Tag Archives: Apollo+40

Apollo 17 Reprise & Thanks to My Readers

I’d like to thank everybody who helped make my series of posts on Apollo 17 and the end of the Apollo era some of the most read ever here at Their Finest Hour! In case you missed any of them, here they all are in one convenient landing page:

I do so appreciate everyone who’s read, commented, tweeted/re-tweeted, and encouraged me in keeping Their Finest Hour going. I wish all of you and your families the best of holiday seasons, a very Merry Christmas, and a happy and prosperous new year!

Apollo+40: Seventeen Leaves the Moon

When I last posted on the amazing journeys of Apollo 17, astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt had just left the lunar surface in LM Challenger to rendezvous with Ron Evans and the CSM America. I had intended to write a summary of the lunar and planetary science experiments that the mission executed from lunar orbit, but the events of Friday put me out of the mood.

A good rundown of the lunar science experiments carried aboard America during Apollo 17’s time in lunar orbit can be found at the website of the Lunar and Planetary Institute. The orbital experiments were predominately contained in the Scientific Instrumentation Module (SIM) contained in the Service Module of the CSM spacecraft. A SIM was also included on both Apollo 15 and Apollo 16.

As Apollo 17 was going to be the last manned mission to the Moon for some time (little was it known then for how long) the astronauts spent more time in lunar orbit – over six days – than any other Apollo mission.

Good view of America‘s SIM package, taken from LM Challenger

At 236:42:09 Ground Elapsed Time (GET), 6:35PM EST, December 16, 1972, America‘s SPS engine fired up for Trans-Earth Injection (TEI) on orbit from the far side of the Moon. The burn ended after a few minutes, and the last three humans to see the Moon up close and personal were on their way home.

About 21 hours later, the crew had one last risky task to accomplish before their harrowing and fiery plunge back into Earth’s atmosphere – a deep space EVA. The cameras and instruments back in the Service Module’s SIM bay had to have their data retrieved, and it was up to Command Module Pilot Ron Evans to spacewalk back there and get them. All three astronauts suited up, depressurized America, and got to work at 3:27PM on December 17..

LMP Jack Schmitt stood up in America‘s open hatch to manage the umbilicals for Evans. CDR Gene Cernan remained inside America at the controls.

Note the EVA handrails in the pictures that Evans used to stabilize himself. The spacewalk was a complete success, and lasted slightly more than an hour.

Flight day 11, December 18, 1972 (forty years ago today) was an uneventful one during the trans-Earth coast. Beyond normal spacecraft housekeeping, the last men to voyage to the Moon didn’t have anything to do.

Please return tomorrow to mark the anniversary of the last lunar voyagers’ return to their home, and for my commentary on the meaning of Apollo.

Apollo+40: Last Departure from the Lunar Surface

After three lunar surface EVAs (posts on EVA-1, EVA-2, and EVA-3), it was time for mankind’s last two lunar surface explorers to start the process of heading home.

At 188:01:39 Ground Elapsed Time (GET), 5:54PM EST, December 14, 1972, human beings left the Moon’s surface for the last time when Apollo 17‘s Commander (CDR) Gene Cernan and Lunar Module Pilot (LM) Jack Schmitt fired the engine in Lunar Module Challenger‘s ascent stage to return to lunar orbit and rendezvous with the Command/Service Module (CSM) America waiting in lunar orbit, having spent the last three days being solo flown by Command Module Pilot (CMP) Ron Evans.

This was the view from inside Challenger:

The return trip to the CSM would take about two hours.

Challenger rises from the lunar surface, seen from America

America, seen from Challenger
Challenger, with CDR Cernan visible through the port window

At 190:17:15 GET, America and Challenger were docked. CMP Evans checked that the vehicles were secure and then cleared the access tunnel between the two. The three crew members were reunited, and began the tasks associated with moving everything brought back from the Moon from the LM over to the CSM.

It took almost two hours to close out Challenger. When Cernan, Schmitt, and all their lunar haul was back aboard America and the tunnel sealed, LM-12, its work complete, was discarded and then intentionally crashed automatically into the lunar surface as a seismic experiment.

Apollo 17 wasn’t done with the Moon yet though, not by a longshot. They would remain in lunar orbit for almost two more days conducting science and observations from the CSM – work that would expand what Evans did while Cernan and Schmitt walked at Taurus-Littrow.

Please come back tomorrow for a summary of what Apollo 17 accomplished in lunar orbit science.

Apollo+40: The Third EVA – “As We Shall Return”

For those who haven’t read the plaque, we’ll read the plaque that’s on the front landing gear of this LM. First there’s two hemispheres, one showing each of the two hemispheres of the Earth. Underneath it says “Here Men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” It has the crew members’ signatures and the signature of the President of the United States.Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11, 109:52:40 GET, July 20, 1969 at the Sea of Tranquility

Lunar Module (LM) Eagle‘s front landing leg carried that plaque to the Moon to commemorate and mark where Man first set foot upon a world that wasn’t his. The journey, wonder, exploration, and discovery on the surface of another world experienced by just twelve representatives of all humanity was about to have its coda.

At 163:32:48 Ground Elapsed Time (GET), 5:25PM Eastern Standard Time, December 13, 1972, Apollo 17 astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt depressurized their LM Challenger, opened her hatch, and began their third and final EVA – to date, Man’s last trek out onto the surface of another world.

163:41:29 Cernan: Okay, Bob. I’m going down the ladder. 

163:41:31 Parker: Roger, Geno. (Long Pause) 

163:41:46 Cernan: Yup, still there, Jack. “Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.” 

163:41:52 Schmitt: Good. 

163:41:53 Parker: Amen there, Gene. Amen. 

163:41:58 Cernan: Okay, Bob, I’m on the (foot)pad. And it’s about 4:30 [CST, time at Mission Control] (on) a Wednesday afternoon, as I step out on to the plains of Taurus-Littrow. Beautiful valley.

The previous day’s EVA took Cernan and Schmitt to the Taurus-Littrow valley’s South Massif. They made the incredible discovery of orange soil at Shorty Crater. Today, they would use their Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) on a traverse to the North Massif, a more than mile-high mountain above the valley, with planned stops at five geology stations.

The pair arrived at Geology Station 6 at 164:51 GET. The main feature of the site was a large boulder observed on pre-landing photos that most likely had tumbled down from higher on the massif. Gene Cernan had named the feature “Tracy’s Rock” for his then nine-year old daughter. 
Tracy’s Rock. Jack Schmitt collecting samples as Cernan takes the picture.

