Eugene Cernan, the last astronaut to leave his footprints on the surface of the moon, has died, NASA said Monday. The retired United States Navy captain was 82. Cernan's family confirmed the news in a statement Monday, saying he died following "ongoing health issues."
"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. Cernan's death comes a little more than a month after fellow astronaut John Glenn died in December.
Cernan earned several distinctions in his 13 years with NASA. He was the second American to walk in space and one of three men to have flown twice to the moon. But he's best remembered as commander of Apollo 17, the last mission to the moon in December of 1972.
The beginnings of the man
Cernan was born in Chicago, Illinois, on March 14, 1934. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering in 1956 from Purdue University, where he received his commission through the Navy ROTC Program. He entered flight training upon graduation and went on to earn a Master of Science degree from the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
Cernan, a Captain in the U.S. Navy, left his mark on the history of exploration by flying three times in space, twice to the moon. He also holds the distinction of being the second American to walk in space and the last human to leave his footprints on the lunar surface.
He was one of 14 astronauts selected by NASA in October 1963. He piloted the Gemini 9 mission with Commander Thomas P Stafford on a three-day flight in June 1966. Cernan logged more than two hours outside the orbiting capsule.
In May 1969, he was the lunar module pilot of Apollo 10, the first comprehensive lunar-orbital qualification and verification test of the lunar lander. The mission confirmed the performance, stability, and reliability of the Apollo command, service and lunar modules. The mission included a descent to within eight nautical miles of the moon's surface.
On the moon
On his second sojourn in May 1969, he was pilot of Apollo 10's lunar module, the first comprehensive lunar-orbital qualification and verification flight test of an Apollo lunar module. He made his third space flight as spacecraft commander of Apollo 17, the last scheduled manned mission to the moon, in December 1972.
With the support of lunar module pilot Harrison H. Schmitt, Cernan established a base of operations in the moon's Taurus-Littrow valley and made a home there for the mission for three days. The mission launched on December 6, 1972 and returned two weeks later. It established several new records for manned space flight, including longest manned lunar landing flight (301 hours, 51 minutes), and longest lunar surface extravehicular activities (22 hours, 6 minutes).
Leaving the moon in 1972, Cernan said, "As I take these last steps from the surface for some time into the future to come, I'd just like to record that America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow."
"Apollo 17 built upon all of the other missions scientifically," Cernan recalled in 2008. "We had a lunar rover, we were able to cover more ground than most of the other missions. We stayed there a little bit longer. We went to a more challenging unique area in the mountains, to learn something about the history and the origin of the moon itself."
Up until his death he was passionate about space exploration and hoped America's leaders would not let him remain the last man to walk on the Moon, his family said.
"Gene's footprints remain on the moon, and his achievements are imprinted in our hearts and memories," NASA's administrator Charles Bolden said.