Forty years ago today, at 4:55PM Central Time, astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt lifted off from the lunar surface aboard the ascent stage of their landing craft, Challenger, bringing to a close humanity’s last manned expedition to the Moon.
Indeed, it would be the last time humans travelled beyond Earth orbit. Though Apollo hardware would continue to be used in missions to the Skylab space station as well as for the Apollo-Soyuz project, Apollo 17 marked the “official” end of what arguably is the greatest cumulative technological achievement in human history. So far, anyway.
As Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell once said, “It’s not a miracle; we just decided to go.”
In addition to the lunar missions and everything required to carry them out, the entire effort spanning the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs spawned or spurred advances across a broad spectrum of science, technology and industry. Things we take for granted every day, from vacuum-packed or freeze-dried foods to commercial fuel cells to pretty much every piece of modern electronics and even those “memory foam” mattresses, all owe something to this era of the space program.
Beyond all of that? While I can’t speak for anyone else, I believe there’s just a simple, incomparable splendor to the Apollo program that always will set it apart from every other chapter of space exploration. What began as a challenge issued on May 25th, 1961 by President John F. Kennedy became a turning point in our history; a benchmark for what we as a people can accomplish when we decide it’s time to just gear up and go do something.
When will we do it again?
“…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.” – Eugene A. Cernan, Commander, Apollo 17