Friday, December 7, 2012

Countdown: Apollo (16 and) 17

Back in October, 2008, I began noting on this blog the 40th anniversary of each of the manned Apollo missions that led up to the first lunar landing, Apollo 11. After the Apollo 11 anniversary in July, 2009, I kept going, posting a summary of the goals, challenges, and accomplishments of each subsequent Apollo mission on the anniversary of its launch. I didn’t miss a one — not until April of this year. 


Apollo 16 (John Young, Ken Mattingly, Charlie Duke), I apologize. What happened? Nothing more than that I was busy, I was too busy, and the moment got by me. Thus I unwittingly and to my shame provide a sort of sad metaphor for the relationship of the country as a whole to the Apollo program, for as the missions got longer, and the goals became more ambitious, and the science got better, the country’s attention and resources drifted from Apollo. And now here we are, at December 7, the anniversary of the launch of Apollo 17, the last manned landing on the moon.

This was NASA’s first night launch; the Saturn V carrying Commander Gene Cernan, Command Module Pilot Ron Evans, and Lunar Module Pilot Harrison “Jack” Schmitt — a bona fide geologist made astronaut — lifted off from Florida at just past 12:30 A.M., forty years ago this morning. In his book A Man on the Moon, Andrew Chaikin recounts that in the dark, the spectacular glow of the rocket was visible as far away as North Carolina. (What would Orville and Wilbur have thought?) At the moon, Cernan and Schmitt spent over three days on the surface. They undertook three seven-hour moonwalks, covered nineteen miles of ground, collected samples, and set up experiments. Twelve days after they left the Earth, the men returned safely, and Apollo was over. 


It is hard not to take a chunk of time here to try to write more about this mission, and Apollo in general, to try to conjure up something grand about what it all meant, or even just to put into words more personal feelings about the missions to the moon. It is a dereliction of blogging duty not to do so, but there are deadlines in my calendar demanding I not attempt such a thing just right now — really, really demanding — and in the end maybe that’s for the best, for the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that Moonshot is the best distillation of whatever I have to say and whatever I have to feel about Apollo.

So although you can be sure this won’t be the last post on this blog about Apollo, for now I defer to that book, and for good measure to Gene Cernan’s final words on the moon’s surface: 

“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 Apollo 17.”