January 16, 2017, one of the space program’s brightest stars fell from the sky, and Texas lost one of its most distinguished citizens. Eugene Cernan, known to most as the last Astronaut to touch the surface of the moon, died yesterday at the age of 82.
Though not a native of Texas, for his last years, Gene called Kerr County his home. There, at his Kerrville ranch, he indulged his enthusiasm for horses. Certainly, his connection to the space program made him very familiar with Houston, the home of Mission Control, where he served with distinction. And speaking of distinction, Gene’s NASA bio reads like Patton in full dress uniform: one award and honor after another. Not the least among these are two NASA Distinguished Service Medals and two Navy DSM’s.
Before the space program, Gene was a Top Gun fighter pilot with 5000 hours of flight time, including carrier landings. Ultimately, he retired as a Navy Captain after serving 20 years. In NASA, he was one of a group of 14 selected to be Astronauts in 1963. Gene participated in both the Gemini and Apollo space programs, eventually being assigned the pilot’s slot on Apollo 10, and then as commander for the final NASA moon voyage, Apollo 17. In the business world, Gene was just as successful, working as an Executive VP-International for Houston based Coral Petroleum before starting his own energy and aerospace consulting firm, the Cernan Corporation. And these are merely some of the highlights of his successful life.
In 2015, there was a documentary made about Gene. To have this kind of attention, even almost 40 years since leaving NASA, would inflate the ego of even the humblest person. Yet, Gene took it all in stride. Per a press release from a screening for the film, Last Man on the Moon, an event hosted by Representative Lamar Smith, Gene said, “’It took my producer a long time to convince me to do this film. I asked him “Who wants to hear about me?” And he said, “It’s about the story.” So this film is not just about me, it’s about a young boy with a dream.’”
Like a lot of Americans, I’m a big fan of the U.S. space program, especially the early missions of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. Also, being a frequent visitor to Kerrville, and knowing that Mr. Cernan lived in the area, it was my hope to one day bump into Gene. And if I wasn’t intruding too much, I would want to ask him about his thoughts before stepping off the lunar surface for the last time or what he thought of current efforts at NASA. It’s a shame I won’t get that chance, but still it was a privilege to be able to walk the same Texas soil as this pioneer, this personified bit of history. Gene Cernan wasn’t just a class act, but a tough act to follow. He will be missed.