Today, December 14, 2012, marks the 40th anniversary of the end of man’s greatest adventure. It is hard to believe that forty years have passed since Astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt lifted off the surface of the Moon—forty years since humans have impressed their footprints in the lunar soil. We have not dared to send man beyond Low-Earth Orbit since 1972, despite an explosion in technology and potential. Having a space station in an easily-attainable orbit is not a bad thing, and the ISS has certainly contributed significantly to our understanding of science, but our prolonged stay, fearful to venture beyond the safe confines of the horizon, has set back our ventures beyond the surly bonds of Earth.
Apollo XVII was, perhaps, the grandest of the science missions. A J-mission, Apollo XVII featured the longest total lunar surface EVA time, the largest lunar sample return, and the longest lunar flight. Commander Gene Cernan and LM Pilot Harrison Schmitt, the only astronaut formally trained as a geologist, performed three EVA’s, gathering vast amounts of valuable information about the Moon. When it was all said and done, the two had each spent over 22 hours on the lunar surface outside the protection of the Lunar Module. While Cernan and Schmitt were on the surface, Command Module Pilot Ron Evans was busy taking observations and performing experiments high above the lunar surface.
So why aren’t we going back. The technology is there. We know how to get to the moon, and we could theoretically accomplish the task fairly readily. With superior computing power, more efficient propulsion technology, and lighter, stronger, more magical materials, the Moon is a very easy target for a nation that went from having no space program to speak of to delivering humans safely to other worlds in less than a decade. Sadly, it is not politically advantageous to have a vision for space. We no longer seem to be at odds with a foreign power, seeking to claim victory in space. We pay Russia millions of dollars to deliver our astronauts to the same old Low-Earth Orbit, and we do not take seriously the Chinese ambitions in space.
It saddens me to see how we’ve lost the dream. So close is the Moon to our grasp, yet we don’t reach farther. We could see farther by standing on the shoulders of giants, but we’ve given up the vision. We’ve stopped exploring. Sadly, Gene Cernan’s final words before departing the Moon did not invoke a new exploration or a golden age of space, but we can always wish.
“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.”
~Gene Cernan, Apollo XVII Commander