Middle class Western men tend to die in their early-to-mid eighties. As such, it should not thus have been a surprise that Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene “Gene” Cernan died on 16 January at the age of 82. Nevertheless, it was a reminder to NASA that, unless it decides to mount manned landings soon, walking on the Moon could soon leave living memory. NASA paid its tribute to Gene Cernan who was the last man to set foot on the Moon, and the sixth of 12 Apollo moonwalkers to pass away.
As commander of Apollo 17, Eugene Cernan was last to enter the ascent part of the “Challenger” landing module that would leave the Moon. His mission in December 1972 had carried himself and geologist astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt to the surface as respectively the 11th and 12th lunar walking astronauts. Using the lunar rover they managed to gather 100 kg of interesting lunar rocks from the Taurus-Littrow lunar valley. A camera mounted on the lunar rover was used to eventually monitor their lift off from the Moon.
Cernan was famously forthright in his opinions, whether criticising Buzz Aldrin for curtailing a spacewalk too early on a Gemini mission, or joining up in 2010 with Apollo 11 astronaut and first lunar space walker, Neil Armstrong, to criticise President Obama’s space policy of cancelling Project Constellation and its Ares V launch vehicle, without planning the development of a replacement heavy lift launch vehicle. It was this latter action that eventually led to the adoption, the SLS as NASA’s heavy lift exploration rocket.
Cernan originally joined NASA from the US Navy, in which he had been a fighter pilot. He performed three missions. He was pilot of Gemini 9A in June 1966, lunar module pilot of the landing dress rehearsal mission, Apollo 10 in May 1969, and finally as Commander of Apollo 17.
Cernan officially retired from NASA and the US Navy in 1976. He worked as a consultant and television space commentator and helped to start the airline Air One. He later co-wrote his memoir/autobiography “The Last Man on the Moon” in 1999.
There are six surviving octogenarian Apollo mission “moonwalkers”: Edwin Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11), Alan Bean (Apollo 12), David Scott (Apollo 15), John Young and Charles Duke (Apollo 16), and Harrison Schmitt (Apollo 17).
We give our tribute to Gene Cernan and our sympathies to his family and friends.