164:53:11 Schmitt: And this boulder’s got its own little track! Right up the hill, cross contour. It’s a chain-of-craters track, and it looks like it stops (static) off where it started. It starts in, what looks to be, a lighter-colored linear zone. Trying to give you perspective, it’s probably only about a third of the way up the North Massif.

The boulder was actually broken into five large pieces. Samples were taken from around the area including a core tube. Take a moment to look at the full panorama photo from which the above is cropped. It shows the full extent of the feature, the LRV for added scale, and looks down into the valley below. The large mountain on the right is the South Massif, 10 kilometers away.
While Cernan was taking the pictures the panorama was assembled from, he also observed his and Schmitt’s lunar home, 3.5 kilometers away.

165:34:53 Cernan: Oh, and there’s Challenger! Holy Smoley! (Pause) You know, Jack, when we finish with Station 8, we will have covered this whole valley from corner to corner! 

165:35:18 Schmitt: That was the idea. 

165:35:20 Cernan: Yeah, but I didn’t think we’d ever really quite get to that far corner. Not (Station) 2, but this other one (Station 8). And we’re going to make it!

If you look at this picture full size, you’ll see light reflecting off Challenger‘s Mylar insulation, in the center, just above Tracy’s Rock. To make it around the fullness of the valley though, they’d have to get moving. They had spent over an hour at the site, leaving at around 166:00 GET.
Geology Station 7 and Station 8 were at the base of the Sculptured Hills on the “east” side of the valley. 
View taken by Schmitt of the Geology Station 8 area, with the LRV and Cernan visible
All the astronauts who went to the Moon had spent a lot of time on geology training. Some were more enthusiastic about lunar geoscience than others, but the planetary geologists listening back on Earth were so fortunate to have one of their own experiencing the Moon first hand.

168:04:31 Schmitt: …intensely shattered in that area, as (are) the ones that are on the walls. I don’t see any sign of organization to the blocks in the walls, right now. There’s a possibility that, on the west wall, there’s an indication that there’s slightly darker gray rocks starting about halfway down the crater. And that level is coincident with what appears to be a bench on the northwest wall. And hints of that bench – it’s not continuous – but hints of it are around on the north wall and, I think, right below us. Yeah, on the southeast wall. (Pause) The rocks are pretty badly broken in many cases. Well, I haven’t seen any real glass yet. Yet. (Pause) We’ll start looking at them a little more carefully. Some of them…That looks like a breccia right there in front of us.

This is a clip from sometime during EVA-3, notable because Jack Schmitt has his sun visor up and you can clearly see his face!

Geology Station 9 was the pair’s last stop as they made the return drive to Challenger. This site’s main feature was Van Serg Crater, another potential volcanic feature. By now though, Cernan and Schmitt were running late. They had been out for 5:20, and there were many tasks to complete back at the LM before they could get back inside. Mission Control ordered them to skip the last planned geology station and return home.
Before Cernan and Schmitt proceeded with their EVA closeout tasks back at Challenger, they took a moment to remind those of us back on Earth that the United States went to the Moon not to claim it, but “in peace for all mankind”.

169:43:06 Cernan: Houston, before we close out our EVA, we understand that there are young people in Houston today who have been effectively touring our country, young people from countries all over the world, respectively, touring our country. They had the opportunity to watch the launch of Apollo 17; (and) hopefully had an opportunity to meet some of our young people in our country. And we’d like to say first of all, welcome, and we hope you enjoyed your stay. Second of all, I think probably one of the most significant things we can think about when we think about Apollo is that it has opened for us – “for us” being the world – a challenge of the future. The door is now cracked, but the promise of the future lies in the young people, not just in America, but the young people all over the world learning to live and learning to work together. In order to remind all the people of the world in so many countries throughout the world that this is what we all are striving for in the future, Jack has picked up a very significant rock, typical of what we have here in the valley of Taurus-Littrow. 

169:44:45 Cernan: It’s a rock composed of many fragments, of many sizes, and many shapes, probably from all parts of the Moon, perhaps billions of years old. But fragments of all sizes and shapes – and even colors – that have grown together to become a cohesive rock, outlasting the nature of space, sort of living together in a very coherent, very peaceful manner. When we return this rock or some of the others like it to Houston, we’d like to share a piece of this rock with so many of the countries throughout the world. We hope that this will be a symbol of what our feelings are, what the feelings of the Apollo Program are, and a symbol of mankind: that we can live in peace and harmony in the future. 

169:45:50 Schmitt: (Taking the rock as Gene hands it to him) A portion of a rock will be sent to a representative agency or museum in each of the countries represented by the young people in Houston today, and we hope that they – that rock and the students themselves – will carry with them our good wishes, not only for the new year coming up but also for themselves, their countries, and all mankind in the future. Put that in the big bag, Geno. 

169:46:24 Cernan: We salute you, promise of the future.

Next, they unveiled the bookend monument to Man’s exploration of the Moon: a plaque which mirrors the one from Apollo 11’s EVA, left three and a half years before in the Sea of Tranquility:

169:46:38 Cernan: (Taking the rock and returning to the Rover) And now – let me bring this (TV) camera around – to commemorate not just Apollo 17’s visit to the Valley of Taurus-Littrow but as an everlasting commemoration of what the real meaning of Apollo is to the world, we’d like to uncover a plaque that has been on the leg of our spacecraft that we have climbed down many times over the last 3 days. 

169:47:19 Cernan: And I’ll read what that plaque says to you. First of all, it has a picture of the world. Two pictures. One of the North America and one of South America. The other covers the other half of the world including Africa, Asia, Europe, Australia, covers the North Pole and the South Pole. In between these two hemispheres, we have a pictorial view of the Moon, a pictorial view of where all the Apollo landings have been made; so that when this plaque is seen again by others who come, they will know where it all started. The words are, “Here man completed his first exploration of the Moon, December 1972 A.D. May the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind.” It’s signed, “Eugene A. Cernan, Ronald E. Evans, Harrison H. Schmitt, and most prominently, Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States of America.” This is our commemoration that will be here until someone like us, until some of you who are out there, who are the promise of the future, come back to read it again and to further the exploration and the meaning of Apollo. 

The plaque, pre-flight. 

169:48:57 Parker: Roger, Gene. We in Houston copy that and echo your sentiments. Dr. (James) Fletcher (the NASA Administrator) is here beside me. He’d like to say a word to the two of you. 

169:49:09 Fletcher: Gene and Jack, I’ve been in close touch with the White House, and the President has been following very closely your absolutely fascinating work up there. He’d like to wish you Godspeed as you return to Earth, and I’d like to personally second that. Congratulations. We’ll see you in a few days. Over. 

