Eugene "Gene" Cernan: The Last Human Being to Walk on the Moon

Eugene "Gene" Cernan was the last man to ever walk on the Moon. But who was he?
Christopher McFadden

Everyone knows about the first time that mankind placed a foot on the Moon, but what about the last time? That honor goes to the revered and sadly missed, Eugene Cernan

Here we explore his life in brief and uncover some of the highlights of this great man's career in the air and space. 


When was the last moonwalk?

On the 13th of December 1972, the crew of Apollo 17 reached the Moon and landed on it for, unbeknownst to them, the last time in history. The lunar landing site was the Taurus-Littrow Highlands and valley area of the Moon.

The mission was an extraordinary one by any standards, with a nighttime launch (at 12:33 am Eastern Standard Time from Cape Canaveral, Florida), and three days on the Moon. It was also distinguished by its inclusion of the battery-powered Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV). 

The mission included three trips in the lunar rover, the longest of which saw the crew travel 4.7 miles (7.5 km) from the lunar module in the LRV. It was also the first time a trained scientist landed on the Moon. 

Eugene Cernan photo
Eugene "Gene" Cernan Source: NASA

This was the maximum safe distance they could travel if the rover failed and they were forced to walk back to the module. More lunar rocks were collected than any of the previous landings and these were collected by a trained geologist - Harrison Schmitt. 

Just before re-entering the module for the final time, Eugene "Gene" Cernan uttered the final, now infamous words, “… as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”

We are yet to return. 

According to NASA, "This site was picked for Apollo 17 as a location where rocks both older and younger than those previously returned from other Apollo missions, as well as from Luna 16 and 20 missions, might be found." 

The objectives of the missions were:

  • Geological surveying and sampling of materials and surface features in a preselected area of the Taurus-Littrow region.
  • Deploying and activating surface experiments.
  • Conducting in-flight experiments and photographic tasks during lunar orbit and transearth coast. 
  • Some lunar orbital experiments include Biostack II and the BIOCORE experiment.
Eugene Carnan Apollo 17 rover
Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan, the commander, makes a short checkout of the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Various instruments were deployed including, but not limited to:

  • The Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package, or ALSEP. This device included a heat flow experiment, and lunar seismic profiling, or LSP.
  • Lunar surface gravimeter, or LSG.
  • Lunar atmospheric composition experiment, or LACE.
  • Lunar ejecta and meteorites, or LEAM. 

The mission would prove to be the last in a series of three J-type missions planned for the program. J-type missions differed from others (G- and H0-) through extended hardware capability, larger scientific payload capacity and by the use of the battery-powered Lunar Roving Vehicle, or LRV. 

Who was the last man to walk on the moon?

At 5:40 UT (Universal Time) on December the 14th 1972, Eugene "Gene" Cernan entered the history books when he took humankind's final step on the Moon. For over half a century, this is yet to be achieved once more. 

The module lifted off the Moon's surface at 22:54 UT the same day.

Just prior to this event, Cernan and Schmitt televised and unveiled a plaque on the lunar module that read, “Here man completed his first exploration of the Moon, December 1972 A.D. May the spirit of peace in which he came to be reflected in the lives of all mankind.”

eugene cernan apollo 17 module
Apollo 17 Lunar Module Source: Wally Gobetz/Flickr

Who was Eugene "Gene" Cernan?

As we have already mentioned, Eugene Cernan is most famous for being the last man to walk on the moon. But, there is much to this man's life than this significant mark in human history. 

Cernan was born on the 14th of March 1934 in Chicago, USA. He would later graduate from Proviso Township High School in Maywood, Illinois. Eugene Cernan later received a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University in 1956.

Cernan then completed a master of science degree in aeronautical engineering from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. 

"Gene" Cernan was a Captain in the United States Navy and distinguished himself by making no less than three flights into space, two of which were to the Moon. Throughout his Naval career, Cernan racked up over 5,000 hours (4,000+ on jets) flying T-28 Trojans, T-33 Shooting Stars, F9F Panther, FJ-4 Fury, and A-4 Skyhawks. 

