On 16 January, a day of reflection—the 14th anniversary of the launch of Space Shuttle Columbia on her final mission—the world lost a shining light in the early annals of human space exploration. Retired Navy Capt. Gene Cernan, veteran of three space missions and the last person to have set foot on the surface of the Moon, has died, aged 82. By cruel coincidence, Cernan passed at exactly the same age as the world’s first Moonwalker, Neil Armstrong. His death leaves just half of the 12 Apollo Moonwalkers still with us, and, when counting Command Module Pilots (CMPs), only 14 humans remain alive to tell tales of traveling beyond low-Earth orbit, across the vast gulf of cislunar space and to our closest celestial neighbor. The news of Cernan’s death broke on Monday afternoon, and NASA has paid touching tribute to an astronaut who “left his mark on the history of exploration.”
Between July 1969 and December 1972, 12 humans left their bootprints in the dusty lunar regolith. Since then, six have passed away—from Apollo 15’s Jim Irwin in August 1991 to Neil Armstrong in August 2012 and, most recently, Apollo 14’s Ed Mitchell, early last year—and only Buzz Aldrin, Al Bean, Dave Scott, John Young, Charlie Duke, and Jack Schmitt remain.
Eugene Andrew Cernan was born in Chicago, Ill., on 14 March 1934. As a boy, he learned about machinery from his father, as well as how to plant tomatoes, how to hammer a nail straight into a piece of wood, and how to repair a toilet. All this instilled a sense of always doing his best at whatever he put his mind to. In high school, Cernan played basketball, baseball, and football—and was even offered scholarships—but opted to enter Purdue University in 1952 to study for a degree in electrical engineering.
Four years later, he graduated and became a U.S. Navy reservist, reporting for duty aboard the aircraft carrier Saipan. After flight training, Cernan received his gold wings as a naval aviator in November 1957 and later flew the F-9F Panther fighter. He subsequently flew the A-4 Skyhawk and performed his first landing on a carrier. By the late 1950s, he was flying Skyhawks from the Shangri-La carrier in the western Pacific Ocean and frequently encountered Chinese MiG fighters in the Straits of Formosa. At around the same time, he learned of NASA’s Project Mercury selection campaign. He only met two of the requirements to be an astronaut, age and degree relevance, but lacked experience and test-piloting skills. In Cernan’s mind, by the time he had gained those credentials, the pioneering days of human spaceflight would be over.
By summer 1961, he was selected for the Navy’s postgraduate school and earned a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering. He now had the right education to become an astronaut, but was still not a test pilot. However, the decision was made for him, when one of his superior officers recommended him to NASA for the space agency’s third class of astronaut candidates. Throughout the fall of 1963, Cernan was poked and prodded in a seemingly endless series of physical and psychological evaluations and interviews.
In one interview, he was asked how many times he had flown over 50,000 feet (15,000 meters). “Hell, for an attack pilot like me, who had spent his life below 500 feet,” Cernan wrote in his memoir, The Last Man on the Moon, “that was halfway to space!” His solution was to flip the question around. He had flown very low, he told the selection panel, “and if you’re going to land on the Moon, you gotta get close sometime!”
Shortly before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, in October 1963, Cernan was selected as one of 14 new astronaut candidates by NASA. Aged just 29, he was the second-youngest in the class, after Roger Chaffee, who became one of his best friends. His first two years at NASA were spent on technical assignments, overseeing pressurization and other data for the propellant tanks of the Titan II booster, which would deliver the piloted Gemini spacecraft into low-Earth orbit. Then, one day late in 1965, a technician tapped on his office door and told him that he had instructions to get fitted out for a space suit. The reason was inescapable: a crew assignment must be imminent. In November, Cernan and fellow astronaut Tom Stafford were named as the backup crew for Gemini IX, a complex rendezvous, docking, and spacewalking flight, targeted for launch in the late spring of 1966.
