Skip to comments.40 Years Ago This Month: Apollo 17
Posted on 12/01/2012 6:40:27 AM PST by chimera
The final flight of any manned space project is special, and on that score the Apollo 17 mission, which began 40 years ago this month, did not disappoint. The final lunar landing mission was a fitting capstone to what was arguably the greatest technological achievement of human history, a tour de force of scientific discovery and engineering virtuosity that has never been duplicated. In this sense, it could reasonably be concluded that NASA saved the best for last.
The flight of Apollo 17 was not planned to be the final lunar landing mission. The original Apollo program schedule included missions through Apollo 20. But fate and Congressional budget reductions cut those plans short. Apollo 20 was the first to fall, with its Saturn V booster re-tasked for the Skylab Earth orbital flight. The next two missions were scrapped shortly thereafter, even though all of the hardware to fly them was already manufactured and ready to go. Those items ended up as museum pieces. The reduction in missions also impacted the crew assignments. More on that later.
It was the final roll of the dice for lunar geologists, and as such they had sketched out several ambitious objectives, some of which were seemingly contradictory. The first priority was to obtain lunar samples whose formation predated the Imbrium impact, at a site as far as possible from the Imbrium basin. This meant looking in a lunar highlands region. This had been the goal of Apollo 16, but analysis of those samples indicated that the landing site for that mission had been overwhelmed by impact debris from the Imbrium event. Thus, a site further away was a priority. The second, seemingly contradictory goal, was to obtain younger material of volcanic origin. Obtaining volcanic rocks was proving to be problematic for lunar missions, so geologists set their sights on places where there was evidence of volcanic cinder cones, which on Earth tend to show a darker halo of material surrounding the crater. Orbital science to be conducted by the CSM SIM instruments, as well as ALSEP surface experiments, were other considerations.
On this basis, three candidate sites were identified: Alphonsus Crater, the central peak region of the large crater Gassendi, and the Taurus-Littrow valley at the edge of the Sea of Serenity. For a time it looked like Alphonsus Crater would be the landing target, as there was evidence of several dark-halo craters on the floor of the larger crater, as well as highlands material in the crater walls. But closer examination of the crater walls caused some concern that it might be overlaid by younger impact debris, thus leaving the older material inaccessible to the explorers. The Gassendi site was ruled out because of landing safety concerns, as the landscape surrounding the central peaks appeared very rugged and thus inhospitable for surface operations using the lunar rover. That left Taurus-Littrow as the landing site choice. Here is a distant view of the Taurus-Littrow region:
The large mountain just below (south of) the arrow pointing to the landing site is called the South Massif. The smaller feature to the north is called, logically enough, the North Massif. A massif is a geologic formation bounded by faults and flexures in the crust, which is then uplifted basically intact by subsequent tectonism. The famous Face On Mars is an example of a massif. The domic structures to the east of the North Massif are called the Sculptured Hills, a somewhat romantic-sounding name for a rather barren landscape. Here is a closer view of the landing site:
The image is inverted with north to the bottom. Crater Camelot is near the eventual LM landing site, and was a prominent landmark for the crew during the approach phase. The light, powdery material cascading down from the north face of the South Massif is a landslide that was thought to contain older material from the upper slopes of the mountain.
