Thirty-eight years ago this month, NASA successfully conducted the sixth lunar landing mission of the Apollo Program. Known as Apollo 17, the flight marked the last time that men from the planet Earth explored the surface of the Moon.
Apollo 17 was launched from LC-39A at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Thursday, 07 December 1972. With a lift-off time of 05:33:00 UTC, Apollo 17 was the only night launch of the Apollo Program. Those who witnessed the event say that night turned into day as the incandescent exhaust plumes of the Saturn V’s quintet of F-1 engines lit up the sky around the Cape.
The target for Apollo 17 was the Taurus-Littrow valley in the lunar highlands. Located on the southeastern edge of Mare Serenitatis, the landing site was of particular interest to lunar scientists because of the unique geologic features and volcanic materials resident within the valley. Planned stay time on the lunar surface was three days.
The Apollo 17 crew consisted of Commander Eugene A. Cernan, Command Module Pilot (CMP) Ronald E. Evans and Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) Harrison H. Schmitt. While this was Cernan’s third space mission, both Evans and Schmitt were space rookies. Astronaut Schmitt was a professional geologist and the only true scientist to explore the surface of the Moon.
With Evans circling the Moon solo in the Command Module America, Cernan and Schmitt successfully landed their Lunar Module Challenger at 19:54:57 UTC on Monday, 11 December 1972. Their lunar stay lasted more than three days. The astronauts used the Lunar Rover for transport over the lunar surface as they conducted a trio of exploratory excursions that totaled more than 22 hours.
Cernan and Schmitt collected nearly 244 pounds of lunar geologic materials while exploring Taurus-Littrow. As on previous missions, the Apollo 17 crew deployed a sophisticated set of scientific instruments used to investigate the lunar surface environment. Indeed, the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) deployed during during lunar landing missions measured and transmitted vital lunar environmental data back to Earth through September 1977 when the data acquisition effort was officially terminated.
The Apollo 17 landing party departed the Moon at 22:54:37 UTC on Thursday, 14 December 1972. In a little over two hours, Challenger and America were docked. Following crew and cargo transfer to America, Challenger was later intentionally deorbited and impacted the lunar surface. The Apollo 17 crew then remained in lunar orbit for almost two more days to make additional measurements of the lunar environment.
At 23:35:09 UTC on Saturday, 16 December 1972, Apollo 17 blasted out of lunar orbit and headed home. Later, CMP Ron Evans performed a trans-Earth spacewalk to retrieve film from Apollo 17 ’s SIM Bay camera. Evans’ brave spacewalk occurred on Sunday, 17 December 1972 (69th anniversary of the Wright Brothers first powered flight) and lasted 65 minutes and 44 seconds.
Apollo 17 splashdown occurred near America Samoa in the Pacific Ocean at 19:24:59 UTC on Tuesday, 19 December 1972. America and her crew were subsequently recovered by the USS Ticonderoga.
Apollo 17 set a number of spaceflight records including: longest manned lunar landing flight (301 hours, 51 minutes, 59 seconds); longest lunar stay time (74 hours, 59 minutes, 40 seconds); total lunar surface extravehicular activity time (22 hours, 3 minutes, 57 seconds); largest lunar sample return (243.7 pounds), and longest time in lunar orbit (147 hours, 43 minutes, 37 seconds).
Apollo 17 successfully concluded America’s Apollo Lunar Landing Program. Of a sudden it seemed, America’s — and the world’s — greatest adventure was over. However, the anticipation was that the United States would return in the not-too-distant future. Indeed, Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon, spoke the following words from the 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.”
It has now been 38 years since the Commander of Apollo 17 spoke those stirring words from the valley of Taurus-Littrow. Gene Cernan and most space experts of his day figured we would surely be back by now. Certainly in the 20th century. Yet, there has been no return. Moreover, there is no formal plan or funded program in the 21st century to do so. And so, the historical record continues to list the name of Eugene A. Cernan as the last man to walk on the Moon.
Okay America, here’s some questions for you. When will we go back to the Moon? By extension, how about Mars and beyond? Are our greatest space achievements behind us or is the best yet to come? Are we a nation of used-to-be’s or are we that bastion of freedom where even the impossible is achievable? Does it matter? Do you even care? You choose.