Heading home

Once Cernan was back on board, the two men shed their space suits and did some more domestic chores, cleaning up and jettisoning some valuable gear - now just unwanted dead weight - out of Challenger onto the Moon. This included several tools, cameras and their backpacks. With an additional 100 kg of lunar samples on board, every excess kilogramme they could shed was critical. As Cernan later remarked, ''We threw out nearly everything that wasn't nailed down.'' The two exhausted astronauts then settled down for a last sleep on the Moon.

The following day, 14 December, Cernan and Schmitt donned their suits once again after running through a lengthy checklist. Then, when all was in readiness,

In what is probably the last photograph ever taken of an Apollo astronaut on the Moon, Schmitt stands next to the American flag.

Cernan flicked a yellow ignition switch and the ascent engine fired. While his last words on leaving the last footprints on the Moon the previous day may have been profound and inspirational, the last words spoken by Cernan as Challenger lifted of were hardly likely to be engraved on any plaques: ''Okay, now let's get off.'' Something of a modern-day myth has evolved which suggests that Cernan's last words on the lunar surface were actually the more profane 'Let's get this mother out of here!' However, while this fanciful misinterpretation has never been supported by the actual voice transmission tapes and subsequent transcripts, it sadly seems destined for immortality in space quotes and trivia books. In fact, the very last human words spoken from the surface of the Moon were Jack Schmitt's, as he counted down. ''Three ... two ... one ... ignition!''

The American flag and lunar surface photographed through an LM window prior to lift-off.

A mile away, the television camera mounted on the rover recorded the lift-off for posterity. Although controlled from the ground, it required precise timing and tracking, as the commands had to be relayed six seconds ahead of the event, but it went exactly as planned, and the camera gave the world the best lunar lift-off captured on film. Although poor in resolution, it shows a huge, sudden cloud of dust and shredded gold foil from the exterior of Challenger billowing out as the upper stage of the lander rapidly soared upward, the camera slowly panning up in a predetermined arc. "We're on our way, Houston!" Cernan confirmed.

Schmitt later noted, "We barely noticed the half-G acceleration of lift-off and the slight oscillation during ascent, partly because at the instant of ignition, the uplink communications turned into raw static. Later, we found out that a mix-up on a transfer between Earth transmitting stations caused the problem. As we flew back into orbit on a direct rendezvous path towards Ron in the America, I spent the first few minutes trying to restore Challenger's communications while Gene monitored the guidance system and yelled at me to 'get the comm. back!' It turns out that nothing I could do would have helped. Mission Control finally restored communications on their own.''

Remaining behind on the floor of the valley of Taurus-Littrow as an eternal monument to the Apollo programme, the dust-covered, four-legged descent section of Challenger will stand in stillness, waiting for the next human voyagers. Affixed to its side is a small, black-rimmed plaque that reads, ''Here man completed his first exploration of the Moon, December 1972, A.D. May the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind.''

Two hours after blasting off from the Moon, Challenger and America successfully docked while circling seventy-two miles above its ancient craters. Once they were linked, Cernan and Schmitt floated through a narrow transfer tunnel into America, bringing with them their precious cargo of carefully catalogued rocks and soil. Later they would jettison Challenger, which silently moved away for its last mission, an eventual crash-landing in the Valley of Taurus-Littrow that would register on the seismometer they had set up. As Schmitt would later say, ''Having lived for many years with Challenger (or LM-12 as it is designated in the books) through design reviews, crew function checks, vacuum tests, flight configuration checks, and final tests, I had become attached to this inanimate object as if it were a member of the family. [It was] Tough to let her go.''

While in lunar orbit over the next three days, the crew continued their work programme by searching for any traces of gas, water and precious metals in the lifeless world below them. One instrument they would use was a radar sounder, which could probe up to a mile under the Moon's crust and detect hidden ores and water-bearing strata. An ultraviolet spectrometer would also look for rare belches of gas emanating from three large craters near the Taurus-Littrow Valley, which they had explored on foot and by Lunar Rover.

Several hours later, right on schedule, the astronauts fired America's SPS engine, sending the spacecraft on a return trajectory to Earth. As the Moon began to slowly recede, Cernan was once again moved to words. ''We're looking back at some place I think we will use as a stepping stone to go beyond some day. We will all see it, in our lifetime, not just as a nation, but as a world. This was the beginning. This is a beginning.'' More than thirty years later, Cernan can only shake his head and rue the fact that this great initiative in space has never been duplicated, and will not be for many years, even decades, to come.

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