Most people will remember the launch of Apollo 17 as the most spectacular of all of the Apollo launches because it occurred after dark. The relative positions of the Earth and Moon and the planned landing site dictated the night launch schedule. Liftoff was planned for 9:38 pm EST on December 6, 1972. The count reached the 30 second mark when the oldest and most reliable piece of equipment in the launch complex hardware, the automatic sequencer, stopped the countdown. The halt was caused by the sequencer failing to send a command to pressurize the liquid oxygen tanks in the third stage of the Saturn V. Personnel in the firing room at the Cape noted the failure to pressurize the tank and did it manually, but this did not satisfy the automatic sequencer, which when it reached the next step in the launch sequence it detected the failure of the command to pressurize, and halted the remaining steps of the launch sequence. This was basically a conservative approach: dont launch unless everything looks okay. The sequencer interpreted the lack of a pressurize command to be a failure to pressurize, which had been done manually, but to no avail. The countdown clock was recycled to the 20-minute mark and then a 2 hour and 40 minute delay followed to work around the sequencer problem. Apollo 17 lifted off at 12:33 am EST on December 7, 1972, the only launch delay in the entire Apollo program caused by a hardware problem. It was nonetheless singularly spectacular:
A more distant view:
The brilliant exhaust plume was visible for hundreds of miles along the eastern seaboard as the ever-reliable Saturn V performed flawlessly. While most space aficionados will remember the launch of Apollo 17 as the first night launch of the Saturn V, not many know that it was the first night launch of any kind of a manned US spacecraft. Until then, all manned missions were launched during daylight hours. This was a conservative approach based on two considerations. The first was the desire to clearly observe the initial phases of the launch and powered flight to look for any visual anomalies. The second consideration was recovery of the spacecraft in the event of an abort during powered flight. Tracking and visual location of the spacecraft after separation from the booster during a launch abort was thought to be more difficult in nighttime conditions. Recovery of spacecraft after normal flight had been done in darkness, but the tracking of a spacecraft during reentry is generally more certain than during an abort. There is a fairly large footprint of possible landing sites for a launch abort, and darkness would complicate location of the CM. However, by the time of the flight of Apollo 17, NASA had a strong confidence in the reliability of the Saturn V, and also of the ability to locate a downed spacecraft in darkness if an abort should be required. So the night launch was approved.
On board for this historic mission was Mission Commander Eugene (Gene) Cernan, a Gemini and Apollo veteran, along with first-time space travelers Ronald Evans as CM pilot, and LM pilot Harrison (Jack) Schmitt. The assignment of the Apollo 17 prime crew was a somewhat confused affair and not quite in keeping with the normal crew rotation. The cancellation of the later Apollo missions had program management scrambling to re-arrange flight assignments. The normal flight crew rotation would have placed Cernan on Apollo 16 as John Youngs LM pilot, but Cernans drive and determination to command his own mission made him hold out until Apollo 17 came up, knowing all the while that the flight might not ever happen. LM pilot Schmitt was the first true scientist to fly a lunar mission. A Harvard Ph.D. geologist, he was not the first man with a doctorate to fly to the moon. Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11 held a D.Sc. from MIT, as did Ed Mitchell on Apollo 14. But these men had degrees in aeronautics and astronautics, which in the academic pecking order are considered more engineering sciences than classical sciences like physics or mathematics or geology. With the cancellation of Apollo 18, to which Jack Schmitt was originally assigned, NASA was under some pressure from the scientific community to fly a scientist on the 17 mission. That meant Schmitt bumped a more experienced and popular astronaut, Joe Engle, from his spot as Apollo 17 LM pilot. But in the end it worked out well for both men. Schmitt got to practice his profession on another world, while Engle stayed with NASA and chalked up an impressive career flying the space shuttle.
Like the two previous flights, Apollo 17 was a J-Type mission, featuring an uprated lunar module for extended stays on the lunar surface, upgraded PLSS (backpacks) for lengthened EVA activities on the surface, lunar rover for expanded geology traverses, and a SIM bay on the CSM for observations in lunar orbit. The first-stage thrust of the Saturn V was also an uprated 7.6 million pounds to boost the heavier payload. The enhanced hardware had a significant payoff when the crew was able to return a record haul of lunar samples.
The names of the spacecraft for Apollo 17 were particularly inspiring. The Command Module, named America, is an obvious choice to honor the nation that conceived and carried out the Apollo Program. The Lunar Module Challenger pays tribute to the famous exploration ship HMS Challenger, the mother ship of the Challenger Expedition, which set sail from Portsmouth, England, On December 21, 1872, almost 100 years earlier to the day from the Apollo 17 expedition. The earlier Challenger expedition laid the foundations for the science of oceanography. Borrowing the name of the earlier vessel of discovery reflected NASAs hope that the conclusion of the Apollo program would serve as the basis for further exploration of the cosmos.
After the initial glitch of a late launch, the mission proceeded without incident. The ride up to orbit, translunar coast, and lunar orbit insertion were all performed flawlessly. Like the last two CSMs, the CSM America had a Scientific Instruments Module (SIM) Bay that was exposed during lunar orbit for measurements and photography of the surface from orbit. Here is a picture of the CSM in lunar orbit, taken from the lunar module:
You can see the open SIM bay and also the extended docking probe at the nose end of the CSM. Lunar orbit was achieved on December 10th, with the landing scheduled for the next day.
