Of 6.6 billion people now on Earth, there are only nine people still living who walked on another celestial body between 1969 and 1972. They are all over age 70 and they are all American men. The last man to walk there was a native of Illinois. Retired U.S. Navy Captain Eugene A. Cernan was Commander of Apollo 17 and was "the last man to walk on the moon" in December 1972. But Gene does not like that title and would like to get rid of it. In 2000, he wrote in his auto-biography, "Somewhere on Earth today is the young girl or boy, the possessor of indomitable will and courage, who will lift that dubious honor from me and take us back where we belong."
Gene Cernan was born March 14, 1934 in Chicago. His mother was of Czech heritage and his father was a Slovak. He lived his first few years in Broadview and grew up in Bellwood, Illinois in western Cook County. He attended Bellwood public schools and graduated from Proviso Township High School (now called Proviso East campus) in Maywood in 1952. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering from Perdue Univesity in 1956. While at Perdue, he trained with the Navy ROTC and received a commission in the U.S. Navy upon graduation in 1956. Gene Cernan became a Navy aviator and test pilot. He holds a Masters Degree in aeronautical engineering from the Naval Post Graduate School. Gene continued his education even after he left NASA and went into private business in 1976. He took classes at Northwestern University and The Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania.
NASA selected Gene to be in its astronaut class of 1963 to be trained for both the Gemini and Apollo manned-space programs. In June 1966 Gene became the second American to walk in space as part of his duties as pilot on board Gemini 9 with command pilot Tom Stafford. Gene spent a total of two hours and ten minutes outside the spacecraft. In May 1969 Gene joined Tom Stafford again and John W. Young on board the Apollo 10. Gene is only one of twelve Americans to walk on the moon and one of only three to visit the vicinity of the moon twice. His was the Lunar Module commander of Apollo 10, a dress rehearsal for the moon landing. But that spacecraft could not land since it had no landing gear.
The Apollo 17 take off in December 1972 on board a Saturn V rocket. It was the only night launch of a Saturn rocket in the history of NASA. The rocket lit up the sky of south Florida almost as if a small sun had risen just after midnight. For about two minutes, almost one million people on the beaches north and south Cape Canaveral could be seen as if it were daytime. Gene Cernan came back to Bellwood, Illinois for many visits in the middle 1970s including a dinner in his honor in 1973 and for various July 4th and Labor Day parades. He was often welcomed by long-time Bellwood Mayor Sig Davis and the late Cook County Commissioner Hal Tyrell of La Grange Park. In 1976, Captain Cernan retired from the Navy and from NASA to enter private business. In 2000, Cernan wrote The Last Man on the Moon which is available on Amazon and other online book sites.
Gene Cernan has served as technical consultant with the ABC Television Network for coverage of various space missions. He won the Navy Distinguished Flying Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal with Star, and the NASA Distinguished Service Medal. The Cernan Earth and Space Center at Triton College in River Grove, Illinois was named in honor of Gene Cernan in 1984. Gene Cernan and his family live in Houston. In January 2001, Gene brought his daughter with him from Houston to attend the Illinois State Society Inaugural Gala at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, DC. He was introduced by Congressman Ray LaHood (R-Peoria) who gave Gene the "Outstanding Illinoisan Award" on behalf of the society.
Gene Cernan tried to think of something appropriate to say when he left the moon because he knew he was the last of the Apollo astronauts. Keeping in mind what Neil Armstrong had said in 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon for the first time, Cernan tried to come up with a matching endpiece. As he stepped off the surface he said,
“As we leave the moon at Taurus-Lettrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, we shall return, with peace and hope for mankind.”