Eugene Andrew Cernan was born on March 14, 1934 in Chicago, and studied Engineering at Purdue University before joining the US Navy as a pilot. In 1963, Cernan was selected in the third group of US astronauts along with Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Michael Collins, and Alan Bean among others. Cernan went to space for the first time as the pilot of Gemini 9A, with astronaut Thomas Stafford as Command Pilot. The two flew the mission because the primary crew had been killed in a plane crash, and the mission was scheduled to rendezvous and dock with a target vehicle in Earth orbit, but they were unable to due to damaged docking equipment. During the mission, Cernan performed the second American spacewalk (EVA, or extravehicular activity).
Cernan’s astronaut career continued into the Apollo program, where he flew as the Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 10, a dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 mission which made Neil Armstrong the first man to set foot on the Moon. Cernan flew the Lunar Module to within 8.4 nautical miles of the lunar surface, and the crew set a world record for the highest speed attained by a manned vehicle at 24,791 mph. They also set a record for flying the farthest distance from home when their spacecraft orbited the far side of the Moon while Houston was on the far side of the Earth.
In order to have an opportunity to command a lunar mission, Cernan passed up the chance to walk on the Moon as the Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 16 and instead flew as Commander of Apollo 17, which was the final Apollo mission to the Moon. Cernan and Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt spent just over three days on the Moon, and performed three moonwalks totaling about 22 hours outside the spacecraft. They also put more than 22 miles on the Lunar Rover’s odometer, and Cernan set an unofficial lunar speed record of 11.2 mph on the Rover’s final drive. As Cernan began to climb the the ladder to leave the Moon, he said,
Bob, this is Gene, and I’m on the surface; and, as I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I’d like to just (say) what I believe history will record: that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, 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. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.
During the Apollo program, Cernan became one of only three astronauts to fly to the Moon twice (Jim Lovell and John Young, commander of the first Space Shuttle flight, were the others). Cernan left the Navy and NASA in 1976 to enter private business, but remained an advocate of space flight, appearing as a contributor on ABC News and writing a memoir of his career titled The Last Man on the Moon. Triton College, in Riverside Illinois, is home to the Cernan Earth and Space Center, which features a planetarium and artifacts from Cernan’s Gemini and Apollo missions. Cernan died on January 16, 2017 at the age of 82.