Eugene "Gene" Cernan, the astronaut famous for being the last person to walk on the moon, died Monday in Houston. He was 82.
His family said in a statement he had ongoing health issues, but the exact cause of death is unknown. In 1963, Cernan, a Navy fighter pilot, was selected by NASA as one of 14 people to participate in the third astronaut class. He piloted the Gemini 9 mission, and was the second American to walk in space — he later called it the "spacewalk from hell," USA Today reports, because his equipment didn't work properly, he became overheated, and he almost didn't make it back to the spacecraft.
Cernan was one of two astronauts to fly to the moon twice, and as he left for the last time on Dec. 14, 1972, he declared: "American's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. As we leave the moon and Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, we shall return with peace and hope for all mankind." He later said he didn't want to climb the ladder up to the spacecraft, because he "wanted to stay a while." He was hopeful that astronauts would return to the moon, and in a statement, his family said, "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."
After retiring from the space program in 1976, Cernan served as an executive vice president of Coral Petroleum Inc., and went on to start the Cernan Corp. Survivors include his wife, Jan Nanna Cernan; daughter Tracy Cernan Woolie; stepdaughters Kelly Nanna Taff and Danielle Nanna Ellis; and nine grandchildren.