When America was 184,000 miles from Earth, it was time for Command Module pilot Ron Evans to take his turn in the limelight. As Apollo 17 sped back to Earth, he made a one-hour spacewalk to recover three reels of film from the rear of the spacecraft. Linked to a long, white tether, which carried an oxygen line and communication cables, Evans made his way to the rear of America, crawling hand-over-hand for 4.5 m
Command Module pilot Ron Evans is photographed retrieving film canisters during his trans-Earth-coast EVA to the rear of the spacecraft.
along the side of the spacecraft to retrieve the film, using a series of handrails. Schmitt floated in the open hatch, keeping Evans's umbilical line from tangling. After the EVA, Schmitt guided Evans back into the Command Module feet first. By the time the hatch was sealed and the cabin re-pressurised nine minutes later, America had moved 2,000 miles closer to Earth. As Capcom Bob Overmyer had reminded the crew on waking them that day, Evans's spacewalk had taken place on the sixty-ninth anniversary of the Wright brothers' first powered flight.
America was on such a true return trajectory that when it finally crossed into the dominant influence of Earth's gravity, a midcourse correction manoeuvre was cancelled. After nearly two weeks, the final Apollo mission was nearing its end, and Schmitt says the tempo began to pick up.
''As entry into the atmosphere approached, our speed increased to about 35,000 miles per hour. We first separated from America's Service Module, relying on the Command Module's batteries to see us through to splashdown. Then, with the blunt end forward, we pointed the lift vector of the conical Command Module toward Earth ... This ensured capture by the atmosphere and avoided any danger of skipping out into space. As a consequence of this manoeuvre, we experienced a peak deceleration of seven G.
''Once captured, the spacecraft guidance computer held about four G for several minutes... the computer rolled its lift vector back and forth, correcting our flight path toward where it believed the recovery aircraft carrier waited in the South Pacific. Actually, the computers demonstrated such accurate knowledge of the planned point of splashdown that the Navy decided to cruise several miles away in order to avoid any possibility of a hard and embarrassing landing on the carrier's deck!''8
At 25,000 feet above the ocean on 19 December, the drogue chutes deployed, slowing the fall of Apollo 17. At 10,000 feet, the three main chutes deployed and the spacecraft began to drift slowly down to the waiting ocean.
The heat-seared Command Module America returned to a successful pinpoint splashdown in the gentle waters of the South Pacific, 400 miles southeast of Samoa.
Photographed from a helicopter hovering overhead, America splashes down in the South Pacific, ending the Apollo lunar programme.
The splashdown was captured by television cameras aboard the recovery ship, the USS Ticonderoga, positioned just 3.1 miles away. The crew of Apollo 17 was in good health and spirits, and an exultant Cernan soon reported: ''The crew is go! This is America, and the crew is doing fine. We've all got our sea legs.'' It was a flawless ending to an incredible mission, and to the Apollo lunar programme.
Fifty-three minutes after splashing down, Cernan, Schmitt and Evans had assembled on the deck of the Ticonderoga for a brief welcome prior to beginning extensive medical checks and debriefings. Cernan thanked the crew of the ship and recovery helicopters, and in a short speech said, ''We think we accomplished something and, by golly, we're proud of it. Nothing is impossible in this world when dedicated people are involved. You must grow or die, whether that be an ideal of a man, a flower, or a country. I thank God our country has chosen to grow.''
Following the safe recovery of the crew, President Richard Nixon gave an impressive speech in which he spoke of future endeavours in space exploration, even though he had been firmly at the helm in curtailing Apollo and other manned space programmes through savage budget cuts. However, his words are worth recording as an epilogue to the last human flight to the Moon in the twentieth century:
''The safe return of the [Apollo 17 crew] marks the end of one of the most significant chapters in the history of human endeavour. Since the beginning of Apollo, nine manned missions have been made to the Moon ... We have barely begun to evaluate the vast treasure store of extraterrestrial data and material from these voyages, but we have already learned much, and we know that we are probing our very origins. We are taking another long step in man's ancient search for his own beginnings, pressing beyond knowledge of the means of human existence to find, perhaps, the meaning of human existence.
''We ... pay homage to those ... whose hopes, skill and courage enabled the first man to reach the Moon ... But the more we look back, the more we are reminded that our thrust has been forward, and that our place is among the heavens where our dreams precede us, and where, in time, we shall surely follow.''
As Lunar Module pilot on Apollo 17, Jack Schmitt logged 301 hours and 51 minutes in space; 22 hours and 4 minutes of which was spent outside Challenger on the lunar surface. More than three decades after the ascent stage of Challenger lifted off from the lunar surface, taking with it the last two men to have walked on another world, Schmitt is still aggrieved that there are no absolute commitments for a return to the Moon, although President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration gives hope of a renewed impetus for human exploration of the Moon and Mars. Initial congressional funding has been approved for a programme aimed at sending the first manned exploration vehicles to the lunar surface in 2015, but many remain cynical. As Schmitt states, it is a vision that has stalled so many times in recent decades, mostly as a result of financial meltdowns.
''I didn't think it would ever be this long. I can understand why it has taken so long, and I can understand why it is probably going to be another ten years, but if you look; take a broader reach of history - and certainly American and British and European history shows this among all other histories - thirty or forty years isn't a very long time. There has been that long a hiatus in exploration before.
Following their flight, the three Apollo 17 astronauts addressed a joint session of Congress. Here, Schmitt talks into the microphone as Gene Cernan and Ron Evans look on.
"So you can't start to feel frustrated about that - you have to try to understand why it's happened, and what has to be done to make it more permanent next time. And I think we can do that; I think the presence of energy sources on the Moon is going to be a very, very critical factor to get human beings back into space. And once they are back there, and permanently on the Moon, then we can go to Mars. We have the technology base to do that again, so I am very optimistic. I think it will happen.''
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