The SPS engine was used for initial lowering of the combined spacecraft to the descent orbit. The LM was then used for the trip down to the surface. Landing in a highlands region is quite visually spectacular, and the crew remarked on the way down to the surface of how it seemed they were level with the tops of the massifs as the landing site was approached. Lunar module Challenger touched down on the surface at 2:55 pm on December 11, 1972. Mission commander Cernans ebullient proclamation of the historic landing, The Challenger has landed! echoes the words of another earlier, historic lunar landing announcement. The valley floor of Taurus-Littrow was found to be mostly darker material with a gently inclined slope. This made for a somewhat more comfortable stay on the lunar surface for the crewmen, unlike those of Apollos 14-16 which had to deal with relatively uneven ground that caused a noticeable tilt of the landing vehicle as it rested on the surface. Here is a picture of the LM on the surface after landing:
The rover and the flag have been deployed, with the gently rounded Sculptured Hills in the background. Note that the lower skirt of the engine bell is clear of the surface, indicating a lower landing speed and more gentle touchdown than earlier J missions where the heavier LM resulted in a rougher landing. The lunar module shows the gangly, organic look of a vehicle made to travel exclusively in an airless environment, with its non-aerodynamic, angular surfaces and legs, antennae, and thruster nozzles sticking out at various angles.
Anxious to get down to business, the crew conducted their first EVA about four hours after landing. It was a marathon session, lasting a little over seven hours. Initial activities included deploying the lunar rover, setting up the ALSEP package, and deploying other surface experiments, including two explosive packages that were detonated later by remote control to test the geophones and seismometer. One experiment the crewmen paid particular attention to was the lunar surface heat flow experiment. Readers may recall that this was the hard-luck experiment accidentally destroyed on Apollo 16 by having the signal cables ripped out, and on Apollo 15 by problems with the surface drill, wherein the heat sensing probes could not be properly placed into the lunar crust. This time, thanks to NASAs work on improving the portable drill, the experiment was deployed without a hitch.
There was a minor problem with the rover when a fender was damaged and later fell off. This is not a trivial problem on the lunar surface because the unguarded wheel would kick up a spray of dust that showered the crew during rover operations. Here is a very clear picture of the Apollo 17 lunar rover tended to by Commander Cernan:
The TV camera which would later take the famous pictures of the LM liftoff from the moon is in the foreground on the front of the vehicle, with the parabolic communications antenna near the front wheel on the right of the picture. The extra antenna on the back of the rover just behind the passenger seat is part of another surface science instrument, the Surface Electrical Properties (SEP) experiment. This was the only time the SEP experiment was performed. The antenna on the rover is the receiving antenna. The transmitting antenna was deployed near the lunar module. At different stopping points during rover operations, electrical signal would be sent from the transmitter to the receiver, but through the ground, not through space. Examining the properties and features of the received signals provided data about the properties of the lunar surface and near-surface material.
Another first-time experiment carried on Apollo 17 was the Traverse Gravimeter Experiment (TGE). A gravimeter is used by field geologists to measure the local gravity field. It is basically an accelerometer that measures the constant downward acceleration caused by gravity. Local variations occur resulting from differences in crustal density and composition. On Earth, typical variations are about 0.5% of the overall planetary average. Such measurements had never been performed on another planet, so the chance to do them on Apollo 17 was irresistible to the geologists. The TGE was activated when the rover was stationary or when placed on the surface. About 26 separate TGE measurements were completed.
After setting up equipment near the LM, the crew was off for the first geologic traverse, which collected about 31 pounds of lunar samples. This was a relatively short excursion, making stops at two craters, denoted as Powell and Seno, just south of the LM landing site.
After a good nights and days rest, the second EVA began the next day, and this one was really a marathon affair, lasting seven hours and 37 minutes. The first order of business was to try a makeshift repair of the rovers damaged fender, which had come loose the previous day. The improvised fender was made from folded-over plastic (cronopaque) maps and duct tape, clamped to the edge of the rover body. Here is a close-up of the somewhat ingenious rigging:
The red arrow points to the strip of duct tape holding the makeshift fender together. Certainly a feather in the cap for the ubiquitous repair material used by handymen everywhere. EVA 2 was primarily a geologic expedition, and in this the traverse was to yield an extraordinarily rich harvest. The target for this traverse was the lower flank of the South Massif, which would entail crossing of the lighter mantle identified in orbital photographs as the remnant of an ancient landslide. It was thought that the debris field would contain very old rocks from the highlands crust still present on the upper slopes of the massifs. This speculation proved correct when geologist Schmitt collected a sample that was later to prove to be the oldest moon rock ever collected, close to 4.6 billion years old, which not only predates the Imbrium impact, but approaches the age of the Moon itself.
