Apollo 17: 45th Anniversary of NASA’s Final Lunar Landing Mission
Ken Kremer -- Space UpClose -- 27 Dec 2017KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL - This month marks the 45th anniversary of Apollo 17, NASA’s final lunar landing mission which successfully touched down on the Moon on December 11 at the Taurus-Littrow valley and highlands.
Apollo 17 marked the culmination and conclusion of America’s Apollo Moon landing program initiated by President John F. Kennedy and his momentous 1961 decision committing the nation to “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to earth.”
No human has journeyed beyond low Earth orbit or back to the Moon since Apollo 17.
The three man Apollo 17 astronaut crew comprised Commander Eugene A. Cernan, a veteran of two prior missions including Apollo 10, and two rookies Command Module pilot Ronald E. Evans, and Lunar Module pilot, Harrison H. Schmitt.
The 12 day Apollo 17 mission launched just after midnight on December 7, 1972 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida atop the mighty Saturn V moon rocket.
The 363-feet tall Apollo 17/Saturn V vehicle lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at KSC at 12:33 a.m. (EST), Dec. 7, 1972 on the first night launch of the Apollo program and a U.S. human spaceflight. It also marked the final manned launch of a Saturn V rocket.
A trio of my space journalist colleagues witnessed the Apollo 17 launch in person from the KSC press site and their launch photos are included herein; Julian Leek, Tom Usciak and Mark Usciak.
The mission concluded with the splashdown of the Apollo 17 capsule in the Pacific Ocean on December 17, 1972 at 3:27pm EST.
After a three day translunar journey the crew arrived in lunar orbit.
Commander Cernan and Lunar Module pilot Schmitt entered the Challenger lunar lander (LM) and began a powered descent to the surface while Evans remained behind in lunar orbit inside the Command/Service Module (CSM) dubbed America. The LM was built by Grumman on Long Island, New York.
On Dec 11, 1972 Cernan and Schmitt soft landed at the Taurus-Littrow highlands and valley area at lunar latitude 20 degrees, 10 minutes north, and longitude 30 degrees 46 minutes east on the last of the three “J” type lunar landing missions which boasted significantly enhanced lunar science capabilities.
“This site was picked for Apollo 17 as a location where rocks both older and younger than those previously returned from other Apollo missions, as well as from Luna 16 and 20 missions, might be found,” according to a NASA description.
Cernan and Schmitt spent almost 75 hours on the lunar surface. After stepping down the ladder onto the lunar surface the pair conducted three separate extravehicular activities (EVAs) over the next three days that lasted almost 22 hours.
Their lunar expedition included long drives at Taurus Littrow using the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) - that had been side mounted on their lunar lander - totaling nearly 19 miles (30 km) . The LRV was designed, developed and produced by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.
Altogether they collected 243.7pounds (110.52 kilograms) of priceless and pristine lunar rock and soil samples.
You can see one of those Apollo 17 rock samples and other memorabilia on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (see photos herein).
Jack Schmitt was a trained geologist and the first and only scientist-astronaut to launch and land on the Moon.
Watch this new NASA Goddard YouTube video featuring Apollo 17 moonwalker Jack Schmitt
Video Caption: December 11, 2017 will mark the 45th anniversary of the day NASA's Apollo 17 mission landed on the Moon. This video connects that history to the current Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission through the eyes of astronaut Harrison "Jack" Schmitt. As a geologist and Apollo 17 crewmember, Schmitt has a unique perspective about how data being collected by LRO enhances our current understanding of lunar science and lays the groundwork for future explorers. Music Provided by Killer Tracks: "From Small Beginnings" - Jay Price. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Lacey Young
Per NASA: “Scientific objectives of the Apollo 17 mission included, geological surveying and sampling of materials and surface features in a preselected area of the Taurus-Littrow region; deploying and activating surface experiments; and conducting in-flight experiments and photographic tasks during lunar orbit and transearth coast. These objectives included deployed experiments, such as the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package, or ALSEP, with a heat flow experiment; lunar seismic profiling, orLSP; lunar surface gravimeter, or LSG; lunar atmospheric composition experiment, or LACE; and lunar ejecta and meteorites, or LEAM.”