169:49:35 Cernan: Thank you, Dr. Fletcher. We appreciate your comments, and we certainly appreciate those of the President. And whether it be civilian or military, I think Jack and I would both like to give our salute to America. 

169:49:53 Schmitt: And, Dr. Fletcher, if I may, I’d like to remind everybody, I’m sure, of something they’re aware, but this valley of history has seen mankind complete its first evolutionary steps into the universe: leaving the planet Earth and going forward into the universe. I think no more significant contribution has Apollo made to history. It’s not often that you can foretell history, but I think we can in this case. And I think everybody ought to feel very proud of that fact. (Pause) Thank you very much.

Schmitt was then dispatched to the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) gear that was placed during EVA-1 two days before to make some final adjustments and return some experimental equipment. While Schmitt did that, Cernan drove the LRV a short distance away from where its television camera could capture Challenger‘s lunar liftoff the following day. Cernan removed the fender repair from EVA-2 (the clamps holding it were needed in the LM) and snapped off part of the left rear fender as a souvenir. LRV-3 had served Apollo 17 well: 4:26 of driving, odometer at 22.3 miles driven. The furthest distance Cernan and Schmitt ventured away from the LM was 4.7 miles.

The LRV in its final position, Challenger in the background

Before returning to the LM, Cernan knelt down in his bulky suit and, with his lunar gloved finger, traced “TDC” in the dust – his daughter’s initials.

Geologist Jack Schmitt had one last thing he wanted to do on the surface. He took the geology hammer they had used for sample collection and surface work and hurled it.

Apollo 17’s geology hammer, in flight

The TV wasn’t the clearest as the LRV was parked far away, but here’s Jack Schmitt’s throw.

Cernan and Schmitt began the final tasks of loading what they’d be taking home back into Challenger. Mission Control urged them on, as they were down to less than 15 minutes of consumables in their life support packs at this point. Schmitt boarded the LM and was onboard at 170:38. The final samples, gear, and equipment were passed up the ladder, and then the last man to walk on the Moon, was alone on the surface.

170:41:00 Cernan: Bob, this is Gene, and I’m on the surface; and, as I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I’d like to just (say) what 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.”

I couldn’t find a good embed video for Cernan’s words, but you can listen on Spotify, starting at 9:03 of the recording. Man’s last step was taken at approximately 170:41:55 GET, 12:34AM EST, December 14, 1972. Challenger was repressurized and the final EVA ended six minutes later.

The Wright Brothers first put Man in powered flight almost exactly sixty-nine years before: December 17, 1903. Sixty-nine years from Man’s first flight (twelve seconds duration, ten feet in altitude, 120 feet  in distance) to the end time of Man’s last Moon walk.

The Human race’s time walking on another world was over. Cernan’s “not too long” now stands at forty years and rising. 

Apollo+40: The Second EVA – It’s Orange!!!

Taurus-Littrow was chosen as the landing site for Apollo 17 because it was thought, based on observations by unmanned spacecraft and the astronauts on previous Apollo flights to be a “younger” area of the Moon; an area where volcanism had as much, if not more, an effect on the local geology than the tens of thousands of impact events that are self-evident just from glancing at the surface.

Lunar geology however, was at the bleeding edge of science. Eight months before Apollo 17, John Young and Charlie Duke landed in the Descartes Higlands with Apollo 16, briefed for and expecting to find volcanic rocks…and instead found almost nothing but breccias; rocks formed by impact events. Every discovery made from the Moon was significant, whether it proved an existing theory of the Moon or disproved one. Planetary geologists longed for a truly revolutionary find like the 4 billion year-old piece of anorthosite discovered by Apollo 15‘s Dave Scott and Jim Irwin, known as the “Genesis Rock“.

Who better to look for something amazing on man’s last voyage to the Moon than the only geologist astronaut? Jack Schmitt was also only one of two geoscientists in the astronaut corps (the other, geophysicist Tony England, had acted as Apollo 16’s mission scientist from Mission Control). For an organization focused on the Moon, one would think NASA would have picked up a few more specialists in that area.

Gene Cernan and Schmitt, well rested after their first EVA the day before, depressurized their Lunar Module (LM) Challenger and began EVA-2 at 140:35:06 Ground Elapsed Time (GET)/6:28PM Eastern Standard Time (EST), December 12, 1972 – forty years ago.

Cernan had probably noticed it before, but as he descended to the lunar surface for the second time, he read out loud a note that had been attached to Challenger by one or more of the technicians who prepared her for flight.

140:43:21 Cernan: “Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.” I think I’ll read that every time I come down the ladder.

One of the first tasks for Cernan and Schmitt was the repair of their Lunar Roving Vehicle‘s (LRV) broken fender. Without a fix, the two astronauts would be pelted with lunar dust as they drove. While the two lunar explorers rested after EVA-1, a team at Mission Control led by Apollo 16 commander John Young worked on a fix. The solution they came up with was both simple and brilliant. Cernan’s temporary repair during EVA-1 showed that the duct tape the astronauts had wouldn’t keep the fender together under the dust conditions, but there were a few clamps used inside the LM to hold light fixtures. Cernan and Schmitt were instructed to take their no-longer-needed, plastic-coated geology map cards from EVA-1, tape them together, and clamp the assembly to the remaining portion of the fender. The fix worked, and Cernan and Schmitt proceded to load up the LRV for the day’s geology.

The repaired fender, after about 9 kilometers of driving

The two main features surrounding the Taurus-Littrow valley were the North and South Massifs. Both of these lunar mountains soared more than a mile above the valley floor. The objective for EVA-2 was to travel to the base of the South Massif and work the way back to the LM collecting samples.

The astronauts were required to start at their intended furthest point from Challenger as a safety measure. Cernan and Schmitt’s survival on the surface depended on the consumable resources – water and oxygen – contained in their Portable Life Support System (PLSS) backpacks. Mission rules stated that the two had to have enough consumables at all times to walk back to the LM in case the LRV failed. As the consumables were always decreasing, they had to start at the furthest point away and come back towards Challenger.

Cernan and Schmitt arrived at the base of the South Massif at approximately 142:45. This was Geology Station 2 (Station 1 having been visited during EVA-1). They had stopped en route to place another of the Seismic Profiling Experiment (SPE) explosive charges and gather samples near a crater known as “Camelot”. The following video shows some of their Station 2 activities. In it, the astronauts kick over a large rock to sample the soil underneath, shielded for thousands of years by the stone above.

Geology Station 3 at “Ballet” crater was next. The two obtained core samples, took gravimetric readings, and also used the lunar rake to get broad samples.

