The Moon looms larger

The journey to Earth's celestial satellite was punctuated by shrill, faulty master alarm signals that occasionally rang out, waking and annoying the crew. That aside, the new trajectory provided the astronauts with a superb view of their destination. As the Moon drew ever closer, it was proving an unforgettable experience for geologist Schmitt.

''For three days, the fascinating hanging scenes of an ever-smaller planet dominated our thoughts until, outside, a dark looming presence increasingly made itself felt as much as seen. The disk of the black, lightless Moon grew in aspect, blocking more and more of the universal star field, and then the mountains of the Moon crossed the Earth itself.''8

As they circled the Moon prior to undocking from the Lunar Module, the crew had a little sightseeing time to themselves. Each time they flew around to the far side of the Moon they lost radio contact with Earth, which meant that, apart from a few small procedures, they were able to look down on the lunar surface below and take photographs for later examination. On the Moon's near side, Schmitt recalls being impressed by how much light the Earth cast on the Moon. Features were very clearly discerned in the spectral blue light, ''and really quite spectacular.'' Then he saw something that really took his breath away.

''At one point, I was looking down at the surface - it would have been way west of Copernicus, and probably even getting close to the big basin called Orientale - and

The Apollo 17 Command/Service Module, photographed from Lunar Module Challenger, is just visible against the Taurus-Littrow landing site.

I saw a little tiny pinprick of light on the surface. It was almost certainly a meteor hitting the surface of the Moon, and they will give off a little bit of visible light. So I had a chance to see what was effectively a shooting star hit the Moon.''11

On their tenth lunar revolution, Cernan and Schmitt powered up Challenger and checked that all the systems were functioning properly. On the following revolution they deployed the landing gear, checked the guidance platform, and once both spacecraft were fully sealed, they separated. ''Okay, Houston, we're floating free out here. The Challenger looked real pretty,'' Evans reported.

Prior to beginning their thirteenth tandem orbit, Evans fired America's SPS for a total of four seconds in order to circularise his orbit. Cernan and Schmitt both reported that it had been a good burn. Less than five minutes later, Cernan fired the DPS engine on Challenger, which would bring the Lunar Module ever closer to the Moon's surface. Schmitt was already pondering the tasks ahead.

''We would enter the valley from the east with the sun behind and below us for good shadow definition of rocks and craters. Like many other major lunar valleys, Taurus-Littrow extends radially from a large circular basin; in this case the 300-mile diameter basin called Mare Serenitatis. This huge basin formed about 3.9 billion years ago as a result of a large comet or asteroid impact. Subsequently, the basin and valleys partially filled with dark volcanic lavas.

''Anticipating exciting events to come, and after several orbits and some preliminary manoeuvres, we ignited the descent rocket engine for the twelve-minute braking burn that placed us on the valley floor. Initially, we flew with our backs to the Moon, looking out into space. Beginning at about 5,300 feet per second and ten nautical miles altitude, the descent engine slowed our velocity and bent our flight path toward an intersection with the lunar surface. When the landing radar measured 6,000 feet in altitude, we pitched forward far enough that Gene could see the landing area. We could both see the nearby north and south sides of the valley. I took one quick glance at the sights out the window and went back to work, giving Gene the velocity and altitude read-outs he needed to adjust the Challenger's flight toward a touchdown away from large, potentially dangerous boulders and craters, but as close to the planned spot as possible.''8

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