It is famous that the Apollo 11 astronauts left the first human bootprints on the lunar surface in July 1969. A little less well known is that the last footprint of human activity on our lone natural satellite was only three and a half footprints – half a year later.
Astronauts Eugene A. Cernan, Ronald E. Evans, and Harrison H. “Jack” Schmitt conducted a 12-day mission to the moon’s Taurus-Littrow region, during which time they collected more lunar rocks and other geological samples than any other Apollo Mission. Along the way to their destination, they also captured the iconic “blue marble” image of the Earth, which offered mankind one of the best views of our homeland up to that point in history.
When the Apollo 17 crew left the moon on December 14, 1972, Cernan commemorated the moment by telling Mission Control, “We are going as we came and, God willing, we will return with peace and hope.” for all mankind.”
Cernan lived until 2017 but did not live to see the return he spoke of on this historic journey.
In all, only 12 people have walked the moon in the rock’s billion-dollar history, and they all visited it in a single 38-month period.
Why we moved on from the moon
Thathas its roots in the fears of the Cold War and the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviets were quickly out of the gate with the successful launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, and the first person in space, Yuri Gargarin. Apollo 17 came a full decade after President John F. Kennedy’s bold promise in 1962 to land humans on the Moon before the decade was out. Not only did NASA meet its self-imposed deadline, but it also backtracked a few times.
But at that time many other things were happening on earth. An unpopular war was raging in Southeast Asia and civil unrest on the streets of American cities prompted nightly newscasts, not to mention the numerous environmental crises that became mainstream concerns. The US government had poured a huge amount of taxpayer money into Apollo, and the program’s popularity waned just months after Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind” swept the world.
“Parallel to the social revolution of the 1960s, Apollo experienced many incredible triumphs as well as tremendous setbacks (several final missions being aborted) and tragedies (Apollo 1),” writes NASA Chief Historian Brian Odom in a recent blog post.
In January 1970, all post-Apollo 17 Apollo missions were canceled due to federal funding cuts. The Soviet threat in space was no longer a priority for most Americans as they faced a recession and rising inflation, a harbinger of a difficult economic decade to come in the 1970s.
After Apollo, NASA’s focus shifted to orbit, launching the Skylab space station and a space shuttle program that ran for three decades until 2011.
So this Wednesday marks a full half-century since the last moment there was a human presence, not just on the Moon, but anywhere outside of near-Earth orbit.
Creating a home in space
To be fair, we’ve kept our astronauts fairly busy in orbit, where the International Space Station remains one of the most notable examples of international cooperation in history. Today, with European and American relations with Russia at their lowest since at least 1991, Russian cosmonauts and astronauts continue to live and work together productively, even as leadership begins a little on the surface.
Priorities began to shift again somewhat when the shuttle was phased out in the late 2000s. A new push to return to the Moon and onward to Mars was beginning to gain momentum both inside and outside NASA. The US Congress pledged to invest billions in building a giant new rocket, while Elon Musk and SpaceX worked toward similar ambitions.
Unrealized futuristic predictions from the mid-20th century that envisioned how we would live on sci-fi space stations and explore Mars.
Almost exactly half a century after Apollo 17, NASA’s unmanned Artemis I mission earlier this month traveled farther beyond the moon than any manned spacecraft ever, capturing a new iconic image for a new generation of exploration that explored both the moon and also shows the earth from a new perspective.
NASA and SpaceX have pledged to join forces to bring a new generation of astronauts back to the lunar surface before the decade ends. It’s a familiar promise that worked last time.
It is probably no coincidence that some of the circumstances of the original space race are being repeated today as a new geopolitical rival, China, increasingly pushes an ambitious space exploration agenda. China’s space program currently launches dozens of rockets each year and operates its own space station, lunar and Mars rovers. The Chinese space agency has also stated its goal of building a manned station on the lunar surface, which is also a key goal of NASA’s Artemis program.
NASA historian Odom points out that much of the enduring legacy of the Apollo program still exists on Earth.
“Federal investments in aerospace infrastructure in the southern United States have transformed the economy of much of the region. Crucial investments in university engineering and science programs have laid a foundation that continues to pay dividends in technological and scientific breakthroughs.”
Odom is optimistic that Artemis will bring about a new round of scientific discoveries and technical innovations.
“Hopefully the teachings of Apollo will prove a helpful framework for discoveries both on the moon and at home. If we’re careful, I’m sure they will.”