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40 Years Since Apollo 17: Part 3 - End of the Beginning

In the final manned flight of a Saturn V—and the behemoth rocket’s only nocturnal launch—the astronauts of Apollo 17 roar into low-Earth orbit in the opening minutes of 7 December 1972. The astonishing event turned night into day for hundreds of miles. Photo Credit: NASA

Forty years ago, this month, two human explorers bounced and bounded across the surface of the Moon at a mountainous place called Taurus-Littrow. Clad in their snowman-like suits, they formed a stark contrast with the almost uniform greyness of the lunar terrain around them. At the time of writing, Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt are the last of our kind ever to leave their footprints on another world. In the first instalment of this Apollo 17 commemorative series of articles, published last weekend, it was seen how skills and experience were pivotal in bringing the final lunar landing mission to these two men…and it was also seen that, as with human life itself, fortune turns on a dime. Fortune turned in favour of Cernan and Schmitt—and their command module pilot, Ron Evans, too—but it turned against Dick Gordon, Vance Brand, and Joe Engle. For Engle, the blow was particularly harsh, as more than two years of training for a lunar landing came to nothing, because he wasn’t a professional geologist.

The National Academy of Sciences had long pressured NASA to fly its only formally qualified geologist-astronaut, Schmitt, on a lunar landing mission, and the space agency eventually caved in. Yet flying Schmitt on Apollo 17 simply because he happened to be a geologist, and had contributed enormously to the programme, was not enough, and NASA senior managers would have fought the scientists and politicians tooth and nail if the man nicknamed “Dr. Rock” was not up to the task. Many questions were asked as to how useful Schmitt would really be—encased in a bulky suit, with only minutes available at each geological sampling stop to make judgements and observations—and the fact remained that going to the Moon was fraught with intense risk.

One day, early in 1972, Chris Kraft—the legendary flight director who had recently been appointed Director of the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston—took Gene Cernan to one side.

“Geno,” he began, “put away that fighter pilot’s silk scarf and just bring your crew home alive. If you run into something you don’t like out there and decide not to land, I’ll back you one hundred percent.”

Cernan felt quite differently. The very fact that Apollo 17 was to be the final mission of the programme made him even more bold, and he impressed on the journalists, the workers building and checking out their spacecraft, and the politicians that this was not the “end,” but the “end of the beginning.” However, as our generation knows, Apollo 17 was the end. For two years, NASA’s workforce had been in decline and President Richard Nixon’s budget cuts had made this immensely painful for those giants who had made possible the greatest achievement in human history. Although Cernan meant it with all sincerity, his words grew to become a popular joke: A cartoonist drew a pair of workers at the top of a scaffold, one holding a notice informing him that he had just been fired. The other man was on the telephone, saying “Can we get Gene Cernan up here to give Smith that ‘it’s not the end, it’s the beginning’ speech again?”

Bathed in the glow of floodlights, the Saturn V stands ready to despatch the 20th century’s final trio of lunar explorers towards their destination. Few could have envisaged that Apollo 17 would be “The End” for at least half a century…and today fewer still can explain away America’s loss of nerve. Photo Credit: NASA

By the evening of 6 December 1972, all was ready. The gigantic Saturn V gleamed under the floodlights as it was readied for its only night-time launch. Even today, it remains the largest and most powerful rocket ever brought to operational status. Cernan, Evans, and Schmitt proceeded through the ritual of a steak-and-eggs breakfast, after which they were helped into their bulky suits. At length, all three men were ensconced in their seats in the command module, which they had named “America.” Launch was scheduled for 9:53 pm EST, at the start of a four-hour “window,” and the countdown proceeded smoothly…until the first glitch reared its head. The automated launch sequencer on the ground failed to properly command the oxygen tank of the Saturn V’s third stage to pressurise. The launch controllers issued the command manually, but the sequencer knew that it had not sent the command and refused to proceed.

