Eugene A. Cernan, the commander of the Apollo 17 lunar-landing mission in 1972 and the last human to walk on the moon, died on Monday in Houston. He was 82.
His death was announced by NASA.
A ferocious competitor with a test pilot’s reckless streak, Cernan (pronounced SIR-nun) rocketed into space three times, was the second American to drift weightless around the world on a tether, went to the moon twice and shattered aerospace records on Earth and the moon.
He also slid down a banister on a visit to the White House and once crashed a helicopter in the Atlantic while chasing a dolphin. Skimming the lunar surface in a rehearsal for the first manned landing, he erupted with salty language heard by millions when his craft briefly spun out of control.
But he made spacewalks and romps over the lunar surface look routine, and in a way they were.
Three-and-a-half years after Neil A. Armstrong took mankind’s first step onto the lunar surface in 1969, Cernan, a Navy captain and one of the nation’s most experienced astronauts, landed with a geologist-astronaut near the Sea of Serenity in the final chapter of the Apollo program, America’s audacious venture to fulfill President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 pledge to put Americans on the moon.
Cernan was the last of 12 Americans to set foot on the moon in six Apollo landings. Two other missions were lunar orbital test runs, and Apollo 13 was an aborted landing after a malfunction. While Apollo 17 conveyed the drama of televised moonwalks, the awesome historicity of the Armstrong flight had faded, along with public interest in lunar missions that by 1972 had begun to seem repetitive.
Still, his mission was a technological triumph. While Ronald E. Evans, a Navy commander, piloted a command ship in lunar orbit, Cernan and Harrison H. Schmitt, the first scientist to go to the moon, descended to the virtually airless, soundless surface in a four-legged lander that settled in a narrow valley of boulders and craters. After a 250,000-mile voyage from Earth, they put down 300 feet from their target.
“The Challenger has landed,” Cernan announced in a broadcast to the world the Apollo crew saw hanging in the sky. “I’d like to dedicate the first step of Apollo 17 to all those who made it possible.”
On three rover excursions that took them 21 miles to craters, rock slides and mountain walls, and in 22 hours of moonwalks, they collected 250 pounds of rocks and soil to carry home and left experiments that delivered data for years. The captain also scratched his daughter’s initials — TDC, for Teresa Dawn Cernan — in the lunar dust, a talisman that might last eons on a lifeless world.
The mission completed, the captain took his last steps on the lunar surface and spoke for posterity.
“America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow,” he said in words slightly garbled on recordings. “And as we leave the moon and Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came, and, God willing, we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”
Schmitt climbed into the lander, followed by Cernan. With a graceless farewell from the captain — “Let’s get this mother out of here” — the two astronauts blasted off and rejoined the orbiting command module. The trip back to Earth and the splashdown in the South Pacific, on Dec. 19, 1972, went like clockwork.
Eugene Andrew Cernan was born in Chicago on March 14, 1934, to Andrew Cernan, a supervisor at a naval installation, and the former Rose Cihlar.
He graduated from Proviso Township High School in Maywood, Illinois, in 1952, and received an electrical engineering degree from Purdue in 1956 and a master’s in aeronautical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, in 1963. As a naval aviator, he logged 5,000 hours of flying time and 200 landings on aircraft carriers.
In 1961, he married Barbara Jean Atchley. They divorced in 1981. He later married Jan Nanna, who survives him, as do his daughter, Teresa Cernan Woolie; two stepdaughters, Kelly Nanna Taff and Danielle Nanna Ellis; nine grandchildren; and a sister, Dolores Riley.
Cernan became a NASA astronaut in 1963. In his first spaceflight, Gemini 9 in 1966, he joined Col. Thomas Stafford of the Air Force on a three-day orbital mission testing rendezvous and docking procedures. He also circled the world twice as a tethered spacewalker. At 32, he was the youngest man to go into space.