18 September 2013

The End of an Era: Apollo 17

by Heather Domin

I suspect many people would be disinclined to consider 1972 “history” just yet, but for space buffs that year marks the end of an extraordinary era: on December 13, 1972, astronaut Gene Cernan of Apollo 17 became the last man to walk on the moon. In the 40 years since that day, despite three decades of orbital flight and two space stations, no one has ventured back to walk in the footsteps of Apollo.

Apollo 17 awaiting launch
Only ten years separate the formation of Project Mercury in 1958 and the first Apollo moon landing in 1969 – it took a single decade to go from tracking flight with a plastic spaceship on a wall to sending TV broadcasts from the surface of the moon. And yet within six months of Neil Armstrong’s one small step, public interest in lunar exploration waned; the near-disaster of Apollo 13 rekindled it briefly (and rather morbidly), but after that it faded again. Having achieved Kennedy's goal and beaten the Russians to the moon, the US government saw no reason to keep exploring, and funding evaporated. NASA had planned missions up to Apollo 20, to be followed by several programs including a mission to Mars; but lack of budget cut them off at 17, and they ended up building Skylab out of a defunct Saturn rocket.

Apollo 17 blasted off in December 1972 with the knowledge that it would be the final Apollo landing. Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt lived on the moon for three days, the longest of any mission, collecting as much information and material as they could (and getting in a brief musical number while they were at it). On December 13, as Cernan prepared to enter the LM for the final time, he expressed his hope that their visit would not be the last:

...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. 

Gene Cernan chilling on the moon
Forty years later, we have yet to return. The 70s had Skylab, the 80s had the Space Shuttle, the 90s had the Hubble telescope, and the 2000s had the Mars Rover, but nothing has quite matched the collective exhilaration and pure giddy speed of the race to the moon. Despite the countless innovations it spawned (memory foam, scratch-resistant lenses, solar power, cochlear implants, CAT scanners, insulin pumps, smoke detectors, the list goes on), today NASA languishes on the financial and cultural back burner. Will we ever experience another Space Race, or was it a unique period of history that can never be recaptured? Is an opponent to race against really a requirement? (When China starts up their planned moon missions, I predict America will suddenly become interested again.) Or will all nations work together to explore the many worlds outside our own?

Only twelve human beings have walked on the moon, during three short years over two generations ago. Of those twelve, four have passed away, and the youngest of those remaining is 77. Inevitably we will lose these men to history, and with each loss the gap they leave behind grows wider. We can only hope their historic journey will be taken up again one day, beginning a new era when men and women from Planet Earth will return to the moon, then to Mars, and beyond.

Heather Domin is the author of The Soldier of Raetia, set in Augustan Rome, and Allegiance, set in 1922 Dublin – neither of which have anything to do with outer space, but it's a topic she has loved since she watched her first Shuttle launch on TV in kindergarten.