“Bob, this is Gene and I’m on the surface. And as I take these last steps from the surface back home — for some time to come but, we believe, not too long into the future — I’d like to just list 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. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”
– Eugene Cernan, astronaut, Dec. 17, 1972
You could question whether America’s challenge of December 1972 has truly forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. (Or today, for that matter.)
And clearly, that business about returning with peace and hope for all mankind hasn’t happened either. It was known at the time that Apollo 17 would be the last flight in the series; perhaps it was not as firmly established that America would never again go to the moon.
I do not think my grandpa was quite as skeptical as I am when he tracked the world’s final manned lunar mission as it happened. I imagine he was caught up in the technological spectacle of the endeavour, just as much as he had been during the previous decade-plus worth of American space flights.
How do I know? Well, it showed up on his calendar. And if it showed up on his calendar, he was interested:
If there had been open access to Soviet space flight information during that same period, I wonder whether my grandpa would have been just as interested.
I suspect he would have wanted to check out what they were doing and how they were doing it. His interest as a tinkerer, a mechanics buff and an admirer of science would have trumped his patriotism, I’m guessing.
(But he wouldn’t have put Soyuz on his calendar.)
Getting back to Apollo 17: The mission appears in retrospect to have been smoothly run and successful — the fourth straight routine mission (if a trip to the moon can be considered routine) after the near-calamity that was Apollo 13.
I wonder if my grandpa thought that maybe we should send a couple more rockets up there, now that we’d gotten the whole process down to a science.
Or, as a retiree on a fixed income, maybe he thought that it was high time the U.S. stopped spending his tax money on Apollo missions. (Wikipedia quotes a NASA estimate that the entire Apollo program cost $170 billion in 2005 dollars.)
I bet the former was much more likely than the latter. If NASA had sent eight more missions to the moon, I imagine he would have followed all of them.
I used to know that feeling: I remember sitting in my second-grade classroom, watching the first space shuttle landing, and being pretty thrilled by it. Maybe I’ve just gotten older and less excitable, but it feels like a long time since an American space mission was the sort of unifying event that would inspire people to write on their personal calendars.
Maybe our problems on Earth have come to be so large that they dwarf the shared thrill of a successful space mission. Were we to send a man (or better yet, a woman) to the moon tomorrow, I probably would be one of those people on Twitter who carps about how many schoolbooks we could have bought with the cost of the mission.
What would really be fun would be to go back to December 1972 and talk over both sides with my grandpa … almost 40-year-old me with a can of Rheingold or Ballantine, he with a juice glass of the same, and the two of us comparing our opinions on America’s massive space investment over a postprandial plate of cookies at the dinner table.
If the money we spend on space exploration helps us figure out time travel, then I’ll get excited.
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One thing my grandpa never got to enjoy — and he would have, as a space buff and a photography hobbyist — was open access to the entire photographic record of individual NASA space missions. I can see him getting lost for an hour or so in contemplation of the visual record of Apollo 17.
Today, NASA’s website offers an extensive image library from the mission, as well as other space missions. (The agency also offers written transcripts of Earth-to-space communications, though those tend not to be all that exciting for the most part.)
I really haven’t had much of interest to say in today’s post, so I’ll share a couple of worthwhile shots from the Apollo 17 mission so you’ll feel it was worth your while to stop by.
All photos below are reproduced courtesy of NASA, under the terms laid out here.