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50 Years Ago: Apollo 17

50 Years Ago: Apollo 17

50 Years Ago: Apollo 17

Not long after midnight on Dec. 7, 1972, the last crewed mission to the Moon, Apollo 17, lifted off with three astronauts: Eugene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt, and Ronald Evans.

Experience the Apollo 17 launch and follow the mission in real time.

The Apollo 17 Space Vehicle sits poised beneath a full moon on Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center during the launch countdown. The Saturn V rocket is mostly white, with several black patches, American flags, and the letters “USA” on its side. It is connected to an orange launch tower on the left. Credit: NASAALT

Meet the Crew

Let’s meet the astronauts who made the final Apollo trip to the Moon, including the first scientist-astronaut.

Gene Cernan: In 1972, Apollo 17 Mission Commander Eugene A. Cernan had two space flights under his belt, Gemini 9 in June 1966, and Apollo 10 in May 1969. He was a naval aviator, electrical and aeronautical engineer and fighter pilot.

Ron Evans: Apollo 17 Command Module Pilot Ronald E. Evans was selected as a member of the 4th group of NASA astronauts in 1966. Like Cernan, he was an electrical and aeronautical engineer, and naval aviator before his assignment to the Apollo 17 crew.

Harrison (Jack) Schmitt: Lunar Module Pilot Dr. Harrison (Jack) Schmitt joined NASA as a member of the first group of scientist-astronauts in 1965. Before working for NASA, Schmitt was a geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Center. He was on the backup crew for Apollo 15 before being selected for the prime crew of Apollo 17. He became the first of the scientist-astronauts to go to space and the 12th human to walk on the Moon.

The Apollo 17 prime astronaut crew observes pre-launch activity at Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center while participating in Emergency Egress Test. They are, left to right, Ronald E. Evans, Harrison H. Schmitt, and Eugene A. Cernan. Credit: NASAALT

The Blue Marble

“The Blue Marble,” one of the most reproduced images in history, was taken 50 years ago on Dec. 7, 1972 by the Apollo 17 crew as they made their way to the Moon.

This view of Earth was seen by the Apollo 17 crew as they traveled toward the moon on their NASA lunar landing mission. This outstanding trans-lunar coast photograph extends from the Mediterranean Sea area to the Antarctica south polar ice cap. This is the first time the Apollo trajectory made it possible to photograph the south polar ice cap. Note the heavy cloud cover in the Southern Hemisphere. Almost the entire coastline of Africa is clearly visible. The Arabian Peninsula can be seen at the northeastern edge of Africa. The large island off the coast of Africa is the Malagasy Republic. The Asian mainland is on the horizon toward the northeast. Credit: NASAALT

Bag of Soup, Anyone?

NASA astronauts have an array of menu items to stay well fed and hydrated on missions. For Apollo 17, the menus allocated around 2,500 calories per day for each astronaut. They included:

  • Bacon Squares
  • Peanut Butter Sandwiches
  • Frankfurters
  • Lobster Bisque

Like anything going to space, weight and containment matter. That’s why the Apollo 17 menu included plenty of soups and puddings.

Ron Evans smiles as he holds up a packet of soup during the outbound trip of Apollo 17. Credit: NASAALT

Synchronicity

On Dec. 11, 2022,  the Artemis I mission will be splashing down on Earth after its 25.5-day mission. At 2:55 p.m. 50 years prior, the Apollo 17 lunar module (LM) landed on the Moon, with Commander Gene Cernan and LM Pilot Harrison Schmitt on board. Ron Evans remained in the Command and Service Module (CSM) orbiting the Moon.

Experience the landing.

The half Earth appears in the black sy over the Lunar Module on the lunar surface. The spacecraft has a radio dish, black thermal blankets, and a tubular metal support structure. Credit: NASAALT

Planting the Flag

One of the first tasks the Apollo 17 crew did on their first moonwalk was to plant the American flag. There’s no wind on the Moon, but that doesn’t mean the flag has to droop. Did you know that a horizontal rod with a latch makes the flag appear to be flying in the wind? Gene Cernan carefully composed this photo to get Schmitt, the flag, and the Earth in a single shot.