Eventually, a work-around procedure was devised and the countdown clock resumed ticking a few minutes before midnight. Finally, at 12:33 am on 7 December, the Saturn took flight, stunning the assembled crowds and most of America’s East Coast with a spectacle rivalling sunrise. “It’s lighting up the sky,” announced public affairs commentator Jack King with astonishment. “It’s just like daylight here at the Kennedy Space Center!” From his left-hand couch, Cernan could clearly see the fiery glow reflecting off the clouds and the shuddering cabin seemed “painted” with a fearsome reddish hue. Ron Evans and Jack Schmitt, experiencing their first ride into space, were exultant.

Shortly after midday on the 11th, the command and service module America and lunar module Challenger parted company in orbit around the Moon, and Cernan and Schmitt steeled themselves for their Powered Descent to land at Taurus-Littrow. By this time, Cernan was an old hand at such matters, having flown down to just nine miles above the Moon on Apollo 10. “Thanks to the simulators back on Earth, with their computer-enhanced photos of the approach to the landing site,” Cernan wrote in his autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon, “I knew this place better than I knew my own palm and there were no surprises as we zoomed toward the jagged highlands that separate the Sea of Tranquillity from the Sea of Serenity. I called out the passing landmarks that verified we were on track to the narrow entrance to the Valley of Taurus-Littrow.”

Dropping closer now, both men’s eyes remained on their instruments…until Cernan spotted something that he wanted Schmitt to take a look at. Halfway through the 12-minute burn of Challenger’s descent engine, he told Schmitt to look at “something spectacular” outside his window. Expecting to see some unexpected jewel of lunar geology, Schmitt looked; but he couldn’t see a thing, he said, except for the blue and white globe of Earth.

That’s what I’m telling you to look at!” chuckled Cernan.

Two miles above the Moon, and by now plunging like a fast elevator, the Earth hung in the black sky, directly in front of Challenger’s triangular windows. “Down we flew toward crop-duster altitudes,” Cernan wrote, “scooted over the dome-like Sculptured Hills, some of which were more than a mile high, and roared into the eastern entrance of a crater-pocked lunar valley deeper than the Grand Canyon, surrounded by mountains whose crests were above us.”

Pictured from the windows of the lunar module Challenger, Taurus-Littrow was arguably one of the most scenically beautiful and geologically diverse locations ever visited by an Apollo crew. Photo Credit: NASA

As Schmitt called out altitudes and approach angles, Cernan confidently set Challenger down on a smooth spot at 2:54 pm EST. At last, less than five days since leaving Florida, they were here. Paradoxically, the cacophony of roaring and groaning and screaming and shuddering which the Saturn V had unleashed as it climbed for the heavens were gone…to be replaced by the absolute silence, ethereal stillness, perfect serenity, and utter lifelessness of the Moon’s Taurus-Littrow valley. To their right the North Massif stood taller than eight Eiffel Towers, and to their left the “wretched slab” of the South Massif equalled the height of half a dozen Empire State Buildings, stacked one atop the other.

Four hours later, at 6:54 pm, Cernan shuffled his way down Challenger’s ladder and planted his boots into the soft lunar regolith. Shortly afterwards, he was joined by Jack Schmitt and the men set about their first tasks. Moving around was tricky to start with: only ten other humans had gone from terrestrial gravity to weightlessness to one-sixth gravity, and Cernan and Schmitt bobbed around like rubber ducks in a bathtub. At length, the geologist in Schmitt overcame the awestruck voyager: the soil, he radioed, looked “like a vesicular, very light-coloured porphyry of some kind; it’s about 10 or 15 percent vesicles.” It was also extremely dirty: the dust clung to their suits, to their visors, and to their gloves, with the result that within minutes Cernan looked like he had been outside for a week. Trying to brush it away only made matters worse. At one point, reaching to pick up a rock, Schmitt slipped and, laughing, tumbled into the dust: his pure-white suit ended up charcoal grey from the knees down…

“You adapt very, very quickly,” Cernan later told Eric Jones of the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal. “You very quickly realise—probably in the first couple of minutes—that you don’t need to take baby steps or regular steps to get anywhere. Somehow your brain and your body co-ordinate your movements and if you’re going to go any distance, you start skipping or hop-skipping to get where you’re going. It’s not like you start running. It’s just that you move with such ease. Later on, when you start moving at faster paces than we were doing here, if you decide to turn or change directions, you have to think about your high centre-of-mass and plan how you’re going to handle that…or you’re going to go tail-over-teakettle…but you adapt very readily, physiologically and psychologically. You’re conscious, as soon as you’re on the surface, that you’re in this one-sixth-G environment and that you can move around so much more easily. The human being is a very unique, very adaptable creature.”

