Gene Cernan, last person to walk on the moon, dies at 82

Jan 16 (Reuters) - Former U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan, who became the last astronaut to walk on the moon in an experience that he said made him one with the universe, died on Monday at 82, the U.S. space agency said.

Cernan, who also was one of the first men to go on a spacewalk, died surrounded by his family, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said in a statement without giving details.

Cernan and fellow Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt became members of the most exclusive club in the universe on Dec. 11, 1972, when they stepped from their lunar landing module onto the moon's surface. Only 10 other people - all American astronauts - had done so before and none since.

See the famed astronaut throughout his life:

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Gene Cernan through the years
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Gene Cernan through the years

Astronaut Gene Cernan is shown being prepared for the Gemini-9 orbital space flight.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan touches an American flag on the surface of the moon. A gibbous Earth is in the sky above.

(Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

Gene Cernan wears a serious expression here after getting into his space suit for another try at Gemini 9 launch.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Astronaut Gene Cernan tethered to the Gemini 9 spacecraft as it orbits the Earth. | View from: 'Gemini 9' Spacecraft.

(Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Gemini 9 backup crew members are, Commander, Thomas P Stafford and pilot Eugene A Cernan. The back-up crew became the prime crew when on 28 February 1966 the prime crew for the Gemini 9 mission were killed when their twin seat T-38 trainer jet aircraft crashed into a building during a landing approach in bad weather.

(Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Apollo 17 astronauts pose in their moon rover after the spacecraft atop a Saturn 5 rocket (background) reached the launch pad here August 28th. Left to right: Command Module pilot Ronald Evans; Lunar Module pilot Harrison (Jack) Schmitt; and Commander Gene Cernan. The spacecraft made its trip from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the pad where it will be readied for the scheduled December 6th blastoff.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Gene Cernan wears a serious expression here after getting into his space suit for another try at Gemini 9 launch.

(Bettmann via Getty Images)

Apollo 14 backup crew (left to right): Joe Engle, LMP (Lunar Module Pilot); Gene Cernan, CMDR (Commander) and Ronald Evans (CMP) pose in front of a Lunar Module mock-up at Kennedy Space Centre. Astronauts Edgar Mitchell, Al Shepard and Stuart Roosa were the crew for the third successful lunar landing mission. Apollo 14 was launched on 31 January 1971 to furnish additional knowledge of the Moon and its history. Shepard and Mitchell became the fifth and sixth men to walk on the lunar surface, and Shepard the first to hit a golf ball on the Moon.

(Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Astronaut Gene Cernan is pictured in the Command Module during the outbound trip from the moon during the Apollo 17 mission in this December, 1972 NASA handout photo. The photograph is one of more than 12,000 from NASA's archives recently aggregated on the Project Apollo Archive Flickr account.

(REUTERS/NASA/Handout)

Space Shuttle 'Columbia' Behind-the-Scenes Launch Coverage from Cape Canaveral

Airdate: April 12, 1981.

L-R: EUGENE 'GENE' CERNAN;JULES BERGMAN

(Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images) 

Gene Cernan, a former U.S. astronaut, poses for photographs in front of a Bombardier Global Express airplane, at the Nagoya 2004 Business Aviation Conference at Nagoya Airport, March 2, 2004 in Nagoya, Japan. This conference to promote the aviation business is being held in Japan as it is their next target market.

(Photo by Koichi Kamoshida/Getty Images)

Former astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, stands next to a wall of photographs he made on the Apollo 17 mission, at the Museum of Natural History in New York, May 7, 2004. Cernan, who flew on Gemini 9 and Apollo 10 and 17 missions where he was the second American to walk in space, and the last person to step on the lunar surface, now promotes space exploration to the moon, Mars and beyond.

(REUTERS/Chip East)

Apollo astronauts pose at the new Apollo/Saturn V Center at a gala at the Kennedy Space Center, January 8. Seated (L to R): Buzz Aldrin, Richard Gordon, Edgar Mitchell, Charlie Duke, Walter Cunningham. Back row: Thomas Stafford, Russell Schweickart, Gene Cernan, William Anders and John Young. The center displays artifacts from the era of the Apollo lunar missions. Above the astronauts is one of the few remaining Saturn V rockets, the type used in the Apollo program.

(Joe Skipper/Reuters)

Ben Bridge is proud to partner with Omega Watches, NASA and the Seattle Museum of Flight to bring to the city of Seattle personal appearances by Gemini and Apollo Mission astronauts Captain Gene Cernan and Lieutenant General Thomas P. Stafford, as well as a spectacular Apollo XI spacesuit, a lunar rover and rare moon rock sample from NASA, that will be part of the visit on Saturday, April 28, 2007. 

