The last man to walk on the moon went into space on a December day. Here’s what happened

In this Dec. 12, 1972, photo provided by NASA, Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan stands on the moon. NASA announced that former astronaut Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, died Monday, Jan. 16, 2017, surrounded by his family. He was 82. (NASA via AP)
In this Dec. 12, 1972, photo provided by NASA, Apollo 17 commander Eugene Cernan stands on the moon. NASA announced that former astronaut Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon, died Monday, Jan. 16, 2017, surrounded by his family. He was 82. (NASA via AP) AP

The date was Dec. 7, 1972, just after midnight.

The place: Cape Canaveral in Florida.

The event: The launch that would put the last man on the moon.

Here is a look back at the milestones surrounding that historic day:

January, 2017: Last person to walk on the moon dies

Gene Cernan, who as the last person to walk on the moon returned to Earth with a message of “peace and hope for all mankind,” died on Monday, his family said. He was 82.

Cernan was with his relatives when he died at a Houston hospital following ongoing heath issues, family spokeswoman Melissa Wren told The Associated Press. His family said his devotion to lunar exploration never waned.

“Even at the age of 82, Gene was passionate about sharing his desire to see the continued human exploration of space and encouraged our nation’s leaders and young people to not let him remain the last man to walk on the Moon,” his family said in a statement released by NASA.

Obit Gene Cernan.JPG
U.S. Navy commander and astronaut for Apollo 17, Eugene Cernan, is pictured in his space suit. (NASA via AP) AP dapd

Cernan was commander of NASA’s Apollo 17 mission and on his third space flight when he set foot on the lunar surface. On Dec. 14, 1972, he became the last of only a dozen men to walk on the moon — and he traced his only child’s initials in the dust before climbing the ladder of the lunar module the last time.

“Those steps up that ladder, they were tough to make,” Cernan recalled in a 2007 oral history. “I didn’t want to go up. I wanted to stay a while.”

Cernan called it “perhaps the brightest moment of my life. ... It’s like you would want to freeze that moment and take it home with you. But you can’t.”

Decades later, Cernan tried to ensure he wasn’t the last person to walk on the moon, testifying before Congress to push for a return.

But as the years went by he realized he wouldn’t live to witness someone follow in his footsteps — still visible on the moon more than 40 years later.

Cernan died less than six weeks after another American space hero, John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962.

Their flights weren’t the first or last of the Mercury and Apollo eras. Yet to the public, they were the bookends of America’s space-age glory.

On Dec. 11, 1972, Cernan guided the lander, named Challenger, into a lunar valley called Taurus-Littrow, with Harrison “Jack” Schmitt at his side. He recalled the silence after the lunar lander’s engine shut down.

“That’s where you experience the most quiet moment a human being can experience in his lifetime,” Cernan said in 2007. “There’s no vibration. There’s no noise. The ground quit talking. Your partner is mesmerized. He can’t say anything.

“The dust is gone. It’s a realization, a reality, all of a sudden you have just landed in another world on another body out there [somewhere in the] universe, and what you are seeing is being seen by human beings — human eyes — for the first time.”

Cernan was one of only three people to voyage twice to the moon — either to its surface or in moon orbit. James Lovell and John Young are the others.

- AP

Astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt works beside a huge boulder at Station 6 during the third Apollo 17 extravehicular activity at the Taurus-Littrow landing site on the moon, Dec. 13, 1972. (AP Photo/NASA, File) AP

May, 2003: Astronauts make a public appearance

The last man to walk on the moon says getting there may have been mankind’s greatest technological feat, yet that aspect of the Apollo missions is mostly forgotten three decades later.

Instead, people have philosophical and spiritual questions about the lunar landings. They want to know how it felt and what it looked like, whether the astronauts were scared and if they felt closer to God, says Eugene Cernan.

“Without a doubt, the most memorable experience I’ve had was to stand there and ask myself if I fully appreciated where I was at that moment in time as I looked back at Earth,” Cernan said. “Obviously, I didn’t.”

Cernan joined three other moon walkers who also expressed wonder, amazement and even some guilt about their space voyages during the annual Naval Aviation Symposium earlier this month.

Edgar Mitchell said he felt guilty about pausing to sneak an occasional glimpse at Earth and saying “Wow” because there was so much scientific work to be done during his Apollo 14 mission in early 1971.

The same thing happened to Alan Bean on Apollo 12 in November 1969.

“Every once in a while I would say, ‘This is the moon. We’re really here,’ “ Bean recalled. “Then I would look up there and I’d say, ‘That’s the Earth. Everybody else is back there.’ But the minute I did it, I felt guilty, and I’d say, ‘I’ve got to quit doing this. I’ve got a job to do.’ “

The four former astronauts, who spoke at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, are retired Navy captains and former naval aviators. Mitchell, 72, is from Lake Worth while Cernan, 69, Bean, 61, and John Young, 72, live in Houston.

They are among 12 men who walked on the moon during six Apollo landings from 1969 through 1972. Young and Cernan also were aboard Apollo 10, one of two missions that circled the moon before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made the first landing on the Apollo 11 flight.

Bean said his sense of awe began on Earth watching grainy black-and-white television pictures of Armstrong and Aldrin in July 1969, four months before his own flight.

“We were stunned even, perhaps, more than the average citizen, because we knew how difficult it was and how many things could go wrong,” Bean said.

Astronauts, however, often get too much credit for bravery, he said.

“Our friends went to Vietnam,” Bean said. “We were facing the unknown. Nobody had done it before, but I’d rather face the unknown than be shot.”

Cernan said he experienced what may have been the most quiet moment of his life shortly after landing on the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. All of the lunar module’s systems, except for those that kept him and Harrison Schmitt alive, were shut down to preserve power before they took their first moon walk.

“You realized very quickly that you’re standing in sunlight, and yet you’re surrounded by the blackest black - not darkness - the blackest black that you can conceive,” Cernan said.

He said his experience was spiritual and dream-like.

“I was witness to a small part of the universe that I happen to believe a Creator up there put together,” Cernan said. “To me it was sort of like sitting on God’s front porch.”

All four astronauts believe humans will return to the moon, but they have different views of when and why.

Cernan called being the last man on the moon a “dubious honor” and said a return is overdue for the sake of exploration if nothing else. He questioned NASA’s focus on the international space station because it is not exploration but conceded it is the only game in town because there are no current plans for going back to the moon.

Young, who made his landing on the second-to-last moon mission, Apollo 16, in April 1972, agrees that lunar exploration should resume soon. He believes the development of new technologies needed to set up permanent moon bases also would help save mankind from extinction if the Earth is hit by an asteroid or comet or a super volcano creates a crop-killing “nuclear winter.”

The Apollo program developed technologies for getting to the moon and back, including the huge Saturn V rocket and lunar module for landing and taking off from the surface, but the astronauts could spend only limited time there.

Mitchell believes people need to resolve some issues at home before returning to the moon or going to Mars. He said astronauts should simply be able to say they are from Earth, not the United States, Russia or any other country, when exploring space.

“I don’t think they’re ready to do that yet,” Mitchell said. “We’ve got a few problems of getting our act together first.”

Bean said the 30 years since Cernan last set foot on the moon is little time in the history of exploration.

He noted more than a century passed between Christopher Columbus’ sailing to the New World in 1492 and the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock.

“Nothing that NASA does now, nothing the president does, or anybody else,” Bean said, “is going to change the inexorable motion of human beings off this planet and out into the universe.”

- AP