The most spectacular find was made on the way back to the LM, with a stop at a crater called Shorty. Scientists had eyed Shorty as an unusual lunar feature when viewing orbital photographs of the Taurus-Littrow valley. It is a very dark crater with a halo of dark ejecta superimposed on land that seemed to be covered with lighter pyroclastic material. This led to speculation that perhaps Shorty was volcanic in origin, with escaping gases altering the chemical properties of the nearby surrounding soil. This process forms what is called an alteration halo and is seen in some volcanic vents on Earth. So Shorty crater was a definite stop on the list of places to visit. Here is a picture of the target area:
The notations SM and NM refer to North Massif and South Massif, and SH is the Sculptured Hills. The yellow arrow points to the LM location, and the white arrow in the left image shows the location of Shorty crater. Shorty is located on a tongue of lighter material cascading down from the slope of the South Massif. The image on the right is in normal light, while on the left it is a composite of red, green, and blue color bands of the Wide Angle Camera of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter that took these images.
Just after beginning his work at Shorty, Schmitt noticed that his steps had scuffed up some orange-colored material. At first he thought it was a reflection off of pieces of the rover parked nearby, but soon determined that this was the actual color of the ground. Geologists at Mission Control immediately speculated that this was evidence of a fumarolic volcanic vent, with the coloration a result of oxidation caused by volcanic gases leaking to the surface. Schmitt thought likewise and began collecting core samples as well as excavating a trench in the soil to determine layering and direction of the deposit. Here is a distant view of the discovery site:
The area excavated by Schmitt is to the right and above the rover in the image. There are also visible other patches of orange ground on the crater wall further to the right and in the lower right corner of the image. These are their natural appearances and were not excavated by the crew. LM Pilot Schmitt is at the rover, while photographer Cernan is about 40 meters away. This is a closeup view of the work site:
The tripodal device on the left is a gnomon. It has a gimbaled rod (stadia) in the center that is free to point vertically, which helps establish the lay of the land. It casts a shadow from which the direction and angle of the sun can be determined. The rod length and demarked lines provide a local scale from which the size of nearby objects can be estimated. One leg has a photometric chart attached, with shades of gray ranging from 5 to 35% reflectivity, and a color scale for gauging the true color of the surrounding area.
A full interpretation of the discovery would have to wait until Earthbound geologists analyzed the material. More on that later. For now, after a stop at the relatively large Camelot crater, just west of the LM, the second EVA came to a close, with the lunar explorers back in the LM for another night and day of well-deserved rest, claiming a total of about 75 pounds of lunar samples and an abundance of measurements and photographs.
The very last moonwalk of the Apollo era began the next day, and also lasted over seven hours. The geologic excursion took them to the slopes of the North Massif and the edge of the Sculptured Hills. There were also stops at several craters to the east of the LM, with about 150 pounds of samples collected on this expedition. Here is a vidcap from the rover camera of astronaut Schmitt on the North Massif:
You can see his face clearly through the transparent bubble helmet, which is beneath the EVA visor assembly. Schmitt evidently has raised his visor to get a better view of the natural color of the surroundings. Color is an important clue that field geologists use to evaluate the potential value of sampling sites. Schmitt was admonished several times by controllers at the MOCR to lower his visor. Theyd spot him on the rover camera with his visor up and were concerned about the effects of the unfiltered sunlight on his retinas.
In all, Apollo 17 returned a record haul of almost 250 pounds of lunar material. Another record was the total EVA time, just over a total of 22 hours on the surface. One final record was the duration of the stay, which was just about three days and three hours. These totals are a fitting climax to the J missions and the initial exploration of another world.
