On December 7, 1972, NASA’s Apollo 17 mission took off under the command of Gene Cernan. Four days later, the crew touched down on the lunar surface. It was Cernan’s third and final trip to space — and, as it would turn out, the final time to date that NASA would send a team to walk on the moon.
For all the seemingly buttoned-down operations of a government organization like National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Cernan simply wasn’t able to hide a childlike excitement at becoming one of only a dozen people to walk on the lunar surface.
“We’d like to dedicate the first steps of Apollo 17 to all those who made it possible,” the astronaut radioed upon exiting the lander. “Oh my golly! Unbelievable!”
Upon leaving the moon, his words were decidedly more reflective, carrying the sort of profundity we’ve come to expect from the space program. “As I take these last steps from the surface for some time into the future to come, I’d just like to record that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow.”
NASA reports that Cernan died earlier today in Texas, at the age of 82, after succumbing to ongoing health issues. “Gene’s footprints remain on the moon, and his achievements are imprinted in our hearts and memories,” Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement released by NASA.
During his career at NASA, the former Navy pilot became one of three people to travel to the moon twice, having also been aboard Apollo 10, the so-called “dress rehearsal” for the first moon landing. He also became the second American to walk in space as a pilot on the harrowing Gemini 9 mission.
Cernan again, in his own words:
We truly are in an age of challenge. With that challenge comes opportunity. The sky is no longer the limit. The word impossible no longer belongs in our vocabulary. We have proved that we can do whatever we have the resolve to do. The limit to our reach is our own complacency.