His career had some other interesting highlights including becoming the second American to walk in space, where he spent more than two hours in space.

eugene cernan last walk on moon
Source: Kelly Michals/Flickr

In 1963, Cernan became one of only 14 astronauts selected by NASA. He piloted the Gemini 9 mission alongside Commander Thomas P. Stafford on a three-day flight in June 1966. 

Cernan piloted the lunar module for Apollo 10 in 1969, which was the first comprehensive lunar-orbital qualification and verification test of the lunar lander. This mission also included a descent up to around 8 nautical miles (14.8 km) of the Moon's surface. 

The only real difference between Apollo 10 and Apollo 11 is that Cernan and the module didn't actually land. 

"I keep telling Neil Armstrong that we painted that white line in the sky all the way to the Moon down to 47,000 feet (14.3 km) so he wouldn't get lost, and all he had to do was land. Made it sort of easy for him," Cernan joked in a 2007 interview with NASA.

After the mission, Cernan would retire from the Navy in July of 1976 after 20 years of service. He went into private business thereafter and served as a television commentator for early space shuttle flights. 

Eugene "Gene" Cernan: The Last Human Being to Walk on the Moon
The official emblem of the Apollo 17 lunar landing mission
Source: NASA

He would later die in hospital on the 16th of January 2017 in Houston, Texas. Cernan was 82 years old. He was buried with full military honors at Texas State Cemetery and was the first astronaut to be buried there. 

Cernan is survived by his wife, Jan Nanna Cernan, his daughter and son-in-law, Tracy Cernan Woolie and Marion Woolie, step-daughters Kelly Nanna Taff and husband, Michael, and Danielle Nanna Ellis and nine grandchildren.

Eugene's illustrious career has been honored in various ways including the naming of the Cernan Earth and Space Center in his hometown of Chicago. This is a public planetarium sited on the campus of Triton College. 

eugene cernan space center
The Cernan Earth and Space Center building Source: Triton College/Twitter

The center has a 93-seat capacity underneath a 13-meter dome theater that houses a Konica-Minolta Super MediaGlobe II full-dome digital projector, a Voyager V-17OWC laser projection system, and numerous auxiliary projectors.

Who were the crew of the Apollo 17 mission?

The Apollo 17 crew included Eugene "Gene" Cernan (1937-2017) as the Commander of the mission, Harrison H. Schmitt (1935-) as the Lunar Module Pilot and Geologist of the mission, and Ronald E. Evans (1933-1990) as the Command Module Pilot. 

eugene cernan apollo 17 crew
Eugene Cernan (far left) at the Apollo 7 press conference, 1967 Source: NASA APPEL Knowledge/Flickr

In case of any issues, the backup crew for the mission was John W. Young as Commander, Charles M. Duke Jr. as the Lunar Module Pilot, and Stuart A. Roosa as the Command Module Pilot.

How did Eugene Cernan die?

The last man to walk on the moon, Eugene "Gene" Cernan, died on the 16th of January 2017. His family confirmed in a statement to the press that Cernan died of "ongoing health issues". 

When he died, Cernan had reached the ripe old age of 82, and his health had been in decline for several years owing to his advanced age. 

"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 Cernan family added in an official statement. 

Eugene Cernan Apollo 17 module
Eugene Cernan (left) and Ronald Evans (right) during the Apollo 17 mission Source: NASA

Eugene Cernan died a little over a month after a fellow astronaut, John Glenn, died in December 2016.

Eugene "Gene" Cernan was one of the most accomplished astronauts in human history and, at least for now, holds the honor of being the last member of our species to ever walk on the Moon. For how much longer he will posthumously hold this title is anyone's guess, but he is fondly remembered by friends, family. colleagues, and space enthusiasts to this very day. 

Eugene Cernan, we salute you!

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