed
on the moon’s surface. Cernan and Schmitt, a geologist, spent
more than three days on the moon, including more than 22 hours
outside the lander, and collected 249 pounds of lunar samples.
“In that whole three days, I don’t think there’s anything that
became routine,” Cernan recalled. “But if I had to focus on one
thing … it was just to look back at the overwhelming and
overpowering beauty of this Earth.”
“To go a quarter of a million miles away into space and have to
take time out to sleep and rest … I wished I could have stayed
awake for 75 hours straight. I knew when I left I’d never have a
chance to come back.”
Completing their third moon walk on Dec. 14, Schmitt returned to
the lunar module and was followed by Cernan.
“We leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with
peace and hope for all mankind,” Cernan said.
He later acknowledged that he had grasped for words to leave
behind, knowing how the world remembered Neil Armstrong’s “giant
leap for mankind” on stepping on the moon in 1969.
Before heading home, Cernan said he drew the letters “TDC” — the
initials of his then 9-year-old daughter, Teresa Dawn — with his
finger on the dusty gray lunar surface. He said he imagined
someone in the distant future would find “our lunar rover and our
footprints and those initials and say, ‘I wonder who was here?
Some ancient civilization was here back in the 20th century, and
look at the funny marks they made.'”
Eugene A. Cernan was born in 1934 in Chicago and graduated from
Indiana’s Purdue University in 1956 with a degree in electrical
engineering. (Armstrong also was a Purdue grad.)
He had been a Navy attack pilot and earned a master’s degree in
aeronautical engineering when NASA selected him in October 1963
as one of 14 members of its third astronaut class.
Cernan had the looks of an astronaut from central casting. “He’s
your classic sort of handsome debonair flyboy,” said space
historian Roger Launius, associate director of the Smithsonian
Air and Space Museum.
In 1966, he was pilot of Gemini 9, a three-day flight with
command pilot Tom Stafford where they used different techniques
to rendezvous with a docking adapter that was previously
launched. On the flight, Cernan became the second American to
walk in space, spending more than two hours outside the Gemini
Cernan would later call the mission, “that spacewalk from hell.”
“It was very serious,” said Launius, the historian. “He lost all
kinds of water, his equipment did not work effectively. He
overheated. His visor glossed over with water, he could barely
see. He barely got back in the spacecraft.”
Cernan’s sweat so much he lost 13 pounds. The space agency was
forced to go back to the drawing board.
“That was a really important learning experience,” Launius said.
“The difficult thing about that is they put an astronaut’s life
at great risk there. They learned the lesson.”
With the Apollo program under way, Cernan flew on Apollo 10 in
May 1969. It was a dress rehearsal for the lunar landing on the
next flight and took Cernan and Stafford, aboard the lunar module
Snoopy, to within 9½ miles of the moon’s surface.
The mission was marked by a glitch when the wrong guidance system
was turned on and the lunar module went out of control before
Stafford righted it by taking manual control.
Cernan often joked that his job was to paint a white line to the
moon that Armstrong and the rest of the Apollo 11 crew could
follow. Yet Cernan was one of only three people to voyage twice
to the moon — either to its surface or in moon orbit. James
Lovell and John Young are the others.
In 1973, Cernan became special assistant to the program manager
of the Apollo program at Johnson Space Center in Houston,
assisting in planning and development of the U.S.-Soviet
Apollo-Soyuz mission. He was senior U.S. negotiator with the
Soviets on the test project.
He retired from NASA three years later. He worked for a Houston
energy firm, Coral Petroleum, then in 1981 began his own
aerospace consulting company. He eventually became chairman of an
engineering firm that worked on NASA projects. He also worked as
a network television analyst during shuttle flights in the 1980s.
A documentary about his life, “The Last Man on the Moon” was
released in 2016.
Teresa was Cernan’s only child with his wife Barbara. The couple
married in 1961 and divorced 20 years later. In 1987, he married
again, to Jan Nanna, and they lived in Houston.
In all, Cernan logged 566 hours and 15 minutes in space, more
than 73 hours of them on the moon’s surface.
“I can always walk on Main Street again, but I can never return
to my Valley of Taurus-Littrow, and that cold fact has left me
with a yearning restlessness,” he wrote in his 1999
autobiography, also entitled “The Last Man on the Moon.”
“It was perhaps the brightest moment of my life, and I can’t go
back,” he said. “Enriched by a singular event that is larger than
life, I no longer have the luxury of being ordinary.”