Tuesday 17 January 2017
At 1.54pm on 11 December 1972, Gene Cernan piloted Challenger, Apollo 17’s lunar module, into the Taurus-Littrow valley, near the Sea of Serenity, on the surface of the moon. In later years Cernan, who has died aged 82, would describe the valley where he had landed accompanied by the geologist Jack Schmitt as “our own private little Camelot”.
Three days later, having travelled to such locations as the Sculptured Hills, and the Van Serg and Sherlock craters, the astronauts prepared to leave. Cernan marked out his daughter Teresa’s initials in the dust, where they remain. Before climbing back into the lunar module, he paused and spoke to Mission Control back in Houston: “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.”
In the intervening years, God, or at least the US government, has been decidedly unwilling. To the dismay of astronauts such as Cernan, who labelled it a “slide to mediocrity”, and the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, who jointly appealed to President Barack Obama in 2010, Cernan remains the last human being to have trodden on the surface of the moon. “It was perhaps the brightest moment of my life, and I can’t go back,” he said. “I am one of only 12 human beings to have stood on the moon. I have come to accept that, and the enormous responsibility it carries, but as for finding a suitable encore, nothing has ever come close.”
By the time he made the moon landing, Cernan was already a seasoned space explorer. In May 1969 he had been a crew member, flying low over the lunar surface in the LMlunar module, when Apollo 10 conducted the dress rehearsal for Armstrong and the first moon landing.
In May 1966 he accompanied Tom Stafford on the Gemini 9 mission, which entailed an extraordinarily hazardous space walk with Cernan, 185 miles above the Earth’s surface, entangled in his equipment. Back on Earth, Stafford recounted that Cernan had asked him if he would have left him marooned in space. Stafford told him: “How could you give a shit? You’re already dead.”
Cernan’s roots were in central Europe. His mother, Rose (nee Cihlar), was of Czech ancestry and the family of his father, Andrew, a supervisor at a naval installation, were Slovak. Gene was born in Chicago, Illinois, and raised in the towns of Maywood and Bellwood, west of Chicago. He left Proviso East High School, Maywood, in 1952 and studied electrical engineering at Purdue University, Indiana. Coincidentally, both Cernan and Armstrong were Purdue graduates.
While at university, Cernan had joined the US Navy’s officer training corps, aiming for a commission in the naval reserves, which he got in 1956. By 1958 he was a naval flier, posted to Miramar, California – later to be known as the “Topgun” air station – and piloted FJ4 Fury and A4 Skyhawk subsonic fighters. Then, in 1963, he completed his training with a master’s in aeronautical engineering from the naval postgraduate school in Monterey, California. It was a CV that made him an obvious candidate for the space programme.
The military and civil competition between the US and the Soviet Union, which had seen the latter put the first satellite into space, and in 1961 the first man, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit, crystallised when, on 25 May that year, President John F Kennedy pledged that the US would conduct a successful moon landing by 1970. The Mercury programme was about getting an astronaut into orbit – a task first accomplished by John Glenn in early 1962. The second stage was Gemini – developing the technology to prepare for a moon landing. The third, Apollo, was about going to the moon. In 1959 the “Mercury Seven” became the first US astronaut team, and Cernan was subsequently inspired by Alan Shepard, the first American in space – albeit for a mere 15 minutes. In October 1963 Nasa accepted Cernan as a trainee astronaut.
After the Apollo 17 mission, Cernan was part of the team on the Apollo-Soyuz project that brought the cold war rivals together in space. In 1976 he quit Nasa and became an oil executive in Houston, Texas. Later he founded a consultancy specialising in energy and aerospace and chaired the Johnson Engineering Corporation (1994-2000). Cernan never severed his links with science and space, and was employed by ABC-TV as a commentator on issues around the space programme.
In 1999 he published, with Don Davis, his autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon, and last year a documentary of the same name went on general release.
Cernan is survived by his second wife, Jan Nanna, and by his daughter, Teresa, from his first marriage, to Barbara (nee Atchley), which ended in divorce.
• Eugene Andrew Cernan, astronaut, engineer and pilot, born 14 March 1934; died 16 January 2017