Captain Eugene "Gene" Cernan, the last man to leave the Moon, has passed away at the age of 82. A holder of multiple space records, Cernan was Commander of the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, one of only 12 astronauts to walk on Moon – of which only six survive – and a staunch US space program advocate. He passed away today after unspecified ongoing health issues. He is survived by his wife Jan Nanna Cernan, his daughter, son-in-law, two step-daughters and nine grandchildren.
Eugene Andrew Cernan was born on March 14, 1934 in Chicago, Illinois. Son of a Slovak father and a Czech mother, he graduated from Proviso East High School in 1952 and attended Purdue University. After graduation in 1956 with an electrical engineering degree, he joined the US Navy with an ROTC commission rank of Ensign and became a carrier fighter pilot while continuing his studies.
In October 1963, Cernan was a member of the third group of astronauts selected by NASA and made three trips into space – two of them to the Moon. He was Pilot on Gemini 9A along with Senior Pilot Thomas Stafford, after the primary crew was killed in a jet crash. During the mission, he became the second American and the third person in history to conduct a spacewalk.
In 1969 Cernan was Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 10 and flew the lander in lunar orbit to within 47,000 ft (14,300 m) of touchdown before returning to the Command Service Module. To ensure against any last minute temptations, NASA deliberately shorted the spacecraft of fuel to prevent its landing. Cernan and his crewmates still hold the world record for the highest speed attained by any manned vehicle at 24,791 mph (39,897 km/h), and the farthest distance traveled away from the Earth.
Cernan turned down a chance to land on the Moon on Apollo 16 in favor of waiting for his own command.
In December 1972, as Apollo 17 Mission Commander, Cernan made the last manned trip so far to the Moon along with Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt and Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans. Cernan and Schmitt landed in the Taurus Littrow region of the lunar highlands and used the Lunar Rover vehicle to make extensive surveys of the area. During this, Cernan set an unofficial Moon land speed record of 11.2 mph (18.0 km/h). Apollo 17 also spent the most time in lunar orbit and returned the heaviest load of geological samples at 249 lb (113 kg).
When it came time to blast off from the lunar surface, Cernan paused at the bottom of the ladder after Schmitt had boarded the lander and said, "[A]s I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record: that America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. And, 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. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17."
Cernan retired from NASA and the US Navy in 1976 with the rank of Captain. He carried on in private business, acted as a commentator during the Space Shuttle Missions, and was a contributor to American and British television. In 2010, he gave testimony before the US Congress to try to save the Constellation program from cancellation by the Obama administration.
"It is with very deep sadness that we share the loss of our beloved husband and father," said Cernan's family in a statement. "Our family is heartbroken, of course, and we truly appreciate everyone's thoughts and prayers. Gene, as he was known by so many, was a loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend.
"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."