(Photo by Kevin Casey/WireImage for Omega Watches)

Ben Bridge is proud to partner with Omega Watches, NASA and the Seattle Museum of Flight to bring to the city of Seattle personal appearances by Gemini and Apollo Mission astronauts Captain Gene Cernan and Lieutenant General Thomas P. Stafford, as well as a spectacular Apollo XI spacesuit, a lunar rover and rare moon rock sample from NASA, that will be part of the visit on Saturday, April 28, 2007.

(Photo by Kevin Casey/WireImage for Omega Watches)

Ben Bridge is proud to partner with Omega Watches, NASA and the Seattle Museum of Flight to bring to the city of Seattle personal appearances by Gemini and Apollo Mission astronauts Captain Gene Cernan and Lieutenant General Thomas P. Stafford, as well as a spectacular Apollo XI spacesuit, a lunar rover and rare moon rock sample from NASA, that will be part of the visit on Saturday, April 28, 2007. 

(Photo by Kevin Casey/WireImage for Omega Watches)

Ben Bridge is proud to partner with Omega Watches, NASA and the Seattle Museum of Flight to bring to the city of Seattle personal appearances by Gemini and Apollo Mission astronauts Captain Gene Cernan and Lieutenant General Thomas P. Stafford, as well as a spectacular Apollo XI spacesuit, a lunar rover and rare moon rock sample from NASA, that will be part of the visit on Saturday, April 28, 2007.

(Photo by Kevin Casey/WireImage for Omega Watches)

Ben Bridge is proud to partner with Omega Watches, NASA and the Seattle Museum of Flight to bring to the city of Seattle personal appearances by Gemini and Apollo Mission astronauts Captain Gene Cernan and Lieutenant General Thomas P. Stafford, as well as a spectacular Apollo XI spacesuit, a lunar rover and rare moon rock sample from NASA, that will be part of the visit on Saturday, April 28, 2007.

(Photo by Kevin Casey/WireImage for Omega Watches)

Astronaut Capt Gene Cernan speaks at the Omega Celebrates The 40th Anniversary of The Apollo Moon Landing at South Coast Plaza on July 11, 2009 in Costa Mesa, California. (

Photo by Frazer Harrison/WireImage)

Gene Cernan speaks at a presentation of a lunar rover, Apollo 10 space suit and Mars rover along with Speedmaster mission watches from Gemini and Apollo missions for the Oklahoma City community to celebrate this historic milestone in space exploration presented by OMEGA and B.C. Clark at B.C. Clark Penn Square Mall on May 27, 2010 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

(Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images for OMEGA)

Last man to walk on the moon Captain Gene Cernan attends the Opening of the New Omega Boutique Sloane Street on July 8, 2015 in London, England.

(Photo by Mike Marsland/WireImage)

Last man to walk on the moon Captain Gene Cernan attends the Opening of the New Omega Boutique Sloane Street on July 8, 2015 in London, England.

(Photo by Mike Marsland/WireImage)

Last man to walk on the moon Captain Gene Cernan attends the Opening of the New Omega Boutique Sloane Street on July 8, 2015 in London, England.

(Photo by Mike Marsland/WireImage)

 (L-R) Producer Mark Stewart, Sir John Young 'Jackie' Stewart, and former Apollo astronaut Captain Gene Cernan attend the Washington DC screening of 'The Last Man On The Moon' at Landmark Theatre on February 24, 2016 in Washington, DC.

(Photo by Teresa Kroeger/FilmMagic)

Former Apollo astronaut Captain Gene Cernan attends the Washington DC screening of 'The Last Man On The Moon' at Landmark Theatre on February 24, 2016 in Washington, DC.

(Photo by Teresa Kroeger/FilmMagic)

NASA Astronauts Captain Kent Rominger, left, and Captain Gene Cernan, spoke to students at Churchill Road Elementary School in McLean, Va. on Feb 24, 2016. Cernan who was last person to touch the surface of the moon as a NASA astronaut, talked talked to students about space travel and life as an astronaut.

(Kate Patterson for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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"Oh, my golly," Cernan told mission control in Houston as he touched the moon. "Unbelievable."

For three days, the moon was home for Cernan and Schmitt. They rambled more than 19 miles (30 km) in their lunar roving vehicle and gathered more than 220 pounds (100 kg) of rocks during their 22 hours of exploration of craters and hills.

"I knew that I had changed in the past three days and that I no longer belonged solely to the Earth," Cernan wrote in a memoir titled "The Last Man on the Moon." "Forever more, I would belong to the universe."

Cernan was 38 years old when he blasted off for the moon on Dec. 7, 1972, as commander of Apollo 17. With Ronald Evans orbiting above in the command module, Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, a geologist, rode the lunar lander to the moon's surface four days later.

