Apollo 17: Inside NASA’s Final Moon Landing Mission

Just over three years after Neil Armstrong took mankind’s first steps on the moon, Apollo 17 astronauts left the last footprints on the lunar surface in December 1972. Described by NASA as ” the last, longest and most successful” of the manned astronaut lunar landing missions, Apollo 17 yielded significant scientific discoveries and produced one of the most famous images in the history of planet Earth.

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Apollo 17 sends the first scientist into space

The mission began on December 7, 1972 when, at 12:33 a.m., the engines of a Saturn V rocket burst and bathed Cape Canaveral in Florida in an orange glow. As night turned to day, the fireball blinded onlookers who came to watch Apollo 17 roar skyward.

Within minutes, the plume of flames faded into a blot among the stars as the Apollo program launched its final mission to the moon. The Apollo 17 crew included Commander Eugene Cernan, Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans, and Lunar Module Pilot Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, the first astronaut originally trained as a scientist to fly in space.

A geologist with a doctorate from Harvard University, Schmitt was one of six scientists selected from a group of 1,400 applicants to join the astronaut corps in 1965. He had been assigned to the crew of Apollo 18, but when budget cuts led NASA to cancel that. mission with Apollo 19 and 20, agency administrators assigned him to replace astronaut Joe Engle on the last lunar flight.

Four days after the launch of Apollo 17, Evans orbited the moon as Schmitt and Cernan landed the Challenger lunar module in the narrow Taurus-Littrow Valley, which is deeper than the Grand Canyon and marked the easternmost landing site of any Apollo mission. Schmitt and Cernan – a veteran astronaut who had flown Gemini 9 and Apollo 10 – spent seven hours over three consecutive days exploring the surrounding craters, rocks and mountains. Beneath a half-Earth suspended in the black sky, they assembled a science station to relay data, took gravity measurements, chipped fragments of ancient rocks and collected samples of underground cores.

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Astronauts drove their battery-powered lunar rover more than 20 miles across the moon’s surface, despite a wing bender. When a hammer Cernan accidentally dropped toppled a rover wheel fender, the astronauts engineered a replacement by gluing four rigid boards together and securing the makeshift flap to the fender with two clamps. The Auto Body Association of America granted the pair lifetime memberships for their band-aid solution.

During their second moonwalk, the astronauts were exploring the rim of Shorty crater when Schmitt exclaimed, “There’s orange earth!” Cernan confirmed the colorful find amid the gray dust: “He’s not losing his mind. It really is.”

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According to NASA chief historian Brian Odom, samples taken by astronauts from the crater rim turned out to be composed of volcanic glass formed during a volcanic explosion. “The samples tell us that the volcanic material came from the moon and not from a meteorite impact,” he says. The discovery is considered one of the most important of the entire Apollo program.

The last men on the moon

Before concluding the mission’s third and final moonwalk, the astronauts offered epitaphs for the Apollo program. “This valley of history saw humanity complete its first evolutionary steps into the universe,” said Schmitt, who later represented New Mexico in the U.S. Senate. “I think Apollo made no more significant contribution to history.”

“America’s challenge today has shaped the human destiny of tomorrow,” Cernan said. “And, as we leave the moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we will return, with peace and hope for all mankind.” Before taking humanity’s last steps on the moon, the commander knelt down and carved his daughter’s initials into the moon dust. Challenger took off from the moon and left behind a plaque that reads: “Here man completed his first explorations of the moon.”

Cernan and Schmitt spent 22 hours and 4 minutes outside the lunar module, exceeding any time Apollo 11 spent at Tranquility Base. Public interest, however, could not compare to the historic moonwalk of Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

After five previous moon landings, familiarity has bred apathy among the American public. While the new cable TV channels aired live video of the moonwalks, all three broadcast networks aired highlights that were largely limited to late nights. ABC covered the first halftime moonwalk of Monday night football. “The point is that images, no matter how technically good, of barren lunar landscapes and floating astronauts become ordinary and even tedious fairly quickly,” reported the New York Times.

The legacy of Apollo 17 lives on

Gene Cernan driving the Lunar Roving Vehicle during the Apollo 17 mission to the moon.

Gene Cernan drives the Lunar Roving Vehicle during the Apollo 17 mission.

When the Apollo 17 capsule crashed into the Pacific Ocean on December 19, the nearly two-week mission was over and the Apollo program was history. A new era of human spaceflight in low orbit that included the Skylab space station and the space shuttle program followed, but NASA planned a return trip to the moon. Nearly 50 years after Apollo 17, NASA’s Artemis 1 uncrewed mission launched in November 2022 as the first step to landing two astronauts at the moon’s south pole in 2025.

The 243 pounds of lunar soil and rock returned to Earth by Apollo 17 surpassed all previous transports and continue to provide scientific information half a century later. One of the last unsealed samples was finally opened in March 2022. “These particular samples were taken from a shadowy region of the moon,” says Odom. “When the Artemis program returns to the moon, we will explore other shadow regions, and these samples will serve as analogues for what we can expect to find near the south pole region of the moon.”

Perhaps Apollo 17’s most enduring legacy is an iconic photograph taken with a 70-millimeter Hasselblad camera about five hours after launch. One of the crew – who is not known exactly – took a photo of the entire Earth 28,000 miles away. The “Blue Marble” image of the fully lit planet with its green and beige landmasses, sapphire oceans and white clouds and ice caps silhouetted against the dark void of space has become a symbol of the Earth Day and environmental causes.

“Blue Marble” is one of the most reproduced images in history. “While the photo didn’t start the environmental movement,” says Odom, “it served as a galvanizing image that for many sparked a reconceptualization of the fragility of our home planet.”

READ MORE: 10 things you might not know about the Apollo program

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