Jack Schmitt using the lunar rake to sample soil and rocks

Geology Station 4 was an important stop because its main feature, “Shorty” crater, was thought to potentially be an ancient volcanic vent rather than an impact feature.

145:23:48 Schmitt: Okay, Houston. Shorty is clearly a darker-rimmed crater. The inner wall is quite blocky but…Except for the western portion of it, which is less blocky than the others. The floor is hummocky, as we thought it was in the photographs [taken by Apollo 15 from orbit]. The central peak, if you will, or central mound, is very blocky and jagged. And the impression I have of the other mounds in the bottom is that they look like slump masses that may have come off the side.

The astronauts’ procedure for arriving at a geology station was to give their quick description, as the transcript of Schmitt above shows, and then take a photographic panorama of the area to set the context for the sample collections. Schmitt was working on taking the panorama of the Shorty area when…

145:26:22 Schmitt: Oh, hey! (Very brief pause) 

145:26:25 Schmitt: Wait a minute… 

145:26:26 Cernan: What? 

145:26:27 Schmitt: Where are the reflections? I’ve been fooled once. [a reflection off of Mylar on the LRV during EVA-1 had made him think he had found colored soil] There is orange soil!! 

145:26:32 Cernan: Well, don’t move it until I see it. 

145:26:35 Schmitt: It’s all over!! Orange!!! 

145:26:38 Cernan: Don’t move it until I see it. 

145:26:40 Schmitt: I stirred it up with my feet. 

145:26:42 Cernan: Hey, it is!! I can see it from here! 

145:26:44 Schmitt: It’s orange! 

145:26:46 Cernan: Wait a minute, let me put my visor up. It’s still orange!

Schmitt observed that the orange soil seemed to be evenly distributed around the rim of the crater and had the appearance of having been oxidized. This was what they were looking for! This could be evidence of more recent (in geologic terms) lunar volcanism altering the surface.

145:28:39 Schmitt: It looks just like an oxidized desert soil, that’s exactly right. 

145:29:15 Schmitt: You know (pause) that orange is along a line, Geno, along the rim crest. 

145:29:27 Cernan: What? Circumferential? 

145:29:29 Schmitt: Yeah. Man, if there ever was a [chuckles]…I’m not going to say it. [And then does, anyway] But if there ever was something that looked like a fumarole alteration, this is it.

The orange soil at Shorty as discovered by Schmitt
Orange soil sample post-flight at the Lunar Receiving Laboratory
Micrograph of the orange soil

It turned out upon examination and analysis back on Earth after the flight that the soil wasn’t oxidized, nor was it geologically recent. It was colored volcanic glass from fire fountains billions of years before, but was nonetheless an amazing and important discovery! I encourage my readers to go to YouTube and view the other parts of the geology stop at Shorty (1-3 embedded here, there are 7 more parts to the full video).

In between Stations 4 and 5, Cernan and Schmitt placed yet another explosive charge for seismic profiling. Station 5 was their last for the day before returning to the LM. It was on the opposite side of the Camelot crater the two had briefly stopped at on the outbound trip.

The astronauts returned to Challenger at about 147 hours GET. They had a lot of cleanup and “housekeeping” tasks to complete before climbing the ladder into their lunar home. As Cernan climbed up (Schmitt was already inside) he had to do it one handed as he had a box of precious lunar samples in the other.

148:01:32 Cernan: Ohhhh! That’s a nice one-handed first step. “Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17”. I’m going to keep reading that. I like that message. [Calling to Bob] How’s Captain America [meaning Ron Evans], speaking of Apollo 17? 

148:01:53 Parker: Captain America is sound asleep. Just about to come around to AOS [Acquisition of Signal when the Command Module emerges from behind the Moon on the current orbit]. We think he’s sound asleep. 

148:02:00 Cernan: Hey, how does that always happen? That happened yesterday. 

148:02:12 Parker: He got up before noon this morning, too.

Challenger was repressurized at 148:12:02 and EVA-2 ended. It was 2:05AM EST, December 13, 1972. EVA-2 was the longest moon walk of all Apollo, lasting for 7:36:56.

Man would have just one more chance to explore the lunar surface on foot, beginning in about 15 hours.

Blogger’s note: in addition to the sources linked and those mentioned in my previous posts on Apollo 17, I found another tremendous font of information: the Apollo Analyst’s Notebook. Thanks to everybody who’s taken an interest in preserving the wonder of Apollo’s voyages to the Moon!

Apollo+40: The First EVA – A Flag Returns

When Apollo 11 Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed their LM Eagle in the Sea of Tranquility on July 20, 1969, they brought three flags with them. One was left there at the landing site, and two were returned to Earth. One of the flags that was returned was displayed in Mission Control in Houston until a short time before the flight of Apollo 17. That particular Stars and Stripes were stowed aboard Challenger for a return voyage to the Moon.

So far, we have met the crew of Apollo 17, launched with them, journeyed to the Moon, and landed. Forty years ago from the time of this post, the first of Man’s three final excursions for discovery on the lunar surface began.

Command Module Pilot (CMP) Ron Evans maintained America in lunar orbit and conducted his own scientific program with the instruments onboard her while Commander (CDR) Gene Cernan and Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) Jack Schmitt prepared for their first EVA, just four hours after their landing at Taurus-Littrow.

The A7LB space suit model worn by Cernan and Schmitt on the lunar surface had also been used on the two previous “J” missions: Apollo 15 and Apollo 16. The suit was designed to be more comfortable and capable for the extended lunar stays of the later flights. The astronauts further benefited from being able to take it off inside the LM between EVAs.

At 117:01:49 Ground Elapsed Time (GET)/6:54 PM EST, mankind’s last two Moon walkers depressurized Challenger, and began the first of the final three lunar EVAs.

The Apollo Program was executed for national and international prestige, but also for true scientific discovery. Jack Schmitt, a geologist, was the first scientist-astronaut to fly on any mission and NASA made completely the correct decision to place him on the Apollo 17 crew when the later lunar missions were cancelled. The value of having a scientist in space was found almost immediately with Schmitt’s observations of Earth during the trip to the Moon. Schmitt had worked for years to both prepare his fellow Moon walkers for their geology tasks and learn their trade as pilots. He had already proven his worth as a pilot; now he’d get to be the only lunar geologist to work on a field site first hand.

A short time after opening the LM’s hatch, the final two lunar explorers reached the surface.

117:11:09 Cernan: I’m on the footpad. And, Houston, as I step off at the surface at Taurus-Littrow, we’d like to dedicate the first step of Apollo 17 to all those who made it possible.

