Cernan was the last man on the moon
Former astronaut Gene Cernan, the last person to walk on the moon who returned to Earth with a message of “peace and hope for all mankind,” died on Monday in Texas following ongoing heath issues, his family said. He was 82.
Cernan was surrounded by relatives when he died at a Houston hospital, family spokeswoman Melissa Wren told The Associated Press. His family said his passion for lunar exploration never waned.
“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 in a statement released by NASA.
Cernan was commander of NASA’s Apollo 17 mission and on his third space flight when set foot on the lunar surface in December 1972. He became the last of only a dozen men 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.
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.”
Cernan died less than six weeks after another American space hero, John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962. Their flights weren’t the first or last of the Mercury and Apollo eras. Yet to the public they were the bookends of America’s space age glory, starting with Godspeed John Glenn and ending with Cernan’s footprints on the moon.
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 spacecraft.
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.
In all, Cernan logged 566 hours and 15 minutes in space, more than 73 hours of them on the moon’s surface.
Cernan is survived by his wife, Jan Nanna Cernan, his daughter and son-in-law, Tracy Cernan Woolie and Marion Woolie, step-daughters Kelly Nanna Taff and husband, Michael, and Danielle Nanna Ellis and nine grandchildren.
Quotes were provided by ASSOCIATED PRESS and the video by USA Today