Lunar Module Challenger left the moon at 5:55 pm EST on December 14, 1972. As with the previous flight milestones, the liftoff and return to lunar orbit was flawless. As part of the surface operations closeout, Mission Commander Cernan had parked the still-functional lunar rover some distance away from the lunar module to afford a good view of the LM ascent. Flight controller Ed Fendell in Mission control, sometimes called Captain Video since he had charge of the lunar rover TV camera, had anticipated this moment as the last chance to get a good picture of the LM liftoff. Recall that on Apollo 15 the rover camera had developed clutch problems and was unable to tilt upward to follow the LM ascent stage. The camera functioned properly on Apollo 16 but controllers had a hard time following the LM as it climbed because of the 1.5-second time delay between the moon and the Earthbound controllers, which caused the image of the LM to drift out of frame as it rose. This time, Fendell was ready. He anticipated the liftoff and began to zoom the camera back from its focus on the LM, and also tilt upward as the liftoff occurred. The result was a spectacular image of the upper stage separating from the descent stage and climbing beautifully into the stark lunar sky, riding an invisible plume of exhaust gases from the LM ascent motor. Here is a sequence of video captures showing the liftoff sequence:
And the descent stage left behind, which serves as the launch pad for the ascent stage:
The departure from lunar orbit and return coast to Earth were performed without any glitches. As with the previous two missions, there was an EVA spacewalk in deep space performed by CM pilot Ron Evans to retrieve items from the SIM bay. Here is a picture of spacewalker Evans going about his business in the utter blackness of cislunar space:
Evans is wearing the commanders EVA visor (red strip) and also the PLSS Oxygen Purge System (OPS) backpack. The OPS is a safety feature of the main PLSS worn by astronauts on the lunar surface. It provides emergency backup oxygen and cooling in case the main system failed, and can last about 30 minutes individually, or 75 to 90 minute using a buddy system. On the cislunar spacewalk, main oxygen and cooling is provided by the CM system through an umbilical. The OPS serves as a backup for this system if a failure should occur. Both the visor and OPS were salvaged from the LM supplies before jettisoning the LM.
The flight of Apollo 17 ended on December 19, 1972, with splashdown in the Pacific Recovery Zone at 2:25 pm EST. This was almost four years to the day of the launching of Apollo 8 on December 21, 1968. The era of lunar exploration, possibly the greatest achievement of mankind to date, lasted almost exactly four years.
Apollo 17 was about as close to a perfect mission as you can get. Every objective of the incredibly ambitious flight plan was achieved without fail. The mission also left a rich legacy of scientific discovery and exploration. Certainly the story of the famous orange soil is worthy of note. As it turned out, this material was not a result of a fumarolic volcanic vent, as Shorty crater turned out to be an impact feature after all. The orange soil revealed under microscopic analysis to be composed of very fine glass spheres. These are a type of pyroclastic material that is produced only by a volcanic event called a fire fountain. It is not produced by impact melting. A fire fountain is often seen on Earth where subsurface gases force liquid magma to the surface under pressure, to form a well-defined spray of molten rock. Here is a famous one in Hawaii:
The explosive process is not unlike shaking a bottle of carbonated beverage and having the contents spray out under pressure of the exsolved gas. One can only imagine how spectacular this sight would be on the lunar surface, with ejected material thrown much higher and farther in the weak gravity of the moon, the incandescent rock glowing brightly against the utter blackness of the lunar sky. So here at last was conclusive proof of volcanism on the moon, and that our nearest neighbor in space did in fact have an active geologic past, quiet as it may be now. The orange color results from the elements that compose the glass spheres, titanium and iron and sulfur that was oxidized by the volcanic gases that drove the formation of the fire fountain. It was deposited several billion years ago and then covered by a thin layer of basalt that flooded the Taurus-Littrow valley sometime later. It was further covered by debris from the avalanche that came down from the side of the South Massif. Then, a relatively short time ago (millions of years) the impact that formed Shorty Crater excavated the orange material from a depth of about 10 meters, throwing some of it onto the rim of the crater, where it awaited discovery of the first field lunar geologist to venture that way. The samples proved to be incredibly valuable to our understanding of the evolution of the lunar surface.
The other dazzler in the treasure trove of geologic samples was the incredibly old rock collected by Schmitt at the South Massif. This sample turned out to be the true Genesis Rock of the Apollo Program. Schmitts trained eye was able to pick it out as a likely candidate from the surrounding materials. In this context, having a trained human presence on site certainly paid dividends.
