Earlier this year, we paid homage to an event that changed our world. Shortly after Neil Armstrong proclaimed “The Eagle has landed” 50 years ago, he became the first man to set foot on Earth’s moon. Many of us recalled the awe we felt while watching grainy television pictures as he stepped off the ladder of the lunar module, onto the moon’s surface and into history. It was July 20, 1969. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent about seven hours on the surface.
Today marks the anniversary of another event that is not nearly as well known. NASA’s Apollo 17 Mission landed on the surface of the moon 47 years ago. The date: December 10, 1972.
Mission Commander Eugene Cernan, and fellow scientist-astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, lunar module pilot, claimed their place in history. The mission set a number of records, including the moon visit of longest duration and the most extra-vehicular activity. The pair spent just over 22 hours on three separate excursions across the moon’s surface.
Three days after the landing, Cernan followed Schmitt up the ladder to reboard lunar module Challenger. Shortly after they fired the engine that would return them to moon orbit and reunite them with Pilot Ron Evans aboard the command module America. They returned safely to earth and splashed down in the Pacific on December 19.
Cernan was the “last man on the moon,” and that also became the title of his book. Before leaving the surface he spoke the following words:
“. . .as I take man’s last step from the surface . . . 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.”
I remember the words. I remember the excitement of those times. The prospect of space travel fueled my dreams for a number of years. The wonder remains.
A pair of special reminders of the Apollo 17 mission have a place of honor on my fireplace hearth. They are bronze castings of actual footprints of the boots that were part of Cernan’s moonwalk “uniform.”
I have other mementos of U.S. space missions, including the patches that represent Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 missions and a screw from “Liberty Bell 7,” the capsule piloted by Gus Grissom during the second U.S. human space flight in 1961.
I hold vivid memories of witnessing the Cape Canaveral launch of the last flight of Space Shuttle Columbia from Cape Canaveral. If you’re at all interested in space missions, I highly recommend a visit to the Cosmosphere, an impressive museum in Hutchinson, Kansas.
I frequently still look up at the night sky hoping to catch a glimpse of the ISS as it orbits our globe. I also check in occasionally to view NASA’s real-time views of the home planet.
It was in 1984 that President Ronald Reagan directed NASA to build the International Space Station (ISS), but construction did not begin until 1998, when development of reusable American shuttles made it feasible. Assembly of the various components spanned 10 years and required 30 missions by various nations to transports the parts.
Moon landings and travel to other planets were the stuff of dreams. But they were not to continue. The NASA program to explore the universe, both close to home and far away, faced serious budget constraints and criticism even then, and priorities shifted to more earthly concerns.
That may change. President Donald Trump has expressed a commitment to send astronauts back to the moon before heading to Mars. And private companies, including SpaceX and others, have made public their plans to transport tourists into orbit and, perhaps, to the moon. NASA is testing an updated spacecraft, the Orion, for possible unmanned moon orbit, in addition to designing a space station for moon orbit.
Perhaps the day will come when space travel truly is as commonplace as an earthly airplane trip. After all, if John Glenn, the first man to actually orbit the earth, could return to space 37 years later at age 77, perhaps nothing is impossible. I like to believe that seemingly impossible dreams have always been a part of our reality.