The last three Apollo lunar landing crews—15, 16 and 17—could not have accomplished their scientific explorations and returned their geological bonanzas without the aid of the battery-powered lunar rover. In this view from EVA-1, Gene Cernan puts the vehicle through its first tests, backdropped by the lunar module Challenger. Photo Credit: NASA

Their first major task was to unpack the lunar rover from Challenger’s descent stage; for the next three days, they would rely upon its capabilities. Unreeling lanyards and watching the framework fold into place was, wrote Cernan, like assembling a Christmas bike for his daughter, Tracy. “Hallelujah, Houston,” yelled Cernan as he took it for a test drive. “Challenger’s baby is on the roll!” As they loaded their tools aboard the rover, Cernan kept looking up at the Earth, hanging like a decoration in the sky above the South Massif. At one stage, he even told Schmitt to take a look for half a minute: the geologist owed himself that much. Schmitt, a man who had spent his life exploring the rocks and soils of that blue-and-white world, feigned disgust.

“What? The Earth?”

“Just look up there!”

“Aaaahhh,” drawled Schmitt. “You seen one Earth, you’ve seen ’em all!”

By now Cernan was familiar with Schmitt’s dry humour and good-natured sarcasm, but in his autobiography he expressed disappointment at how offhandedly the geologist dismissed this awe-inspiring sight. Before the launch, Cernan had urged Schmitt and Ron Evans to embrace each and every experience from this mission since it was sure to be the most remarkable and breathtaking and exhilarating adventure of their lives, and he also knew that none of them would ever come this way again. It was perhaps with this in mind that, after erecting the Stars and Stripes, during which Cernan managed to capture a now iconic image of his colleague with Earth in the background, they set to work assembling their own package of experiments, the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP), which would relay data from this strange place.

Many of the ALSEP experiments on Apollo 17 were new ones. The Lunar Ejecta and Meteorites investigation tracked tiny particles impacting the surface. A seismic profiling sensor featured four geophones arranged in an equilateral triangle—one at each point and one in the centre—which measured small explosive charges to be detonated after the astronauts had left the Moon, in order to better understand the structure of the surface. Elsewhere, another instrument monitored the tenuous lunar atmosphere. A “gravimeter” was carried on the rover to investigate the deep structure of the valley floor. A second gravimeter, of a completely different type, was set up at the ALSEP site. This was a speculative venture. Although Einstein’s theory of relativity predicted the existence of gravity waves, they had proved difficult to confirm. Working with a counterpart on Earth, any signal detected by just one instrument could not be a gravity wave, but a signal sensed by both could only be a gravity wave passing through the Solar System. In effect, this instrument was a highly sensitive seismometer.

Geophysicist Marcus Langseth, sitting in Mission Control in Houston, was pleased to see Cernan boring three holes into the surface for his heat-flow investigation, although it was tough work. “I had to grip it tightly,” wrote Cernan, “and force my whole weight on it, but progress was no better than haphazard. The drill would find easy access for a few inches, then clunk against rock and kick back. My heart rate went up to 150 beats per minute, my hands hurt from squeezing the handle and dust swirled in a sticky haze.” Cernan’s increased heart rate alarmed flight surgeons and he ate seriously into his oxygen supply. After a while, Flight Director Gerry Griffin told Capcom Bob Parker to ask Schmitt to help Cernan extract the deep core sample from the ground.

