AOPA will be closed July 4th, in observance of the Independence Day holiday. We will reopen at 8:30 am ET on Tuesday, July 5.

Apollo commander Cernan remembered

Apollo 17 commander Eugene A. “Gene” Cernan, the last human to walk on the moon and a passionate pilot who challenged the nation to continue exploring, died Jan. 16 at his home in Houston, surrounded by family. The 82-year-old was an AOPA member, and his death was announced by NASA, launching a wave of tributes and memorials from around the country and beyond.

  • After two postponements, Gemini IXA astronauts Eugene Cernan, left, and Tom Stafford, center, arrive in the white room atop Launch Pad 19 at Cape Kennedy Air Force Station on June 3, 1966. Stafford is presenting a large match to McDonnell Aircraft Corporation's pad leader Gunter Wendt, far right. Photo courtesy of NASA.
  • In 1865, Jules Verne wrote a science fiction story entitled, "From the Earth to the Moon." The story outlined the author's vision of a cannon in Florida so powerful that it could shoot a "Projectile-Vehicle" carrying three adventurers to the moon. More than 100 years later NASA produced the Saturn V rocket and from a spaceport in Florida, this rocket turned Verne's fiction into fact. Photo courtesy of NASA.
  • The crew of Apollo 10, from the left, Eugene Cernan, John Young and Thomas Stafford are photographed while at the Kennedy Space Center. In the background is the Apollo 10 space vehicle on Launch Pad 39 B, The three crewmen had just completed a Countdown Demonstration Test exercise on May 13, 1969. Photo courtesy of NASA.
  • On Dec. 19, 1972, the Apollo 17 crew returned to Earth. Apollo 17 was the sixth and last Apollo mission in which humans walked on the lunar surface. On Dec. 11, Lunar Module Pilot Harrison H. Schmitt and Commander Eugene A. Cernan, landed on the moon's Taurus-Littrow region in the Lunar Module. Photo courtesy of NASA.
  • Two members of the prime crew of the Apollo 17 lunar landing mission participate in training at the Kennedy Space Center. Scientist-astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt (foreground), lunar module pilot, simulates scooping up lunar sample material. Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan (background), commander, holds a sample bag. Photo courtesy of NASA.
  • The huge, 363-feet tall Apollo 17 (Spacecraft 114/Lunar Module 12/Saturn 512) space vehicle is launched from Pad A, Launch Complex 39, Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Florida, at 12:33 a.m. (EST), Dec. 7, 1972. Apollo 17, the final lunar landing mission in NASA's Apollo program, was the first nighttime liftoff of the Saturn V. Photo courtesy of NASA.
  • During his two hour, eight minute spacewalk on June 5, 1966, Gemini IXA pilot Eugene Cernan is seen outside the spacecraft. His experience during that time showed there was still much to be learned about working in microgravity. Photo courtesy of NASA.
  • "What a beautiful spacecraft," said Gemini IX pilot Eugene Cernan during his two hour, eight minute spacewalk on June 5, 1966. He took this wide-angle photograph looking back at the window where command pilot Tom Stafford was watching. Photo coutesy of NASA.
  • Apollo 17 mission commander Eugene Cernan drives the lunar roving vehicle during the early part of the first moonwalk at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. The Lunar Module is in the background. Photo courtesy of NASA.
  • Apollo 17 commander Eugene A. Cernan is holding the lower corner of the American flag during the mission's first EVA, December 12, 1972. Photograph by Harrison J. "Jack" Schmitt. Photo courtesy of NASA.
  • The surface of the moon is reflected in the command and service module as it prepares to rendezvous with the lunar module in this December 1972 image from the Apollo 17 mission. Photo courtesy of NASA.
  • Awkward and angular looking, Apollo 17's lunar module Challenger was designed for flight in the vacuum of space. This picture, taken from the command module America, shows Challenger's ascent stage in lunar orbit. Small reaction control thrusters are at the sides of the moonship with the bell of the ascent rocket engine itself underneath. Photo courtesy of NASA.
  • The Apollo 17 spacecraft, containing astronauts Eugene A. Cernan, Ronald E. Evans, and Harrison H. Schmitt, glided to a safe splashdown at 2:25 p.m. EST on Dec. 19, 1972, 648 kilometers (350 nautical miles) southeast of American Samoa. Photo courtesy of NASA.
  • Apollo 17 mission commander Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, looks skyward during a memorial service celebrating the life of Neil Armstrong at the Washington National Cathedral, Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012. Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon during the 1969 Apollo 11 mission, died Saturday, Aug. 25. He was 82. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Cernan, a Navy pilot who also was a veteran of three space flights, began his spaceflight career with Gemini 9A on June 3, 1966, when, at age 32, he became the youngest astronaut to fly in space, and the second to complete a spacewalk. Cernan later piloted the Apollo 10 lunar module, descending to within 8 nautical miles of the lunar surface, later recalling in a 2007 NASA oral history interview that the mission had set the stage for the first steps on the moon.

