Dec. 7, 1972: The Last Man on the Moon … So Far


  Space News Business

Dec. 7, 1972: The Last Man on the Moon … So Far

Space News Staff Writer
posted: 27 December 2007
02:37 pm ET


Thirty-five years ago, Apollo 17 concluded the golden era of lunar exploration

as it sought to answer how the Moon came to be.

During their three days on the Moon’s surface, NASA mission commander Gene Cernan and landing module pilot Harrison H. “Jack” Schmitt stayed longer and went farther on the Moon than any human being ever had, according to NASA’s Web site.

Apollo 17 launched Dec. 7 to the Moon on a Saturn 5 rocket from Kennedy Space Center, Fla.

Despite the even greater technical feats accomplished by the late Apollo missions, much of the U.S. saw the first Moon landing, of Apollo 11 in 1969, as the pinnacle of the program and thereafter public enthusiasm began to wane, according to NASA’s Web site.

With a tightening budget,

the U.S. space agency ceased production on Saturn 5 rockets along with the accompanying Apollo capsules, and NASA


an Apollo mission in February 1970, according to the space agency’s Web site.

During September of that year, two more Apollo missions were also cancel


With the end

of the Apollo Moon missions nearing, NASA decided to place its first and only scientist-astronaut on the last lunar


, according to the agency’s Web site.

, command module pilot Ronald Evans

and landing module pilot Joe Engle previously were assigned as backup crewmen for Apollo 14. But when the last two

Apollo missions were canceled

Cernan and Evans were

assigned to the Apollo 17 mission. Schmitt, who had a doctorate in geology, replaced Engle.

Schmitt and Cernan detached from the command module, America, and landed in the Moon’s Taurus-Littrow region in the landing module, Challenger. The landing site was chosen for

its geological complexity, which enabled the crew to explore the most varied types of rock and soil, according to NASA’s Web site


Apollo 17

like the previous two Apollo missions – focused on elucidating the geological origin and evolution of the Moon. Those

last three Apollo

missions used a more technologically advanced spacecraft, known as the Apollo-J. The J-series

provided increased payload capacity and greater life support capability, and carried a 110.4-kilogram Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), all of which meant more time and more area could be explored.

The Boeing-built LRV rover, which ran on batteries,

was capable of carrying 490 kilograms –

including astronauts, their equipment and another 27 kilograms of lunar samples –


had a range of 65 kilometers.

and Schmitt traversed nearly 36 kilometers – farther than any other Apollo mission – during three major

Moon walks where they

performed seismic analysis and collected geological samples,

including an orange-colored glass that later was found to have likely been

produced by volcanic activity in the Moon’s interior, according to the NASA Web site.

After leaving the lunar surface, the astronauts spent two more days in lunar orbit performing orbital experiments and taking high-resolution photographs, according to the Smithsonian Web site.

Apollo 17 splashed down Dec. 19 in the Pacific Ocean.

Although Apollo 17 did not find definitive answers to the Moon’s origin, the mission

helped detail its

geology and

confirmed that the Moon has more radioactive elements and fewer volatile elements than most known cosmic bodies, according to NASA’s Web site.

Perhaps more significantly

, Apollo 17 provided closure to one of the most technologically and managerially complex undertakings in human history.