40 Years Since Men Last Walked On The Moon

Scientist and astronaut Harrison H Schmitt works beside a huge boulder during the Apollo 17 moon landing in December 1972. AAPSource:News Limited

AFTER burning up billions in expenses, peaking at almost $US8 billion in 1966, NASA’s Apollo space program, the Moon landing program ended abruptly with the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972.

Forty years ago on December 7, astronauts Ron Evans and Eugene Cernan and their travelling companion, astronaut-geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, became the last men to blast off for the moon.

Cernan had already travelled into space twice, first as pilot of Gemini 9A in June 1966, then as Apollo 10 lunar module pilot in May 1969. When it began in 1961, using Saturn A spacecraft and renamed as the Apollo program in 1963, the US space schedule included 20 missions. The scope was reduced immediately after Apollo 11 successfully landed the first men on the Moon in July 1969.

The combination of waning public interest following Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s successful landing, along with escalating costs and NASA’s enthusiasm for a new Skylab program, killed off Apollo plans.

The Apollo 17 crew are photographed with a Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) trainer with the Saturn V Moon rocket in the background.

The crew of the Apollo 17 lunar landing mission: Commander Eugene A. Cernan (front), lunar module pilot Harrison H. Schmitt and command module pilot Ronald E. Evans.Source:Supplied

NASA had announced the cancellation of Apollo 20 in January 1970, and eight months later also scrapped the Apollo 19 mission, and a mission originally planned for Apollo 15. The Apollo 16 mission in July 1971 was renumbered 15, continuing to Apollo 16 in April 1972, then to 17.

The Nixon administration had tightened space budgets from a peak in the mid-1960s, when NASA absorbed just under 4.5 per cent of the total US federal budget, and employed 400,000 staff and contractors. The workforce was down to 190,000, with plans to cut another 50,000 jobs, by January 1970.

In 1971, the White House had planned to cancel the Apollo program after Apollo 15, but ultimately left the last two Apollo missions in place.

NASA had also reallocated funds and expertise to the Saturn 5 launch of the Skylab orbital station in 1973, while the prospective development of a space shuttle, endorsed under a presidential task force in 1969, further diverted expertise. The final three Apollo expeditions, which may have included landings in Copernicus or Tycho craters, were scrapped.

Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan (left) and astronaut-geologist Harrison H. "Jack" Schmitt, photographed by the third crew member Ronald Evans, aboard the Apollo 17 spacecraft.

Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan (left) and astronaut-geologist Harrison H. “Jack” Schmitt, photographed by the third crew member Ronald Evans, aboard the Apollo 17 spacecraft.Source:AFP

With the program winding down, NASA was under pressure from the National Academy of Sciences to include a scientist on one of the final missions. Schmitt was one of the first six scientist-astronauts selected in 1965, and was in training for Apollo 18.

Under pressure from scientists, Schmitt was given a place on Apollo 17, which blasted off in the early hours of December 7, 1972. It was the first and only mission to carry a scientist.

Four days after blast-off, Schmitt became the 12th and final person, and only geologist, to set foot on the moon when he and Cernan stepped out of their lunar module, Challenger.

On the first day of his flight, Schmitt had photographed Earth with the continent of Antarctica covering the top, hovering over the tip of Africa.

The objectives of Apollo 17 were to sample lunar highland soils and investigate the possibility of relatively new volcanic activity. The spacecraft landed in the Taurus-Littrow Valley, where Cernan and Schmitt spent just over three days walking and driving in a lunar-roving

vehicle, while pilot Evans remained in lunar orbit in the command/service module.

A view of Earth photographed by Schmitt had photographed Earth with Antarctica covering the bottom, hovering over the tip of Africa from Apollo 17 spacecraft.

During their three moonwalks, Cernan and Schmitt collected lunar samples, and measured how the Moon’s gravitational acceleration varied at different locations near the landing site, which helped measure the thickness of the basalt layer in the area.

Data collected by the Apollo 17 crew showed the Taurus-Littrow Valley was composed primarily of cemented gravel soils in massifs rising up to 1000m above the valley, with basalt underlying the valley floor. The spacecraft returned with 110kg of rock and soil samples, more than was returned from any other lunar landing sites, and 2200 photographs.

Evans also took scientific measurements and photographs from orbit using scientific instruments mounted in the service module.

Apollo 17 also discovered “orange soil”, which Schmitt first noticed at the end of the 14m-deep Shorty Crater. Schmitt collected samples of “the orange glass and the black partially crystallised glass beneath it” as he dug a trench wall “so it faced the sun to provide good photographic images”.

The orange soil was later found to be composed of tiny beads of volcanic glass. More recently, researchers spotted trace amounts of water within the beads, and other similar rock, returned to Earth by Apollo astronauts.

Cernan, Evans and Schmitt returned to Earth on December 19 after a 12-day mission. Evans died in 1990, and Cernan in January 2017.

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