444. Last Men on the Moon

left to right: Schmitt, Cernan (seated), and Evens

The last Apollo mission occurred forty-five years ago this week, with final departure from the moon on December 14th..

The three men who went to the moon on Apollo 17 were not the original choice. Astronaut crews during Apollo were selected well in advance, with primary and backup crews for each mission. The backup crew, as a unit, was supposed to fly on a subsequent mission, but not the very next one. That plan was frequently disrupted by events. Everyone probably remembers from the movie Apollo 13 that Mattingly was originally part of the Apollo 13 crew, but was bumped at the last minute in favor of Swigert because Mattingly had been exposed to rubella. The actual shuffling that took place was far more complicated than that.

As Apollo wound down and missions 18, 19, and 20 were cancelled, (see 441. The Last Apollo) nine astronauts were going to lose their chance at the moon. One of these men was Harrison Schmitt who had been slated for Apollo 18. He was one of the scientist astronauts recruited by NASA. Given the schedule at the time Apollo 18 was cancelled, none of these scientists would have flown. This was unacceptable to the scientific community; they lobbied for and got Schmitt moved up to Apollo 17, which cost Joe Engle his mission.

What happened to the men who got the Apollo axe? Obviously that is worth at least one post, possibly more, but my rotation pushes that into January or later.

Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt landed on the moon December 11. Their mission was J type, as were Apollo 15 and 16, which meant these missions were designed for a three day stay and included a Lunar Rover. This dune buggy looking vehicle allowed one or two astronauts to move further away from the Lunar Lander and greatly increased the usefulness of the mission.

Apollo 17 landed in the Taurus-Littrow region of the moon. This site allowed sampling a wide range of types of rock, as it consisted of an ancient lava flow, with surface broken by subsequent meteor strikes, and included secondary strikes. This means that ejecta from the nearby Tycho crater came to earth (came to Moon?) causing secondary, smaller craters at the Taurus-Littrow site. This allowed Schmitt to sample Tycho material even though an Apollo landing at Tycho never happened.

A few minutes before eleven PM, Greenwich Time, December 14, 1972, the last manned mission to the moon lifted off, to later rendezvous with the CSM and return to Earth. Gene Cernan was the last to enter the lunar Lander before take off. We’ll give him the final words:

“Too many years have passed for me to still be the last man to have left his footprints on the Moon. I believe with all my heart that somewhere out there is a young boy or girl with indomitable will and courage who will lift that dubious distinction from my shoulders and take us back where we belong. Let us give that dream a chance.”

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I’ve read a large number of memoirs by astronauts and others involved in space exploration. The Last Man on the Moon by Eugene Cernan and Don Davis is one of the best. If you want more of this story, that is the place to go for it.

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