The Last Man to Walk on the Moon Passes into History

R.I.P. Gene Cernan: Moon Explorer


Captain Gene Certan at a memorial for his friend and colleague Neil Armtrong in 2012.

Today’s news that astronaut Andrew Eugene “Gene” Cernan died came just as I was finishing reading the book Fallen Astronauts. It’s the story of the astronauts and cosmonauts who died from the beginning of the Space Age up until the end of the Apollo missions. Captain Cernan was involved with the authors as they researched and wrote the book and penned a lovely introduction to the work. It is a finely detailed book that I recommend to any fans of space exploration history, particularly the early days.

Captain Cernan was a hero in his own right, taking trips into space on Gemini and Apollo missions. It was on Apollo 17 that he realized the immensity of the U.S. cancelling its moon flight programs, and he spoke movingly of his being the last man to stand on the lunar surface. He later wrote a book called “The Last Man on the Moon”, which was turned into a documentary.

I met Captain Cernan a few times at conferences, and enjoyed talking with him. He always was a kind man. Very polite and willing to talk about his experiences. we once shared a limo ride to a conference, and I  remember sitting there wondering what to ask him without sounding like a space fangrrrl.  Finally, I settled on asking him how it felt to be on the Moon that first night on Apollo 17. He laughed and said that he couldn’t get to sleep; he kept looking out the window of the lander.  He mentioned how excited they both were, and that he’d never forgotten that sense of adventure.

He and Harrison Schmitt spent 22 hours on the lunar surface, collecting rocks and exploring the valley where they landed. One of his most evocative images was one of our home planet hanging blue and white above the gray lunar landscape. It spoke volumes about his perception of our home in space and the enormous steps he and others took to explore the Moon.

It’s with great sadness we salute Captain Cernan’s passing. He is among the dwindling few men who focused our attention on the early days of lunar exploration. I sincerely hope that he will not remain the “last man on the Moon” for long.