December 14, 2012
The last humans, the 11th and 12th Americans, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, lifted off the surface of the Moon on Dec. 14, 1972. The Apollo 17 mission was the sixth, and last, lunar landing; the mission also was the last mission that took humans beyond low-earth orbit.
To paraphrase George W. Bush, America looked at the moon and declared, “Mission Accomplished,” or as the T-shirt says, “Been there. Done that.”
Apollo 17 was a more intensive scientific mission, and with Harrison Schmitt included the first professional scientist, a geologist. He was also the only non-military astronaut on an Apollo flight. (Neil Armstrong was a civilian when he became an astronaut, but he served in the Navy and Navy Reserve. He resigned his commission in 1960, and joined the Apollo program in 1962.) The Lunar Module, Challenger, landed in the Taurus-Littrow valley. Cernan and Schmitt did three excursions on the surface with the Lunar Rover Vehicle to collect samples of older lunar highland material, and explore possible evidence of volcanic activity.
One of the scientific packages was a Traverse Gravimeter Experiment. Gravimeters measure the local gravitational field and are useful, on earth, to determine the internal structure of an area; they are used for mineral prospecting and geophysical research. The astronauts carried the gravimeter on the rover and took 26 readings.
They planted explosive packages that were detonated to gather data from the geophones they had placed and from the seismometers placed during earlier Apollo missions. During the three trips, they collected nearly 250 pounds of materials.
After spending the longest time of any mission on the surface, Schmitt and Cernan, who was last up the ladder, climbed into their Lunar Module. Cernan said, "I'm on the surface; and, as I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come — but we believe not too long into the future — I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That 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. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17."
The final lunar mission was the longest manned lunar landing flight, the longest time on the surface, the longest time in lunar orbit, and brought back the largest amount of lunar material, and on Dec. 7, a little over five hours after liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center, Schmitt took one of NASA’s most famous photographs, “The Blue Marble.”
Schmitt returned to earth and worked on documenting the geologic results, and then resigned in 1975 to run for a U.S. Senate seat in New Mexico, beating two-term incumbent Democrat Joseph Montoya. He became the ranking Republican on the Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee, but he served only one term before losing to another Democrat, Jeff Bingaman. Bingaman’s campaign slogan reflected New Mexicans apparent displeasure with Schmitt’s attentiveness to their needs: “What on Earth has he done for you lately?” Cernan retired from NASA in 1976.
The third member of the crew was command module pilot Ronald Evans, who retired from NASA in 1977 and went to work in the coal industry; he died in 1990.
Both Cernan and Schmitt have written books about their experience. Schmitt’s 2004 book, “Return to the Moon,” makes the case for our return to the moon, and advocates that private companies should be charged with the task.