Funeral Service Will Remember Gene Cernan, Last Man To Walk On The Moon

Jan 24, 2017
Originally published on January 24, 2017 1:05 pm
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Family and friends gathered today in Houston to remember the astronaut Gene Cernan, who died last week. More than 40 years ago, he became the final person to walk on the moon. NPR's Russell Lewis reports.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Gene Cernan loved leaving the Earth, whether flying his own plane or landing a spaceship on the moon. He was proud of what he did in 1972 during Apollo 17, NASA's last and longest lunar mission. Here he is joking with fellow astronaut Harrison Jack Schmitt on their first moonwalk as Schmidt was exiting the lunar module.

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GENE CERNAN: Hatch is closed.

HARRISON JACK SCHMITT: Barely.

CERNAN: Hey, Jack, don't lock it.

SCHMITT: I'm not going to lock it.

CERNAN: We got to go back there. You lose the key, and we're in trouble.

LEWIS: They spent three days on the surface of the moon. When Cernan got there, it wasn't the barren lunar landscape that surprised him.

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CERNAN: The color of the Earth is so dominant. It's penetrating. And, you know, you can't take your eyes off it.

LEWIS: Cernan said he was lucky to be on that mission. Just before he was named to the crew, he almost died when his helicopter crashed into a river because he was showing off, and some in NASA wanted him grounded because of it. And as he told NPR in 2015, he turned down an earlier chance to land on the moon because he wanted to be the commander, not the pilot.

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CERNAN: I proved to myself - as I said, I sort of felt like I'd been an underdog most of my life. I proved to myself that I was good enough, that I could get the job done. That was a big point in my life.

LEWIS: He went to space three times, including another trip to the moon, Apollo 10, the mission just before the first lunar landing. Before he joined NASA, he flew jets in the Navy and studied engineering in college. Francis French of the San Diego Air and Space Museum says Cernan was special among the Apollo astronauts.

FRANCIS FRENCH: Gene Cernan's probably somebody who should have run for political office because he can win over a room in an instant.

LEWIS: In his years after NASA, Cernan spoke often about the importance of exploration and encouraging young people to dream big and then follow through.

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CERNAN: You know, someone asked me, what would you like to put on your tombstone? You know, that's a tough one. You know, just believe in yourself. The impossible does happen.

LEWIS: For Cernan, the impossible did happen. He was forever called the last man on the moon, but he was troubled by it because for the past 44 years, it was a title he felt he held too long. He just assumed humans would have returned by now. Only 12 people ever walked on the moon, just six are still alive. Russell Lewis, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASTRALIA'S "SANS SOLEIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.