Moon visits are usually remembered in December, when man stepped on the Moon’s surface with the Apollo 17 mission on Dec. 11, 1972. Following the success of the Orion launch and the space probes that are flying by faraway planets to give humans new information and images of them, NASA is in the mood to space explorations again. People start to rethink why Moon visits stopped after Apollo 17.
Apollo 17 culminated the U.S. space massive program which started in 1963 after the feat of Project Mercury. The United States was competing with the Soviet Union in an arms race that was favorable to the military sectors of both countries, and ended the development of rockets which could annihilate the world. In their quest for superiority, both switched to space, and had Moon as the ultimate high ground. Each used rocket technology to try human spaceflights. The Soviet Union successfully launched the first satellite into orbit and in 1961, put Yuri Gagarin into space.
In the continuing space race with the Soviets, the U.S. developed vehicles and rockets to be in the lead, at the height of geopolitical crises like the deployment of U.S. missiles in Turkey and the Cuban Missile Crisis which depicted that both countries were ready to destroy each other. The space race peaked in 1966 when NASA got the highest budget ever, at $5.933 billion dollars, equivalent to about $43 billion dollars today.
The U.S. already gained clear points with the completion of Project Gemini and the Apollo program was under way. On July 1969, the first humans stepped onto the Moon’s surface with Apollo 11. A year after, NASA started to change priorities.
The agency announced cancellation of Apollo 20 for a new venture, Skylab. On Sept. 2, 1970, it announced Apollo 15, 16 and 17 as the last Apollo missions. In 1971, while the White House intended to cancel Moon visits after Apollo 15, NASA had to cope with political pressure and ultimately kept 16 and 17. Harrison Schmidt, who was trained for Apollo 18 was transferred to Apollo 17 so NASA can send one of its scientists to the Moon.
With Commander Eugene A. Cernan, the Apollo 17 was the first to have a scientist on board. Its main objectives included surveying the Taurus-Littrow area, activate experiments and conduct in-flight photographic tasks during trans-Earth coast and lunar orbit. Joining Cernan were Ronald E. Evans as the command module pilot and scientist Harrison P. Schmitt as the lunar module pilot. It turned out that after that, Moon visits will just be remembered with Apollo 17.
On Dec. 14, 1972, Cernan became the last human to step on the surface of the Moon. Before leaving Moon for Earth, the Apollo 17 commander said he believed it will not be long for another human to come back to the Moon. However, 42 years have gone, and nobody stepped on the Moon again.
When the arms and space race gradually cooled down, so was the needed support for Moon visits. NASA federal budget weakened, especially in the 1973 oil crisis, which prompted the nation to redefine priorities. Economic constraints increased, no more plans for Moon visits and NASA was limited to scientific missions and research, including the Space Shuttle, satellites and robotic probe programs. The government’s attention turned to other concerns, such as the Global War on Terrorism, which estimate is more than $5 trillion dollars.
After 42 years, Earth has just to remember man’s Moon visits, the last of which was with Apollo 17. Cernan, the ex- U.S. navy pilot; Schmitt, the geologist; and the now deceased Evans, the astronaut and pilot, are the last humans who trudged on the Moon. In his autobiography, Cernan wrote that his footprint on the Moon was a fulfilled dream. He felt comfortable as if belonging there – standing on the front porch of God.
By Judith Aparri
Photo courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center – Flicker License