About four minutes later when Schmitt descended Challenger‘s ladder, his first words were a tongue-in-cheek-criticism of his Commander:

117:15:17 Schmitt: Hey, who’s been tracking up my lunar surface?

The two immediately set themselves to work surveying their landing site. Cernan walked over to a crater he had named “Poppie” (for his father) before the flight. Poppie was one of Apollo 17’s approach landmarks and was about 100 meters away from Challenger. For contrast, the longest distance Neil Armstrong on Apollo 11 was away from Eagle was about 60 meters.

Meanwhile, “Dr. Rock” as he was known by his fellow astronauts, was in geological seventh heaven:

117:21:54 Schmitt: Looks like a vesicular, very-light-colored porphyry of some kind; it’s about 10 or 15 percent vesicles. I’m right in front of the LM. Quite a few of the rocks look of that type. Sort of a pinkish hue to them. The texture is coarse, but I’m not sure how crystalline they are, yet.

Their initial observations of Taurus-Littrow complete, at 117:25 the pair began a procedure on which all hopes for their three days on the Moon would rest: deploying the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV).

The LRV had been carried to the Moon hung on the side of Challenger‘s descent stage (picture here). Cernan & Schmitt used cables, straps, and pulleys to deploy their “Moon buggy”, which automatically unfolded as it was lowered to the surface. They sucessfully checked out the LRV and found it in good shape. They’d be able to drive around Taurus-Littrow, rather than just walk! Cernan couldn’t see behind himself on the first test drive, but he could tell that at least half of the LRV’s four-wheel steering was working just fine:

117:47:50 Cernan: Okay. I can’t see the rear ones, but I know the front ones turn. And it does move. Hallelujah. Hallelujah, Houston! Challenger’s baby is on the roll. 

117:48:04 Parker (Bob Parker, CAPCOM): Roger. Copy that. Sounds great.

Thus far, no one on Earth had seen the last two lunar voyagers on the surface. To save weight, Apollo 17 only carried one TV camera to the lunar surface, to be mounted on the LRV. Cernan accomplished this along with loading the rover with equipment they’d need on their first geology traverse later in the EVA. Schmitt was unloading more gear from the LM’s descent stage – the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package, or ALSEP.

At 118:14, Ed Fendell (“Captain Video” to those in NASA) began remote control of the TV broadcasts from the Moon. Cernan and Schmitt then moved on to the next task in their checklists: raising the American flag…more on that later.

After the flag was up, Schmitt carried the ALSEP gear to its deployment site a short distance away (about 200 meters) from Challenger. The equipment contained six major experiments, plus an array of geophones that would receive sound waves transmitted through the lunar crust by small explosive charges that the astronauts would place on their lunar traverses. The ALSEP gear was powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator (RTG) so it would continue to have power during the lunar night.

Unfortunately, as Schmitt was off with the ALSEP gear, Cernan snagged a piece of his equipment on the LRV’s left rear fender, and tore it off.

Cernan knew based on the experience of Apollos 15 and 16 that the rover kicked up a lot of dust while driving, and that the fender had to be repaired if possible. He did so, with (yes!) duct tape.

The following video is about two and a half minutes from the LRV’s TV camera showing the ALSEP deployment site. The audio is a Mission Control track that has both the air-to-ground conversations plus the Flight Director loop where you can hear the flight controllers discussing how Cernan and Schmitt have fallen behind schedule and the potential effect on future EVA activities:

By 121:25 GET, Cernan and Schmitt had finished deploying the ALSEP and had also taken a hammered-in deep core sample of the lunar regolith. They had already been on the surface for about four hours – nearly twice as long as Armstrong and Aldrin walked on Apollo 11 – and there was so much more to come.

The remaining major activity for EVA-1 was a trip to the mission’s Geology Station 1 at Steno Crater, about two kilometers away. During their traverse they deployed some of the aforementioned explosive charges for the geophone experiment, gathered samples, and took photographs.

On the return to Challenger, Cernan and Schmitt also deployed the Surface Electrical Properties Experiment, or SEP. SEP transmitted a series of electrical impulses through the lunar surface to be received by an antenna on the LRV at various locations and distances throughout the surface journeys in the remaining EVAs 2 and 3.

Challenger‘s crew returned to their lunar home and ended their first EVA at 123:13:42 – 2:06AM, December 12, 1972. Mission Control would have work to do while they were resting as Cernan’s temporary repair to the LRV’s fender didn’t last. Without a solution, the dust level driving would be intolerable and put the EVAs for the next two days at risk.

In closing, I’d like to return to earlier in the EVA at 118:21 as Cernan and Schmitt were raising the American Flag at Taurus-Littrow. As I mentioned in the opening, one of the Apollo 11 flags had hung in Mission Control for Apollos 12-16. This flag was returned to the Moon aboard Apollo 17 and Challenger and is the flag that Cernan and Schmitt placed there. The two also had a second flag with them, which would be returned to Mission Control to replace the one returned to the lunar surface.

118:23:51 Cernan: Houston… 

118:23:52 Schmitt: That’s beautiful. 

118:23:53 Cernan: …this has got to be one of the most proud moments of my life. I guarantee you. [Pause] [To Jack] Why don’t you get a close-in one and we’ll trade cameras. 

118:24:06 Schmitt: Houston, I don’t know how many of you are aware of this, but this flag has flown in the MOCR [Mission Operations Control Room at the Johnson Space Center in Houston] since Apollo 11. And we very proudly deploy it on the Moon, to stay for as long as it can, in honor of all those people who have worked so hard to put us here and to put every other crew here and to make the country, United States, and mankind, something different than it was. 

118:24:51 Parker: Roger, 17. And presuming to speak in behalf of some of those that work on the MOCR, we thank you very much.

Jack Schmitt, our flag, the lunar surface, and our home.
In my opinion, one of the greatest photographs of Apollo,
and one of the greatest ever taken, period.
Gene Cernan salutes Old Glory at Taurus-Littrow

While it wasn’t the end of EVA-1, I chose to tell the story of placing the flag last because it truly is a lasting symbol of the American exceptionalism that sent twelve of its own to the surface of the Moon. Why? Well, thanks to photographs taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter during the past several years of the Apollo 17 landing site we know one thing:

The flag that returned to the Moon still casts a shadow, which means it still flies.

And fly it shall, until someone removes it or it is knocked down by a meteor impact. Forever.

Apollo+40: The Sixth Lunar Landing

The Apollo Lunar Module (LM) was the first true spacecraft – it was only designed for and able to fly in space, in a vacuum. Grumman completed twelve of them. Ten of the twelve flew, and eight made the journey to their intended environment: the Moon.

