Eugene A. Cernan, Navy Veteran and the last astronaut to walk on the moon, died on Monday at the age of 82 due to ongoing health issues, his family confirmed in a statement.
“Our family is heartbroken, of course, and we truly appreciate everyone’s thoughts and prayers. Gene, as he was known by so many, was a loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend,” the family said.
Cernan was surrounded by his loved ones when he died at a Houston hospital, family spokeswoman Melissa Wren told The Associated Press.
“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 in a statement released by NASA.
Cernan was the second American to walk in space and one of three men to have flown twice to the moon, and on Dec. 14, 1972, he became the last of a dozen men to walk on it. He was best remembered as the commander of Apollo 17, the final mission to the moon.
Cernan called it “perhaps the brightest moment of my life. … It’s like you would want to freeze that moment and take it home with you. But you can’t.”
Right before climbing the ladder of the lunar module for the last time, Cernan traced his child’s initials into the dust.
“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.”
Cernan testified before Congress decades later to push for space exploration in hopes that he wouldn’t be the final man to walk on the moon.
“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.”
During his final conversation with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, he talked about hopes that America’s youth would become inspired to science, mathematics, technology “and to dare to dream and explore,” NASA told CNN.
“Gene’s footprints remain on the moon, and his achievements are imprinted in our hearts and memories,” Bolden said.
Cernan graduated from Proviso Township High School in Maywood, Ill., in 1952, and received an electrical engineering degree from Purdue in 1956. He received a master’s in aeronautical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., in 1963.
He was one of 14 astronauts selected by NASA in October 1963 for the Apollo program.
Cernan also participated in Gemini missions, NASA’s second human spaceflight program. In his first spaceflight, Gemini 9 in 1966, he joined Col. Thomas Stafford of the Air Force on a three-day orbital mission testing rendezvous and docking procedures. He became the second American to walk in space and spent more than 2 hours outside the Gemini spacecraft.
In May, 1969, he was pilot of Apollo 10’s lunar module. It was the first lunar-orbital qualification and verification flight test of an Apollo lunar module. The lunar module Snoopy came within 10 miles of the moon’s surface.
After Apollo 17, Captain Cernan helped develop the United States-Soviet project Apollo-Soyuz as special assistant to the program manager of the Apollo program at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
He retired from the Navy in 1976 and then worked for a Houston energy firm, Coral Petroleum. He later began his own aerospace consulting company called Cernan Corporation before becoming the chairman of the Johnson Engineering Corporation from 1994 to 2000.
A documentary about his life, “The Last Man on the Moon” was released in 2016.
Cernan logged 566 hours and 15 minutes in space, with more than 73 of them on the moon’s surface.