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 Apollo – Apollo 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