|The last mission of mankind's
first exploration of the Moon would be Apollo
It was not always that way during mission
planning. There were in fact three lunar
missions planned beyond Apollo 17.
In January of 1970, the planned Apollo 20
mission was canceled. In September of
1970, two more missions, Apollo 18 and Apollo 19
President Kennedy's goal had been achieved in
July of 1969. The political will to
continue beyond Apollo 17 was lost.
The Commander for Apollo 17 was chosen to be
Eugene A. Cernan. Cernan was a veteran
astronaut who had flown on two previous
missions. He had experience from Gemini
IX-A and also from lunar orbital flight Apollo
Selected, as Command Module Pilot was Ronald E.
Evans, Jr. Apollo 17 was Astronaut Evans
first flight. He had no previous
Joseph H. Engle was
originally picked to be the Lunar Module Pilot.
With Apollo 17 being the final mission to the
Moon, the scientific community exerted pressure
for one of their own to be on that last
flight. A group of scientist astronauts
had been selected before the program was scaled
NASA management succumbed to the pressure and
replaced Astronaut Engle with Dr. Harrison
(Jack) H. Schmitt. Astronaut Schmitt was a
geologist who was originally slated to fly on
Apollo 18 as the Lunar Module Pilot. Like
Evans, Schmitt was a spaceflight rookie.
It was a tough blow to Engle, but there were
many astronauts in the Astronaut Office at NASA
who were disappointed. Many had dedicated
years of their lives to the Apollo Program with
the hopes of a voyage to the Moon.
Only 24 of them would ever get the chance to
travel beyond Earth orbit and go to the
Moon. Of that number, only 12 of them
could say that they had walked on the Moon.
The name selected for the command module was
America. The lunar module would be known
The timing of the
Apollo 17 mission would make it a grand
finale. It was scheduled to liftoff at
night on December 6, 1972. The
exhaust plume from the Saturn V was expected to
illuminate the night sky around the Kennedy
Space Center like daylight for miles around.
As with all of the lunar exploration missions, I
was perched in front of our television with my
box camera to record this historical
event. In 1972, I was 14 years old and
still captivated by the thought of going into
For this mission I had also upgraded my
photographic equipment. I saved up my
money and acquired a Super-8 movie camera for
fourteen dollars. This was long before the
time of VCRs and I had hoped to preserve the
view of men actually walking on the Moon.
We still only had a black and white television
at our house but space exploration was still
The countdown to liftoff progressed and I was
filled with excitement. At T-30 seconds,
the automatic launch sequencer called a halt to
the launch operations. It was a great
disappointment. All of the hype preceding
the night launch had left me with much
At first it was unknown how long of delay the
sequencer problem might cause. With
it late at night, I fell asleep in my chair,
camera in hand. The next thing I knew I
woke up to a surreal scene on the
television. The Saturn V was gone!
The barren launch pad was still illuminated by
the powerful xenon lights and mist was wafting
around the launch tower.
It took me a few seconds to realize that I had
slept through the most spectacular liftoff of
all of the Apollo missions. The only night
launch had occurred and I missed it.
Liftoff occurred at 12:33 AM in Florida.
It was 11:33 AM from where I was watching.
I was somewhat disappointed, but I was comforted
in the fact that multiple views of the launch
would be replayed before the coverage ended.
Apollo 17 explored a region of the Moon known as
Taurus-Littrow. Like the previous two
lunar missions the Apollo 17 crew had taken
along a lunar rover to assist their
On December 11, 1972 astronauts Cernan and
Schmitt landed on the Moon in the lunar module
Challenger. When Commander Cernan stepped
onto the lunar surface for the first time he
stated, "As I step off at the surface at
Taurus-Littrow, I'd like to dedicate the first
step of Apollo 17 to all those who made it
Cernan and Schmitt conducted a total of three
EVAs during their stay on the lunar
surface. The three EVAs lasted for a total
of 22 hours and 4 minutes. During that
time they collected a total of 242 pounds of
After the third EVA
was complete, astronaut Eugene Cernan was the
last man to go up the ladder of the lunar
module. He would be the last man to walk
on the Moon for decades to come.
Before Cernan climbed the ladder for the last
time he stated,
Gene and I'm on the surface and 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 that I believe history will record. That
America's challenge of today has forged
man's destiny of tomorrow, and we leave the
Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came
and God willing as we shell return, with
peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the
crew of Apollo 17."
On December 14, 1972, the Challenger ascent
stage lifted off with Cernan, Schmitt, and their
precious lunar sample cargo on board.
Challenger rendezvoused and was docked with
command module America. Cernan and Schmitt
rejoined astronaut Evans who had remained behind
astronauts and their cargo were transferred to
the command module. The hatches between the two
vehicles were closed and the lunar module was
jettisoned. Challenger was destined to
crash into the Moon as part of a seismic
The service propulsion system engine of the
service module was fired to break from lunar
orbit and send the command service module back
towards the Earth.
On the way back, astronaut Evans conducted a
deep space EVA to retrieve film from the
instrument bay of the service module.
Command module America splashed down in the
Pacific Ocean on December 19, 1972. The primary
recovery ship for this final lunar mission was
the U.S.S. Ticonderoga. The flight duration of
Apollo 17 was 12 days, 13 hours, 51 minutes, and
Apollo 17 would be the final chapter in the
greatest exploration ever conducted by
mankind. It is hoped that someday men will
return to the Moon and travel beyond it to Mars.
Whether or not mankind can stay the course for
such a costly and hazardous journey again
remains to be seen.