The U.S. space program lost another towering figure today as astronaut Gene Cernan, commander of Apollo 17 and the last person to walk on the moon, died at the age of 82 on Monday.
“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’s family said in a statement.
Cernan’s history of space flight is extensive. Admitted to the astronaut program in 1963, Cernan participated in a two-hour space walk as part of the Gemini 9 mission in June 1966, becoming the second American to do so.Â
But Cernan was also part of the key Apollo 10 mission that set the stage for the following Apollo 11 moon landing. As part of the Apollo 10 mission in the spring of 1969, Cernan and Tom Stafford piloted the lunar module, testing its controls and thrusters, to within eight nautical miles of the moon’s surface in a “dress rehearsal” for NASA’s next mission, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would take the lunar module all the way down to the moon.Â
Although he wasn’t the first man on the moon, he would make history as the last human (for now) to walk the surface of the moon as the commander of Apollo 17 in December 1972. Cernan was also only one of three astronauts (besides Jim Lovell and John Young) to make two trips to the moon.
Cernan and Harrison Schmitt spent three days on the lunar surface for Apollo 17, exploring nearby craters and the Taurus-Littrow mountains, and spent plenty of time whirring about on the lunar rover.Â
The mission has a few memorable moments, including the Cernan and Schmitt bouncing along the surface and singing a slightly altered version of “Strolling Through the Park.”
Cernan’s last words on the moon were also notable, a beautiful, bittersweet moment. Said Cernan, “What I believe history will record [is] that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. As we leave the moon and 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.”
“In that whole three days, I don’t think there’s anything that became routine,” Cernan recalled years later. “But if I had to focus on one thing … it was just to look back at the overwhelming and overpowering beauty of this Earth.”
“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.”
In all, Cernan logged 566 hours and 15 minutes in space, more than 73 hours of them on the moon’s surface.
But even after his career in space was done, Cernan continued to be a proponent for space exploration, testifying before Congres just as NASA was mothballing its space shuttle fleet.Â
If you want to hear more from Cernan in his own words, NASA interviewed him extensively in 2007 for an oral history project and you can read it all here.
Additional reporting by the Associated Press