Gene Cernan, best known as “The Last Man on the Moon” for commanding Apollo 17, passed away on January 16, 2017. He was 82. “It is with very deep sadness that we share the loss of our beloved husband and father,” his family said in a statement.
Naval Aviator and Astronaut
Gene Cernan, a retired Navy captain, logged more than 5000 hours of flight and 200 carrier landings during his career in the Navy. He became part of NASA’s third class of 14 astronauts on October 1963.
His first space flight was Gemini IX, commanded by Tom Stafford. Stafford and Cernan became the first backup crew to replace the prime crew after Elliot See and Charles Bassett died in an airplane accident.
During the three-day flight, the crew tested three different techniques for rendezvousing with the Augmented Target Docking Adapter (ATDA). Docking had been planned, but a shroud on the ATDA failed to fully open, leading Cernan to observe that their target looked like an angry alligator. An EVA to fix the problem was considered and then scrubbed as being too dangerous.
His next space mission was Apollo 10, which became known as the “dress rehearsal” mission for the planned lunar landing attempt on Apollo 11. Cernan flew as Lunar Module pilot. As part of the mission, the crew photographed prospective landing sites.
As the backup commander for Apollo 14, Cernan took to teasing Alan Shepard about replacing him. This included creating fake mission patches featuring an elderly Wile E. Coyote going to the Moon only to find that the Road Runner had already made it there. Shepard typically retorted, “Beep beep, my ass!” Cernan backed down after suffering minor injuries in a helicopter accident.
Cernan took command of Apollo 17 with the understanding that this was the final lunar landing of the Apollo program and the scientific community was making noise about wanting a scientist on board at least one Apollo mission. The condition for being assigned to this mission was acceptance of geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt as lunar module pilot. During the highly successful Apollo 17 mission, Cernan and Schmitt spent three days on the lunar surface.
Retirement from NASA
Cernan took a management position that put him in direct contact with the Soviets as the senior U.S. negotiator for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. He retired from NASA on July 1, 1976, and concurrently resigned from the Navy. Like many of his colleagues, he went into business, becoming an executive VP for Coral Petroleum. He founded The Cernan Corporation to provide management and consulting services for the energy and aerospace industries. The Cernan Corporation was eventually acquired Johnson Engineering Corporation, which has worked with NASA on designs for the Space Shuttle, Spacelab, and lunar and Martian outposts and managed Flight Crew Systems Development.
Gene Cernan remained an active supporter of manned space exploration and frequently expressed his belief that he should not remain the last man on the Moon. He is remembered by colleagues and fans as an outgoing and friendly individual. When asked by a reporter if he would go into space again, even on a one-way trip, he was heard to say, “In a heartbeat. It’s called exploration.”
How He Felt About Being The Last Man on the Moon
“Too many years have passed for me to still be the last man to have left his footprints on the Moon. I believe with all my heart that somewhere out there is a young boy or girl with indomitable will and courage who will lift that dubious distinction from my shoulders and take us back where we belong. Let us give that dream a chance.”