Apollo 17 – America’s farewell to the Moon

Originally, ten lunar landings were planned for Apollo crews. But with Apollos 18 to 20 cancelled in 1970, the final visit by humans in the 20th Century was aboard Apollo 17 in December 1972.

Harrison Schmitt stands next to a huge, split lunar boulder during the third Apollo 17 extravehicular activity at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. The rover can be seen to the right. Image credit: NASA

The mission to the Moon was commanded by veteran astronaut, Gene Cernan, with Ron Evans piloting the Command Service Module America and professional geologist Harrison Schmitt the Lunar Module Challenger.

Apollo 17 was NASA’s first night launch in the program, lifting off 2 hours 40 minutes late from the Kennedy Space Center on December 7.

After a routine flight, Cernan and Schmitt descended in Challenger to a site on the southeastern rim of Mare Serenitatis, the Sea of Serenity, in the Taurus-Littrow highlands. There they hoped to find the youngest rocks yet, to be picked out by Schmitt’s expert eye.

With the rover unloaded and experiments deployed, the astronauts began to explore the area. In three excursions they would drive 30 km and collect 110.52 kg of lunar rocks. A highlight was the discovery of orange soil near Shorty Crater, a colourful sight among the otherwise grey surroundings.

Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan stands between the rover and the U.S. flag. Image credit: NASA

With the third excursion completed, the pair returned a final time to Challenger. They blasted off to return to the America and headed home, with Evans spacewalking to collect film on the way. They landed safely in the Pacific to be picked up by the USS Ticonderoga.

Cernan would be the last man on the Moon for several decades, but his footprints, like those of 11 other Apollo astronauts, would remain in the lunar dust for an eternity.