Gene Cernan was the 11th person to set foot on the moon and the last one to leave a footprint there. He died Jan. 16 at the age of 82. Yet most people today don’t know who he is or the significance of what he accomplished. His funeral was held Tuesday at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston. News of his passing and coverage of his funeral were overshadowed by the inauguration of President Donald Trump and the riots, marches and protests that stalked it.
Please allow me to put things into historical perspective for those of you who were too caught up in current events to notice the passing of a great man who is not just an American treasure but a global historical figure whose place in history has not yet been fully appreciated.
There have been 58 inaugurations of the 45 Presidents (not counting the nine extraordinary inaugurations of Presidents who took office due to the death or resignation of their predecessor). Compare that to the 24 men who have gone to the moon and the dozen who have walked on it. Of those 12, only six remain. Can you name them? Would you even recognize them if you walked by them on the street?
Sending men to the moon and returning them safely to the earth is unquestionably mankind’s greatest achievement. Those brave men who rose to the challenge and accomplished the seemingly impossible should be remembered as household names and enshrined in history books for eternity. Yet most of them have lived fairly obscure lives since Cernan, Ron Evans and Harrison Schmitt returned from the moon in December of 1972.
Most people will recognize the names of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as the first and second men to walk on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Armstrong, who shunned notoriety, passed away in 2012. Aldrin, at age 87, remains America’s most enthusiastic ambassador to space and is an unabashed advocate for sending humans to Mars.
What about the other 10? Of them, five have died: James Irwin (Apollo 15) in 1991, Alan Shepherd (Apollo 14) in 1998, Pete Conrad (Apollo 12) in 1999, Edgar Mitchell (Apollo 14) in 2016 and Cernan (Apollo 17) in 2017. The surviving moonwalkers include Aldrin, Alan Bean (Apollo 12), 84; David Scott (Apollo 15), 84; John Young (Apollo 16), 86; Charles Duke (Apollo 16), 81; and Schmitt (Apollo 17), 81. Of the six still alive, three live in Texas – Bean and Young in the Houston area and Duke in New Braunfels. Three of the 12 moonwalkers were born in Texas – Bean, Mitchell and Scott.
Cernan was born in Chicago in 1934. He graduated from Purdue University in 1956 and entered the Navy where he became a naval aviator (he retired a captain) and earned his master’s degree in aeronautical engineering. He was selected by NASA in its third astronaut group. He made his rookie trip to space on Gemini 9A with Tom Stafford on June 3-6, 1966. He was accompanied by Stafford and Young on his second flight, Apollo 10, which orbited the moon in the final dress rehearsal for the first moon landing. The flight took place May 18-26, 1969 and Cernan served as the lunar module pilot. Three years later from Dec. 7-19, 1972, Cernan was the commander of Apollo 17, the last manned flight to the moon. He and Schmitt spent a record three days on the moon while Evans orbited above in the command module.
Cernan is one of only three men to make two trips to the moon. He and Young both walked on it and Jim Lovell orbited it twice, first on Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, and again on Apollo 13, the mission that had to abort a landing following an explosion shortly after launch.
On the moon, Cernan and Schmitt performed three extra-vehicular activities (EVA) totaling 22 hours exploring the moon’s Taurus-Littrow valley. The two men traveled about 22 miles on three different excursions in the lunar rover and spent a lot of time collecting samples and placing experiments. The mission set several records, including the longest moon landing, longest total moonwalks, largest lunar sample and the longest time in lunar orbit. (Cernan holds the lunar speed record of 11.2 mph.)
Cernan followed Schmitt into the lunar module after the last EVA, but before he did, he paused to say the final words spoken by man from the surface of the moon:
“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.”
Cernan didn’t live long enough to see man return to the moon. Given the current state of affairs, it is unlikely any of the moonwalkers will see the day when humans follow in their footsteps. That may not be a bad thing, however, if we can forge on and place footprints on Mars and other worlds.
Surely the first adventurers to reach the Red Planet will be remembered among the great explorers of Earth. I just hope they will be remembered with greater reverence and dignity than these 24 brave men who broke the bonds of our planet and journeyed forth on the greatest adventure in human history.
Godspeed Gene Cernan.