[By Robert Z. Pearlman, Space.com] Apollo 17, the last of the missions to land men on the moon, began 40 years ago today with the dawning of a man-made sun.
Lifting off just after midnight (EST) on Dec. 7, 1972, the Apollo 17 mission was the final of NASA’s moon-bound manned flights — and the first night launch. The massive, 363-foot tall (111 meters) Saturn 5 rocket turned night into day as the long flames from its five powerful F-1 engines bathed the dark sky with a brilliant, bright-as-the-sun light that appeared to spectators to slowly climb skyward from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Onboard the mighty moon booster were three astronauts. Eugene Cernan, a veteran of two prior missions including the “dress rehearsal” for the first lunar landing three years earlier, commanded Apollo 17 and flew the lunar module “Challenger” to a landing in the Taurus-Littrow valley.
Ronald Evans served as the pilot of the command module “America” that remained in lunar orbit until it was time for the three voyagers to return to Earth. [
And lunar module pilot Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, who like Evans marked another first with the launch of Apollo 17 — his first time in space. That it was also the last time, to date, that anyone would embark for the moon, was less of a pressing concern.
“I do not particularly recall at that time, prior to the launch, having thoughts that it was specifically the last mission,” Schmitt told collectSPACE.com in an interview by phone this week. “I certainly don’t think I felt any more pressure, nor do I think anybody did in that regard.”
“These missions take on a life of their own, other than as we left the moon, when I think both [Cernan and I] had the awareness that it would be the last one, [judging] from our comments that we made on the surface,” he added.
Landing at Taurus-Littrow four days after they launched, Cernan and Schmitt remained on the surface for just over three days, the longest duration lunar expedition to date. Like the two Apollo missions that preceded Apollo 17, the astronauts had a “moon buggy,” the Lunar Roving Vehicle or lunar rover, to extend the distance they could traverse across the rocky valley.
Before leaving the moon, Cernan proclaimed, “America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”