Forty years ago, this month, the ethereal stillness and silence of ages in the Moon’s Taurus-Littrow valley was broken by the arrival of two explorers from Planet Earth, riding the fire of a spider-like craft which they had dubbed “Challenger.” Astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt landed in the three-mile-wide valley and for three days bounced, bounded, tripped, fell, laughed, and sang their way through one of the greatest adventures of exploration in human history. On the “morning” of their second “day” on the Moon, they were awakened with a roar; not the roar of rocket engines or anything calamitous…but the roar of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, mischievously played by Mission Control as a wake-up call. It did the job.
Schmitt found, to his pleasure, that the pain in his forearms had disappeared overnight; after the mission, he would guess that his cardiovascular system was so much more efficient in one-sixth gravity that it literally “cleansed” the muscles of lactic acid and other waste products, before they could cause any further damage.
There was also good news when they set foot on the surface. In preparing the lunar rover on the first day, Cernan had snagged the pull-out extension of one of the orange fenders with the handle of the geological hammer in his shin pocket. He had repaired it using duct tape, but during the traverse it had become detached and rained dust down on the vehicle. John Young and the backup crew had crafted a repair during the night. Together with the engineers, they had folded four of the crew’s geology maps into a rectangular shape, about the same size as a child’s Halloween mask, and had taped them all together. Cernan and Schmitt were to do the same and then affix it to the remains of the fender using a pair of clamps normally used to hold lamps in the cabin. This improvisation worked, but it put them a full 80 minutes behind schedule. Nevertheless, Cernan would remember the hour-long drive to the base of the South Massif as one of the most exciting experiences from the entire mission, as he dodged craters and jerked the T-bar to negotiate each ridge and furrow.
On arriving at a broad trough-like depression at the base of the South Massif, they spent an hour sampling boulders which had tumbled down the flank of the 6,000-foot-high mountain. “In fact,” wrote Cernan in his autobiography, The Last Man on the Moon, “we had tapped such a geological goldfield that Houston stretched our time there to the maximum and it was still frustrating to leave such a promising area.” By now, Cernan was far more than an aviator—if Schmitt had learned to fly a lunar lander, then he had become an exceptional field geologist—and they would find common ground in that there was never enough time to explore properly. On the Moon, the demands of the clock were forever their enemy. In fact, the trough at the base of the massif was a fairly large crater—called Nansen in honour of the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen—which had been partially filled in by material which had slumped off the mountain. For Schmitt, the landscape felt strangely familiar, reminding him of the Alpine valleys he had studied during his days at the University of Oslo.
Cernan and Schmitt were not allowed to drive further from Challenger than they would be able to walk back if the Rover conked out. This walk-back limit was extremely conservative, taking into account the possibility of damaged equipment, excessive oxygen usage, and a multitude of other worries, to such an extent that both Cernan and Schmitt had tried to push it as far as they could. Here they hit a solid wall: the walk-back limit would not be compromised. As Apollo 16 Moonwalker Charlie Duke once observed, amidst the grandeur and beauty and serenity of the Moon, it was all too easy to forget the cruel fact that there was a near-total vacuum just inches away from his flesh, and the slightest leak in the suit could spell instantaneous death.
For now, though, frustration was taking its toll. The men would certainly have benefited from longer at Nansen, but they had the craters Lara, Shorty, and Camelot to explore. Approaching Lara, Schmitt described what he could see, chiefly for his colleagues in the science support room. While Cernan took a core sample, Schmitt did some solo-sampling and occasionally toppled into the soft lunar dust. After a while, Parker nicknamed him “Twinkletoes” and radioed that the switchboard at Mission Control was lighting up with calls from the Houston Ballet Foundation, requesting Schmitt’s services, prompting the scientists to start referring to this crater as “Ballet.”
It was their next stop, at Shorty Crater, that provided one of the real surprises of the mission. More than a hundred metres wide, it was, radioed Schmitt, “a darker-rimmed crater…the inner wall is quite blocky…and the impression I have of the mounds in the bottom is that they look like slump masses that may have come off the side.” Orbital images acquired by Al Worden during Apollo 15 had shown clear evidence of a dark halo around Shorty, which contrasted with the lighter surroundings. It was suggestive of a volcanic explosion crater, and perhaps the source of the dark deposits elsewhere in the Taurus-Littrow region. Cernan and Schmitt had only half an hour scheduled at this site. Soon after they began sampling, the geologist’s boots scuffed away at the dust and, there before his very eyes, was the ubiquitous grey…and a slight tinge of orange.
Schmitt thought he was imagining it. Was his gold-tinted visor playing a trick on his eyes? He partly lifted the visor; it was still there. Orange soil. He called Cernan, who came bounding over. They confirmed it and jointly agreed that it looked like it had been oxidised, like the rust-coloured soil they had often seen in the desert during their expeditions with geology professor Lee Silver. In the science support room, Silver himself was excited: this had to prove that Shorty was a volcanic vent. Cernan was excited: it was, he wrote, unexpected treasure, like a Spanish conquistador finding jungle gold. Meanwhile, Schmitt set to work digging a trench into the orange deposit in order to trace its extent, and found that it spread along an ellipse-shaped area which ran parallel to the rim of the crater. In minutes, his opinion of Shortly had changed. When they arrived, he was convinced that it was an impact crater, but now: “if ever I saw a classic alteration halo around a volcanic crater, this is it!”
