Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, has passed away

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Out of all the billions of people who have lived on Earth, only 12 of them walked on the moon. Yesterday, on Martin Luther King Day, the last man to set foot on the moon passed away. Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan was 82 at the time of his death, but in 1972 at the age of 38 he had the great and sorrowful honor of being the last man to set foot on the moon.

Cernan began his career as a Naval Aviator flying FJ-4 Fury and A-4 Skyhawk jets. In a few year’s he’d be flying something with a little more power. His time at NASA started with the Gemini program, the precursor to Apollo. Gemini was geared toward working out how humans could survive in space. Cernan was originally a backup pilot for Gemini 9, but the primary crew was tragically lost in a plane crash four months before launch. That left Cernan as the pilot and Thomas Stafford as the command pilot on Gemini 9A. That missions successfully completed 47 orbits of the Earth and included a 2-hour spacewalk.

In addition to being the last man to walk on the moon, Cernan has the distinction of being one of only three people to travel to the moon twice. His first Apollo mission was Apollo 10, which you might recognize as the mission before the famous moon landing with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Apollo 10 launched in May of 1969, just a few months before Apollo 11. It was basically a dress rehearsal for the actual moon landing that was to follow. The craft orbited the moon and Cernan took the LM down to the moon as if it was going to land, but only to an altitude of 8.4 nautical miles. That’s where the powered descent to the surface would take place, but Apollo 10 was just there to test the system, not land. In fact, NASA didn’t completely fuel the LM in order to discourage the crew from deciding to just set down on the surface and stick their tongues out at Mission Control. Technically, they could have landed, but they wouldn’t have been able to lift off again.

Cernan

Cernan finally got to set foot on the moon as commander of Apollo 17 (seen above after a stroll on the moon), the final manned mission to the lunar surface. The mission reached the moon’s surface on December 19th, 1972. The crew had known since 1970 that Apollo 17 was slated to be the final manned mission to the moon, but that was just Apollo. Perhaps Eugene Cernan didn’t realize that no one would be back to the moon for the remainder of his life when he stepped off the lunar surface that day, but here we are decades later and confined to low-Earth orbit.

There are currently only six living humans who have walked on the moon: Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, Charles Duke, Harrison Schmitt (who was on Apollo 17 with Cernan), John Young, and David Scott. They’re all in their eighties now.



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