Members of the Kennedy Space Center community gathered Wednesday afternoon to remember astronaut Gene Cernan with a wreath-laying service at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Cernan died Monday in Houston at age 82.
“One of the things that he was extremely passionate about was exploring beyond our home planet, developing that capability to go back to the moon and then go beyond,” said Bob Cabana, a former astronaut who is director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “In talking with him, there was nobody who was more supportive of what we were doing and that’s his legacy, one of exploration and taking the word ‘impossible’ out of the dictionary.”
Although Cernan made history several times lifting off a few miles away aboard Gemini and Apollo spacecraft, he is best known for commanding Apollo 17, the last mission that saw men walk on the moon’s surface.
Cernan, a Navy fighter pilot before joining NASA in 1963, and Harrison “Jack” Schmidt made three moonwalks over the course of about three days as they lived on the moon and drove 22 miles across its face using the lunar rover. Ron Evans flew the Apollo command module during the mission and remained in lunar orbit while Cernan and Schmidt conducted their surface experiments and collected hundreds of pounds of moon rocks.
Cernan climbed the ladder into the lunar module after his third moonwalk in December 1972, saying, “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.”
The astronaut made his first spaceflight in June 1966 as pilot of Gemini 9 with Thomas Stafford commanding. They maneuvered the Gemini spacecraft through rendezvous with an unmanned satellite before Cernan stepped outside the capsule for his first spacewalk. Wednesday’s remembrance ceremony inside the Heroes and Legends hall took place a short walk from the exhibit featuring the Gemini 9 capsule.
Cernan’s second mission would take him within a few miles of the moon’s surface as lunar module pilot of Apollo 10. Again with Stafford commanding the mission, Cernan was joined by John Young who flew the command module during the flight that would rehearse all the aspects of Apollo 11 flight, except of course, the touch down.
Though he retired from NASA in 1976, Cernan regularly visited Kennedy and was a frequent guest speaker for groups large and small. He was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 1993. Cernan and Stafford spoke to a group of then-new shuttle astronauts in 1978 including Jon McBride.
“Gene was one of the foremost advocates of nurturing and encouraging our young people to follow in his footsteps,” McBride said. “He didn’t want people to talk about him as the last man to walk on the moon, he wanted to be called ‘the most recent’ person to walk on the moon. He was an idol for me and an idol for millions.”
Photo credits: Top, Cernan after moonwalk during Apollo 17: NASA; right – NASA/Ben Smegelsky, right middle and bottom – NASA