The crew of Apollo 17 was composed of perhaps the three most determined, driven, and dedicated individuals ever to fly a space mission. Mission Commander Eugene Andrew Cernan was a Navy Captain and aviator. He is a native of Chicago, born into an ethnic (Czech-Slovak) family. Cernan earned a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from Purdue University, and was commissioned as a naval officer through the ROTC program. He flew fighter jets for the Navy and also earned an M.S. in aeronautic engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School. After joining NASA, Cernan flew on the Gemini 9 mission with Thomas Stafford. They were originally the backup crew but ended up flying the mission when both members of the prime crew died in a plane crash. Captain Cernan flew with Tom Stafford again on Apollo 10 as LM Pilot, where the LM was tested in lunar orbit as a prelude to the Apollo 11 landing mission. He passed up a chance to land on the moon on Apollo 16 as LM pilot, as he was determined to command a mission of his own. Gene Cernan is known to spacewatchers for his volatile and expressive nature, which while endearing him to the ordinary public, caused some consternation among NASA management. But his enthusiasm and love for the space program, as well as his proven ability as a pilot, engineer, and leader kept him in the top ranks of the astronaut corps. Cernan was initially critical of the NASA decision to bump Joe Engle from Apollo 17 in favor of Jack Schmitt, but came around when Schmitt proved himself as an able LM pilot and absolute genius in lunar geology. In fact, during the geologic traverses, Cernan deferred to his crewmate for decisions involving sampling and photographic stops, assuming a supportive and encouraging role. Apollo 17 was Captain Cernans final spaceflight, a virtuoso performance of piloting and engineering skill, and a fitting cap to a remarkable spaceflight career. Gene Cernan retired from NASA and the Navy in 1976. He held the rank of Navy Captain upon his retirement. He then went into private business, and often gives talks of his experience on the lunar surface. Today Gene Cernan is retired from business and lives in Houston. An interesting bit of trivia is that the first and last men to touch the lunar surface (Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan) are Purdue University alumni.
The traditional No. 2 man on an Apollo crew is the CM pilot, who was Ronald Ellwin Evans on Apollo 17. Ron Evans was born in a small town in Kansas, but went to school in Topeka. He graduated in 1956 from the University of Kansas with a degree in electrical engineering. He received his commission as a Navy Ensign in the U.K. ROTC program and completed flight training in June, 1957. He flew fighter jets during the Vietnam War, and also earned a graduate degree in aeronautic engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in 1964. Evans proved his mettle serving as backup CM pilot for Apollo 14. He lobbied NASA management to stay on the rotation for assignment on Apollo 17, as flight crews were being juggled and rearranged in anticipation of an early end to the program. Gene Cernan also went to bat for his crewmate, making it clear that if he lost Joe Engle as LM pilot, he sure didnt want to lose Ron Evans as his CM pilot. On Apollo 17, Evans had charge of the SIM instruments during lunar orbit, keeping station while the LM was on the surface. He also performed the last deep space EVA on the return voyage. Ron Evans retired from the Navy in 1976 with a final rank of Captain, but stayed on with NASA in the Astronaut Office, where he was a member of the training and operations group for the space shuttle program. Evans left NASA in 1977 and went into private industry. He died of a heart attack on April 7, 1990, in Scottsdale, AZ.
LM pilot Harrison Hagen (Jack) Schmitt is a native of New Mexico. He went to Caltech as an undergraduate student in geology, where he met his lifelong mentor, Professor Lee Silver. Schmitt enrolled in Harvard for graduate training, earning a Ph.D. in 1964. Jack Schmitt is the only man of the 12 who have walked on the moon to have never served in the military. He joined NASA in 1965 and was passionate in his belief in the value of astronauts as field geologists. Schmitt was dedicated to his dream of doing field geology on the lunar surface. He took time away from his profession as a scholar and geologist to become qualified as a jet pilot, which at the time was a requirement for all who flew in space. He lobbied NASA management to hire instructors who would inspire astronaut crews to be dedicated to the science of lunar geology, and succeeded in persuading his undergraduate professor, Lee Silver, to instruct Apollo astronauts in the discipline of field geology, observation, and sample collecting. As a member of the flight crew of Apollo 18, Schmitt was resigned to never reaching the moon when the mission was cancelled because of budget reductions. But his scientific colleagues were working behind the scenes to get him a spot on Apollo 17, which ultimately bore fruit and paid a handsome dividend in scientific discovery. Jack Schmitt left NASA in 1975 to begin a career in politics. He was elected to the US Senate in 1976, and represented New Mexico in that position until January of 1982. He was elected by a 57-42 margin, but lost re-election by a similar margin, 54-46, which was a result of the deep recession still gripping the country during the 1982 election year. After leaving politics, Schmitt became a sought-after consultant in a variety of business ventures, including geology, space science, and public policy. Dr. Schmitt often gives public lectures on lunar geology. He is a dynamic and motivating speaker and is personally engaging and accessible. I was able to meet him and obtain his autograph when he was the Bownocker Medal recipient and Lecturer at Ohio State University in 1996. He lives in New Mexico but spends time at a summer home in Minnesota.
