Landing Variations

Despite the increased confidence, each landing still had unique demands, problems, and anomalies. Each was shaped by its place within the Apollo program and events on the national and international stage. By Apollo 16, the final three missions (Apollos 18, 19, and 20) had been canceled, and the program was winding down. Developing new technology and methods for lunar exploration took a back seat to science, exploration, and the safe completion of the program.

By Apollo 17, though the missions had developed a sophisticated, reliable system, Gene Cernan was acutely aware of his status as ''the last man on the moon.'' Even though the landings spanned a mere three and a half years, a great deal had changed by 1972. Federal budgets were tight, war in Vietnam was draining the nation's confidence, and a new consciousness in public discourse was proving skeptical of technology. Moreover, President Nixon had made a conscious decision to reverse the Kennedy-era focus on well-funded spaceflight that had given rise to the Apollo program.54

In this changed world, Apollo soldiered on. Each landing varied in everything from lunar topography to crew training. Increased confidence in proven systems led to choosing more difficult landing sites. By no coincidence did Apollo 11 land in the Sea of Tranquility; the name evokes the flat topography chosen for the mission with the greatest technical uncertainty. As the program progressed, however, experience grew in navigation and landing operations and NASA selected ever more challenging terrain. Here engineering and science reinforced each other, for ''difficult'' sites—more radical terrain, more changes in topography, higher elevations, deeper craters—made for interesting technical challenges and tended to correspond to ''interesting'' science. Apollo 15 headed toward Mount Hadley (11,000 feet) at the edge of a larger range, to land near Hadley Rille, a mile-wide, v-shaped trench that runs parallel to the mountains, 80 miles long and 1,000 feet deep. Apollo 17 chose a spot between two mountains so narrow that Floyd Bennett's mission planners had to shrink their specified uncertainty or landing from an ellipse one-by-three kilometers in size to a one-kilometer circle (Bennett rejected other sites he considered too risky for flying).

Pilots enjoyed the difficulty, which supported their sense of skilled flying. ''For me, the challenge of flying into an unexplored box canyon was a space pilot's dream,'' Cernan wrote in his memoirs, ''pushing the LM's envelope of performance and testing everything I knew as a pilot.''55

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