As outlined in a previous AmericaSpace history article, Stafford and Cernan shadowed the Gemini IX prime crew of Elliot See and Charlie Bassett. Then, on the morning of 28 February 1966, all four men flew to St. Louis, Miss., aboard a pair of T-38 Talon jets for a week of work on their spacecraft at prime contractor McDonnell’s facility. Sadly, See and Bassett were killed when their T-38 crashed into the very building where Gemini IX was being built, but Stafford and Cernan landed safely. Within hours, they had been assigned as the new prime crew. Their mission, planned for mid-May, seemed snake-bitten, when its rendezvous target—a modified Atlas-Agena vehicle—was lost, shortly after liftoff. Two weeks later, on 3 June 1966, Stafford and Cernan rose from Earth aboard the renamed “Gemini IX-A” to complete the three-day mission so tragically snatched from See and Bassett.
During the course of the flight, they rendezvoused with an Augmented Target Docking Adapter (ATDA), hurriedly placed into orbit as a replacement for the Agena, but were unable to dock with it, due to the failure of its nose fairing to properly separate. Cernan performed a two-hour session of Extravehicular Activity (EVA), becoming only the third human to make a spacewalk and securing a record for the longest spacewalk ever conducted at that time. He was intended to climb aboard an Air Force-built Astronaut Maneuvering Unit (AMU) at the rear of Gemini IX-A, but the unknowns of spacewalking in 1966 conspired against him.
Initially, he was faced with niggling problems of maintaining stability, with his safety tether snaking uselessly and no hand-holds on Gemini IX-A to arrest his movements. Worse was to come. As he worked his way, in almost total blackness, to the back of the spacecraft, he found his exertions to be far higher than he had experienced in training: He was exhausted, drenched with sweat, and almost blinded by his own perspiration. His space suit’s environmental control system struggled to cope and Cernan’s heart rate soared to 195 beats per minute. At one point, so fogged was his visor, that he had to rub his nose on the faceplate to create a small “hole” through which he could see.
At length, it was an alarmed Tom Stafford who called time on the EVA on safety grounds. Mission Control concurred and Cernan returned inside Gemini IX-A after 127 minutes, almost four times longer than any previous spacewalk. Beetroot-faced, he was doused with weightless droplets fired by Stafford from a water pistol and strips of skin from his swollen hands tore away as he removed his gloves. It was one of the most traumatic EVAs ever undertaken in the annals of space exploration.
By the fall of 1966, Cernan had begun training with a new crew. He remained teamed with Stafford and they gained a third member, John Young. Initially, the trio were assigned as backups for what would have been Apollo 2—an Earth-orbital test mission, involving the Block II Command and Service Module (CSM) and Lunar Module (LM)—but this flight was postponed in the wake of the Apollo 1 fire. At length, in November 1968, Stafford, Young, and Cernan were named as the prime crew for Apollo 10, which would conduct a full dress rehearsal of the first landing on the Moon, in lunar orbit.
In his memoir, Cernan recounted an interesting prologue to his second space mission. On the eve of launch, he was driving a little too fast back to the Cape Kennedy crew quarters after seeing his family and was pulled over by a deputy sheriff. A lack of papers in his car’s glovebox, an iffy-looking military driving license—which, apparently, never expired—and an unlikely-sounding name aroused the officer’s suspicions. Luckily, the timely intervention of passing launch pad leader Guenter Wendt saved the day. In his thick German accent, Wendt satisfied the bemused cop that, no, “Mister Kurnin” could not accompany him to the police station, because he had somewhere important to go tomorrow. …
Launched on 18 May 1969, the eight-day Apollo 10 mission was an enormous success. In lunar orbit, Stafford and Cernan boarded the LM “Snoopy” and undocked from Young in the CSM “Charlie Brown,” before descending to just 50,000 feet (15,000 meters) above the lunar surface. They evaluated the LM’s systems, but missed becoming the first humans to touch the surface of another world. In The Last Man on the Moon, Cernan wrote that there existed a possibility that Apollo 10 might have been repurposed to perform a lunar landing, if President Kennedy’s end-of-the-decade deadline had been closer. The main problem was that Snoopy was slightly too heavy to satisfy the safety margins required for a successful launch from the Moon’s surface.