Apollo 17‘s LM Challenger was the 12th produced and would be the last craft to carry humans to the surface of Earth’s Moon. She was built by hand in Grumman’s plant in Bethpage, New York. When LM-12 was delivered to NASA, hundreds of men and women who built the crafts that had delivered ten Americans to the lunar surface – and which had saved the lives of three – had lost their jobs. It’s a tribute to them all that Challenger was as ready, and performed as flawlessly, as her predecessors Spider, Snoopy, Eagle, Intrepid, Aquarius, Antares, Falcon, and Orion.
The date was December 11, 1972. Forty years have passed since a human prepared to land their craft and set foot on another world.
As Challenger, docked to the Command/Service Module (CSM) America, completed its 10th revolution of the Moon since entering lunar orbit, Commander (CDR) Gene Cernan, Command Module Pilot (CMP) Ron Evans, and Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) Jack Schmitt, clambered back into their pressure suits and prepared their two spacecraft for undocking.
During the 11th revolution, all the final checks were completed and both America and Challenger were given the go ahead for undocking, which would take place on the far side of the Moon, out of communication with Earth. The crew completed the undocking at 110:27:56 Ground Elapsed Time (GET)/12:20 EST. When contact was regained with Mission Control in Houston, the two ships were flying independently.
On this frontside pass, America and Challenger were given a “GO” for their next major maneuvers. America burned its large motor to both raise and circularize its orbit to prepare for the rendezvous and return of Challenger from the surface, hopefully in a little more than three days, but sooner if an abort was required. Challenger fired her reaction control jets for about 20 seconds to set the LM on the trajectory for the point 6.5 miles above the surface where Cernan and Schmitt would light their Descent Propulsion System (DPS) for Powered Descent Initiation – “PDI” in Astronaut parlance.
Once again, the astronauts on board America and Challenger, and the engineers and flight controllers back at Mission Control, made sure all was in readiness. Challenger was given a go for PDI.
The DPS ignited on schedule at 112:49:53 and Cernan and Schmitt began their approximately 12 minute descent to the surface. Their target was a central location in what had been called by NASA’s lunar scientists the Taurus-Littrow valley on the edge of the Sea of Serenity. It was one of the most complicated and yes, challenging, landing approaches as the LM had to cross a mountain range before it could descend towards the target area. 
Cernan and Schmitt saw their altitude readings change right on schedule at 112:56:07 when they crossed the mountain ridge that blocked their approach. They were flying blind at this point, with their windows pointed skyward. They flew the remainder of their approach to Taurus-Littrow perfectly, and when they were 5,000 feet above the surface at 112:59:32, they received the word that only ten had received before, and none have since:

Challenger, you’re GO for landing!

This film, taken out of the LMP window with a 16mm movie camera, shows the last four minutes of Challenger‘s descent along with the voices of CDR Cernan, LMP Schmitt, and CAPCOM Gordon Fullerton:

Challenger came to rest at Taurus-Littrow at 113:01:58 GET, 2:54 PM Eastern Standard Time – exactly 40 years ago from the time of this post.

Cernan and Schmitt readied Challenger for a quick take-off should any problems be discovered, but none did. After about 30 minutes, the pair began configuring their ship for its three-day lunar stay by powering down the flight systems.

The day’s work was far from over though. In about three and a half hours, the eleventh and twelfth – and thus far final – men to walk on the moon would get their first chance of three during their lunar stay to do so.

Blogger’s note: as with previous posts, in addition to linked material, it draws upon content from the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal and The Last Man on the Moon.

Apollo+40: Apollo 17 to Lunar Orbit

When we last left Apollo 17, they had just set off on their long, two and a half day coast to the Moon. Astronauts Gene Cernan, Ron Evans, and Jack Schmitt – the 6th (Cernan, having previously gone on Apollo 10), 23rd, and 24th men to ever make the voyage – had an uneventful Earth-Moon transit and completed check-outs of their Lunar Module (LM) Challenger, conducted some scientific experiments on board their Command/Service Module (CSM) America, and finally on Flight Day 4 (December 10, 1972) reach the Moon and enter lunar orbit.

Here is a summary of major flight activities, times in Ground Elapsed Time (GET) unless otherwise noted:

23:27:00 (12:00AM EST 12/8/72) – Flight day 1 ends.

35:20:02 – The crew completed a quick, two second burn of the CSM’s Service Propulsion System (SPS) engine to refine their trajectory towards the Moon. America and Challenger are now more precisely aimed at their target.

40:10:00 to 42:11:00 – Commander (CDR) Cernan and Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) Schmitt boarded LM Challenger for two hours of housekeeping and communications check out tasks.

47:27:00 – (12:00AM EST 12/9/72) – Flight day 2 ends.

59:59:00 to 62:16:00 – Cernan and Schmitt execute another two-hour stint of LM preparations aboard Challenger.

65:00:00 – 2 hours, 40 minutes added to the mission timer to reflect the launch delay. Apollo 17’s trajectory was accelerated and the time added so that the original flight plans would be valid.

73:17:45 (11:10PM EST 12/9/72) – Apollo 17 passes equigravisphere – the point at which the gravitational influence of the Earth and Moon are the same. America and Challenger have been slowing down since Trans-Lunar Injection (TLI) on December 7th as the Earth’s gravity tried to pull the spacecrafts back. Now that the Moon’s gravity is dominant, Apollo 17 will be gaining speed until time for Lunar Orbit Insertion (LOI).

74:07:00 (12:00AM EST 12/10/1972) – Flight day 3 ends.

84:12:40 – Command Module Pilot (CMP) Ron Evans jettisons the door covering the Service Module’s Scientific Instrumentation Module (SIM) bay in preparation to beginning the mission’s lunar science program at 83:26:00.

87:30:00 – Apollo 17 passes into lunar shadow and begins ultraviolet photography of our Moon.

88:43:00America and Challenger have passed behind the Moon and are now out of communication with Earth. The crew are making final preparations for their LOI burn.

88:54:23 – the six and a half minute LOI burn begins. The SPS engine fires to allow the Moon’s gravity to capture Apollo 17 into lunar orbit.

89:00:26 (2:53PM EST 12/10/1972) – Lunar orbit! Apollo 17 has arrived after a successful LOI, but Earth doesn’t know it yet as they’re still behind the Moon.

89:16:00 – Mission Control in Houston regains communications with the crew and learn of the near perfect LOI.

89:39 (approximate) – the S-IVB third stage from Apollo 17’s Saturn V impacts the Moon as an experiment for the seismometers left behind by previous Apollo astronauts at their landing sites.

