“We Shall Return”: Remembering Apollo 17, 50 Years On

View from the windows of the Lunar Module (LM), “Challenger”, revealing the U.S. flag and the valley of Taurus-Littrow. Photo Credit: NASA

Three days since the Orion Crew Module (CM) hit the waters of the Pacific Ocean, off California’s Baja Coast, wrapping up the hugely successful Artemis I mission, we are reminded of the very last day that human beings last called the Moon their temporary home. On 14 December 1972, Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan and Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) Harrison “Jack” Schmitt awoke for their third and final “morning” on the surface of our closest celestial neighbor.

Video Credit: NASA

Launched a week earlier, Cernan and Schmitt spent 75 hours in a pretty little valley called Taurus-Littrow, logged more than 22 hours walking across its rugged terrain and drove 18 miles (29 kilometers) in the battery-powered Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV). But on 14 December, 50 years ago, the astronauts awoke in the cramped confines of Lunar Module (LM), “Challenger”, to the realization that this day would mark their departure from the Moon and their return to Earth.

Neither man, though, could have imagined in his wildest dreams that more than a half-century would elapse before bootprints would again dot the lunar surface.

Covered in lunar grime, and clad only in his water-cooled underwear, Gene Cernan manages a grin for Jack Schmitt’s camera, aboard the Lunar Module (LM) Challenger during the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. The astronauts’ space suits can be seen, stashed at the back of the cramped cabin. Above the helmets can be seen the hatch leading to the Command and Service Module (CSM) docking tunnel. Photo Credit: NASA

Late the previous “evening”, Cernan had taken humanity’s poignant last steps of the 20th century. He drove the LRV to a spot about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from Challenger, parked it and configured its television camera to record their liftoff from the Moon. As he dismounted, Cernan paused to carve his daughter Tracy’s initials into the soft lunar topsoil. Then he returned to Challenger and clasped the ladder one final time.

“Bob,” he had radioed Capcom Bob Parker in Mission Control, “this is Gene and I’m on the surface. And 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.”

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

Fifty years on, with Cernan and Apollo 17 Command Module Pilot (CMP) Ron Evans having sadly left us, only ten of the 24 lunar voyagers—and just four Moonwalkers—are still alive and it can only be hoped that they will be around when the Artemis Team makes its triumphant return to the Moon, later this decade. The world bade farewell to the first Moonwalker, Neil Armstrong, back in August 2012, and most recently his Apollo 11 crewmate Mike Collins died in April 2021.

Many of those pioneers expressed their undisguised angst over the years that the glory of Project Apollo had been unceremoniously abandoned in its prime. Quoted by Andrew Chaikin in his landmark book A Man on the Moon, Apollo 14 astronaut Stu Roosa once remarked that “history will not be kind to us, because we were stupid”.

Gene Cernan was the most recent human to walk on the lunar surface, during the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. Photo Credit: NASA

Cernan and Schmitt received their customary wake-up call on 14 December 1972 in the broom-closet-sized confines of Challenger’s tiny cabin by Capcom Gordon Fullerton. But in actuality, both men were already awake, following a sleepless final night in the ethereal stillness of the Moon.

Schmitt had enjoyed six hours of fitful sleep, Cernan about five. “We’re in the midst of a nice hamburger omelet,” Cernan chuckled, to which Schmitt added that in the peculiar one-sixth gravity, most of their breakfast ended up all over them.

Not since Apollo 17 in December 1972 have humans walked on the surface of our closest celestial neighbor. Photo Credit: NASA

It was a little more than a week prior to Christmas, so Schmitt sang Fullerton a tune:

It’s the week before Christmas

And all through the LM

Not a commander was stirring

Not even Cernan.

Jack Schmitt bounds across the boulder-strewn wasteland of Taurus-Littrow. Photo Credit: NASA

The samples were stowed in their places with care

In hopes that, with you, they soon will be there.

And Gene is in his hammock, and I in my cap,

Had just settled our brains for a short lunar nap.

Not since Apollo 17 in December 1972 have humans walked the surface of the Moon. Photo Credit: NASA

Asked by Fullerton if he had spent all night composing his masterpiece, Schmitt replied: “Gordy, that’s for the kids. They are the future.”

Those final hours on the Moon were a flurry of activity, as Challenger’s hatch was opened one final time to discard unneeded equipment. “Cameras, tools, backpacks and other now-useless material were flung to the surface,” Cernan wrote in his memoir, The Last Man on the Moon. “We had to shed weight if we were going to get off the Moon safely.

As Old Glory proudly stands above the lunar terrain on Apollo 17, it was inconceivable to many of those who made it happen that America would turn into what Chris Kraft called a “nation of quitters”. Photo Credit: NASA

Mission planners had worked out the exact balance needed and every container of rocks we brought aboard was weighed on a hand-held fish-scale, calibrated for one-sixth gravity, before being stored. We had just enough fuel to get us into orbit with almost no margin for error, so the overall weight of the spacecraft, its passengers and cargo of rocks was critical. We threw out nearly everything that wasn’t nailed down.”

Although Cernan and Schmitt liked to refer to this short session as an Extravehicular Activity (EVA) in its own right—and although Challenger’s cabin pressure was reduced to a condition of near-vacuum—they would not physically leave the LM again. Instead, they bagged up the “jettison bags” just inside the hatchway and gave them each a hefty kick to deliver them just over the lip of Challenger’s tiny porch.

Gene Cernan works with the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), as the Earth hangs like a Christmas decoration, high above. Photo Credit: NASA

From there, they would fall like snowflakes in the low lunar gravity to the surface. Schmitt snickered and called them “Santa Claus bags”.

A brief communications “pass” with crewmate Ron Evans in the orbiting Command and Service Module (CSM) “America” prompted Cernan to remind him to keep the docking probe extended and ready for their arrival. Evans promised that he would.

Unneeded equipment and tools are pictured discarded on the lunar surface, shortly before Challenger’s departure. Photo Credit: NASA

Finally, with everything buttoned up and ready to leave, the last human explorers of the Moon bade farewell to Taurus-Littrow at 188 hours into the 13-day Apollo 17 mission. “Let’s get this mother outta here,” Cernan radioed, in what would prove to be some of the final words—to date—to be spoken by humans on another celestial body.

Within a matter of minutes, Challenger’s ascent stage had achieved a low lunar orbit and soon thereafter made a perfect docking with a very happy Evans. Several days later, on 19 December, America splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, closing out the first chapter of humanity’s exploration of the Moon.

Challenger’s ascent stage approaches rendezvous with the Command and Service Module (CSM), “America”. Photo Credit: NASA

And as the Artemis Generation looks set to return there a few short years from now, it is impossible not to be reminded of Gene Cernan’s last words on the surface of the Moon:

God willing…

We shall return…

Someday.

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