'An Outstanding Crewmate': Gene Cernan, Last Man on the Moon, Remembered

Gene Cernan (left) and Harrison Schmitt
Last men on the moon: Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan (left) and Harrison Schmitt after leaving the moon in 1972. (Image credit: NASA)

The death of Eugene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, elicited heartfelt remembrances from his fellow astronauts and those now working at NASA to follow in his footsteps.

"As commander of our December 1972 Apollo 17 mission, he was an outstanding crewmate," wrote Apollo 17 lunar module pilot Harrison Schmitt. Schmitt and Cernan were the last moonwalkers to explore the lunar surface. "Geno, I wish you had time for one more run in the [Lunar Module Simulator] before you leave. Have a good flight. Again, God Speed..."

Cernan, who died Monday (Jan. 16) at age 82, launched three times to space and was one of only three astronauts who flew to the moon twice. In addition to leading the final moon landing, Cernan became only the second American to walk in space during the Gemini 9 mission in 1966, and was lunar module pilot on Apollo 10, the "dress rehearsal" for the first moon landing, in 1969. [In His Own Words: Gene Cernan on Being the Last Man on the Moon]

"I've lost the brother I never had," stated Thomas Stafford, who led both Gemini 9 and Apollo 10. "We flew together twice. We lived through several life and death experiences in those missions."

"I will never forget our great friendship and [the] trust we developed for one another. We were a great team, and he will be greatly missed," said Stafford in a statement shared by the Oklahoma museum that bears his name.

With Cernan's death, six out of the 12 humans who walked on the moon are now deceased.

"I lost another friend and the world lost another hero," said Apollo 11 lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin.

"With the passing of the First Man — Neil Armstrong, and the passing of the Last Man — Gene Cernan, it is up to us 'Middle Men' to carry on spirit of Apollo into the future for our nation and the world," Aldrin wrote on his website.

Cernan was a strong advocate for expanding U.S. human space exploration beyond Earth orbit, joining fellow Apollo astronauts Jim Lovell and the late Armstrong in delivering testimony before Congress to support returning astronauts to the moon. Although Cernan titled his memoir "The Last Man on the Moon," it was not a distinction he desired.

Gemini 9A and Apollo 10 crewmates Tom Stafford (left) and Gene Cernan together at an Apollo 11 40th anniversary press conference held at NASA Headquarters in July 2009. (Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

"Very sad to see that the world has lost Gene Cernan. The last man on the moon, but he didn't want to be," tweeted Tim Kopra, who commanded the 47th expedition on board the International Space Station in 2016.

"America has lost a patriot and pioneer who helped shape our country's bold ambitions to do things that humankind had never before achieved," said Charles Bolden, NASA Administrator and former space shuttle astronaut. "Gene's footprints remain on the moon, and his achievements are imprinted in our hearts and memories."

"He was one of a kind and all of us in the NASA family will miss him greatly," Bolden said in a statement.

In addition to his fellow astronauts, tributes were shared by many of the organizations Cernan worked with, including the San Diego Air and Space Museum in California, Space Center Houston, the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration and the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation.

"Gene Cernan will always be remembered as the 'last man on the Moon' — at least until the next person walks there," Michael Neufeld, a curator in the space history division at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., wrote on the Smithsonian museum's website. "Perhaps the most articulate of the moon-walking astronauts, he felt that it was his mission to make his audiences feel as if they had been there too."

Cernan is survived by his second wife, Jan, his daughter and son-in-law, Tracy Cernan Woolie and Marion Woolie, step-daughters Kelly Nanna Taff and husband Michael and Danielle Nanna Ellis and nine grandchildren.

"We truly appreciate everyone's thoughts and prayers," the Cernan family said in a statement released on Monday by NASA. "Gene, as he was known by so many, was a loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend."

"As we say goodbye, it seems fitting to share the last line in Gene's book, as he explains his experience of walking on the moon to his then five-year-old granddaughter, 'Your Poppie went to Heaven. He really did.'"

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Robert Z. Pearlman
collectSPACE.com Editor, Space.com Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of collectSPACE.com, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for Space.com and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.