Scientists in the valley

With fewer political constraints and no need to lay a basis for future colonization, the Apollo J missions could be governed almost entirely by scientific objectives, and so geologist Harrison "Jack" Schmitt took his place as Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 17. Alongside him was Mission Commander Gene Cernan, and Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans.

After a spectacular night launch on 7 December 1972, the LM Challenger and the CSM America separated in orbit on 11 December, and Cernan and Schmitt touched down on the Moon shortly afterwards. This time the target was the Taurus-Littrow area, a flat-bottomed valley ringed by mountains, on the edge of the Sea of Serenity. The area seems to be one where lavas from the maria partially flooded a pre-existing valley.

Following the pattern of previous missions, there were three major moonwalks. Once again the focus was on collecting rock samples with the LRV, but the astronauts also deployed an unrivalled number of complex experiments as part of their ALSEP package. As on Apollo 15, several of these experiments involved drilling probes into the rock, and there were also core samples to be collected, but this time drilling went to plan and did not cause any delays. Meanwhile Evans conducted his own valuable experiments and observations from the orbiting CSM.

The valley was littered with boulders that seemed to have rolled down from the mountains around it, and these offered a valuable chance to study lunar bedrock that had not been altered by meteorite impacts. During their sampling expeditions, Cernan and Schmitt came across a bizarre patch of distinctly orange soil, which provoked a heated debate about its origins. It turned out to be a patch of naturally occurring glass (produced by a volcano) that had been uncovered during the formation of the nearby Shorty Crater. The astronauts also conducted a number of studies of the region's gravitational field - earlier probes and manned missions had already discovered regions of noticeably more powerful gravity, called mascons, apparently corresponding to denser areas of the lunar crust.

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