Apollo 17: Farewell Mission to the Moon

Once again the Earth will tremble for miles around. Once again tongues of flame will spill across Cape Kennedy`s Pad 39A. Once again a mighty rocket will lift into the sky. But, if all goes according to plan, this week`s scheduled blast-off of Apollo 17 will be remarkably different from past launches.

It will take place at night, turning dark into daylight at the cape, presenting a fiery spectacle that may be seen by millions of people from Cuba to as far north as the Carolinas. The magnificent display will serve as a fitting farewell not only to the departing astronauts but to the entire Apollo program. For with the launch of Apollo 17, the US is bringing to an end its exploration of the Moon.

Historians will have a difficult time explaining the decision to abandon the Apollo program. Having trained the men, perfected the techniques and designed the equipment to explore the Earth`s own satellite, having achieved the ability to learn more about man`s place in the universe, Americans lost the will and the vision to press on. Barely three years after the first lunar landing, the nation that made it all possible has turned its thoughts inward and away from space.

Three additional manned missions to the Moon originally planned by NASA have been canceled for lack of congressional funding and public support. Though the U.S. spent $5.9 billion to develop the complex Apollo system of rockets, the production of Saturn boosters has been halted. The painstakingly assembled team of skilled technicians, engineers and scientists that made Apollo possible is slowly being disbanded.

Despite gloom at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, there are encouraging signs that man`s ability to explore the solar system will not be completely lost. Next year NASA will use one of its surplus Saturns to launch Skylab, a primitive orbital station in which three men will remain in space for up to 56 days. In 1975 a spare Apollo will take part in the greatly publicized linkup with a Soviet Soyuz, an operation that will serve as a gesture of amity between the two great space rivals and also help develop space-rescue techniques. Finally, in the late 1970s NASA hopes to fly its vaunted space shuttle – a hybrid of spaceship and rocket plane that could ferry men and supplies to orbital launch pads for journeys far beyond the Moon.

In America and elsewhere, there are those who have branded the moon landings as brazen propaganda ploys or technological stunts. They prisoners of limited vision who cannot comprehend, or do not care, that Neil Armstrong`s step in the lunar dust will be well remembered when most of today`s burning issues have become mere footnotes of history.

Yet even those who have pressed hardest for an end to manned space flight so that funds can be diverted to social needs on earth, cannot gainsay Apollo`s ultimate value. The dramatic landings on the Moon won acclaim and worldwide respect for America in a decade when the U.S. garnered more disapproval and distrust that at any other time in its history. Wherever touring astronauts appeared, on either side of the Iron Curtain, they were cheered by huge, admiring crowds.

But Apollo`s contributions go far beyond nationalistic considerations and even the highly touted technological spin-offs from space (like fuel cells and miniature computers). The moon flights have made man aware of the finiteness of his planet and the bonds between the people who dwell on it. “To see the Earth as it truly is,” wrote Poet Archibald MacLeish after Apollo 8`s Christmas Eve orbit of the Moon in 1968, “is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brother on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold”.

Anti-Science. As Science Fiction Writer Ray Bradbury recalls H.G. Wells have anticipated the anti-science movement in his screenplay for the classic 1936 movie Things to Come. In the film a raging mob – including the intellectuals of the day – besiege the first spaceship to be launched from Earth. “We don`t want mankind to go out to the moon and the planets!” shouts the mob`s leader. “We shall hate you more if you succeed than if you fail. Is there never to be calm and happiness for man?” Despite the protests, the moonship is shot skyward from a space cannon and on onlooker philosophies: “For man, no rest and no ending. He must go on – conquest beyond conquest”. Many Americans today have begun to wonder just how long and how far Western man can continue these conquests: whether the relentless, Faustian striving to dominate nature should not give way to the Eastern ideal of living in harmony with nature.

It is a genuine and perhaps momentous issue. But chances are that the modern world`s answer will remain Well`s answer: that man must first conquer “this little planet, its winds and ways, and all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him, and at last out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning.”

Time, December 11, 1972

apollo 17 crew

The scenario for a space odyssey excited mankind in the 1960s, with the awesome accomplishements of the Apollo program. The prime crew for the Apollo 17 lunar landing mission are: Commander, Eugene A. Cernan (seated), Command Module pilot Ronald E. Evans (standing on right), and Lunar Module pilot, Harrison H. Schmitt. They are photographed with a Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) trainer. Cernan and Schmitt will use an LRV during their exploration of the Taurus-Littrow landing site. The Apollo 17 Saturn V Moon rocket is in the background. This picture was taken at Pad A, Launch Complex 39, Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Florida.
Photo taken on 30 September 1971. Photo: