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Apollo 17
Fifty years ago this month, American astronaut Eugene Cernan surveyed the infinite beauty of the Moon's Taurus–Littrow region. He then took his final steps on its surface and climbed in to join his colleague Harrison Schmitt in their cramped Lunar Excursion Module. They then rocketed off home for the final time. Now, we're finally going back.

Apollo 17 Crew Took Last Steps on the Moon 50 Years Ago This Month, It's Time to Go Back

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But before Artemis III brings the first woman and the first person of color to meet the Lunar regolith in 2025, we ought to take a look back and understand why the last mission in the old Apollo program was one of the most bittersweet moments not just in the history of aerospace, but possibly all of human history.

To understand why this isn't typical internet hyperbole, we first need to understand the context behind Apollo's final mission. By the early 1970s, public sentiment regarding crewed spaceflights to other heavenly bodies was starting to fall ever more out of favor. Couple this with a Nixon presidency that wasn't always in NASA's corner, and the Apollo program no doubt suffered as it took on a second life as a political football.

The exact reasons for the cancellation of the Apollo Program are draped in polarizing and divisive early 70s American politics that need not be re-hashed. What matters in all of the political jargon is that Apollos 18, 19, and 20 were all stricken to lives as museum pieces. Missions 16 and 17 were also very nearly axed under President Richard Nixon's original proposal in September 1970.

But in a stark silver lining, Apollo 16 and 17 were both allowed to go ahead as planned. That said, any hopes of Human-crewed missions to other planets that NASA engineers like Wernher Von Braun may have had were up in smoke.

Apollo 17
Even so, the Apollo program would at least get to have its dramatic final swansong. With future missions now out of the question, NASA scrambled to re-arrange their astronaut assignments to accommodate the updated schedule.

In the end, Apollo 17's crew consisted of Command Module pilot Ronald Evans, Lunar Module pilot Harrison Schmitt, and mission commander Eugene "Gene" Cernan. This crew would be the last to leave Low Earth Orbit for the next five decades. Launched aboard the iconic Saturn V, it was the last human-crewed launch of what was the most powerful booster rocket until the SLS broke the record in 2022. It was also the rocket's only nighttime launch.

Apollo 17 took off from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39A on December 7th, 1972. Legend has it, people as far south as Miami were able to see the leviathan rocket as the inky blackness of night made the mighty Saturn V shine even brighter. After a trans-Lunar injection burn to get the crew on track to the Moon, Apollo 17's crew snapped possibly the most famous color image of planet Earth ever taken. Dubbed the Blue Marble image, it's possibly the most lasting memento from the last Apollo mission.

On December 11th, 1972, Apollo 17's Grumman Lunar Excursion Module, dubbed the Challenger, with Lunar Roving Vehicle in tow, touched down on the Lunar surface in the Taurus–Littrow region on the Moon's light side just before 3 p.m. EST. Over the next three days, a series of three consecutive EVA's allowed Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt to conduct a wide array of experiments with the help of their LRV.

Apollo 17
Over a drive distance of over 35.7 kilometers (22.2 mi), the LRV aided the two astronauts in reaching far-off places that would've exhausted their oxygen reserves had they tried on foot. Interestingly, the two-man crew uncovered orange-colored soil underneath a thin layer of grey regolith during their travels. Thus implying that sometime in the very ancient past, our home Moon was once teeming with volcanic activity.

Though clearly a landmark discovery for the mission, it was perhaps also the last substantial scientific study undertaken on the Moon in half a century. The Apollo 17 Command Module splashed down to Earth in the Pacific Ocean on December 16th, 1972. The crew was recovered via a Navy Sikorsky SH-3 Sea King helicopter from the WWII veteran aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga.

Though there were smiles all around upon the crew's safe return, there was no doubt a sense onboard the ship that day that dark times were ahead for NASA. Times in which human space travel beyond Low Earth Orbit was de-facto forbidden by U.S. Politicians citing budget concerns, among other minutiae. Thus forcing NASA to focus on the fundimentally-flawed, politically-charged, but admittedly still brilliant Space Shuttle program. But always remember one thing, pencil-pushing bureaucrats can only keep the spirit of adventure down for so long.

With the Artemis I mission to the Moon already underway with human-crewed missions soon to follow, it won't be too much longer before Eugene Cernan isn't the last human being to leave bootprints on the Lunar surface anymore. If you were lucky enough to ask for this American hero's thoughts on the matter while he was still alive, Cernan would've most certainly said he wouldn't mind losing that title one bit. If you ask us, it was a long time coming.

Apollo 17
Check back soon for more from Celebration Month 22 here on autoevolution.

Editor's note: This article was not sponsored or supported by a third-party.

 
 
 
 
 

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