The last man on the moon
The short version
Commander Gene Cernan, the last astronaut to leave footprints on the moon, died quietly at his home in Houston yesterday, surrounded by his family. He was 82. Commander of Apollo 17, he spent 75 hours on the lunar surface. Cernan left there on December 14, 1972, and no one has ever been back, something that bothered him greatly. A native of Chicago and a Purdue University graduate, Cernan was the epitome of overcoming obstacles and doing one’s best.
What else you should know
Gene Cernan was born in Chicago in 1934, right smack in the middle of the Great Depression. Neither of his parents went to college, but they taught Gene the value of working hard and reaching for something better. That lesson stuck. The Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering he received from Purdue University in 1956 was the first of multiple academic achievements.
Cernan joined the Navy right after college and became a naval aviator, something that was a bit of a challenge because of his height. At six feet tall, Cernan’s was a common height for astronauts, but a bit large to fit in the cockpit of a Navy jet. Not only did he manage to do so, however, he recorded over 5,000 hours of flight time and some 2,000 aircraft carrier landings, one of the most difficult things to do in an airplane.
Cernan made three trips into space and his first, aboard Gemini 9, may have been the most harrowing. During that trip, Gene became only the second person to attempt a space walk. It didn’t go well. He had difficulty controlling his body in the weightlessness. The visor on his space suit fogged over from the condensation in his breath making it difficult to see. He struggled to pull himself back into the orbiter. Cernan lost 13 pounds on that trip, calling it the “spacewalk from hell.”
Offered positions on other Apollo missions, Gene held out for one where he was Commander. He wanted to be in charge of the mission and be able to walk on the moon himself. While none of the lunar missions were easy, Cernan made it look that way and made the most of his 22 hours on the lunar surface. He later wrote: “To go a quarter of a million miles away into space and have to take time out to sleep and rest … I wished I could have stayed awake for 75 hours straight. I knew when I left I’d never have a chance to come back.”
Most recently, in 2014 Cernan completed his documentary film, The Last Man On The Moon, which received general release just last year. The documentary chronicles the trip to the moon and Cernan’s life afterward. Throughout his life he was an active advocate for continued space research and returning to the moon, despite opinions of those in Congress who feel such trips are a waste of time and funding.
A little bit of trivia
Before leaving the moon, Cernan wrote “TDC,” his daughter’s initials, in the dust of the moon. Those initials, along with Cernan’s footprints, are still visible on the moon’s surface.