• Eugene Cernan, left, Max Ary and Neil Armstrong are seen in a photo at the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida.

  • Gene Cernan talks at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in 1999.

  • Apollo 17 Commander Eugene A. Cernan drives a Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) in a brief checkout prior to loading it with communications equipment, tools and scientific gear, during the early part of the first EVA at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. New rendering from a frame in Hasselblad film magazine 147/A, December 1972.

  • Gene Cernan on the face of the moon.

  • Gene Cernan with American flag on the moon.

  • Two members of the Apollo 10 prime crew participate in simulation activity at the Kennedy Space Center during preparations for their scheduled lunar orbit mission. Astronaut Thomas P. Stafford, commander, is in the background; and in the foreground is astronaut Eugene A. Cernan, lunar module pilot. The two crewmen are in the Lunar Module Mission Simulator.

  • Gemini 9 Crew Cernan and Stafford

  • Gene Cernan with American flag on the moon.

Cernan left lasting imprint on space travel, friend Max Ary says

Monday, January 16, 2017

The friendship of former NASA astronaut Eugene Cernan and Max Ary, once head of the Cosmosphere and now director of Stafford Air & Space Museum in Weatherford, Oklahoma, stretches back about 35 years.

They worked together on big projects and traveled the world. Cernan came to Hutchinson "many, many times," Ary said.

The easy friendship presented Ary with "kind of dilemma," the museum director said. "I did not want to lose my awe of who he was and what he had done," Ary said.

Cernan, who died Monday at age 82, had a storied career:

  • Three space flights: Gemini IX, Apollo 10 and Apollo 17.
  • Spacewalk;
  • One of only 12 men to walk on the moon.
  • On last flight that left the orbit of Earth.
  • Last man to walk on the moon.

Ary categorized Cernan as a "white-hat astronaut." Not only did Cernan have an outstanding career, but he "just carried himself with great dignity and real class," Ary said.

Cernan was a "tremendous ambassador" for space exploration, Ary said. He testified before Congress a number of times, advocating for increased space travel.

Cernan entitled his book, "The Last Man on the Moon," but he would say, "'I don't wear that badge proudly,'" Ary remembered.

Forty years ago, Cernan would have predicted travel to Mars and bases on the moon. It was "almost an embarrassment to him" that he was the last man to leave the moon, Ary said.

The late Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan were considered the "bookends" of moon visitors: The first and the last to step on the moon; both once engineering students at Purdue University and Navy pilots.

Armstrong was an introvert, though, while Cernan was an extrovert.

"He was like your next-door neighbor," Helen Unruh, one-time director of education at the Cosmosphere, said of Cernan.

"Gene was very welcoming, he was very open," Ary said. "Anyone who would make eye contact with him, he would walk up to him and say, 'Hi, I'm Gene Cernan,'" Ary said. The former astronaut willingly gave autographs.

About a year and a half ago, doctors detected a blood disorder in Cernan. He had promised to promote a documentary, "The Last Man on the Moon," and he kept his promise, traveling to premieres all around the world despite his health, Ary said.

"That really took him down," Ary said. In some ways, that movie played a role in Cernan's death, Ary thinks.

Ary thinks the documentary "really portrays what he did in space and as a human." As for Cernan's book itself, "The Last Man on the Moon," Ary declared in July 1999 when Cernan was at the Cosmosphere for a book-signing: "I've probably read every space book out there, and this one is the greatest."

"He was an absolute delight to know," Ary said, allowing that it has been awhile since a death has had the impact on him as Cernan's passing.

With Cernan's death, six of the dozen who set foot on the moon remain living: Buzz Aldrin, Alan Bean, David Scott, John Young, Charles Duke Jr. and Harrison Schmitt.

"We're going to start losing them very quickly, I'm afraid," Ary said.