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It’s Been 40 Years Since Anyone Rode a Rocket to the Moon

Apollo 17 took off forty years ago today

Eugene Cernan on the surface of the Moon, December 1972. Photo: NASA / Harrison Schmitt

Though not as well known as the late Neil Armstrong or Edwin “Buzz” AldrinEugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt hold a similarly significant place in the history of human spaceflight—they are not the first, but rather the last, men to walk on the moon. Forty years ago today, a Saturn V rocket bore Cernan and Schmitt, as well as command module pilot Ronald Evans, to the Moon. Their mission, Apollo 17, was the last voyage of the Apollo program, the last time a human set foot on the Moon, and, in fact, the last time a human being can truly be said to have left the Earth: the International Space Station resides in low Earth orbit, still well within the planet’s upper atmosphere.

Lifting off after midnight, says Space.com, “the massive, 363-foot tall (111 meters) Saturn 5 rocket turned night into day as the long flames from its five powerful F-1 engines bathed the dark sky with a brilliant, bright-as-the-sun light that appeared to spectators to slowly climb skyward from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.”

Space.com goes on to explain:

Landing at Taurus-Littrow four days after they launched, Cernan and Schmitt remained on the surface for just over three days, the longest duration lunar expedition to date. Like the two Apollo missions that preceded Apollo 17, the astronauts had a “moon buggy,” the Lunar Roving Vehicle or lunar rover, to extend the distance they could traverse across the rocky valley.

Before leaving the moon, Cernan proclaimed, “America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.”

More from Smithsonian.com:

This One Beautiful Video Sums Up All of Space Shuttle History
Air and Space Museum: The Spacesuit Morgue

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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