Highland fling

The Moon's surface is divided into two distinct types of terrain: low- f lying, dark, flat seas or mario; and bright, heavily cratered highlands. The previous Apollo landings had all been in or around the lunar seas and had confirmed that they were vast plains of solidified volcanic lava filling huge ancient impact basins. Mountain chains such as the Lunar Apennines, investigated by Apollo 15, appeared to have been thrown up around the edges of the largest impacts. But did this also explain the highlands? Apollo 16's LM, Orion, landed in the central highland region of Descartes, far from

at outhouse rock

Charles Duke indicates the location from which a sample was collected during the third moonwalk. Nearly all the rocks found in Descartes were breccias - rocks mixed up and re-formed by meteorite impacts - proving that the lunar highlands, too, were largely formed by impacts and not volcanism.

lunar module ascent stage

After shedding its spidery legs on the surface of the Moon, the Apollo 16 LM Orion closes in on the CSM prior to redocking in lunar orbit.

last stop

John Young stands in front of the LRV at the final stop on the astronauts' third moon walk. The three-legged object in the foreground is part of a gnomon, a device for recording the size and colour of rock samples.

last stop

John Young stands in front of the LRV at the final stop on the astronauts' third moon walk. The three-legged object in the foreground is part of a gnomon, a device for recording the size and colour of rock samples.

any seas, where some geologists thought volcanic activity, not impacts, might have produced the mountainous plateau.

Out and about

The astronauts carried out moonwalks on three successive days. They spent more than 20 hours outside the LM and drove some 26.7km (161/2 miles), taking the LRV to a top speed of 18kph (11mph). The terrain was heavily cratered and scattered with large


charles duke

After studying at both the US Naval Academy and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, North Carolina-

r^ born Charles M. Duke (b.1935) joined I the US Air Force, serving in Germany ~ kj before returning to America to train ^F as a test pilot. Graduating from the

J ^^flr Aerospace Research Pilot School in 1965, he stayed on as an i instructor before joining NASA's ¿4» N fifth astronaut training group ££ ^ in 1966. He was Capcom, the

. $ \ ^^ "voice of Mission Control", ^¿T "V during Apollo 11 and the

^^^WrJT backup I M pilot for both

B Apollos 13 and 17. He * retired from NASA in

boulders - among the samples the astronauts found was the largest lunar rock ever collected, an 11.7kg (25lb) monster nicknamed "Big Muley" after Bill Muehlberger, the mission's principal geologist.

Young and Duke also experienced some unusual problems. On the first EVA they drove directly away from the Sun and, with no shadows to help them, had trouble spotting obstacles against the glare of HHHBEK

reflected sunlight. The orange-juice pouches that each astronaut carried inside his helmet to guard against dehydration were another source of irratation, as they kept leaking or clogging up.

Casper and Orion were reunited in the early hours of 24 April, and once astronauts and rock samples had transferred to the CSM, Orion was cast adrift, though a fault with the planned de-orbit burn meant that it did not impact immediately as intended but eventually crashed to the Moon about a year later. A small satellite was deployed before the CSM left orbit, carrying experiments to study any particles in lunar orbit, and the Moon's feeble magnetic field. During the return flight, Mattingly made a spacewalk, venturing outside the CSM to retrieve a film canister and experimental equipment.

shadow rock

During the course of their third moon walk, Young and Duke came across this distinctive tilted rock. Samples taken from underneath its base produced soil that had not seen sunlight in perhaps a billion years.

7 December 1972

Apollo 17 lifts off over two hours late after a countdown problem.

10 December 1972

The spacecraft arrives in lunar orbit, just ahead of its own S-IVB rocket stage, which is then deliberately crashed into the Moon. The impact is detected by seismometers set up by previous Apollo missions.

11 December 1972

The LM Challenger lands in the Taurus-Littrow valley. Later, Cernan and Schmitt make the first of three lengthy moonwalks.

14 December 1972

At the end of the third surface moonwalk, Cernan becomes the last man to step on the Moon in the 20th century.

16 December 1972

The CSM America heads for home.

19 December 1972

Apollo 17 splashes down in the Pacific Ocean.

21 December 1972

A reception at Houston marks the end of the Apollo programme.

Apollo 17

The final Apollo mission was humankind's temporary farewell to the Moon. Even at the end of the programme, it was able to achieve another first - putting a qualified geologist on the lunar surface.

John F. Kennedy's ambition to reach the Moon - and just as importantly to beat the Soviet Union in the Space Race - had hung over his successors ever since the President's tragic assassination in November 1963. Apollo was a matter of national prestige, and the public would not forgive any politician who allowed it to slip from his priorities.

But with the race won, the question was - what next? By now, the United States was bogged down in the divisive and expensive Vietnam War, and the Apollo-era NASA budget was unsustainable in the long term. In fact, it was under pressure within months of Eagle's landing, as first one and then two more of the original missions were axed, even though most of the hardware was ready for them.

While Apollo's sprint for the Moon ran roughshod over von Braun's 1950s plans for a stately march across the Solar System, its technology could still have given rise to a permanent lunar outpost, had the money and the will been there. But a more pragmatic administration felt that America's future in space lay closer to home. Apollo 17 would mark the end of lunar exploration for the foreseeable future.

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