The last fender-bender on our Moon happened during the last manned mission there. While Commander Eugene Cernan was loading gear onto the Lunar Rover, he accidentally caught his hammer on the right-rear fender and tore it off. There were no auto body shops in the vicinity so he had to use the NASA version of duct-tape to reattach the fender. The tape didn’t work well, because accumulated dust prevented a good bond. Houston Control later told Cernan to fashion a new fender out of spare maps and more tape. The repair worked.
The minor Rover mishap was a footnote to the bittersweet mission of Apollo 17. The voyage began with the first night-time launch of an American manned space mission, and culminated as the last manned lunar landing mission of NASA’s Apollo program.
Apollo 17 is rarely mentioned in popular discussion or history books. It and Apollos 12, 14, 15, and 16 have been eclipsed by the historical impact of Apollo 11 and humankind’s first men on the Moon and the dramatic, near disaster, of Apollo 13.
The Apollo 17 crew broke many space records. The craft spent the longest time in lunar orbit; the longest total lunar surface extravehicular activities (EVA); the largest Moon sample yield; and the longest total manned lunar landing mission.
The last two men, so far, to walk on the Moon were carefully chosen for their expertise. Commander Eugene Cernan was a seasoned space veteran. Cernan had
earlier paired up with Tom Stafford on Gemini IX. He had then teamed up with Stafford again and John Young on Apollo 10 as the Lunar Module Pilot.
The civilian member of the mission was Lunar Module Pilot Jack Schmitt. Schmitt was a professional geologist who was a key participant in the planning of the earlier Apollo flights. The last Moon landing was to be his payback.
The astronaut who remained in the Command Module in orbit, was Ronald Evans. He was one of the support crew members for Apollos 7 and 11. He had been in waiting as a backup command module pilot for Apollo 14. Evans’ first and only active space mission was his role as command module pilot on Apollo 17.
The last manned mission to the Moon launched on December 7, 1972 atop of a Saturn V rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. On December 10th, Apollo 17 was inserted into lunar orbit and preparations were made to land in the Taurus-Littrow valley the next day.
On December 11th, the Lunar Module touched down on the Moon. Cernan and Schmitt readied themselves for their first moonwalk or EVA-1. Once outside, the first order of business was to unpack the Rover and ready it for use.
Next the pair brought out the ALSEP experiments. ALSEP included a heat flow measurement experiment, a cosmic ray detector, a deep core drilling measurement, equipment to detect the make-up of the extremely thin lunar atmosphere, machinery to detect meteorites and impact material, and a gravity-wave detector.
One of the newest experiments was a measurement of the lunar geology. Schmitt and Cernan drove around the valley, studying the geological structure of the area. They placed small explosive charges in predetermined areas that would later be remotely set off from Earth after the two returned to orbit. Special detectors would then analyze the resulting seismic waves.
The one experiment that could have won a Nobel Peace Prize was gravity-wave detection. Gravity waves were earlier predicted by Albert Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. If gravity waves could be detected, a major scientific milestone would have been reached. The detector consisted of a very delicate balance beam that would move if a passing gravity wave passed nearby. The instrument could not be properly deployed, even after several tries. A post-mission investigation showed that a critical design error meant that the balance beam wasn’t quite heavy enough to compensate for the lesser gravitational force of the Moon.
On the second day, during EVA-2, Cernan and Schmitt explored craters and collected soil samples and some rocks. The two men were able to travel further away from the Lunar Module than was ever done before. Yet, the trip was frustratingly too short. Despite this, the pair was able to explore a landslide site and sampled two major rock types.
On the last day, EVA-3 was scheduled. For the last day on the lunar surface the two drove the Rover around three kilometres away from the Lunar Module. They arrived at a large split bolder that had been photographed by the Apollo 15 crew. They analyzed the area around the bolder that had broken into five pieces during an ancient fall in a major rock slide. Small fragments were added to the astronauts’ collection pan.
Similar explorations were made at the slopes of a place called “Sculptured Hills”. Other stops were at the “Ballet Crater”, and the “Van Serg” crater. It was a long day and the two explorers had become very fatigued. Mission Control decided to scrap any further sampling efforts. It was time to leave the Moon.
At the end of EVA-3, dust caused many practical problems. Tools began to fail and were hard to use. The replacement fender made of maps and tape failed and fell off. As the two men drove back to the Lunar Module, they were showered with dust thrown up by the uncovered wheel.
After three days, fatigue and limited life-support systems, it was time to leave the lunar surface. There had been talk of an EVA-4, however there was concern that if one of the suits would fail, or if there was a problem with the spacecraft, there might not be enough life-support to allow for a safe return to lunar orbit. So the decision was made to end exploration.
Cernan and Schmitt successfully lifted off in the ascent stage of the Lunar Module on December 14th. They easily rendezvoused and docked with the help of Ron Evans in the Command Module. Equipment and samples were transferred into the Command Module, then the Lunar Module was sealed off and jettisoned on December 15th. The lander was then deliberately crashed onto the Moon. Its impact was recorded by seismometers that had been planted during all six Apollo landing missions.
December 19th, the astronauts jettisoned the Service Module because it was no longer needed. The Command Module reentered the Earth’s atmosphere and landed safely in the Pacific Ocean just southeast of the Samoan Islands about 640-metres away from its target point. The crew was recovered by the USS Ticonderoga which had been waiting six and a half kilometres away.
NASA has decided to return to the Moon in 2018. The proposed capsule will be similar to the Apollo capsules but three times bigger. The launch rockets will use technology developed for the Shuttle flights. The next flights will be in preparation for proposed missions to Mars.