They explored for about seven hours each day and Cernan wrote that moonwalking was painful for him because he had injured a tendon in his leg two months earlier playing softball.

On the day before returning to the command module, Cernan drove the rover to a point away from the lunar module so that a camera on the vehicle could film their departure. He then paid tribute to his young daughter, Tracy.

"I took a moment to kneel and with a single finger, scratched Tracy's initials, TDC, in the lunar dust, knowing those three letters would remain there undisturbed for more years than anyone could imagine," Cernan wrote in his memoir.

The size 10-1/2 boot prints that Cernan made on his walk back to the module afterward marked the last steps man has taken on the moon. Cernan said he spoke spontaneously as he returned to the lunar module.

"As we leave the moon and Taurus-Littrow (a deep lunar valley where they had landed), we leave as we came, and God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind," he told mission control.

"As I take these last steps from the surface for some time to come, I'd just like to record that America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. Godspeed to the crew of Apollo 17."

WANTED TO STAY

In a 2007 interview for NASA's oral history program, Cernan recalled his final moments before climbing back in the lander.

"Those steps up that ladder, they were tough to make," he said. "I didn't want to go up. I wanted to stay a while."

Apollo 17 was Cernan's last flight as an astronaut after 566 hours and 15 minutes in space.

Cernan was born March 14, 1934, and grew up near Chicago. He was in the military officers training program at Purdue University, where he first met Neil Armstrong, who would become the first moonwalker.

Cernan became a Navy test pilot and joined the astronaut corps in October 1963. His first space flight came three years later due to a tragedy. Cernan and Thomas Stafford had been designated to be the backups for Gemini 9 and had to take over the three-day mission when the original crew members were killed in a plane crash.

Cernan became the third person - following a Russian cosmonaut and U.S. astronaut Ed White - to make a spacewalk on the Gemini mission and set what was then a record by being outside the spacecraft for two hours and nine minutes.

In 1969, Cernan was the pilot of the Apollo 10 lunar module that came within 9.6 miles (15.6 km) of the moon's surface after separating from the command module. The descent toward the surface served as a dress rehearsal for Apollo 11, which two months later delivered the first men to the moon, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Cernan retired from NASA and the Navy in 1976. As a civilian he helped start Air One airline, worked as an energy and aerospace consultant, served as chairman of an engineering company and was a space commentator for ABC News.

In 2011, after NASA ended the space shuttle program, Cernan joined Armstrong in testifying before a congressional committee to urge the government not to give up on space exploration. Cernan was particularly critical of the decision by President Barack Obama's administration not to pursue the Constellation program, which aimed to send astronauts to the moon and Mars.

"I don't think he fully understands what traditional America is all about because he didn't literally grow up here," Cernan said of Obama in a 2012 interview with Fox News.

Cernan met his first wife, Barbara, who had been a flight attendant for Continental Airlines, on a plane. They divorced in 1981 after 20 years and one child and in 1987 he married Jan Nanna with whom he had two daughters.

Related: Also look back at the Apollo moon landing:

7 PHOTOS
Apollo 16 moon landing
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Apollo 16 moon landing
Astronaut Charles Duke Jr, Apollo 16 lunar module pilot, salutes the US flag at the Descartes landing site during the mission's first extravehicular activity, Moon, April 21, 1972. The Lunar Module and the Lunar Roving Vehicle are at the left. (Photo by NASA/Underwood Archives/Getty Images)
Astronaut Charles M, Duke, Jr, On Moon, Charles M, Duke, Jr, Lunar Module Pilot Of The Apollo 16 Mission, Collecting Lunar Samples At The Rim Of The Plum Crater, April 1972. (Photo By Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG Via Getty Images)
THE MOON - APRIL 22: Apollo 16 astronaut John W. Young is photographed by Charles M. Duke Jr. as he deploys a scientific experiment on April 22, 1972 on the Moon. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)
(GERMANY OUT) Mondspaziergang: Astronaut John W. Young am Heck des Mondautos auf der Mondoberfläche - April 1972 (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
A NASA picture taken on May 5, 1972 shows A close-up view or 'mug shot' of Apollo 16 lunar sample no. 68815, a dislodged fragment from a parent boulder. A fillet-soil sample was taken close to the boulder, allowing for study of the type and rate of erosion acting on lunar rocks. AFP PHOTO NASA (Photo credit should read /AFP/Getty Images)
Moon rock - 128 grams (part of a 5.5 kilo boulder) is a piece of our nearest planetary neighbour, the moon, collected by the astronauts of the Apollo 16 mission in April 1972. (Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG/Getty Images)
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