Last Steps On The Lunar Surface

The final departure of humans from the Moon was marked by a meditative ceremony, acknowledging the end to the greatest scientific undertaking and exploration ever attempted by people from Earth. In a melancholy statement read to the astronauts from Mission Control, President Nixon paid homage to the significance and majesty of the Apollo programme. He was sadly prophetic when he stated that it might be the last time any humans walked on the Moon in the twentieth century, but he did say that the exploration of space would continue. ''Those are beautiful words by a great American president,'' Cernan responded. ''We are very honoured to serve our country in a way we believe in.''

With the brief ceremony at an end, Cernan and Schmitt began transferring their final haul of lunar rocks and soil into Challenger. Back on Earth, the most eagerly anticipated trophy for waiting scientists and geologists was the orange soil that Schmitt had found almost by accident during their second excursion aboard the Lunar Rover. For the final time, the two men dusted each other off and then, as Schmitt prepared to ascend the nine steps back into Challenger for the last time, he reflected on the accomplishments that had brought him to this amazing place. ''This valley of history has seen mankind complete its first evolutionary steps into the universe. I can think of no more significant contribution that Apollo has made to history.''

Once inside Challenger, Schmitt began to clean up his suit and the Lunar Module, while Cernan drove the rover about a mile away and left it in such a position that the television camera could record their lift-off the next day. He hopped and skipped his way back to Challenger, took one last, long look around, and then prepared to climb the ladder. He had made some farewell notes on the cuff of his sleeve, but he felt he had some more profound things to say, and spoke spontaneously, as the last man to leave his footprints in on the Moon.

''As we leave the Moon and Taurus, we leave as we came, and God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.'' As he lifted his boot from the lunar soil, he added, ''As I take these last steps from the surface for some time to come, I'd just like to record that America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.''

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