Apollo 17 mission commander Eugene Cernan inside the lunar module on the moon after his second moonwalk of the mission. His spacesuit is covered with lunar dust. Photo courtesy of NASA.

“I kept telling Neil Armstrong that we painted that white line in the sky all the way to the Moon down to 47,000 feet so he wouldn’t get lost and all he had to do was land. Made it sort of easy for him,” Cernan said.

In 1972 Cernan commanded Apollo 17, the sixth and final mission to the lunar surface, logging 22 hours and 6 minutes of lunar surface exploration with scientist-astronaut Harrison Schmitt, serenading the world watching from below with, “I was strolling on the moon one day,” and later departing with words that foreshadowed a mission he would embrace for the remainder of his life, pushing for continued exploration:

“We leave as we came, and, God willing, we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind,” Cernan said as he prepared to climb the ladder and depart. The Navy captain later followed that up with an unscripted declaration, just before lighting the rocket for the ride home: “Let’s get this mother out of here.”

Cernan is survived by his second wife, the former Jan Nanna, and his daughter, Teresa Cernan Woolie, whose initials he drew in moon dust, a tribute likely to last for eons on the airless surface. Two stepdaughters, nine grandchildren, and Cernan’s sister, Dolores Riley, also survived him. The family released a statement through NASA:

“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,” the family said. “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.”

Born in Chicago on March 14, 1934, to Andrew Cernan and the former Rose Cihlar, Cernan earned an engineering degree from Purdue University followed by a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in 1963. Cernan logged 5,000 hours and 200 carrier landings as a Navy pilot, fueling a passion for flight that would endure throughout his life. Cernan flew a Cessna 421 and spoke to AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines in 2012 about the rewards of flying:

“It keeps me alive, it conditions my brain,” Cernan said. “You know, you’ve got to keep everything in shape. I tell you what, I used to get, and I still do, you know, you get upside down and do a roll over top of the clouds, but I get as much satisfaction out of doing a good approach in bad weather.”

Cernan said at the time he continued to work with and counsel young pilots, and had two main pieces of advice:

“If it’s not a passion, get out, you’re going to hurt somebody,” Cernan said. Then, musing that his Cessna had more technology on board than an Apollo spacecraft, he said he cautioned pilots that modern tools can have drawbacks.

“Don’t use technology as a crutch, use it as an aid,” Cernan said. “We tend to rely too much on technology and not enough on ourselves … There’s only one way to fly an airplane and that’s the right way.”

Cernan helped forge cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union in the post-Apollo space age, founded an aerospace consultancy, and served from 1994 to 2000 as chairman of Johnson Engineering Corp. His autobiography, “The Last Man on the Moon,” was published in 1999. In 2010, Cernan testified before Congress with Armstrong, who died in 2012, and he was sharply critical of decisions to scale back space exploration.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was among the first to pay official tribute in a Jan. 16 statement:

“Gene's footprints remain on the moon, and his achievements are imprinted in our hearts and memories,” Bolden said. “His drive to explore and do great things for his country is summed up in his own words: ‘We truly are 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.’”

Jim Moore

Jim Moore

Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.
Topics: People

Related Articles