The 50th Anniversary of Apollo 17: the Reflection of Gene’s Shiny Helmet

View from space. (Photo by NASA via Unsplash)

By Fiona Broadie
Boston University News Service

Eugene “Gene” Cernan wrote his daughter’s initials in the dust when he stood on the moon in 1972. That will be fifty years ago, starting Dec. 7 until the 19th of this year. Depending on how deeply he scraped, the moon’s stagnant atmosphere may have preserved her initials — though she is a young girl no more. 

Humankind’s last trip to the moon was called Apollo 17, and it gave definitive answers on several large scientific questions while setting several records. Apollo 17 was humankind’s longest space exploration to date and marked several milestones, including the longest distance traveled by a Lunar Roving Vehicle. Space explorers Eugene “Gene” Cernan, Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, and Ronald “Ron” Evans collected the oldest lunar rock on Apollo 17 and made their place in history as the last men on the moon. Cernan went on to write a book about it, and Schmitt became a New Mexico senator.

There were two notable discoveries from Apollo 17, one being the discovery of orange soil with volcanic glass that was proof of volcanic activity on the moon. The other was the collection of the oldest dated lunar rock, unaltered by meteorite impact, which suggests a past magnetic field on the moon. The rock is dated to be at least 4.2 billion years old. 

Professor Lawford Anderson, the Director of Undergraduate Studies of Earth and Environment at Boston University, is a petrologist with many rocks and fossils in his office — which he will excitedly show to any interested visitor. Including, a rock from Earth formed from the same material as lunar rock: Anorthosite. Professor Anderson has much to say about the similarities between the Earth and the moon.

“The Earth has a similar history to our moon and that’s why the moon is important [to study],” he said in a recent interview. Anderson explains the “Fission Theory,”  that the moon was formed — and broke away from—  the early, unformed, proto-Earth. 

At the time of the launch, Anderson was 24, and he watched it on television at his graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin. Viewers then did not know that Apollo 17 would be the final manned visit to the moon for the next 50 years, though they did know that it would be the last for a while. This has to do with the Presidency, said Anderson.

“Richard Nixon was president and he wasn’t very favorable [to] scientists,” he said. “He had delayed until after the November election because if there was an accident, he was afraid it would distort the election. They had plans for [Apollo] 18, 19, and 20 — and they just scrapped it.”

For Anderson, the lunar exploration was thrilling.

“[The explorers] were up there for 12 days, and I remember just being glued to televisions at school,” he said. “The Apollo missions were all very exciting. But, I mean, this was the last one.” 

Anderson recalled always being interested in outer space.

“Some day in the distant future, no doubt, taking a rocket to the moon will be as common as taking a plane to London is today,” wrote The New York Times on Dec. 7 1972, the day of Apollo 17’s launch. Maybe one day there will be another manned lunar flight, but certainly not yet. 

Harrison Schmitt complained about the cancellation of Apollo 18, 19 and 20 in his diaries of the launch, writing that the cancellations would mean that Americans “would forego the manifold benefits and future potential” of deep space exploration.

However, there is no doubt that Apollo 17 left its mark, both physically and in our memories. The 17 crew left a plaque on the moon which read, “may the spirit of peace in which we came be reflected in the lives of all mankind.” 

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.