93:11:37 – Cernan, Evans, and Schmitt light up America‘s SPS engine one more time to put the combined spacecraft into the proper descent orbit (maneuver known as Descent Orbit Insertion 1, “DOI-1”) for the future departure of Challenger carrying Cernan and Evans to the lunar surface. DOI-1 is successful after a 23 second burn.

98:07:00 (12:00AM EST 12/11/1972) – Flight day 4 ends.

Return tomorrow for the events culminating in the sixth manned lunar landing and the first of three lunar EVAs by Cernan and Schmitt!

Apollo+40: Godspeed the Crew of Apollo 17 – The Launch

Thousands assembled on December 6, 1972 on Florida’s space coast for the launch of Apollo 17. It was sure to be an incredible show as the launch would take place at night due to the launch window required to meet the mission’s date with the Taurus-Littrow region of the Moon.

Among the VIPs seated in the bleachers near the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center was Charlie Smith, thought at the time to be the oldest living American and a staggering 130 years old (since debunked). Smith was a doubter, and was quoted as saying about the Saturn V sitting on Pad 39A, bathed in spotlights:

I see that’s a rocket, but th’ ain’t nobody goin’ t’ no moon. Me, you, or anybody else.

But, go they would, one of the men for the second time, like the eight flights and twenty-two men before them.

Commander (CDR) Gene Cernan, Command Module Pilot (CMP) Ron Evans, and Lunar Module Pilot (LMP) Jack Schmitt boarded their spacecraft, Command/Service Module 112 (CSM-112) named America, atop their Saturn V in the early evening hours

Apollo 17‘s countdown progressed normally until the T-30 second mark. At this point, the terminal launch sequencer initiated a hold in the countdown because it could not verify that the S-IVB third stage had been properly pressurized for flight. Earlier in the countdown, the stage pressurization failed to execute automatically and the manual override wasn’t processed correctly by the sequencer. This required a recycle to T-22 minutes in the countdown.

It took NASA‘s engineers about an hour to recycle the systems to the countdown restart point and to verify both that the previous glitch wouldn’t reoccur and the workarounds put in place to get past the issues wouldn’t cause further problems. The countdown resumed at T-22 at 11:00PM.

The countdown held again at T-8 minutes for final checks and reconfigurations to compensate for the delayed launch. This hold lasted until 12:25AM, December 7, 1972. The final eight minutes of the countdown progressed without any additional errors.

At 12:33AM, the countdown clock reached zero, and the last Saturn V to leave Earth for its intended destination with three intrepid explorers turned night into dawn:

This video has some pre-launch footage and natural audio from the filming point; several seconds elapse before the sound of the mighty Saturn V reaches the filmer:

Cernan, Evans, and Schmitt were on their way! (Following events in Ground Elapsed Time, or GET)

0:02:43 – when Apollo 17 left the pad, the combined vehicle weighed approximately 6,200,000 pounds, most of which was the S-IC first stage’s propellent. In the first 2:30 of flight, Apollo 17’s five massive F-1 rocket engines consumed over 4.7 million pounds of RP-1 kerosene and liquid oxygen. Its job done, the S-IC stage dropped away and the five J-2 engines of the S-II second stage took over.

0:03:19 – the Launch Escape System, no longer needed should the crew need to abort, was jettisoned. It took the Boost Protective Cover over the command module America with it, so that the crew could now see out their windows.

0:09:21 – the S-II second stage finishes its run, and the single-engine S-IVB third stage continues pushing Apollo 17 towards a proper Earth orbit from which they can depart our home for the Moon.

0:11:53 – Orbit! Apollo 17 makes it to Earth orbit with no errors. The crew now has a hectic three hours to prepare and insure that all their systems are go for the Moon.

At 2:53:15 GET, 3:26AM EST, Apollo 17 was given permission to truly leave home.

CAPCOM: Roger. Guys, I’ve got the word you wanted to hear; you are GO for TLI – you’re GO for the Moon. 

CDR: Ok, Robert, I understand. America and Challenger with their S-IVB are GO for TLI.

TLI – Trans-Lunar Injection would relight the S-IVB engine to propel Apollo 17 past escape velocity and on its way. The burn started at 3:12:37 GET and lasted six minutes.

After TLI, the crew’s work was far from done. CMP Evans took control of America and flew a short distance away from the now spent S-IVB stage, turned around, and returned to dock with the Lunar Module (LM) Challenger. Transposition and Docking, as the procedure was known, was completed by 3:57:11 GET.

The combined America and Challenger thrusted away from the S-IVB at 4:45:02 GET/5:18AM EST and began their long coast to the Moon. The S-IVB stage itself was then aimed for an intentional impact on the Moon’s surface as a seismic experiment.

Outbound on the first day of the mission, the first non-aviator to fly in space, Jack Schmitt, looked back at the Earth with a scientist’s eyes. He rattled off his observations of Earth’s weather patterns and other phenomena like no space voyager had before. He also took a famous picture from about 28,000 miles altitutde, soon after America and Challenger began flying on their own, known today as “The Blue Marble”:

Apollo 17 was just beginning the sixth and final of Man’s greatest adventures.

Apollo+40: Prelude to Man’s Last Voyage to the Moon

Back on April 20, 2012, as I was attending BlogCon CLT, I wrote an essay entitled “Where We’ve Been, and Where We Need to Go Back”, as I observed that the date coincided with the 40th anniversary of the fifth manned landing on the Moon by Apollo 16. In it, I lamented my failure to complete my “Apollo+40” series. The United States of America executed the greatest achievement in human history, and we did it six times. I’m not going to let the sixth and final one go unrecognized here at Their Finest Hour.

I hope you come back regularly to join me as we recount the final flight of ApolloApollo 17 – over the next two weeks.

At 11:53AM Eastern Standard Time on December 7, 1972 (40 years before the time of this post), the launch countdown resumed at T-minus 9 hours for the final flight of a manned Saturn V launch vehicle the world would ever see. The rocket, also known as SA-512, was made up of S-IC stage #12, S-II stage #12, and S-IVB stage #512.

Atop the Saturn V was Apollo Command/Service Module (CSM) 114, Lunar Module (LM) 12, and Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) 3. The assembled hardware stood on Pad A of Launch Complex 39 at the Kennedy Space Center – an expendable tribute to the thousands of Americans who made Apollo’s journeys to the Moon possible, many of whom had already lost their jobs with the end of the program, and many more who would be unemployed with the launch and mission completion.

Apollo 17’s crew chose names for their spacecraft that reflected both the Nation that sent them and the enormity of the endeavor. The CSM would be known as America; the LM Challenger.

