Known as the last man on the moon, Gene Cernan also made his mark on business aviation.
Gene Cernan salutes the audience at NBAA’s 2013 convention in Las Vegas, the year he received NBAA’s Meritorious Service to Aviation Award in recognition for his extensive contributions to furthering achievements in aviation and aerospace.
Three-time astronaut Eugene Andrew “Gene” Cernan never wanted to be “the last man on the moon,” although he considered it a supreme honor to have been the 11th person to step onto the lunar surface, and the most recent to have left his footprints there. Perhaps more than anything else, he wanted to see additional visitors to the moon within his lifetime.
Although Cernan wasn’t able to see that wish fulfilled before his death on Jan. 16, 2017, at the age of 82, he spent a lifetime inspiring others to follow their own dreams. His steadfast advocacy on behalf of the aviation industry left an indelible mark on generations of aspiring aviators and aerospace professionals, including untold thousands within the business aviation community.
Cernan was a familiar presence at many industry events, including NBAA’s annual Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (NBAA-BACE) where he often joined in presenting the National Aviation Hall of Fame’s (NAHF) annual Combs Gates Award honoring aviation history, research, and preservation efforts.
“Gene was always willing to make himself available in motivating, inspiring, and educating others. He cared deeply about all aspects of aviation, and that was reflected in his personal commitment of time and attention across the industry.”
During NBAA-BACE 2010 Cernan was presented the FAA’s prestigious Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, and in 2013, he received NBAA’s highest honor, the Meritorious Service to Aviation Award.
“Gene was always willing to make himself available in motivating, inspiring, and educating others,” said NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen. “He cared deeply about all aspects of aviation, and that was reflected in his personal commitment of time and attention across the industry.”
Gene Cernan was the recipient of 2013 NBAA’s Meritorious Service to Aviation Award in recognition for his extensive contributions to furthering achievements in aviation and aerospace.
Always a Fighter Pilot
Born near Chicago, IL in 1934, Cernan received a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from Purdue University in 1956, where he also received his commission through the U.S. Navy ROTC program. He entered flight training that October, and later served as a carrier-based attack jet pilot, ultimately logging more than 5,000 hours in the air and more than 200 carrier landings throughout his naval career.
In October 1963, Cernan was one of 14 candidates selected for the third astronaut class for NASA. “At his heart, though, Capt. Cernan was always a fighter pilot,” explained NAHF Enshrinement Director Ron Kaplan. “He held the highest regard for his squadron mates.”
Cernan’s first spaceflight was aboard Gemini 9A that practiced orbital rendezvous techniques, during which he also completed a then-record two-hour, 10-minute spacewalk. These tests imparted crucial lessons that directly aided in the success of the subsequent Apollo program.
His next flight, Apollo 10, successfully tested operations of the lunar excursion module above the moon’s surface, laying the groundwork for the actual moon landing of Apollo 11. Cernan’s third and final trip to space was Apollo 17, NASA’s last manned lunar excursion; in total, he logged more than 500 hours in space, including 73 hours on the lunar surface.
Cernan later assisted NASA in planning the joint U.S./Soviet Union Apollo-Soyuz mission before retiring from the space agency in 1976. He went into private business and, in 1981, founded the energy and aerospace consulting firm The Cernan Corp. He also served as a television commentator for the early flights of NASA’s space shuttle program.
In 2013, NBAA assembled a panel of aviation legends to pay tribute to Gene Cernan’s legacy (left to right): air show performer Sean Tucker; aviation legend Bob Hoover; Cernan; NASA flight director Gene Kranz; astronaut Bonnie Dunbar; Bombardier Aerospace CEO Guy Hachey; and pilot Barrington Irving.
A Commitment to Safety and Advocacy
Throughout the following decades, Cernan remained active in the aviation and aerospace communities, and business aviation in particular. In 1997, he began a close partnership with Bombardier Aerospace and played a pivotal role in the development of the annual Bombardier Safety Standdown, lending his name to help launch the event and its aviation safety awards program (renamed the Bombardier Safety Standdown Award in 2016.)
Perhaps most importantly, Cernan also sought out opportunities to share his experiences with others, most notably young adults and children.
“The last conversation I had with Gene was last March; I drove him back from the Texas [Department of Transportation] Aviation Conference,” recalled NBAA Board Member Shelly deZevallos, president of West Houston Airport (IWS), where in later years Cernan hangared his Cessna 414 piston twin. “He didn’t talk a lot about his experiences in the astronaut program, but he was still incredibly passionate about getting people involved in aviation, especially kids.”
“Gene Cernan walked the walk. His message came from his heart, he meant every word of it, and he lived it. He had a long and passionate life of striving for personal excellence.”
“Gene never saw himself as someone different from anyone else,” added NBAA Board Member Jim Schwertner, president and CEO of Schwertner Farms. “He’d talk to any audience of young people that he could find, because he wanted them all to understand that they could accomplish anything they put their minds to. He loved his country, and he felt it was an honor to serve it as he did.”
“Simply stated, Gene Cernan walked the walk,” Kaplan said. “His message came from his heart, he meant every word of it, and he lived it. He had a long and passionate life of striving for personal excellence.”
Bolen noted that Cernan’s passing followed the recent deaths of three other storied aviation figures: Arnold Palmer, Bob Hoover and John Glenn. “These four composed the Mount Rushmore of our aviation community,” he continued. “Each was a truly legendary figure recognized for their integrity and character as much as for their significant accomplishments.
“These four heroes made their love for this industry very public, and people drew inspiration from them,” Bolen concluded. “The finest way we can honor their legacies is to serve as everyday heroes ourselves, applying the best examples of their passion and integrity to our own lives, and passing them on to those around us.”
Gene Cernan’s Awards
Gene Cernan received global acclaim and recognition for his many accomplishments, including:
- Recipient of 2013 NBAA Meritorious Service to Aviation Award in recognition for his extensive contributions to furthering achievements in aviation and aerospace.
- Recipient of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale Gold Space Medal for 1972, and the VFW National Space Medal in 1973
- Recipient of two NASA Distinguished Service Medals, the NASA Exceptional Service Medal, the Johnson Space Center Superior Achievement Award, two Navy Distinguished Service Medals, the Navy Astronaut Wings, and the Navy Distinguished Flying Cross
- Induction into the U.S. Space Hall of Fame, and recipient of the Challenger Center’s “Salute to the U.S. Space Program” honor
- 2000 enshrinee in the National Aviation Hall of Fame
Cernan’s experiences are detailed in the 2016 documentary, The Last Man on the Moon, available through most online streaming services.