Wednesday 22 November 2017

Obituary: Gene Cernan

Third astronaut to walk in space who became the last to leave his footprints on the moon

Gene Cernan Credit: EPA/NASA
Gene Cernan Credit: EPA/NASA Business Desk Business Desk

Gene Cernan, the US astronaut, who died last Monday aged 82, became famous as the last man to leave his footprints on the moon on December 13, 1972, when he climbed the ladder of the lunar module of Apollo 17, having previously made a vital contribution to the space programme on the Gemini 9 and Apollo 10 missions.

Cernan made his debut aboard Gemini 9 in 1966, when he became the third person (and second American) to walk in space, a mission which very nearly put him into permanent earth orbit. Cernan was attached to the spacecraft with a long "umbilical cord". But the cord kept getting in the way of his manoeuvres and his spacesuit did not appear to be cooled.

Cernan spent two hours and seven minutes outside Gemini 9 and was supposed to make his way from the front of the capsule to the rear. But as he got hotter, his heart rate increased dangerously and his helmet fogged up. As a result he was unable to complete his walk and did not have a chance to test a new jetpack. But the lessons learnt brought improvements which have made spacewalks from the International Space Station almost routine.

Cernan's first Apollo flight was as pilot of Apollo 10, commanded by Tom Stafford, in May 1969 - a dress rehearsal for Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's Apollo 11 moon landing two months later.

During the flight Cernan and Stafford tested new procedures for the rendezvous between the lunar module Snoopy and the command service module piloted by John Young. They tested the landing radar and photographed the proposed inaugural landing site in the Sea of Tranquility, travelling to within 50,000ft of the lunar surface. Nasa legend has it that Snoopy carried half the fuel that would have been required for a landing in case the two astronauts were tempted to cheat the Apollo 11 team of the headlines. Among other things Apollo 10 broke the record for the highest speed attained by a manned vehicle after the command module reached 24,791mph during re-entry.

By 1972, when Cernan finally got the opportunity to walk on the moon, public interest had waned. Nasa was turning its attention to Skylab and the space shuttle and showed every sign of wanting to get Apollo 17 over with. As commander of the mission, however, Cernan was determined to make the most of it.

Cernan, Jack Schmitt and Ronald Evans left earth on December 7, 1972. Four days later, as Evans orbited the moon in the command module, Cernan and Schmitt descended to Taurus-Littrow, a rugged mountain valley, aboard the lunar lander. During daily moonwalks over the next three days, the two astronauts gathered soil and rock samples and conducted seismic experiments.

As the outing drew to a close, Schmitt clambered into the lander while Cernan parked the rover a mile from the spacecraft so that a video camera could record their liftoff on December 14.

"As I take these last steps from the surface for some time to come," he said as he mounted the steps to the lander, "I'd just like to record that America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow."

He had intended to convey his belief that America should not turn away from what it had started with Apollo, but as the lander blasted off, President Richard Nixon sounded the death knell for the programme: "This may be the last time in this century that men will walk on the moon.''

Cernan reflected: "We went to the moon and somehow forgot to keep going."

Eugene Andrew Cernan was born on March 14, 1934 into a working class family in Chicago. From Proviso Township High School in Maywood, Illinois, he took a degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University, Indiana, in 1956, after which he joined the US Navy and trained as a pilot. After taking a degree in aeronautical engineering in 1963 from the Naval Postgraduate School, he was one of 14 astronauts selected by Nasa to take part in the Gemini and Apollo space programmes. As well as his space missions, Cernan was a backup crew member for the Gemini 12 and Apollo 7 and 14 missions.

In 1976 Cernan retired from Nasa and from the military, at 42 the youngest captain in the US Navy. He had been offered a job at the Pentagon, but the prospect of a desk job did not appeal. Instead he became a petroleum company executive and founded his own aerospace technology and marketing consulting firm. He also bought a ranch in Texas and later became a campaigner for space exploration.

In a memoir, The Last Man on the Moon (1999), he admitted struggling to adjust to normal life after his time in space, putting a strain on his first marriage, which was dissolved in 1981. His memoir inspired Mark Craig's 2014 documentary of the same name, a nostalgic look at the era of space exploration in which footage showing the glamorous lifestyle of America's space heroes of the 1960s and 1970s was juxtaposed with shots of Cernan walking around a rusting launch site. "A half century ago Americans were walking on the moon," Cernan said. "Today we've been told it's going to take a trampoline to get us back to our own space station. That hurts, quite frankly."

Cernan is survived by his second wife, Jan, by the daughter of his first marriage and by two stepdaughters.


Sunday Independent

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