The sheer challenges of landing on Earth’s nearest neighbor were profound. “Out here,” Cernan later wrote, “confronting a foreign and hostile environment, where there was no horizon, no up or down, and where speed and time take on new meaning, we not only didn’t know the answers—we didn’t even know the questions!”
Returning from Apollo 10, Cernan initially seemed pointed to serve as Young’s Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) on the Apollo 16 mission in the fall of 1971—which might have seen him walk on the Moon, albeit in a junior capacity—but the veteran astronaut opted to hold out for a possible command of his own. In the summer of 1969, he was named to the backup command of Apollo 14, which, by the process of crew rotation, might have positioned him to eventually lead Apollo 17 to the Moon. However, with the near-disaster of Apollo 13 and the Congressional budget ax falling heavily on the lunar program in the summer of 1970, it remained unclear for a time if the series would continue to Apollo 17.
Early the following year, as Apollo 14 neared its January 1971 launch date, Cernan crashed his helicopter into the Indian River, during training. He accepted blame for the incident, keenly aware that it might cost him the command of Apollo 17, which had by this stage become the final planned lunar landing mission. NASA and the scientific community wanted professional geologist-astronaut Jack Schmitt to fly on Apollo 17, but Schmitt had previously been named to Apollo 18, commanded by Dick Gordon. With the cancelation of Apollo 18, it seemed inevitable that Schmitt would be moved onto Apollo 17, but what remained unclear was who would command the flight.
Veteran astronaut Dick Gordon, who had trained for more than a year with Schmitt, expected that it would be him. And when Cernan crashed his helicopter, it seemed increasingly likely that Gordon would lead the last manned mission to the lunar surface. However, in August 1971, the hands of fate turned against Gordon and pointed in Cernan’s favor. The Apollo 17 crew would consist of Cernan in command, with Schmitt as his LMP and fellow astronaut Ron Evans as CMP. Launch was targeted for December 1972.
Yet still, fate had one more hand to play. In the fall of 1972, only weeks before Apollo 17 was due to fly, a routine physical examination of Cernan uncovered a prostate infection. His flight surgeon, Dr. Chuck La Pinta, kept discreetly quiet about it. Then, whilst playing softball, the astronaut felt something “snap” in his right leg. At first, he feared a ruptured tendon, which would have taken months to heal and eliminated him from the mission. Fortunately, Dr. La Pinta found no rupture and shielded Cernan from NASA managers. In Cernan’s mind, Dr. La Pinta was “a great doctor, a terrific liar and an even better friend.”
Apollo 17 left Earth on 6 December 1972, with Cernan, Evans, and Schmitt becoming the final humans ever to launch atop the mammoth Saturn V booster—and the only crew to do so in the hours of darkness. Arriving at the beautiful valley of Taurus-Littrow, four days later, Cernan and Schmitt landed their LM Challenger in one of the most scenically spectacular sites ever visited by Apollo. During their 74 hours on the surface, they carried out extensive exploration on foot and with the benefit of the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV). By the end of their third Moonwalk, Cernan had logged 22 hours and four minutes spent on the Moon’s surface, more than any other human being.
In a statement, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden honored Cernan as “a patriot and pioneer, who helped shape our country’s bold ambitions to do things that humankind had never before achieved.” He added that the astronaut’s footprints “remain on the Moon and his achievements are imprinted in our hearts and memories.” Gen. Bolden quoted Cernan’s own words: “We are truly in an age of challenge. With that challenge comes opportunity. The sky is no longer the limit. The word impossible no longer belongs in our vocabulary. We have proved that we can do whatever we have the resolve to do. The limit to our reach is our own complacency.”