Gene Cernan, last man to walk on moon, dies
USA Today Network Florida Today Published 3:59 p.m. ET Jan. 16, 2017 | Updated 1 minute ago
Connor Johnson, the 6-year-old who launched a push to save NASA, got the call of a lifetime on Wednesday. Astronaut Gene Cernan, the last person to have walked on the moon, heard about Connor's petition and wanted to show his support. VPC
(Photo: NASA via THINKFilm)
The last man to walk on the moon died Monday at age 82 in Houston.
The family of Eugene "Gene" Cernan said he had ongoing health issues, but his cause of death was not immediately known. Cernan, a Navy fighter pilot in October 1963, was one of 14 astronauts that NASA chose for its third astronaut class.
He piloted the Gemini 9 mission alongside command pilot Tom Stafford and became the second American to walk in space — what he later termed a "spacewalk from hell" where his equipment didn't work effectively, he became overheated and he barely got back in the spacecraft, said space historian Roger Launius, associate director of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Yet that didn't dim his desire to go up again, flying on Apollo 10, the dress rehearsal to the first lunar landing.
“Even at the age of 82, Gene was passionate about sharing his desire to see the continued human exploration of space and encouraged our nation’s leaders and young people to not let him remain the last man to walk on the moon,” his family said Monday in a statement that NASA released.
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Cernan was one of only two astronauts to fly to the moon on two occasions, the second time as commander of Apollo 17, the last mission to the moon. In total, Cernan spent more than 73 hours on the satellite's surface.
Cernan and crewmate Harrison H. "Jack" Schmitt were on the moon for three days. They completed excursions to nearby craters and the Taurus-Littrow mountains.
Eugene "Gene" Cernan, one of 14 astronauts that NASA chose in October 1963 and the last man to walk on the moon, died Jan. 16, 2017, at age 82 (Photo: NASA)
"America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow," he said Dec. 14, 1972, as he left the lunar surface. "As we leave the moon and Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, we shall return with peace and hope for all mankind."
He traced the initials of his only child — 9-year-old daughter Teresa Dawn "Tracy" Cernan — in the dust on the moon's surface before climbing the ladder of the lunar module for the final time.
“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.”
Two years earlier, NASA had announced that Apollo 17 would be the final mission of the Apollo program. Apollo 18, 19 and 20 had been canceled in favor of the Skylab space station, which launched May 14, 1973, but crashed to earth July 11, 1979, after its orbit began decaying.
Decades later, Cernan testified before Congress to push for a return moon landing. But as the years went by, he realized he wouldn’t live to witness someone follow in his footsteps that are 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.”
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Fellow astronaut John Glenn, who in 1962 became the first American to orbit the earth, died five weeks before Cernan.
Cernan was born in Chicago and had logged more than 5,000 flight hours in the Navy before becoming an astronaut. He retired from the Navy as a captain.
After retiring from the space program in 1976, Cernan worked as an executive vice president of Coral Petroleum Inc. in Houston and later founded Cernan Corp., which provided management and consulting services in the aerospace and energy industries. A documentary about his life, called The Last Man on the Moon
, was released in 2016.
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Survivors include his wife of 30 years, Jan Nanna Cernan, his daughter, Tracy Cernan Woolie; step-daughters Kelly Nanna Taff and Danielle Nanna Ellis; and nine grandchildren.
“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 titled The Last Man on the Moon
. “It was perhaps the brightest moment of my life, and I can’t go back.”