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CERNAN, EUGENE ANDREW [GENE]

Eugene A. Cernan (1934–2017).
Naval pilot Capt. Eugene A. Cernan was one of fourteen astronauts selected by NASA in 1963. He flew in space three times. Courtesy NASA.

CERNAN, EUGENE ANDREW [GENE] (1934–2017). Eugene Andrew “Gene” Cernan, United States Navy test pilot and astronaut, was born on March 14, 1934, in Chicago. He was the son of Andrew and Rose (Cihlar) Cernan. He grew up in the Midwest and graduated from Proviso Township High School in Maywood, Illinois, in 1952. He attended Purdue University and earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1956. While at Purdue, he joined the U.S. Navy Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) and eventually became a naval pilot. Cernan later earned his master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, in 1963.

Cernan came of age during the space race of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and like many other military and test pilots of that time, he applied to become an astronaut. He joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1963.

Gene Cernan—Gemini 9 Spacewalk.
On June 5, 1966, Gene Cernan became the second American to walk in space. The spacewalk lasted two hours and eight minutes. Commander Tom Stafford shot this photograph. Courtesy NASA.

Cernan flew in space three times. His first flight, in June 1966, was aboard Gemini 9, a two-person spacecraft. He was pilot and Thomas P. Stafford was command pilot. During this flight, Cernan stepped outside the capsule to perform an extravehicular activity (EVA, also known as a spacewalk). On June 5, 1966, he became the second American to walk in space. San Antonian Edward Higgins White II, who flew aboard Gemini 4 in 1964, was the first. Cernan’s observations during his spacewalk led to more innovations in the design and cooling features of spacesuits as well as considerations of workload.

Cernan’s second flight was aboard Apollo 10 in May 1969. This spacecraft held three astronauts. He was lunar module pilot, Stafford was commander, and John W. Young was command module pilot. With this setup, when the spacecraft achieved lunar orbit, Cernan and Stafford detached the lunar module (call sign Snoopy) and descended to eight miles from the lunar surface. The module did everything but land, while Young piloted the command module (call sign Charlie Brown) and remained in orbit. When the Snoopy finished its work, it returned and redocked with the Charlie Brown. Cernan and Stafford re-boarded the Charlie Brown, jettisoned the Snoopy, and returned to Earth. The mission was successful and set the stage for the first manned lunar landing mission, Apollo 11, in July 1969.

Cernan commanded Apollo 17, the final manned lunar landing mission, in 1972. Harrison “Jack” Schmitt was lunar module pilot. Ron Evans was command module pilot. On this mission when Apollo 17 reached lunar orbit, Cernan and Schmitt flew the lunar module (call sign Challenger) to the Taurus-Littrow Valley on the lunar surface. Meanwhile, Evans remained aboard the command module (call sign America).

Apollo 17—Gene Cernan on the Moon.
Apollo 17 Mission Commander Eugene Cernan stands between the American flag and the lunar rover in this photograph taken on December 12, 1972. Cernan was the last man to walk on the Moon. Courtesy NASA.

Cernan and Schmitt performed three moonwalks. Using a lunar rover, they covered about nineteen miles and collected more than 240 pounds of moon rocks for scientists to study on Earth. Before re-boarding the Challenger for the last time, Cernan, mindful of his status as the last man on the moon, said: “America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And as we leave the moon and Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came, and, God willing, we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”

Cernan recalled those words as the last official statement on the moon. But his actual last words, spoken just before launching to rendezvous with the America, were to Schmitt: “Let’s get this mutha outta of here.” On Apollo 17 Cernan set a career record for 566 hours in space, including 73 hours on the moon’s surface. The mission also set records as the longest lunar landing flight at more than 300 hours and the longest lunar surface extravehicular activities at more than twenty-two hours. In 2009 NASA launched the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which took photos of the Apollo landing sites, including that of Apollo 17.

Cernan subsequently worked on the development of the United States–Soviet Union Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in 1975 before his retirement from NASA and the United States Navy in 1976. After leaving NASA, Cernan remained in Houston, where he worked as an executive for Coral Petroleum. In 1981 he founded Cernan Corporation, an energy and aerospace consulting business. He worked as a commentator for ABC News during its coverage of the space shuttle and testified before U. S. Congress on space-related issues. From 1994 to 2000 he was chairman of Johnson Engineering Corporation. He had a ranch in Kerrville, which he described as his personal “Tranquility Base,” where he enjoyed hunting, fishing, and flying his personal Cessna 421 aircraft.

Cernan was a member of a number of engineering and science organizations, including the American Astronautical Society, Tau Beta Pi, Sigma Xi, and the Society of Experimental Test Pilots. He served on the board of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the U. S. Naval Aviation Museum Foundation. His many honors included the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, Navy Distinguished Flying Cross, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Special Trustees Award, Federation Aeronautique Internationale Gold Space Medal, Navy Astronaut Wings, and Daughters of the American Revolution Medal of Honor, as well as several honorary doctorates. He was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1982, the U. S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 1993, and the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2000. 

Cernan wrote his autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon, in 1999 and admitted that for a “suitable encore [to being an astronaut], nothing has ever come close.” A documentary about his life, based on the book, was released in 2016.

Cernan married twice during his life. In 1961 he married Barbara Jean Atchley; they divorced in 1981. He later married Jan Nanna. Eugene Andrew Cernan died on January 16, 2017, in Houston. He was eighty-two. He was survived by his wife Jan, a daughter, and two stepdaughters. A funeral service was held at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston. He was later buried at the Texas State Cemetery in Austin and was the first astronaut so honored.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Eugene Cernan and Don Davis, The Last Man on the Moon (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999). Gene Cernan: The Last Man on the Moon (http://egger1.com/), accessed July 10, 2017. Houston Chronicle, January 18, 2017. Joe Leydon, “Gene Cernan,” Cowboys & Indians, August/September 2015 (http://www.cowboysindians.com/2015/08/gene-cernan/), accessed July 10, 2017.  NASA: Remembering Gene Cernan (https://www.nasa.gov/astronautprofiles/cernan), accessed July 10, 2017. New York Times, January 16, 2017. 

George Slaughter

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Handbook of Texas Online, George Slaughter, "Cernan, Eugene Andrew [Gene] ," accessed November 19, 2017, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fcern.

Uploaded on July 11, 2017. Modified on July 12, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.