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Apollo 17

"... we leave as we came and God willing as we shell return, with peace and hope for all mankind." Astronaut Cernan personally signed and inscribed this photo of himself saluting the flag on the lunar surface at Taurus-Littrow. Photo Credit: NASA
Autographed Photo Of Apollo 17 Commander
                          Gene Cernan Saluting The American Flag On The
                          MoonThe last mission of mankind's first exploration of the Moon would be Apollo 17.

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 were canceled.

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 10.

Selected, as Command Module Pilot was Ronald E. Evans, Jr.  Apollo 17 was Astronaut Evans first flight.  He had no previous spaceflight experience.

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 back.

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 as Challenger.

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 space.

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 spectacular.

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 anticipation.

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 explorations.

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 possible."

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 lunar samples.

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, "This is 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 in orbit.

The 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 experiment.

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 59 seconds.

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.

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UPDATED : April 2, 2008
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