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Gene Cernan, last man to set foot on moon, dies

| Monday, Jan. 16, 2017, 11:24 p.m.
Astronaut Gene Cernan is pictured in the Command Module during the outbound trip from the moon during the Apollo 17 mission in this December, 1972 NASA handout photo.
REUTERS
Astronaut Gene Cernan is pictured in the Command Module during the outbound trip from the moon during the Apollo 17 mission in this December, 1972 NASA handout photo.

The last man to walk on the moon died Monday in Houston at 82.

The family of Eugene “Gene” Cernan said he had ongoing health issues, but his cause of death was not immediately known. Cernan, a Navy fighter pilot in October 1963, was one of 14 NASA chose for its third astronaut class.

“Oh, my golly,” Cernan told mission control in Houston as he touched the moon. “Unbelievable.”

He piloted the Gemini 9 mission alongside command pilot Tom Stafford and became the second American to walk in space — what he termed a “spacewalk from hell” in which his equipment didn't work effectively, he became overheated and he barely got back in the spacecraft, said space historian Roger Launius, associate director of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Yet that didn't dim his desire to go up again, flying on Apollo 10, the dress rehearsal to the first lunar landing.

“Even at the age of 82, Gene was passionate about sharing his desire to see the continued human exploration of space and encouraged our nation's leaders and young people to not let him remain the last man to walk on the moon,” his family said Monday in a statement released by NASA.

Cernan was one of two astronauts to fly to the moon on two occasions, the second time as commander of Apollo 17, the last mission to the moon. In total, Cernan spent more than 73 hours on the satellite's surface.

Cernan and crewmate Harrison H. “Jack” Schmitt were on the moon for three days. They completed excursions to nearby craters and the Taurus-Littrow mountains.

“America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow,” he said Dec. 14, 1972, as he left the lunar surface. “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.”

He traced the initials of his only child — 9-year-old daughter Teresa Dawn “Tracy” Cernan — in the dust on the moon's surface before climbing the ladder of the lunar module for the final time.

“Those steps up that ladder, they were tough to make,” Cernan recalled in a 2007 oral history. “I didn't want to go up. I wanted to stay a while.”

Two years earlier, NASA had announced that Apollo 17 would be the final mission of the Apollo program. Apollo 18, 19 and 20 had been canceled in favor of the Skylab space station, which launched May 14, 1973, but crashed to earth July 11, 1979, after its orbit began decaying. Decades later, Cernan testified before Congress to push for a return moon landing. But as the years went by, he realized he wouldn't live to witness someone follow in his footsteps that are still visible on the moon more than 40 years later.

“Neil (Armstrong, who died in 2012) and I aren't going to see those next young Americans who walk on the moon. And God help us if they're not Americans,” Cernan testified before Congress in 2011. “When I leave this planet, I want to know where we are headed as a nation. That's my big goal.”

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