So, is the flag still there? Images of the Apollo 17 landing site from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera show that in 2011 the flag was still standing and casting a shadow!

Astronaut Harrison Schmitt poses in a bulky white spacesuit on the Lunar surface next to an American flag. The Earth hangs in the black sky in the background, and fellow astronaut Eugene Cernan is seen in the reflection of Schmitt's golden visor. Credit: NASAALT

Moon Buggy

During Apollo 17, the Lunar Rover Vehicle (LRV), nicknamed the Moon buggy, logged the farthest distance from the Lunar Module of any Apollo mission, about 4.7 miles (7.5 km). 

As a precaution, the LRV had a walk-back limit in the event of an issue; astronauts had to have enough resources to walk back to the lunar module if need be.

Astronaut Gene Cernan wears a bulky white space suit with a gold visor. He is sitting in the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), a car-like open vehicle with large, round tires and red-orange fenders. It sits on the surface of the gray, dusty Moon. The mountain sloping upward in the right background is the east end of South Massif. Credit: NASAALT

Grab the Duct Tape!

The right rear fender extension of the LRV (Moon buggy) was torn off, kicking up dust as the crew drove, reducing visibility. The crew made a resourceful repair using duct tape and maps.

For LRV fans, visiting an LRV driven on the Moon is a bit difficult since all three LRVs used on the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 missions were left on the Moon. But you can find an LRV used for training at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
Read more about the LRV.

A close-up view of the rear right wheel of the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) at the Taurus-Littrow. Note the makeshift repair arrangement on the fender of the LRV; a folded map is held in place parallel to the wheel with several strips of gray duct tape. Below the wheel, sunlight casts stark shadows on the dusty lunar surface. Credit: NASAALT

The Perils of Lunar Dust

After the first lunar EVA, Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt reported that he suffered from “lunar hay fever” in reaction to the lunar dust. Unlike Earth’s dust particles which are rounded, Moon dust particles are sharp and abrasive, irritating astronaut eyes, nasal passages, and lungs.

Curious about how Moon dust feels and smells? Find out!

Scientist-astronaut Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17 lunar module pilot, uses an adjustable sampling scoop to retrieve lunar samples during the second Apollo 17 extravehicular activity (EVA), at Station 5 at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. A gnomon is atop the large rock in the foreground. The gnomon is a stadia rod mounted on a tripod, and serves as an indicator of the gravitational vector and provides accurate vertical reference and calibrated length for determining size and position of objects in near-field photographs. The color scale of blue, orange and green is used to accurately determine color for photography. Credit: NASAALT

So What’s it Like?

After his return to Earth, Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt (on the right) described his time on the Moon:

“Working on the Moon is a lot of fun. It’s like walking around on a giant trampoline all the time and you’re just as strong as you were here on Earth, but you don’t weigh as much.”

Astronaut Gene Cernan (left) and scientist-astronaut Harrison Schmitt wear white flight suits with Apollo patches on the left chest. Behind them is a gray metal hatch decorated with a small American flag. Credit: NASAALT

Splashdown! 

After 12 days and 14 hours in space, the Apollo 17 astronauts splashed down in the Pacific Ocean at 2:25 p.m. EST on Dec. 19, 1972. It was the longest of all the Apollo missions, with the most photos taken. A recovery team was waiting on the USS Ticonderoga just 4 miles (6.4 km) away to pick up the astronauts, the lunar samples, and the Crew Module.

The Apollo 17 Command Module (CM), with astronauts Gene Cernan, Ron Evans and Harrison Schmitt aboard appears as a small conical spaceship.The capsule nears splashdown in the South Pacific Ocean with three enormous red-and-white striped parachutes. This overhead view was taken from a recovery aircraft seconds before the spacecraft hit the blue water. Later, the three crewmen were picked up by a helicopter from the prime recovery ship, USS Ticonderoga. Credit: NASAALT

When Are We Going Back?

NASA’s Artemis Program has taken its first steps to sending humans back to the Moon with Artemis I, currently on its way back to Earth. The program plans to land humans, including the first women and person of color, on the Moon’s south polar region with its Artemis III mission, currently slated to launch in 2025.

Is aerospace history your cup of tea? Be sure to check out more from NASA’s past missions at www.nasa.gov/history.

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