For his own part, the geologist had his own troubles with the gravimeter: it needed to be perfectly level and, at length, a slightly exasperated Schmitt was forced to give it a good whack with one of his tools to “adjust” it. In a sense, his efforts were in vain, because when the instrument was commanded to ‘uncage’ its sensor, a flaw in the mechanism prevented it from attaining the sensitivity needed for its intended role. Still, the instrument was able to detect normal seismic activity.

Called over to help Cernan, Schmitt tried to throw his weight on the jack that was being used to extract the core tube…and abruptly lost his balance and fell flat on his face. This prompted a few chuckles from Houston, but Cernan was worried: had his partner damaged the precious machinery in his backpack? Thankfully, Schmitt was quickly back on his feet. By the time they finished with the core sample, they were 40 minutes behind schedule. Their first geological traverse would have to be shortened. “Instead of the mile-and-a-half trip south to [the crater] Emory,” wrote Cernan, “we would stop halfway, in a boulder field near the crater Steno.”

Grimy from many hours outside on the surface, an exhausted Gene Cernan grins for Jack Schmitt’s camera after returning inside Challenger. The two men’s dusty suits are visible at the back of the tiny cabin, illustrative of the smallness of their three-day home on the Moon. Photo Credit: NASA

Schmitt was unhappy at losing part of their traverse—in fact, at their single geology stop somewhere near a crater named Steno, they could do little more than grab a few rocks and a bagful of cobbles and dust with the lunar rake.

Back in the vicinity of Challenger, Schmitt spontaneously broke into song:

“I was strolling on the Moon one day…” he began.

Cernan joined the duet: “…in the merry, merry month of December…no, May!”

“May!” confirmed Schmitt.

“May’s the month!” confirmed Bob Parker.

Schmitt continued: “…When much to my surprise, a pair of bonny eyes…”

“Sorry, guys,” Parker interjected, “but today may be December!”

Returning inside the lander after more than seven hours, the two men were exhausted: their forearms ached and, after removing his gloves, Cernan noticed blood under his fingernails, undoubtedly from too much time spent struggling with the drill. In his autobiography, he also recalled the unusual sensation of repressurising Challenger’s thin-walled cabin: it was almost as though an oil can had suddenly been filled with air. A loud “bloop” noise was followed by the pressure forcing the hatch to visibly bulge outwards. It reminded Cernan of his visits to Grumman and made him realise how fragile this machine really was.

During their time inside the lander, the astronauts stored their suits at the back of the tiny cabin. However, they were sodden with sweat and in order to dry them in time for the second EVA, Cernan and Schmitt attached the helmets and gloves and hooked up the oxygen hoses to circulate air through them. “That was like inflating a pair of big balloons,” wrote Cernan, “and it seemed as if two more guys had just crawled into our lunar pup tent.” Their massive backpacks, meanwhile, were hung on the walls. They had a quick dinner, then debriefed over the radio with Mission Control and, for a few moments, rolled a couple of the rock samples over in their hands. Cernan was amazed. These pieces of regolith had lain undisturbed for maybe three billion years and had been exposed to fearsome solar and cosmic radiation…yet they did not look totally different to samples he had seen on his geology trips on Earth.

By the time Cernan and Schmitt dozed off to sleep for their first night on an alien world, they had already been awake for the better part of 24 hours. Like previous crews, they strung their hammocks—Schmitt near the floor, Cernan above—and even without their pressurised suits it could hardly be described as comfortable. Initially, Cernan was too keyed-up to sleep; his mind raced with plans for tomorrow’s excursion, which was to take them to the South Massif.

Every so often, he heard Schmitt breathing steadily, and sneezing occasionally in the midst of so much dust, but otherwise the lander and everything around it were eerily still and silent. There was no hushed breeze or patter of raindrops, Cernan wrote, or the slightest hint of anything else alive, save the two of them. He was physically and mentally exhausted, yet the irony of sleeping when they only had about 60 hours left on the surface seemed too much: at times, he lifted the window blind and gazed outside at the motionless flag and the Earth slowly rotating in its fixed position above the South Massif.


The concluding part of this article will appear tomorrow.

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