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Gene Cernan
Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan wears a spacesuit smeared with lunar dirt in 1972. (NASA Photo)

Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan, the last human to leave footprints on the moon, passed away today – but his family says his dying wish remains to be fulfilled.

“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,” the family said in a statement released by NASA.

The family statement said Cernan had been suffering from ongoing health issues. He died at a Houston hospital, surrounded by relatives.

Cernan, a U.S. Navy captain and fighter jet pilot, was selected as part of NASA’s third group of astronauts in 1963. He performed the world’s third spacewalk during the Gemini 9A mission in 1966, and went around the moon in 1969 as lunar module pilot for Apollo 10, the last practice run before the Apollo 11 landing less than two months later.

Cernan commanded NASA’s last mission to land on the moon in 1972. During three days in Taurus-Littrow Valley, Cernan and his fellow Apollo 17 moonwalker, Harrison Schmitt, collected a record haul of moon rocks and dirt, including a strange-looking orange soil that contained beads of volcanic glass.

As he was about to climb up into the lunar module, at the end of their third and final spacewalk, Cernan spoke the final words uttered from the moon’s surface:

“As I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I’d like to just say what I believe history will record: that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”

Over the decades that followed, Cernan repeatedly marveled at his status in the history books. “I’m quite disappointed that I’m still the last man on the moon,” he said in 2010. “I thought we’d have gone back long before now.”

Like NASA’s first moonwalker, Neil Armstrong, Cernan was sharply critical of the decisions to retire the space shuttles in 2011cancel NASA’s back-to-the-moon program. and rely on commercial launch providers for trips to the International Space Station. Cernan complained that NASA’s space vision was turning into “a blueprint for a mission to nowhere.”

“Neil and I aren’t going to see those next young Americans who walk on the moon. And God help us if they’re not Americans,” he told Congress in 2011. “When I leave this planet, I want to know where we are headed as a nation. That’s my big goal.”

Out of the 12 humans who walked on the moon, only six now remain: Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 12’s Alan Bean, Apollo 15’s David Scott, Apollo 16’s John Young and Charlie Duke, and Apollo 17’s Harrison Schmitt.

Cernan’s death came a little more than a month after the passing of senator-astronaut John Glenn, the first American to go into orbit. And it came a little less than a week before a White House transition that may result in NASA’s attention turning back toward a return to the moon – thus granting Cernan’s dying wish.

Cernan is survived by his wife, Jan Nanna Cernan; his daughter and son-in-law, Tracy Cernan Woolie and Marion Woolie; stepdaughters Kelly Nanna Taff and husband, Michael, and Danielle Nanna Ellis; and nine grandchildren. Funeral services are pending. Here are some of the tributes from Twitter:

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