There was, however, no time to explore further. They had already spent ten minutes longer than planned at Nansen, and the walk-back limit precluded an extension at Shorty. With only minutes available, Cernan drew his hammer and pounded a core tube into the orange soil at the base of the trench and both men were surprised that when they pulled it out, it was red for part of its length, but a couple of feet down it was a sort of purplish-grey, almost black. Unfortunately for the volcanic theory of Shorty’s origin, subsequent analysis would show that the orange material was composed of tiny beads of glass which had once been molten lava droplets spewed into the lunar sky in a fire fountain.
“The origin of the fountain,” wrote Andrew Chaikin in his landmark book A Man on the Moon, “was a form of lava that contained dissolved volcanic gases. As it ascended from deep within the Moon to the surface, the effect was that of shaking up a bottle of soda and then uncapping it: the gas rapidly came out of solution, propelling molten rock high into the lunar sky. Just as water pressure in a decorative fountain causes the liquid to break up into droplets, this so-called ‘fire fountain’ was composed of an intensely hot spray. In the weak gravity, the droplets arced hundreds or perhaps thousands of feet through the vacuum. During their flight, they cooled into tiny glass spheres, which rained down on the valley of Taurus-Littrow.” The beads derived their colour from the specific chemical composition of the lava—as indeed did the green beads recovered by Apollo 15. The dark soils of Taurus-Littrow would prove to be chemically identical to the orange stuff, the difference being that if the lava cooled rapidly it formed glass and if it cooled more slowly it produced dark crystals. In conclusion, wrote Chaikin, both the orange soil and the dark stuff on the valley floor were evidence of volcanism, but the fire fountains had not occurred recently: in fact, they were around three and a half billion years old. The impact some 19 million years ago which created Shorty also excavated the buried materials to the surface ready for an astronaut nicknamed Twinkletoes to sample them.
Only one more period on the Moon’s surface awaited them. On the afternoon of 13 December 1972, a little under seven days since launching from Florida, Cernan and Schmitt were outside for the third time. Before launch, Schmitt—who had examined almost every aspect of the J-series space suits and their capabilities—had lobbied hard to get a fourth EVA tacked onto the mission, but to no avail: the conservative managers were aware that any emergency might leave them dangerously close to their water and battery reserves. Gene Cernan, too, was convinced that it could be done, but ultimately bowed to the judgement of program manager Owen Morris.
The two men drove north past Sherlock Crater, swung right at Turning Point Rock and then across the lower flank of the North Massif. Orbital photographs had shown a large, dark-hued boulder, trailed by a five-hundred-metre furrow down the hillside. As they neared the boulder, Cernan and Schmitt could now see that it had broken into five fragments as it came to rest. Schmitt was in his element, making a clear and decisive field study of the boulder in an effort to piece together its history, whilst Cernan huffed and puffed upslope to take a series of panoramic images of the geologist at work. One of these pictures is featured on the front cover of his book.
By the time that Cernan and Schmitt had completed their final sampling stop at the Sculptured Hills, they had effectively explored Taurus-Littrow from one end of the valley to the other and with three extravehicular sessions in excess of seven hours apiece, they had easily amassed more time on the surface than any other crew. They had driven some 18 miles in the rover—whose makeshift fender finally snapped off during the ride back towards Challenger—and their 75 hours on the Moon were drawing inexorably to a close. Both were exhausted, grimy, and sore in their arms and hands, but their suits—those remarkable miniature spacecraft, upon which their lives so depended—had come through with flying colours.
The glory of Apollo was ending and Cernan had known for some time that he would be the last man on the Moon for many years to come. Such thoughts were clearly on his mind when, shortly after 12:30 am EST on 14 December 1972, he took his final steps on the surface of a world other than that of his birth and heritage. He turned for one last look at the stark landscape—the Sculptured Hills, the North and South Massifs, the thousands of craters, the dark sky, and the Earth hanging silently above—and suddenly found the words that he wanted to say. More than three years earlier, Neil Armstrong’s first words were uttered in triumph; now Cernan’s last words were uttered with undisguised angst.
“Bob,” he radioed to the ever-present Capcom Bob Parker in Mission Control, “this is Gene. As I take these last steps from the surface, back home for some time to come, but we believe not too long into the future, 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.”
Those resonating words—spoken by a man with vision and passion and conviction and patriotism and childlike excitement for the thrill of adventure and discovery—continue to haunt us, for 40 years later we are still waiting. Cernan believed history would record that America’s achievement had forged man’s future destiny, and in a sense, it did, and it continues to drive our species forward as an example of our ingenuity and ability to overcome the most immense obstacles. However, the fact remains that the most promising endeavour in our history, whilst expensive, was abandoned in its prime. As well as recording the greatest example of risk-and-reward ever undertaken, history also recorded our species losing its nerve. “History,” Apollo 17 backup crewman Stu Roosa once said, “will not be kind to us, because we were stupid.”
For now, we have only the images and the newsreel film and the memories to remind us of a golden age before many of us—including this author—were even born.
And we have Gene Cernan’s priceless last words.
We shall return…
This is part of a series of History articles, which will appear each weekend, barring any major news stories. Next week’s article will focus on Apollo 8, the audaciously bold Christmas mission to the Moon in 1968.
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