Ending unfinished business – 40 Years of silence

December 20, 2012 6:00 pm

It is the early hours on the morning of Thursday, December 7th 1972. A human being  has just snapped a photograph that will change the world.

The man in question is not even a trained photographer; doesn’t answer to any editorial team. He’s a geologist by trade, but couldn’t be further from Earth’s sweeping valleys and soaring peaks if he tried; Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt is currently 28,000 miles from Terra Firma, sealed inside a glorified baked bean tin that is rushing through the void of deep space toward a rendezvous with history. The photo will go down in history as The Blue Marble, and will remain one of the only pictures of the entire Earth taken by a human hand for half a century – perhaps even longer.

Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell once said ‘We voyaged to the Moon – and discovered the Earth.’ It’s not hard to see why looking at pictures such as the famed ‘Blue Marble‘.

It is 40 years since Apollo 17, the final flight of the US Apollo program, explored the lonely and forbidding domain of the Moon.

In three days spent on the surface Commander Eugene ‘Gene’ Cernan, along with Schmitt, descended to the Lunar surface and spent 22 hours probing the secrets of the majestic Taurus-Littrow valley, collected 243Ibs of Moon rock, and became the last human beings to set foot on our celestial companion.

‘The memory is extremely vivid.’ claimed Schmitt in an interview to mark the 40th anniversary of his flight to the Moon.

‘I treasure the whole mission. Every day had more than one really spectacular event. The first day we saw this nearly full Earth, and I was able to take that picture of Africa – still the most requested photograph in the NASA archives.’

Apollo 17 spent the longest time in space of the six missions that landed on the Moon between July 1969 and December 1972 – Gene Cernan was making his second visit having orbited the Moon onboard Apollo 10 in May 1969.

He once said of his travels ‘When you have been to the Moon, not once, but twice – staying home is just not good enough.’

Both Schmitt and Cernan are supporters of efforts for mankind to continue exploration of the Moon as a stepping-stone for missions to Mars in the future.

‘By going back to the moon, you accelerate your ability to go anywhere else — both in terms of experience and in terms of resources, and testing new hardware and navigation techniques, communication techniques and things like that,’ Schmitt said. ‘And it’s only three days away.’

Last year NASA announced a streamlining of its previous ambitious plans to return to Lunar flights in the wake of the global depression, and with their envisaged SLS launch system they believe they have found the answer.

Apollo astronaut Jack Schmitt, the only scientist ever to visit the Moon, stands with the Earth high above him in the inky blackness of deep space.

‘We just recently delivered a comprehensive report to Congress outlining our destinations which makes clear that SLS will go way beyond low-Earth orbit to explore the expansive space around the Earth-moon system, near-Earth asteroids, the moon, and ultimately, Mars,’ NASA deputy chief Lori Garver said at a conference in September. The SLS rocket, an evolution of the mighty Saturn V of the Apollo era, has the advantage of being able to be used for other applications other than exclusively on Moon missions; the International Space Station is no longer a focus for NASA since commercial companies took control following the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011.

Orion, the spacecraft intended to be mounted atop the SLS, will be a modern-day Apollo combining the best of 1960’s tech with the very latest in glass-cockpit technology as seen on the revolutionary Boeing 787 Dreamliner passenger aircraft. SLS will also carry more astronauts and enable significantly longer stays on the Lunar surface.

The acceleration of Chinese activity in space over the past five years will lend added urgency to American attempts to re-establish their nation as the premier space-faring country, a situation similar to the 1960’s Space Race with the Soviet Union.

But what of Apollo? The incredible, awe-inspiring missions have remained the corner-stone of manned spaceflight for almost half a century – and despite the development of SLS there is no sign that we will reach the 50th anniversary of Apollo 17 with its legacy as ‘the last’ superseded. When children’s curious and scientific imaginations are fired, it is the pictures and images of the Moonwalkers that provide the torch. It would be a great shame were we to reach the 10thanniversary of Apollo 17 having never pushed the boundaries further. Take a close look at the Apollo 17 mission patch; the eagle overlaying the Moon, symbolising mankind’s conquest of another world and eagerly staring further, deeper into the unknown – a signal that Apollo 17 was the beginning of a golden age of space exploration. 40 years on, and we have done none of those things, regressing ever backward to terrestrial squabbles and earthly problems that plague our existence.

The plaque left by Apollo 17 in the valley at Taurus-Littrow, expressing mankind’s desire to one day return.

‘One small step for man’ may be a cliché you are all familiar with – less so the last words ever spoken on the surface of the Moon by Cernan as he prepared to join Jack Schmitt inside their Lunar Module Challenger on the evening of December 13th, 1972.

‘Bob [Parker, the mission CAPCOM in Houston], this is Gene. I’m alone on the surface now; and, as I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come — but we believe not too long into 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. 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.’

As is so often said ‘Tomorrow never comes.’

The Moon still awaits our return.

Anthony French






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