NASA Kennedy Space Center, Fla.
On Nov. 3 the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation hosted a dinner at the Radisson Resort at the Port in Cape Canaveral celebrating the 40th anniversary of Apollo 17. The gala featured spacecraft commander Eugene Cernan who, along with lunar module pilot Harrison Schmitt and the late Ronald Evans, flew the mission that concluded NASA's Apollo moon landing program.
Apollo 17 began on Dec. 7, 1972, with the first night launch in the history of America's human spaceflight program. A Saturn V rocket carrying Cernan, Schmitt, and Evans lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center lighting up the Florida skies en route to the moon. Four days later, Cernan and Schmitt touched down in the moon's Taurus-Littrow highlands.
Cernan, along with other astronauts in attendance, reminisced about the mission. Schmitt was unable to attend due to a scheduling conflict.
"If Apollo 17 was looked at as a success, don't look at me, look at these guys," Cernan said pointing to 10 Apollo astronauts on the stage with him and to former and current space program employees in the audience. "We built upon everything they did."
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden also had high praise for the achievements of the Apollo astronauts and those who supported the program.
"We built on your legacy and we continue to learn from it," he said. "Your exploits inspire and shape the future of exploration. We're striving to do the things today to inspire and motivate the new generation of explorers who all want to step up and follow in your footsteps."
After Cernan and Schmitt landed on the moon, they performed the first of three moonwalks. Over a three-day period, the pair spent just over 22 hours setting up experiments and collecting 243 pounds of rock and soil samples. They were also the third crew to utilize the lunar roving vehicle, a battery-powered, four-wheeled car-like buggy that allowed the astronauts to travel more than 22 miles on the moon.
A geologist, Schmitt was the first American scientist-astronaut to fly in space. He helped train earlier Apollo crews in prospecting for lunar soil and rock samples. Schmitt later served in the U.S. Senate, representing New Mexico from 1977 to 1983.
At the conclusion of the third and final moonwalk, Cernan looked back on three years of lunar exploration and expressed hope for 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," he said. "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."
The lunar module ascent stage lifted off the moon on Dec. 14, later docking with the command-service module with Evans aboard. Evans remained in orbit around the moon operating a scientific instrument module, or SIM, in the service module. The SIM bay housed several experiment packages that gathered data while Evans circled the moon.
During the trip back to Earth, on Dec. 17, Evans performed a one hour, six-minute spacewalk to retrieve panoramic and mapping camera film cassettes from the SIM bay. Apollo 17 splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 19, with the crew of the USS Ticonderoga recovering the astronauts and spacecraft.
A veteran of Gemini 9, and Apollos 10 and 17, Cernan believes his last spaceflight opened the way for future exploration.
"Apollo 17 was not the end," he said during the ceremony. "Apollo 17 was just the beginning of a whole new era in the history of this country and the history of spaceflight."
Proceeds from the Apollo 17 anniversary event benefit the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, a nonprofit organization established in 1984 by the six surviving Mercury 7 astronauts. Each year the foundation awards 28 scholarships of $10,000 each to college students who exhibit imagination and exceptional performance in science, technology, engineering and math. To date, more than 100 astronauts from the Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Space Shuttle and International Space Station Programs have joined the educational endeavor, disbursing more than $3.5 million in scholarships.