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July 2004

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The Final Flight

My Seven Online Extra
Photograph by Eugene A. Cernan

A gentle leap in the moon's gravity—a sixth that of Earth—easily vaults geologist and Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison "Jack" Schmitt into the seat of the battery-powered Lunar Rover.

On December 14, 1972, Harrison H. Schmitt finished 22 hours of rock and dust sampling. No human has landed on the moon since. Read about Schmitt's experience on the final Apollo mission in his own words.

Billowing flame that seems to rival the sun, our Saturn rocket pulses the humid December light, spreading a false dawn across central Florida. As far away as North Carolina, spectators spot the bright wake of this unique Apollo night launch. Yet directly atop the five engines that lift Apollo 17, only faint flickers invade the spaceship America, whose cabin I share with Mission Commander Eugene (Gene) A. Cernan and Command Module Pilot Ronald (Ron) E. Evans. Our launch has had its brief tense moments. Thirty seconds before takeoff an automatic sequencer discovers what it thinks to be an unpressurized liquid oxygen tank in the Saturn rocket and abruptly stops the countdown. More than two-and-a-half hours drag by before the problem is resolved and our journey begins. Now we feel the battering vibrations of engines shouldering 6 1/2 million pounds (2.9 million kilograms) into space, feel the gradual weight of acceleration as our race to orbit quickens. These physical sensations and my duties crowd from my consciousness any anticipation of being the first geologist to walk on the moon. Aloft in America with the lunar module Challenger locked in tandem, we speed toward the intriguing  valley of Taurus-Littrow, which lies near the coast of the great frozen "sea" of Serenitatis. Our newly won knowledge of the moon indicates the site will richly reward those who read the library of the planets. This helps to mitigate the sadness that our visit signals the end of the era of Apollo exploration.

The valley of Taurus-Littrow is confined by one of the most majestic panoramas within the experience of mankind. The roll of dark hills across the valley floor blends with bright slopes that sweep evenly upward to the rocky tops of the massifs. The Taurus-Littrow valley does not have the jagged youthful majesty of our Rockies. Rather it has the subdued and ancient majesty of a valley whose origins appear as one with the sun. 

* * * * * *

Long a silent witness to unfolding time, the Taurus-Littrow valley has been altered by its visitors from another world. When Challenger first alights, our view embraces a pristine moonscape of craters, rocks, and sunny slopes agleam like virgin snow. This is just after the dawn of a lunar daytime that will last for 13 more earth days—a dawn when shadows etch the smallest features in high relief, prime time for the lunar explorer.

As we complete our third and final day on the surface of the moon, Challenger's miniature picture window looks out on a valley transformed, though less so than its explorers. To the right of the LM's shrunken shadow, an array of thrusters frames the United States flag a dozen yards beyond, the sixth that men have planted on the moon.  

Our feet have churned our "front yard," while a tangle of Rover tracks unravels in the direction of the second traverse and toward shining components of ALSEP, the Apollo lunar surface experiments package. There, powered by a nuclear generator, precision devices in continuous communication with Earth have begun to take the moon's temperature, make seismic soundings, analyze the tenuous atmosphere, record the impacts of micrometeorites, and look at the nature of gravity. 

This valley of history has seen mankind complete his first steps into the universe. From this larger home we move to greet the future.

The photos and text excerpted from National Geographic (September 1973), 290-307.


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