Eugene A. Cernan, the last person to walk on the moon, died on January 16, 2017, at age 82.
Cernan who was the commander of the Apollo 17 lunar-landing mission in 1972 has been to space thrice. He was the second American to drift around in space on a rope, and this experience had almost led him to die!
Cernan went to space three and a half years after Neil Armstrong- the first man on the moon had, in 1969. He was part of the Apollo program, which was President John F. Kennedy’s pledge to America to get more Americans on the moon. Sounds like an unusual presidential pledge doesn’t it? Here’s what it was really all about.
President Kennedy’s Pledge
On May 25 1961, President Kennedy had announced his vision of sending a man to the moon, and have him return back safely.
The reason for such a pledge was simple- the Cold War. Tension between the USA and USSR (currently Russia) was increasing, and Kennedy felt the pressure to “catch up to and overtake” the USSR in the “space race”. In 1959, the Soviet space program advanced with the launch of Luna 2, the first spaceship to land on the moon. By April 1961, Soviet astronaut Yuri Gagarin had become the first human to go to space.
This is what led to the creation of the Apollo Program in the U.S. The six successful Apollo missions did not only achieve the goal of bringing astronauts back safely, but also bringing lunar samples, including materials like soil from the Moon, rocks, etc. which were studied in great detail.
Cernan’s first flight into space was in the spacecraft Gemini 9. At the time, his mission was to do one of America’s first spacewalks, which sounds incredible. But unfortunately for Cernan, it wasn’t. The spacecraft that he was on, was not designed with enough handholds- something you can grip with your hand, and this made the mission extremely difficult and risky.
Although he traveled to space thrice, the mission that Cernan enjoyed the most, was his very last one. As the commander of Apollo 17, he spent three entire days on the moon exploring with Jack Schmitt, an American geologist.
The goals of the Apollo 17 mission included studying samples of materials found on the moon, conducting experiments in the spacecraft during the three days and taking photographs during lunar orbit. They also observed special features of the valley of Taurus-Littrow -- a valley created by the impact of a comet or mountain-sized asteroid on the surface of the moon. The astronauts had been able to gather 243 pounds of material from the moon- all of which have not been completely studied yet!
In announcing Cernan’s death, Charles Bolden (NASA’s Administrator) said, “ Truly, America has lost a patriot and pioneer who helped shape our country's bold ambitions to do things that humankind had never before achieved." Cernan’s family added, “Even at the age of 82, Gene was passionate about sharing his desire to see the continued human exploration of space and encouraged our nation's leaders and young people to not let him remain the last man to walk on the Moon”.