Captain Eugene Cernan, USN

astronauts, Eugene Cernan, NASA.

(March 14, 1934 – January 16, 2017)

Gene Cernan joined NASA as part of Astronaut Group 3 alongside Al Bean in 1963. He had gained a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University, curiously the alma mater of Neil Armstrong. Purdue graduates were thus both the first and last to walk on the moon.

Cernan’s first assignment was as part of the backup crew alongside Thomas Stafford for Gemini 9. Cernan and Stafford became the prime crew following Elliot See and Charles Bassett’s tragic deaths in an air crash. This bump from backup to prime crews was the first time in NASA history that had ever happened.

Beset with problems, Gemini 9A nevertheless successfully conducted a rendevous procedure. Subsequently used in Apollo 10 that rendevous procedure was essential to the aims of landing on the moon. Cernan also conducted the second American and third-ever EVA (space walk) during the mission.

While the flight of Gemini 9A was in low earth orbit, Apollo 10 – Cernan’s second assignment – was the second mission to lunar orbit. Cernan was the LEM Pilot in a mission which was a dress rehearsal for the proposed moon landing attempt of Apollo 11. Together with mission commander, Thomas Stafford, Gene Cernan piloted the LEM to within 9 miles of the lunar surface. The crew of Apollo 10 still hold the record for being the fasted human beings ever, reaching a speed of more than 11km per second on their return from the moon on May 26, 1969.

Cernan’s third and final mission was as commander of Apollo 17, making him one of one three people to travel to the moon twice. The other two were Jim Lovell and John Young. When the Apollo program was conceived it was expected to last until Apollo 20. However congressional disquiet about budgets and waning public interest curtailed the planned missions. First Apollos 19 and 20 were shelved. Then 18 followed soon after. As a result there was growing pressure from the scientific community to replace Joe Engle as 17’s LEM pilot with Harrison Schmitt. Schmitt was the only professional geologist in the Apollo astronaut corps. It was rightly thought that his insights would be invaluable to the research elements of the Apollo program.

As the final mission, Apollo 17 set a number of records. One of these was Cernan’s solo ride in the lunar rover when he achieved a speed of 11.2mph. This remains the unoffical lunar land speed record. On December 14, 1972, Cernan climbed up the ladder of the LEM to begin the return to Earth. No one has set foot on the moon since.

Photographed at the Royal Society, London. March 2010.