Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon, has died at the age of 82, according to NASA. He was a veteran of three spaceflights: as the pilot for Gemini 9A, the Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo 10, and as the commander of Apollo 17.
“Even at the age of 82,” his family said in a statement, “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."
“Truly, America has lost a patriot and pioneer who helped shape our country's bold ambitions to do things that humankind had never before achieved,” said NASA administrator Charles Bolden.
“As the last person to stand on the surface of the Moon,” said Francis French, the director of education at the San Diego Air & Space Museum and author of Into that Silent Sea: Trailblazers of the space Era, 1961-1965. Cernan “felt a responsibility not only to share his memories, but also to inspire young people to become explorers. He dearly hoped that he would live to see someone else take his unwanted title of the last person to stand on the moon.”
Eugene Cernan was born on March 14th, 1934 in Chicago, Illinois. He attended Purdue University where he earned his Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering. While there, he earned a commission through the Reserve Officer Training Corps, and became a Naval Aviator following his graduation. He eventually earned his Master of Science in Aeronautical Engineering from the US Naval Postgraduate School.
In 1963, he was selected as part of the third class of astronauts, a group that included Buzz Aldrin (Gemini 12, Apollo 11), Alan Bean (Apollo 12, Skylab), Michael Collins (Gemini 10, Apollo 11), (Russell Schweickart, Apollo 9), and others.
Cernan’s first mission into space was on board the Gemini 9 mission along with command pilot Tom Stafford, in which he spent three days in space and became the second American to conduct a spacewalk. He would also serve as the backup pilot for Gemini 12 and the backup Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo 7.
In May 1969, he served as the Lunar Module Pilot for the Apollo 10 mission, which served as the final dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 mission, the first to touch down on the Moon. Along with commander Tom Stafford and command module pilot John Young, he descended within eight miles of the lunar surface to test the spacecraft.
Cernan would get his chance to land on the Moon just three years later when he was named the commander for Apollo 17 — the final mission to the lunar surface. Accompanied by command module pilot Ronald Evans and lunar module pilot Harrison Schmitt, he landed in the Moon’s Taurus-Littrow valley on December 11th, 1972. There, he and Schmitt conducted a total of three EVAs on the lunar surface in as many days. Over the course of the mission, they drove more than 22 miles using a lunar rover, conducting geological surveys and bringing back almost 250 pounds of samples.
Before departing, Cernan became the last person to speak from the Moon’s surface:
Bob, this is Gene, and I'm on the surface; and, as I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I'd like to just (say) what I believe history will record: that America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, 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. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.
Following his mission to the Moon, Cernan retired from the Navy in 1976, and worked at Coral Petroleum as the executive vice president-international, before forming his own business, Cernan Corporation, a management and consulting firm in the energy and aerospace industry.
Apollo 17 was the culmination of a race that had consumed the United States for over a decade. Cernan was a pivotal figure within the Gemini and Apollo programs, conducting numerous experiments that helped ensure that the country made it to the Moon, but also collected scientific data that has helped scientists better understand the Moon and its origins.
In 2010, he and Neil Armstrong testified before US Congress to oppose the Obama administration’s plans to end the Constellation Program, and has made numerous appearances in documentaries about the Moon, most recently in 2016’s The Last Man on the Moon.