The last man in the world to take one of the most historic jaunts in human history has died. Astronaut Gene Cernan, who walked on the moon in 1972 and ended the astonishing adventure with a message of peace and hope, died at the age of 82 surrounded by his family, according to a statement NASA released Monday.
“Our family is heartbroken, of course, and we truly appreciate everyone’s thoughts and prayers. Gene, as he was known by so many, was a loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend,” Cernan’s family said in a statement, CNN reported. His death was attributed to unspecified ongoing health issues.
The retired Navy captain remained an indefatigable fighter for the space program and for other humans to have the opportunities to experience what he had. “When I leave this planet, I want to know where we are headed as a nation. That’s my big goal,” he testified before Congress in 2011.
His experience in space changed his life profoundly. “I can always walk on Main Street again, but I can never return to my Valley of Taurus-Littrow [on the moon], and that cold fact has left me with a yearning restlessness,” he wrote in his 1999 autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon.
“It was perhaps the brightest moment of my life, and I can’t go back,” he added. “Enriched by a singular event that is larger than life, I no longer have the luxury of being ordinary.”
Cernan was a member of a very exclusive club of only a dozen men who have set foot on the moon. He and his partner, astronaut-geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, were the only two men ever to sing on the lunar surface.
Cernan, the commander of NASA’s Apollo 17 mission, stepped onto the moon on Dec. 14, 1972, during his third flight into space. En route to the moon, the three-man crew captured the iconic “blue marble” photo of the Earth showing Africa, the Arabian peninsula and the south polar ice cap.
Cernan called the landing “the most quiet moment a human being can experience in his lifetime.” There’s “no vibration. There’s no noise. The ground quit talking,” he recalled in a 2007 oral history recorded by NASA. “The dust is gone. It’s a realization, a reality, all of a sudden you have just landed in another world on another body out there [in the] universe, and what you are seeing is being seen by ... human eyes for the first time.”
He and Schmitt spent spent some 22 hours on the lunar surface over three days, collecting 250 pounds of moon samples.
“In that whole three days, I don’t think there’s anything that became routine,” Cernan recalled. “But if I had to focus on one thing ... it was just to look back at the overwhelming and overpowering beauty of this Earth. 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.”
The final steps up the ladder back to the Challenger lunar module “were tough to make,” he added. “I didn’t want to go up. I wanted to stay a while. It’s like you would want to freeze that moment and take it home with you. But you can’t.”
As he returned he said: “America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. As we leave the moon, we leave as we came, and, God willing, we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”
Cernan was born in Chicago in 1934 and graduated from Indiana’s Purdue University in 1956. He became a Navy attack pilot before being selected for NASA’s astronaut program in 1963. Three years later, he became the second American to walk in space during a Gemini 9 flight ― something he called the “spacewalk from hell” because of several malfunctions in his spacesuit. He logged a total of 566 hours and 15 minutes in space, more than 73 hours of which were on the moon’s surface, either in the module or on the ground. Cernan eventually retired from NASA in 1976.
Cernan’s last action on the surface of the moon in 1972 was to trace “TDC” — the initials of his then-9-year-old daughter, Teresa Dawn — in the lunar dust. He said he imagined someone in the far distant future would find “our lunar rover and our footprints and those initials and say, ‘I wonder who was here? Some ancient civilization was here back in the 20th century, and look at the funny marks they made.’”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article said Cernan was born in 1935. He was born in 1934.