Eugene “Gene” Cernan (1934-present) is a retired American astronaut who flew in space three times during his career with NASA: once in Project Gemini, and then again on Apollo 10 and Apollo 17. He is currently the last human being to have walked on the moon, since there have been no follow-up lunar missions since the end of Apollo.
– Early Life and Military Service –
Cernan was born to Czechoslovakian parents in Chicago. He attended college at Purdue University, earning a degree in electrical engineering. (Several years later, he earned a graduate degree in aeronautical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School, as well.)
Degree in hand, Cernan, like the other early NASA astronauts, enlisted in the armed forces, in his case as an officer due to his experience in the Naval ROTC as a university student. He was trained in naval jet aviation.
– Project Gemini –
This background made Cernan ideal as NASA went about recruiting candidates for Astronaut Group 3, a set of fourteen men who made up the third selection of new astronauts. The first two astronaut groups had prized test pilots, but by Group 3, Cernan’s skill set remained more than acceptable. After earning his new job in 1963, Cernan was on the back-up crew for Gemini 9, and was promoted to the flight crew after a tragic airplane crash led to the deaths of the original crew, Elliot See and Charles Bassett.
On the resulting flight, Gemini 9A, Cernan was the pilot, commanded by Thomas Stafford, a former test pilot who rejoined with Cernan on the Apollo 10 flight. Gemini 9A blasted off on June 5, 1966, on a three-day, 47-orbit space flight. Non-threatening equipment problems plagued the flight. The Atlas rocket for the target vehicle to be launched into orbit for the astronauts to rendezvous with failed during launch, and a hastily assembled replacement vehicle – which the astronauts did approach in orbit – could not be docked with because it failed to separate from its protective shroud. Cernan made a spacewalk with the primitive Astronaut Maneuvering Unit (a predecessor of similar but far more advanced Space Shuttle technology), but his space suit overheated and his visor fogged up.
Despite the difficulties, Gemini 9A experienced no malfunctions that actually threatened the spacecraft, and it re-entered the atmosphere to make a normal splashdown into the ocean. Cernan and Stafford were recovered by the crew of the USS Wasp, which was less than a kilometre away from their splashdown site.
– Apollo Missions –
Cernan entered space for a second time on Apollo 10, the fourth manned Apollo mission and the last not to actually land on the Moon. (That honour belonged to the crew of Apollo 11.) Cernan, reunited with Stafford, joined accomplished astronaut John Young to circle the Moon. This flight tested all of Apollo’s mission objectives short of actually landing, including separating with the lunar module in lunar orbit, surveying the landing site, and then rendezvousing again with the command module.
On Apollo 17, Cernan got his chance to actually complete the process. This time flying with Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt, a geologist rather than a pilot, Cernan descended to the moon, landing with Schmitt on December 11, 1972, to spend an unprecedented three-day mission on the lunar surface. They landed in the rough, rocky Taurus-Littrow region and made three lengthy surface trips using the rover vehicle. As was standard for Apollo trips, they also collected rock samples before making their ascent back to the command module. Apollo 17 splashed down in the Pacific and the crew were recovered by the USS Ticonderoga.
Cernan has the distinction of being the last human to walk on the Moon, since there were no follow-up lunar missions after Apollo 17. Before climbing back into the lander, he transmitted, “we leave as we came, and God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”
– Later Life –
In 1976, Cernan retired from the U.S. Navy and from NASA after spending several years as an assistant developing the joint Soviet-American Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous mission. He subsequently entered the private sector, working as an executive with Coral Petroleum in Texas, and then founding his own aerospace consulting company, Cernan Corporation. Subsequently, Cernan returned to NASA work as a private contractor, serving on the board of NASA’s flight crew systems developer, Johnson Engineering.
In recent years, Cernan has published a book about his moon flights and has appeared in the documentary When We Left Earth.