I want to post one more photo from the Apollo 17 mission, which is one of my favorites of the entire Apollo Program:
Here we see Astronaut Harrison Schmitt, the lunar surface, the American flag, and the distant Earth all squeezed into one memorable picture. Somehow this embodies for me the spirit of Man to explore, to go beyond the horizon, to see what is over the next hill. I suppose it is a longing that reaches back to the first prehistoric explorer who threw a log into a river and climbed aboard for the ride.
Looking back at the conclusion of the Apollo Program, two generations ago, it still may be too soon to gauge the full legacy of this remarkable achievement. Perhaps an inkling of it can be gleaned from Mission Commander Cernans concluding words as he left the surface of the moon:
I believe history will record, that America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow.
It bears remembering that for maybe 50,000 generations, humans gazed up at the moon and thought it an unattainable object. The Apollo program proved otherwise, and showed that even so lofty a goal as reaching another planet was not beyond the grasp of a determined and free people. Likewise, the challenges we face today, while seemingly daunting in their own right, are not insurmountable if we only have the clarity of vision to see them as they are, the determination to find solutions, and the perseverance and strength of will to see them through. So take a moment this month to recall the achievement of the Apollo 17 mission, and the efforts and sacrifices of the tens of thousands of our fellow citizens who made the dream a reality.
The problem with NASA is that they lost the spirit of Louis and Clark. Exploring, pathfinding, and prospecting with the intent of private endevours to follow.
I remember in the 80s wondering when the Space Shuttle was ever going to land on the Moon. I thought that they could never make it there because they couldn’t get enough fuel due to the Ayatollah stealing all the gas.
Which honestly would have been a much preferable explanation than we just ran out of interest.
Now NASA is a vehicle for political correctness and lousy muslim outreach !
> The problem with NASA is that they lost the spirit of Louis and Clark. Exploring, pathfinding, and prospecting with the intent of private endevours to follow.
Well put together. THANK you for posting!
What? No Muslims?
That wouldn’t pass muster today.
Oh how far we’ve fallen.
Sad... how far we have fallen on so many levels.
Great post. I saw a night launch of the Space Shuttle once, from Statesboro GA. This was back when they still televised the launches. I watched the countdown on TV, then went outside and looked south, and there it was. I could see it from that far away.
Today we have a President, a large majority of Congress, an academic elite, and media that doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism. As a result we have no manned space program.
Amazing that you could see it from so far away. I scheduled a summer vacation once at the town of Cape Canaveral, had a beach house just south of the KSC. A shuttle launch was scheduled for that week but it got postponed. Bummer. Never saw one go up in all my years as a space program geek.
Excellent remembrance of the mission! Thanks for posting.
I watched every Apollo mission as a kid.
I miss the old U.S.A. that could do things no one else could.
Thanks — that was a GREAT read. I actually get a little teary thinking about the amazingness of what these guys accomplished. Talk about audacity.
Thanks for this. It is awesome.
I did the same thing with this night Apollo launch.
From Miami it was quite the site, a giant orange fireball streaking across the sky growing fainter, then a bright flash when the first stage separated. It then turned into a star size and color which vanished in seconds.
Pinging the lingers for a truly interesting piece.
True that. It is sadly sobering to think that over 50 years ago we sent Alan Shepard aloft on the first Mercury flight, a 15 minute suborbital hop. Today we have no capability of sending a single astronaut on a suborbital trip.
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