Gene Cernan: The Last Man to Walk on the Moon

Gene Cernan
Astronaut Andrew Eugene "Gene" Cernan on the Moon in 1972. NASA

When astronaut Andrew Eugene "Gene" Cernan went to the Moon on Apollo 17, he never thought that nearly 50 years later, he'd still be the last man to walk on the Moon. Even as he left the lunar surface, he hoped that people would return, saying, "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. As I take these last steps from the surface for some time to come, I'd just like to record that America's challenge of today has formed man's destiny for tomorrow." 

Alas, his hopes did not come true in his lifetime. While plans are on the drawing boards for a human-occupied moon base, a permant human presence on our nearest neighbor is still at least a few years away. So, as of early 2017, Gene Cernan retained the title of the "last man on the Moon". Yet, that didn't stop Gene Cernan from his undying support of human spaceflight. He spent most of his post-NASA career working in aerospace and related industries, and through his book and speeches, acquainted the public with the excitement of space flight. He often spoke about his experiences and was a familiar sight to people who attended space flight conferences. His death on January 16, 2017, was mourned by millions of people who watched his work on the Moon and followed his life and work after NASA. 

The Education of an Astronaut

Like the other Apollo astronauts of his era, Eugene Cernan was driven by a fascination with flight and science. He spent time as a military pilot before entering NASA. Cernan was born in 1934 in Chicago, Illinois. He went to high school in Maywood, Illinois, and then went on to study electrical engineering at Purdue. 

Eugene Cernan entered the military via ROTC at Purdue and took on flight training. He logged thousands of hours of flght time in jet aircraft and as a carrier pilot. He was selected by NASA to be an astronaut in 1963, and went on to fly on Gemini IX, and served as backup pilot for Gemini 12 and Apollo 7. He performed the second-ever EVA (extravehicular activity) in NASA history. During his military career, he got a masters degree in aeronautical engineering. During and after his time at NASA, Cernan was awarded several honorary doctorates in law and engineering. 

The Apollo Experience

Cernan's second flight to space was aboard Apollo 10, in May 1969. This was the final test flight before the landing that took astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin to the Moon a few months later. During Apollo 10, Cernan was the lunar module pilot, and flew with Tom Stafford and John Young. Although they never actually landed ON the Moon, their trip test techniques and techology used on Apollo 11. 

After the successful landing on the Moon by Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins, Cernan waited for his turn to command a lunar mission. He got that opportunity when Apollo 17 was scheduled for late 1972. It carried Cernan as commander, Harrison Schmitt as lunar geologist, and Ronald E. Evans as the command module pilot. Cernan and Schmitt descended to the surface on December 11, 1972 and spent about 22 hours exploring the lunar surface during the three days the two men were on the Moon. 

They did three EVAs during that time, exploring the geology and topography of the lunar Taurus–Littrow valley. Using a lunar "buggy", they drove around more than 22 miles of terrain and collected extremely valuable geologic samples. The idea behind their geology work was to find materials that would help planetary scientists understand the Moon's early history. Cernan drive the rover on one final lunar exploration and during that time reached a speed of 11.2 miles per hour, an unofficial speed record. Gene Cernan left the final bootprints on the Moon, a record that will stand until some nation next sends its people to the lunar surface.

After NASA

After his successful lunar landing, Gene Cernan retired from NASA and from the Navy at the rank of captain. He went into business, working for Coral Petroleum in Houston, Texas, before starting his own company called The Cernan Corporation. He worked directly with aerospace and energy companies. He later went on to become CEO of the Johnson Engineering Corporation. For  many years, he also appeared on television shows as a commentator for launches of the space shuttles. 

In recent years, Gene Cernan authored the book The Last Man on the Moon, which was subsequently made into a film. He also appeared in other films and documentaries, most notably "In the Shadow of the Moon" (2007). 

In Memoriam

Gene Cernan died on January 16, 2017, surrounded by family. His legacy will live on, most particularly in the imagery of his time on the Moon, and in the famous "Blue Marble" image he and his crew supplied to us during their 1972 mission to the lunar surface.