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History and Heritage

Goodbye to a Legend

Navy pilot Gene Cernan, last man on the moon, dies

Astronaut and Navy Capt. Eugene "Gene" Cernan blasted off for a final time and touched the stars last week, dying in Houston, Jan. 16, at the age of 82. He will be laid to rest today.


Cernan is most famous as the commander of the final Apollo flight - 17 - in December 1972, thus becoming the last man to walk on the moon.

"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 in a statement.

Born March 14, 1934, Cernan was the second American to walk in space, spending two hours tethered to Gemini 9 in June 1966, the longest spacewalk ever attempted at that time.

Cernan also piloted Apollo 10 in May 1969, the final test mission before former Lt. j.g. Neil Armstrong and retired Air Force Col. Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. According to NASA, Apollo 10 and its descent to within eight nautical miles of the moon's surface, "confirmed the performance, stability and reliability of the Apollo command, service and lunar modules."

In Apollo 10, Cernan and crew demonstrated that humans could safely and accurately navigate in the moon's gravitational field. They also photographed and mapped potential landing sites. During the voyage home, the spacecraft reached a speed of 24,790 miles per hour, the highest speed ever attained by man. That record still stands.

Cernan liked to joke that he paved the way for Armstrong: "I keep telling Neil Armstrong that we painted that white line in the sky all the way to the moon down to 47,000 feet so he wouldn't get lost, and all he had to do was land, made it sort of easy for him," he said in an oral history NASA recorded in 2007.*

Going to the moon was far more than Cernan could have ever dreamed of when he first signed up for Navy ROTC at Purdue University in Indiana in 1952. "My goal in the Navy was a number of things," he said. "Go to test pilot school, but the most important was to have my own squadron, be command, be skipper of my own squadron aboard ship. This was my squadron. Apollo 17 was my squadron. Success or failure was on my shoulders."

In fact, he pointed out, the Navy has a long relationship with the space program. Naval aviators commanded five of the six lunar landings, in addition to the aborted Apollo 13 mission.

"Why was the first American in space a naval aviator?" he mused. "Why was the first step taken on the moon by a Naval aviator? Why were the last steps left on the Moon left by a Naval aviator? ... We had some outstanding talent in the space program, whether you were Air Force, Navy, Marines, wherever you came from. But that is an unanswered question about Naval aviators. Is it their training? Is it the background? Is it a personality? ... I'm proud of it, quite frankly."

Although Cernan said the technology involved in getting to the moon was decades ahead of its time, he added that the navigation itself was actually very basic. Astronauts received a crash course in astronomy and learned to navigate via the stars, not unlike Christopher Columbus in his journey across the Atlantic, Cernan pointed out.

"We went to the moon with a sextant and telescope," he said. "The ground could track us ... but we had to sight on the stars and tell our computer exactly where we were to align our inertial platform for navigation. We also had to have the capability, if we lost all contact with the ground, of getting home without talking to anybody."

Likewise, Cernan landed on the moon the old-fashioned way: "A lot of people think we pressed the button and let the thing fly itself. ... Nobody ever landed on the moon other than with their two hands and brain and eyeballs and whatever. Computer assisted, yes. ... But you're looking for landing radar. You're looking to maintain the communications. You're on your back. You've got to roll over. You've got to go face up. A lot of things happen very quickly. ... A very dynamic, exciting 14 minutes of your life, maybe 15. At 7,000 feet, you pitch over, so for the first time, you can really see the landing site.

"You get to about 80 feet, and you start blowing dust all over the place. ... The dust keeps you from really seeing much of anything. At about, oh, three meters, you got a contact (light). That little probe hits the surface, tells you you're close, you'd better shut the engine down ... and fall the last nine feet. ... You shut down and all of a sudden, it's like going over a bump in a country road. You go up, come down. ... That's where you experience the most quiet moment a human being can experience in his lifetime. ... It's a realization, a reality: All of a sudden you have just landed in another world ... and what you are seeing is being seen by human beings, human eyes, for the first time."

The lunar landing itself wasn't even that hard, Cernan said. After all, he was a Naval aviator with more than 5,000 hours of Navy flight time.

"Landing aboard ship in the daytime is a very challenging experience," he said. "At night, it's just you and your maker. If you don't make it, that's it. So a night landing aboard a carrier is truly a challenging experience. Landing on the moon a quarter million miles away from home is a piece of cake compared to landing aboard ship at night."

While the excitement of the American people may have faded over the six lunar missions from Armstrong's first fateful step for mankind in 1969 to Cernan's last in 1972, that didn't matter to Cernan. It was still his first time on the moon. It was an honor and an incredible privilege, one he didn't intend to squander. He decided to make the final Apollo mission the best mission, the most effective mission.

"Every flight got a little bit more competitive," he said. "We built on what we learned from all the other flights that went to the moon. ... I wanted to land closer to my landing site than anyone else had ever done before. I wanted to land safely, successfully. But I wanted to have more fuel when I landed."

After they landed on the moon, Cernan and geologist Harrison H. Schmitt explored near the Taurus Mountains and the Littrow Crater for three days, conducting experiments and collecting years' worth of data.

According to NASA, Apollo 17 set numerous records: first manned night launch in history, longest lunar landing flight (301 hours, 51 minutes), longest lunar surface extravehicular activities (22 hours, 6 minutes), largest lunar sample return (almost 249 pounds) and longest time in lunar orbit (147 hours, 48 minutes). Cernan himself set a career record of 566 hours in space.

Just before Cernan climbed aboard the lunar module Challenger for the final time, he traced his daughter's initials - TDC for Teresa Dawn Cernan - into the moon dust.

"It's the last steps that are perhaps more memorable to me than that first step, because I'd been in this valley on the moon, almost living in a paradox," he said. "Sunshine the whole three days we were there, yet surrounded by the blackest black that we can conceive in our mind. ... Everything's three dimension when you look back at the Earth in all its splendor, in all its glory, multicolors of the blues of the oceans and whites of the snow and the clouds. If your arm were long enough ... it's almost as if you could reach out and put it in the palm of your hand and ... take it home.

"I wanted to push the freeze button, stop time, stop the world. ... It was a uniquely awesome and special moment and event in my life. ... Those steps up that ladder, they were tough to make. I didn't want to go up. I wanted to stay awhile."

After returning to Earth, Cernan performed some early simulator work for the space shuttle, which was then in development. He also worked with Soviet cosmonauts on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, which ended the space race as Americans and Russians joined forces to conduct experiments in space. After retiring from the Navy and NASA in 1976, Cernan worked in the energy and aerospace fields, and served as a special correspondent for ABC news coverage of the shuttle program. He also wrote an autobiography, "The Last Man on the Moon."

"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," the Cernan family said in a statement.

Cernan died convinced the current generation will see humans not only return to the moon, but land on Mars. He is survived by his wife, Jan Nanna Cernan; daughter, Tracy Cernan Woolie; stepdaughters, Kelly Nanna Taff and Danielle Nanna Ellis; and nine grandchildren.

"I often tell young kids, and particularly my grandkids, 'Don't ever count yourself out,' he said in a documentary based on his autobiography. "You'll never know how good you are unless you try. Dream the impossible and go out and make it happen. I walked on the moon. What can't you do?"

*Editor's note: Unless otherwise noted, all of Cernan's quotes are taken from the NASA interview: https://www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/oral_histories/CernanEA/cernanea.htm