|Apollo 17 was to be the last of Apollo Moon landing missions. Since each mission built on what had been accomplished previously, each crew had an opportunity to, and were determined that their mission would be the best ever. Crew members wanted to set a higher benchmark for what could be done exploring a dangerous and unforgiving world a long, long way from home. Gene Cernan and his crew, Ron Evans and Jack Schmitt were no different.
Right from the get go their flight was spectacular. Theirs was the first launch of a Saturn V at night. I was there watching as the five first stage engines burst into a brilliant light. I had seen all of the flights but this one was awesome. It was as if a sun rose at midnight. Not 93 million miles away, but a few miles right in front of us, their rocket rose. It was a dome of beautiful red light moving higher and higher. What a great way to start for the Moon.
The remainder of the mission went just as spectacularly. Their landing in the Taurus Littrow valley, only four and one half miles across, was a tight fit. We would never have attempted this on earlier flights. It is an indication of how far we, mostly mission control and the flight crew, had come in skill and confidence since our first landing three and one-half years earlier. Gene and Jack would stay on the Moon the longest, collect the most rocks, take the most photographs, and bring home the most data. They may have made the last the best.
ItŐs been a long time since December 14,1972, when the last humans left the Moon, much longer than any of us imagined. It will be a while yet, maybe 20 or 30 years before anyone goes back, but we will. Apollo was just the beginning of humankind's movement off our planet Earth and out among the stars. It was difficult and the very best we could do at this point of human and technical evolution. Gene would later write, "to everyone who helped put American astronauts on the moon, wherever you are today, I salute you."