Gene Cernan, the last man to have his boots on the surface of another celestial body, died on Monday, January 16, 2017. NASA summed up Cernan’s career by saying:
Cernan, a Captain in the U.S. Navy, left his mark on the history of exploration by flying three times in space, twice to the moon. He also holds the distinction of being the second American to walk in space and the last human to leave his footprints on the lunar surface.
Cernan’s family issued a statement expressing their heartbreak and adding:
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.
We met the Apollo 10 and Apollo 17 astronaut once, in August 2014, when he was waiting in line at the Southwest Airline counter at BWI. It’s a story we shared in a post about something else (read that whole post HERE). Here’s the story as we told it then:
Sated with our visit to NASM, we headed home from our cross-country jaunt on Saturday. We returned our rental car, boarded the shuttle bus back to the airport, and heard the doors whoosh shut on our journey. But wait! As we peered out the bus’s window, we saw a spry, white-haired man exit the rental car facility and head behind to the next bus. We had missed meeting Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon! Or did we?
We never use curbside check-in, but there was no one in line, and that vantage allowed us to watch for the next bus from the rental car facility. We didn’t see Gene Cernan get off the bus, but Doug headed one way and I headed the other to check the adjacent terminal stops.
There he was!
Apollo 17 Astronaut Gene Cernan, waiting in line to check in for his flight just like everybody else.
We approached. Doug said, “Mr. Cernan.” His daughter nudged him in our direction. “Could we take your photograph?” Doug asked. We thought he might be bothered, feel interrupted.
Instead, he came right over to the rope, grabbed Anna’s hand, and said, “How about two?” We chatted briefly about our flying plans that day, and Anna thanked him for going to the Moon for all of us. When he showed up in the security area, Anna wished him a good flight just before he entered the body scanner.
Meeting Gene Cernan was indeed a happy accident. But it happened because we recognized someone who matters to us and were willing to take a little risk to seek out his company for a couple of minutes. Gene Cernan reminded us of that need both for immersion in our interests and for openness to what we can’t possibly predict will happen.
We’ll conclude with Cernan’s own words, from the Moon and from the documentary The Last Man on the Moon:
As I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come (but we believe not too long into the future), I’d like to just say what I believe history will record: That America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind.
Dream the impossible – and go out and make it happen. I walked on the moon. What can’t you do?