HOUSTON—Eugene Cernan, the final astronaut to plant his feet on the Moon’s surface more than 44 years ago as commander of NASA’s Apollo 17 mission, has died.                                                                       

He passed away Jan. 16 from “ongoing health issues,” at Houston Methodist Hospital, with close family members at his side, according to a statement issued by his family. Cernan was 82.

One of 14 astronaut candidates selected by NASA in 1963, Cernan launched three times, including two missions that took him to the Moon—Apollo 10, a May 1969 lunar orbit precursor to the history-making Apollo 11 touchdown two months later, and Apollo 17, the December 1972 voyage that marks the last time humans have ventured to the surface of another planetary body.

Cernan became the second American to carry out a spacewalk during the three-day Gemini IX mission in June 1966.

But it was as commander of Apollo 17, a 12 ½-day mission to the Moon with the only scientist astronaut to make the roundtrip journey to the rugged lunar surface, Harrison Schmitt, and command module pilot Ron Evans, that Cernan will be best remembered.

As Cernan and Schmitt wrapped up their third and final Moon buggy excursion at Taurus Littrow, Cernan stood alone on the Moon’s surface as Schmitt climbed aboard their lunar module, Challenger, for the final time.

“America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow,” Cernan mused. “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.”

Cernan soon followed his geologist crewmate aboard the lander, and Challenger lifted off on Dec. 14 5:54 p.m. EST to rendezvous with Evans in the lunar-orbiting Apollo 17 command module America.

Cernan’s death follows the Dec. 8, 2016, passing of John Glenn, the 95-year-old retired U. S. Senator and NASA Mercury astronaut who became the first American to orbit the Earth in February 1962.

Cernan is survived by his wife, Jan Nanna Cernan; daughter, Tracy Cernan Woolie; two step daughters, Kelly Nanna Taff and Danielle Nanna Ellis, and nine grandchildren.

Details regarding funeral services will be announced in the coming days, according to a family statement.

“I was just a young kid in America growing up with a dream,” Cernan recently remarked, according to the family statement. “Today what’s most important to me is my desire to inspire the passion in the hearts and minds of future generations of young men and women to see their own impossible dreams become a reality.”

Cernan, who wrote his 1999 autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon, with co-author Don Davis, and followed the work with a 2016 documentary of the same name, never lost sight of the Moon’s value in humanity’s efforts to extend its reach deeper into the Solar System.

“Let’s go back to the Moon, establish some colonies, learn to live there and build the confidence to be able to go to Mars,” Cernan said at the entrance to Sundance Cinemas in Houston’s Theater District greeting those previewing the documentary in February 2016.

Cernan was born in Chicago and graduated from Purdue University with a degree in electrical engineering. He received his commission in the U.S. Navy through the school’s ROTC program. He trained and served as an attack pilot and earned a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the Naval Post Graduate School.

Following his selection by NASA and initial training, Cernan was paired with astronaut Tom Stafford for the Gemini IX mission that launched on June 3, 1966.

Over three days in Earth orbit, the two men tested three different techniques for rendezvousing with a target docking adapter, skills that would help to pave the way for the more complex Apollo missions involving multiple docking and landing activities requiring piloted command and lander modules.

Cernan would also leave the Gemini capsule for a spacewalk lasting just over two hours and quickly begin a physical struggle that exposed many of the difficulties of controlling one’s body in weightlessness without hand rails and foot restraints.

Exhausted, the first-time astronaut struggled to don a backpack, the Astronaut Maneuvering Unit, that was to make him more mobile.

In 1969, much of the world was anticipating the first human lunar landing, when Apollo 10 lifted off May 18 with Stafford serving as mission commander; rejoined by Cernan as lunar module pilot and John Young as command module pilot.

Their eight-day lunar mission would set the stage for Apollo 11’s historic touchdown by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on July 20, 1969.

With Stafford and Cernan at the controls, Apollo 10’s lunar module Snoopy separated from the Charlie Brown command module, leaving Young aboard and alone.

The Snoopy duo swooped within 47,000 ft. of the lunar surface before ascending to rejoin the command module with Young in lunar orbit. Stafford and Cernan managed to demonstrate all of the critical landing propulsion and rendezvous systems required for Apollo 11 without actually touching down, while getting the best look yet at the Moon’s terrain.

“I keep telling Neil Armstrong that we painted that white line in the sky all the way to the Moon down to 47,000 ft. so he wouldn’t get lost, and all he had to do was land,” Cernan recalled with characteristic wit in a NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project interview conducted on Dec. 11, 2007. “Made it sort of easy for him.”

As he aged, Cernan grew more passionate about humanity’s first voyages beyond low Earth orbit, while pursing business opportunities, many related to aerospace, and making his home in the Houston area.

“It is with very deep sadness that we share the loss of our beloved husband and father,” Cernan’s family said. “Our family is heartbroken, of course, and we truly appreciate everyone’s thoughts and prayers. Gene, as he was known by so many, was a loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend.”