Astronaut Captain Gene Cernan died January 16 in Houston, Texas at the age of 82. While no specific cause of death has been released, it is reported that Cernan suffered from ongoing health issues and was surrounded by family at the time of his death.
The commander on Apollo 17 – the first nighttime launch from the Kennedy Space Center that lit up the dark sky like the sun – Cernan is best known as the last astronaut to walk on the moon and delivered the message of “peace and hope for all mankind.”
A statement from the family noted that Cernan’s love of space never wavered saying, “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.”
America made its final trip to its lunar satellite in December 1972. Before ascending the lunar module ladder, Cernan etched the initials of his nine-year-old child’s name in the lunar dust – TDC for Teresa Dawn Cernan. Cernan was one of only a dozen astronauts to step on the lunar surface; only six of those 12 survive him.
Speaking on that final ascent Cernan said, “those steps up that ladder, they were tough to make. I didn’t want to go up. I wanted to stay a while.” Speaking of the experience he added it was, “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.”
During their time on the moon, Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmidt spent a total of 22 hours outside on the moon collecting nearly 250 pounds of lunar rocks to bring back to Earth. Cernan noted that looking back across space became routine as they would just, “look back at the overwhelming and overpowering beauty of this Earth.”
He was born Eugene Andrew Cernan on March 14, 1934, in Chicago, Illinois the son of eastern European parents. He graduated from Purdue University with a Bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering before becoming a Navy attack pilot. He later earned his master’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the United States Naval Post Graduate School. Cernan holds Honorary Doctorate degrees from Western State University, Purdue University, Drexel University, Gonzaga University, Comenius University and Northwestern University.
The Apollo 17 flight was not Cernan’s first trip into space; he was also a member of the Gemini 9 crew where he became the second American astronaut to make a space walk. And Cernan was on Apollo 10 where he came less than 10 miles of the lunar surface. He spent over 566 hours in space.
After retiring from space flight, Cernan continued to work at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for three years before retiring as an astronaut.
Cernan’s accomplishments include being inducted into the U.S. Space Hall of Fame, the Naval Aviation Hall of Honor and the International Aerospace Hall of Fame. He earned the Navy Distinguished Flying Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal with Star, the NASA Distinguished Service Medal, the FAI International Gold Medal for Space, the FAA’s Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, the Lindbergh Spirit Award, the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy, the Rotary National Award for Space Achievement, the Federation Aeronautique Internationale Gold Air Medal, and has been awarded NASA’s first Ambassador of Exploration Award.
Cernan is survived by his second wife Jan, daughter Teresa, step-daughters Kelly and Danielle and nine grandchildren.
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