Gene Cernan, the last person to walk on the moon, dies at 82

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Jan 19, 2017, 3:02 PM EST (Updated)

Eugene "Gene" Cernan, a NASA legend who remains the last person to set foot on the moon, passed away Monday with his family at his side. He was 82.

After graduating from Purdue University with a degree in electrical engineering, flying in attack squadrons for the U.S. Navy and earning a master's degree in aeronautical engineering, Cernan was selected as part of NASA's third astronaut class in 1963. In 1966, he became the second American to walk in space as part of the Gemini 9 mission, spending more than two hours outside the spacecraft despite overheating issues that caused him to lose 13 pounds from sweating. He later termed the ordeal the "spacewalk from hell."

In 1969, Cernan returned to space onboard Apollo 10, serving as lunar module pilot as NASA tested its readiness for the historic Apollo 11 mission later that year. Together with commander Tom Stafford, Cernan brought the lunar module Snoopy within eight nautical miles of the moon's surface.

"I keep telling Neil Armstrong that we painted that white line in the sky all the way to the Moon down to 47,000 feet so he wouldn't get lost, and all he had to do was land," Cernan later joked. "Made it sort of easy for him."

Then came Apollo 17. Cernan served as commander of NASA's final moon mission, which still holds several spaceflight records, including most time spent orbiting the moon (147 hours and 48 minutes) and most lunar samples taken (nearly 250 pounds). Cernan and lunar module pilot Harrison H. Schmitt spent more than three days on the lunar surface, and logged more than 22 hours outside the lunar module. When it was time to leave, Cernan traced his daughter's initials into the powdery surface, then spoke the last words uttered by a human standing on the moon.

"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 retired from the Navy and NASA in 1976 and went into private business but remained an active advocate for space exploration for the rest of his life. He served as a commentator on space shuttle launches and, in 2010, testified before Congress on the importance of returning humans to the moon and, one day, Mars.

"Neil [Armstrong] 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 said. "When I leave this planet, I want to know where we are headed as a nation. That's my big goal."

Cernan was, and is, a symbol of what human ambition can achieve, but he was also determined to keep pushing forward, to prove that he did not represent the end of something. He longed to see others follow him -- and, one day soon, hopefully they will.

(Via AP and NASA)