“The mission also included lunar sampling and lunar orbital experiments. Biomedical experiments included the Biostack II experiment and the BIOCORE experiment.”
During lunar lift-off of the LM on December 14, Cernan remarked that the astronauts were leaving as they came, “with peace and hope for all mankind.”
He also counts as the last man on moon since he was the last of the pair to step off the moon and climb back into the LM.
NASA’s Apollo Moon program spanned the Apollo 1 to Apollo 17 missions from 1967 to 1972.
Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon, and one of America’s most famous and renowned astronauts, passed away at the start of this year on January 16, 2017 at age 82, after a long illness, surrounded by his family.
Cernan, a naval aviator, flew on three groundbreaking missions for NASA during the Gemini and Apollo programs that paved the way for America’s and humanity’s first moonlanding missions.
His trio of historic space flights ultimately culminated with Cernan stepping foot on the moon in Dec. 1972 during the Apollo 17 mission- NASA’s final moon landing of the Apollo era.
No human has set foot on the Moon since Apollo 17 - an enduring disappointment to Cernan and all space fans worldwide.
Cernan also flew on the Gemini 9 and Apollo 10 missions, prior to Apollo 17.
Cernan also set records for both lunar surface extravehicular activities (EVSs) and the longest time in lunar orbit on Apollo 10 and Apollo 17.
The Gemini 9 capsule is on display at theKennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Cernan was the second NASA astronaut to perform an EVA - during Gemini 9.
A remembrance ceremony for Cernan was held at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame inside the recently opened ‘Heroes & Legends’ exhibit at the KSC Visitor Complex - two days after Cernan died.
A NASA portrait and floral wreath were on display for visitors during the ceremony insideand outside of the ‘Heroes and Legends’ exhibit.
“He was an advocate for the space program and hero that will be greatly missed,” said Kennedy Space Center Director and space shuttle astronaut Bob Cabana during the KSC Visitor Complex ceremony.
"I don't believe that Gene is going to be the last man on the moon. And one of the thingsthathe was extremely passionate about was our exploring beyond our own planet, and developing that capability that would allow us to go back to the moon and go beyond.”
"I feel badly that he wasn't able to stay alive long enough to actually see this come to fruition," Cabana said.
Cernan was one of only 12 astronauts to walk on the moon. Neil Armstong and Buzz Aldrin were the first during the Apollo 11 moon landing mission in 1969 that fulfilled President Kohn F. Kennedy’s promise to land on the Moon during the 1960’s.
NASA is now developing the SLS heavy lift rocket and Orion deep space capsule to send our astronauts to the Moon, Mars and Beyond. The maiden launch of SLS-1 on the uncrewed EM-1 mission to the Moon is slated for late 2019.
Cernan was also honored recently by Orbital ATK and NASA when the company’s recent Cygnus OA-8 cargo freighter mission to the International Space Station (ISS) was named in honor of Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the Moon.
“Orbital ATK is proud to name the OA-8 Cygnus Cargo Delivery Spacecraft after former astronaut Eugene “Gene” Cernan,” said Orbital ATK.
“As the last human to step foot on the moon, Cernan set records for both lunar surface extravehicular activities and longest time in lunar orbit, paving the way for future human space exploration. He died in January 2017.”
The “S.S. Gene Cernan” launched of the Orbital ATK Antares rocket on Sunday Nov. 12 from Virginia’s eastern shore and arrived at the ISS on Nov. 14.
Read our earlier story about the “S.S. Gene Cernan” mission and its departure from the ISS on Dec. 6, 2017:
He advocated for NASA, space exploration and science his entire adult life.
Read our continuing SpaceX Dragon CRS-13 and Orbital ATK Cygnus OA-8 cargo mission stories here at Space UpClose for further details about ISS mission operations and ongoing science investigations.
Stay tuned here for Ken's continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.