Three Astronauts would make Man’s final journey to the Moon. One of them had been to the Moon before. Two had never been in space. One would be the first non-pilot to fly in space; appropriately, as the first pure scientist to travel in space and to the Moon, he was a geologist. Who were these great Americans?

Commander: Captain Eugene “Gene” Andrew Cernan, USN

Gene Cernan was born on March 14, 1934 and was 38 years old at the time of Apollo 17. He graduated from Purdue University in 1956 with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and was commissioned as an Ensign in the United States Navy via the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC). After receiving his Naval Aviator’s gold wings in 1958, Cernan flew both the North American FJ-4 Fury and the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk. In both, he was trained for the delivery of nuclear weapons and completed two Western Pacific deployments with Attack Squadron 113 (VA-113) aboard the USS Shangri-La (CV-38) and the USS Hancock (CV-19).

Cernan received a Masters of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California in 1963. He was selected for Astronaut duty with NASA Group 3 in October of 1963 and was one of the first selectees who came from an operational flying background rather than from the roster of test pilots. He received his first crew assignment as the backup pilot for Gemini 9, and flew the mission with Commander Tom Stafford after the deaths of the prime crew (Elliot See and Charles Bassett) in an airplane crash.

On Gemini 9, Cernan survived a harrowing space walk that left him physically exhausted and in dire straits before he was able to safely return to the cockpit and seal the hatch. While his spacewalk didn’t achieve its objectives, it did provide valuable data that working outside a spacecraft without restraints and handholds is a near impossibility. Gemini 9 flew from June 3-6, 1966.

Cernan stayed with Stafford and became an Apollo crew, adding John Young as Command Module Pilot (CMP) to make up the three-man roster. This crew’s first assignment was as the backup crew for what became the first manned Apollo mission: Apollo 7. After that mission’s success, Stafford, Young, and Cernan became the crew for Apollo 10 – the dress rehearsal for the first manned lunar landing. Cernan, the Lunar Module Pilot (LMP), descended to 47,400 feet above the lunar surface with Commander Stafford in the only test of an LM in its intended environment. Apollo 10 was a complete success and returned to Earth and landed safely on May 26, 1969, clearing the way for the first landing attempt by Apollo 11.

After Apollo 10, John Young was promoted to crew Commander (CDR) and the Director of Flight Crew Operations, Deke Slayton, offered Cernan the LMP position on his crew. The crew would be assigned the backup role for Apollo 13 and then rotate to the prime crew for Apollo 16. Cernan, in full knowledge that he might never get another flight due to cutbacks, turned down the LMP slot and a chance to walk on the moon since he felt as a veteran of two flights he had earned his own crew and command.

The gamble paid off. Slayton had intended to assign Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 CMP, as the backup commander for Apollo 14, who would then rotate to the prime crew for Apollo 17. Collins, before 11 even flew, had told Slayton that he was going to retire as an Astronaut if the flight was successful. Cernan backed up the Apollo 14 commander, Alan Shepard, and then was named as Apollo 17’s commander.

Command Module Pilot: Captain Ronald “Ron” Ellwin Evans, Jr., USN

Ron Evans was born in St. Francis, Kansas on November 10, 1933. He followed a similar path to the Astronaut corps as Cernan. He received a Navy officer’s commission via NROTC at the University of Kansas, from which he graduated with an Electrical Engineering degree in 1956. Evans was a classmate of Cernan’s at the Naval Postgraduate School and also received an Aeronautical Engineering degree from there in 1964.

Evans was a candidate for the third Astronaut group along with Cernan, but wasn’t selected at that time. During the winter of 1965-1966, he was an operational pilot flying the Vought F-8 Crusader with Fighting Squadron 51 (VF-51), the “Screaming Eagles”, from the deck of the USS Ticonderoga (CV-14) for combat in the skies over Vietnam.

In April 1966, after landing from one of his over 100 combat missions, he was informed by the Ticonderoga‘s captain that he had been selected for NASA Astronaut Group 5 with eighteen others. Evans served on the support crew for Apollo 11 and was the backup CMP for Apollo 14. Apollo 17 would be his first trip into space.

Lunar Module Pilot: Dr. Harrison Hagan “Jack” Schmitt, Ph. D.

Jack Schmitt’s path to the Moon took a very different course from his two crew mates. He was born on July 3, 1935 in Santa Rita, New Mexico. He graduated from the California Institute of Technology in 1957 with a degree in geology. After completing research at the University of Oslo (Norway), he began  doctoral-level geology studies at Harvard University. Schmitt received his Ph. D. in 1964.

Schmitt’s area of interest went beyond the terrestrial when he was employed by the United States Geological Survey‘s Astrogeology Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. While there, he began working on the protocols and procedures NASA astronauts would use for lunar geology.

When NASA announced that they would be selecting non-pilot astronauts, Schmitt applied. He was the only geologist named to the first scientist-astronaut roster, NASA Astronaut Group 4 in June 1965. Schmitt, as part of his astronaut training, became both a jet and helicopter pilot. He continued in his work developing the geology training and procedures for his fellow astronauts while he awaited a crew assignment.

Schmitt was named as the backup LMP for Apollo 15, with CDR Dick Gordon and CMP Vance Brand; he was the first scientist-astronaut assigned to a crew. In the normal rotation, the Apollo 15 backup crew would become the Apollo 18 prime crew, but that mission was cancelled in September 1970.

Joe Engle had served as the LMP on the Apollo 14 backup crew with Cernan and Evans. When the 14 backup crew was put forward intact for 17, one change was made. The scientific community had strongly voiced that one of their own should go to the Moon, and with a qualified astro-geologist waiting in the wings, the decision was made. Schmitt was named to the Apollo 17 crew in Engle’s place.

Follow along with Man’s last Moon voyage

Launch was scheduled for 9:53PM Eastern Standard Time, December 6, 1972; there was an additional “hold” hour built into the countdown. This would be the first and only night launch of a Saturn V. Equipment problems would cause an additional 2:40 of hold time.

Please return to Their Finest Hour at 12:33AM Eastern Standard Time, December 7, 2012 as we celebrate the beginning of the sixth of Man’s greatest voyages. Posts will continue throughout the mission’s duration brought forward 40 years, many of those at the corresponding times of the actual events.

Blogger’s note: in addition to links provided in my Apollo 17 posts, material not otherwise linked or cited is probably drawn from the following:

The Apollo Lunar Surface Journal
The Last Man on the Moon, by Eugene Cernan and Don Davis
Deke!: An Autobiography, by Donald K. Slayton and Michael Cassutt
A Man on the Moon: The Journeys of the Apollo Astronauts, by Andrew Chaikin