Apollo 17 Cmdr. Gene Cernan has died.
Besides being a Naval aviator, a fighter pilot, and an engineer, he is best known as the last human to have stood on the surface of the Moon.
Like every other astronaut of the time, Cernan was quite the character, with a storied life. He had been an aviator for five years when, in 1963, NASA tapped him to be an astronaut. In 1966 he piloted Gemini 9A, the pre-Apollo mission for which he was part of the backup crew before the prime crew died in an airplane crash*. Gemini was a precursor to Apollo, a way for NASA to learn the skills needed for the mission to the Moon.
9A had a series of mishaps itself. Its primary mission was to rendezvous and dock with an uncrewed vehicle that was to be launched hours earlier, but that rocket failed during flight. A second uncrewed vehicle was launched successfully two weeks later, but on its first attempt, the rocket with Cernan and Thomas Stafford suffered a malfunction and didn’t launch. It finally went up two days later.
Things still went poorly. Once in orbit they found the rendezvous vehicle slowly spinning (and a shroud had failed to jettison, making docking impossible). Cernan’s extravehicular activity (EVA) was postponed until the mission’s third day. Even then he had serious problems with his suit, and the two-hour EVA exhausted him. They had to cut it short, but he was so overheated and tired there was real concern he wouldn’t be able to get back into the capsule. He did, of course, and NASA eased up the workload of future missions to prevent overtaxing the astronauts.
I cannot stress enough how difficult that Gemini 9A EVA situation was, and how hard Cernan pushed himself to get done what had to be done. I suggest reading the Wikipedia entry for the mission to get a flavor of it, and to let the word hero be fixed in your mind as you do.
Six years later, on Dec. 7, 1972, he commanded Apollo 17, and despite everything else he did to earn his mark in history, this will be forever why we remember him. You can read about its exploits in many places; I suggest you pick up a copy of my friend Andy Chaikin’s book A Man on the Moon, which, in my opinion, is the single best written history of the Apollo program. Cernan (along with co-author Don Davis) wrote about this as well in his book The Last Man on the Moon.
About that mission …
At 05:40 GMT on Dec. 14, 1972, a week after he left Earth and after completing three successful lunar EVAs with his fellow crew member Jack Schmitt, Cernan stood on the surface of the Moon, preparing to go back up the ladder and get back inside the Lunar Module. Just before he did, he said:
I'm on the surface; and, as 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.
He then climbed aboard the LM, and in that moment became the last human to stand on the Moon.
Cernan’s family released this statement upon his death:
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.
Cernan himself did not wish himself to hold this place in history and pushed for NASA to go back to the Moon. All these years later we still haven’t, but that will not stand. China and India have both said they want to send people to the Moon, and Russia has made similar claims.
NASA has set its sights on Mars, but I still hope we go back to the Moon first, doing something similar to Gemini before Apollo: Use our more advanced technology to learn about how we can achieve human deep-space flight better, and most importantly, more sustainably. Apollo, as heroic and historic as it may have been, was, after all, a “flag and footprints” mission, designed to get there before the Soviets did. A race to the finish cannot be a long-term plan. We must commit to going back, and doing it to stay.
I remember the Apollo missions, barely. I was a child at the time. But I hope that within my lifetime I will see a wonderful thing: Another human stepping out of a lander and dropping down onto the surface, a puff of regolith dust arcing out ballistically from their boots in the airless environment.
And when this happens, we will update our references to Cmdr. Cernan, adding the words “… of the Apollo era” to his descriptor, “the last human to walk on the Moon.” At that moment he will become the last of the first, and, with our eyes open and our dedication firmly in place, there will never be another last.
*Correction, Jan. 17, 2017: I originally wrote that Cernan was the commander of Gemini 9A, but he was the pilot; Stafford was the commander.