Gene Cernan, Last Man To Walk On The Moon, Dies At 82

Jan 16, 2017
Originally published on January 18, 2017 2:44 pm

The last person to leave footprints on the moon has died. NASA reported that Gene Cernan died Monday at the age of 82, surrounded by his family.

Gene Cernan flew in space three times, including twice to the moon. Cernan was big, brash and gregarious. And if he hadn't been lucky, he could have missed his chance to walk on the moon.

Cernan challenged himself his whole life. When he entered the military, he chose to be a naval aviator. Landing on an aircraft carrier is perhaps the hardest thing to do in aviation. Cernan did it because it wasn't easy. He said he was constantly pushing himself to do better and be better.

"My dad always used to say, 'Just go out and do your best. You're not going to be better than everyone at everything.' And he was right," Cernan said, "I wasn't. But he was also right one other time when he said, 'Someday you're going to surprise yourself. Just do your best and someday you're going to surprise yourself.' "

Cernan's final trip in space was also the final time NASA sent people to the moon, the Apollo 17 mission, which took off on Dec. 7, 1972.

Four days later, Cernan landed the lunar module on the moon with astronaut Harrison "Jack" Schmitt. Cernan couldn't hide his enthusiasm as he exited the spacecraft, saying, "We'd like to dedicate the first steps of Apollo 17 to all those who made it possible. Oh my golly! Unbelievable!"

Decades later, Cernan reflected on that moment in a 2015 NPR interview, no less thrilled to be the last, rather than the first, to go there. "The first steps had been made by others long before I got there. But those were my first steps."

Cernan is one of only three people to travel to the moon twice (Jim Lovell and John Young were the others). Before Apollo 17, he flew on Apollo 10, which was the mission just before the first lunar landing.

On Gemini 9 in 1966, he conducted the second American spacewalk (which almost ended in disaster). Cernan had trouble controlling his body in the weightlessness of space. He became exhausted. His visor fogged up and he barely had the strength to get back into the capsule and close the hatch. "Fate played another trick because I might not have come home from that flight. We didn't know much about what we're doing [yet]."

Dreaming big and working hard were two things Cernan always did. He grew up in Chicago. Neither of his parents went to college, but he earned several degrees in engineering.

Despite Cernan's technical background, his time on the moon and in space forever altered his life. Cernan said he gained a new perspective, because "when you leave the Earth, it's not only technologically different — it's philosophically different and it's spiritually different."

Many astronauts had difficulty describing what it was actually like to be in space — not in the technical sense, but in finding the words to share that remarkable experience. He chronicled some of them in his 2016 documentary, Last Man on the Moon.

"Many of the astronauts didn't really know how to describe that because that's not what they were going there for," said Francis French of the San Diego Air and Space Museum, who has written many books on the space program. "Gene Cernan in the decades after his mission really reflected on that and he [very well described] what that's like."

There's something else about Cernan: He had the opportunity to land on the moon during an earlier mission, Apollo 16, as the pilot. But he turned it down, because he wanted to be commander, in charge of the mission.

"I sort of felt like I'd been an underdog most of my life," he recalled. "[Achieving the command of Apollo 17], I proved to myself that I was good enough. That I could get the job done. That was a big point in my life."

Cernan spent his post-NASA life trying to inspire young people. He once said, "Dream the impossible — and go out and make it happen. I walked on the moon. What can't you do?"

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The last person to leave footprints on the moon has died at age 82. Gene Cernan was big, brash and gregarious, and if he hadn't been lucky, he could have missed his chance to walk on the moon. NPR's Russell Lewis has this remembrance.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Gene Cernan challenged himself his whole life. When he entered the military, he chose to be a naval aviator. Landing on an aircraft carrier is perhaps the hardest thing to do in aviation. Cernan did it because it wasn't easy. He said he was constantly pushing himself to do better and be better.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GENE CERNAN: My dad always used to say, just go and do your best. You're not going to be better than everyone at everything, and he was right, I wasn't. But he was also right one other time, and he said, said someday you're going to surprise yourself. Just do your best, and someday you're going to surprise yourself.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We have ignition - two, one, zero. We have a liftoff. We have a liftoff and it's lighting up the areas. It's just like daylight here at Kennedy Space Center as the Saturn V is moving off the pad.

LEWIS: Cernan's final trip in space was also the final time NASA sent people to the moon - Apollo 17, which took off on December 7, 1972.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Apollo 17 now 65 miles high.

CERNAN: OK, four minutes and we're go here, Bob.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Roger, Gene, we're going around the room, look go here. You're looking real good, Gene, right down the line.

LEWIS: Four days later, Cernan landed the lunar module on the moon with astronaut Jack Schmidt. Cernan couldn't hide his enthusiasm as he exited the spacecraft.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CERNAN: I'd like to dedicate the first step of Apollo 17 to all those who made it possible. Oh, my God, unbelievable.

LEWIS: Decades later, Gene Cernan reflected on that moment in this 2015 NPR interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CERNAN: The first steps had been made by others long before I got there, but those were my first steps.

LEWIS: Cernan is one of only three people to travel to the moon twice. Dreaming big and working hard were two things Cernan always did. He grew up in Chicago. Neither of his parents went to college, but he got several degrees in engineering. Despite his technical background, Cernan's time on the moon and in space forever altered his life. Cernan said he began to look and think about things differently.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CERNAN: And when you leave the Earth, it's not only technologically different, it's philosophically different and it's spiritually different.

LEWIS: Many astronauts had difficulty describing what it was actually like to be in space, not in a technical sense, but in finding the words to share that remarkable experience. There's something else about Cernan, he turned down the opportunity to land on the moon during an earlier mission. On that flight, Cernan would have been the pilot, but he wanted to be commander in charge of the mission.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CERNAN: I proved to myself - as I said, I'd sort of felt like I'd been an underdog most of my life. I proved to myself that I was good enough, that I could get the job done. That was a big point in my life.

LEWIS: Gene Cernan spent his post-NASA life trying to inspire young people. He once said, dream the impossible and go out and make it happen. I walked on the moon, what can't you do? Russell Lewis, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABE VIGODA SONG, "DREAM OF MY LOVE - CHASING AFTER YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.