Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The End of Apollo

Considered one of the most memorable Apollo launches, the Apollo 17 blasted off from Launch Pad 39 at Kennedy Space Center on December 7, 1972. This was the first night time launch and it made a spectacular sight. The crew was made up by Command Module Pilot Ronald E. Evans , civilian geologist Jack Schmitt and the Spacecraft Commander Eugene Cernan they were lifted up from the Cape by a Saturn V Rocket.

As usual the CBS Newscaster Walter Cronkite was reporting live. But he made one his most embarrassing gaffes of his career when he said that the night launch would "light up the sky like a firecracker. (There was a brief pause.) Uh, excuse me, Wally," Cronkite continued to guest commentator and former Astronaut Wally Schirra, "I should day, perhaps, like a roman candle."

Gathered at the launch viewing were hundreds of VIP’s and celebrities, the local paper reported
that celebrities were dime a dozen. Pictures in the press showed celebrities Eva Gabor pointing to the fiery liftoff and Franks Sinatra staring and Jonathan Winter puffing a stogey, all captioned with “everyone was bedazzled.” There was confusion to go around. Assigned seating in the bleaches was not observed by some as some people got it wrong.. Former Florida Gov. Kirk got kicked out of a VIP stand for sitting in a taken seat, he had to leave as he didn't have a pass. Stumbling around the crowds looking confused was Asian military man, his uniform draped with braiding, his shoulder festooned with stars, he wandered around the bleachers lost, unable to communicate. An elderly woman, not a big shot, steered the general back to his seat. Meanwhile in space the Saturn rocket headed off on a journey to the moon.

The lunar module made a soft landing in the Taurus-Littrow region of the moon. The head lines reported, “Landing Smoother Than Any” The newspaper dated December 12, 1972 reported astronaut Cernan as saying, 'It is Beautiful Out Here’. During the mission a mishap caused the fender on the Moon Rover to break and thus driving was difficult with lunar dust flying up at the moon rover riders. "I got to make a fender tonight," Astronaut Gene Cernan said. "Man I hate this dust." Radio communications with Houston Control resulted in a solution where a map was folded in such a way and duck taped to make a temporary fender, and it worked.

Traveling along the moon surface an interesting discovery was made, orange soil in a crater. Astronaut Jack Smitt hesitantly suggested the strange appearing soil might have originated from a volcanic type vent, but added "But I hate to even suggest it." After all the experiments had been performed it was time to return to Earth. A short ceremony was held to end this final Apollo mission to the Moon. Astronauts Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt unveiled a plaque commemorating all six Apollo landings on the moon and acknowledging all the ground crews that made this scientific achievement possible.

"This valley of history has seen mankind completes his first evolutionary steps into the universe," geologist Schmitt said, "leaving the planet earth and going forth into the universe. Cernan recognized the support of the ground crews and wokers. He concluded his farewell, “God willing, We'll Return”.

A letter from NASA director Kurt H. Debus on December 19, 1972 congratulated everyone. ‘I think it was entirely appropriate as Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt positioned the American Flag on the moon that it was dedicated to all those people who made the Apollo lunar landings possible. It was quite a tribute and well deserved one for all of you. Sincerely, Kurt H.Debus’

Next month’s story is entitled ‘Apollo Memories.‘ Oral histories on the Apollo project will be shared. Send this Senior Life writer your memories of your favorite Apollo launches and moon landings. Include in your email what you were doing at the time and how this chapter of history effected you. Topics may include local eateries like Mousetrap or Ramon’s.


FLORIDA TODAY December 1972
Space Walk of Fame Museum, Titusville
Photo credit: NASA Archives