NASA celebrates 50 years since its last visit to the Moon, ushering in a new era

SALVADOR NOGUEIRA / SÃO PAULO, SP (FOLHAPRESS) – As humanity witnesses the first rehearsal of astronauts returning to the Moon in the 21st century, with the Artemis 1 mission, NASA is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the last lunar expedition of the 20th century, Apollo 17, which began on December 7, 1972. As well as being the last human visit to the Moon (so far), it was the first and only trip by a scientist to Earth’s natural satellite.

It was a time opposite to the present. By then, humans on the dusty lunar soil were almost part of daily life, and the public was beginning to pay less attention to the missions. Pudera: During the Apollo program, these expeditions took place every six months on average.

The first mission near the Moon, Apollo 8 (which will be repeated by Artemis 2 in 2024 or 2025), took place in December 1968. Apollo 9 was in Earth orbit, 10 was a dress rehearsal for the first lunar landing (which had everything but the landing itself) and the 11th, less than eight months after the 8th, would see Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin cross the lunar soil and return safely to Earth, marking America’s victory in the race to space with the Soviet Union and accomplishing President John F. Kennedy’s goal set eight years earlier.

With the conquest, the US space agency’s “blank check” policy would come to an end. If, to beat the Soviets, NASA was able to spend up to 5% of the total American budget, after Apollo 11 the watchword was to contain the costs. Almost immediately after the success of the first landing, the Richard Nixon administration already tried to plan the end of the lunar missions – canceling the planned Apollo 18, 19 and 20. Within a few years, NASA’s budget fell to the level it remains today, about 0.5% of total US federal government spending.

Expeditions already scheduled, for which vehicles were ready, continued. Apollo 12 lifted off in November 1969, making the first precision landing. The 13, launched in April 1970, produced the biggest scare of the program: an explosion on the way to the Moon nearly killed the astronauts, who had to suspend all attempts at lunar landing and improvise the lunar module as a lifeboat to return to Earth. .

With the accident, Apollo 14 will not leave until January 1971, fulfilling the objectives that 13 had no chance of accomplishing. And from the 15th, in July 1971, the program gains its most extensive version, with a slightly enlarged lunar module, capable of transporting a jeep, the LRV (Lunar Roving Vehicle), and allowing longer stays on the surface of the Moon (up to three days). Apollo 17 was the third and last of this series and also the most successful.

Although NASA had been training scientists as astronauts for some time, none of them had yet been scheduled for a mission to the Moon. For the first missions, the agency favors the choice of military pilots, more accustomed to the risks and the rapid decisions to be made in the event of an emergency.

A scientist’s first flight to the Moon was scheduled for the canceled Apollo 18. There was enormous embarrassment that the agency stopped the program without sending an expert to the moon. The agency therefore decided to integrate geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt into the Apollo 17 crew.

The commander chosen to become the last man to walk on the Moon in the 20th century was Eugene A. Cernan (1934-2017), who was nearly lucky to land on Apollo 10. For him, the second lunar trip, this time to come down to the surface, that would be even more special. He said, in a statement given to Folha de S. Paulo in 2010. “And it was the longest flight, the first and only night launch, which had a number of different challenges. So looking back, I have no regrets.

Completing the team, Ronald E. Evans (1933-1990) will perform his first and only spaceflight, as pilot of the command module America.

The night takeoff was necessary for the crew to arrive on time – with the most suitable level of solar incidence – in the Taurus-Littrow valley, destination of the expedition. After departure on December 7, the lunar module Challenger made its landing on the 11th.

Several records were set – these were the longest stay on the Moon to date, 75 hours, and the longest lunar walks, 22 hours and 3 minutes, divided into three sessions of extravehicular activities. It was also the longest distance traveled to date by a manned jeep on another celestial body -35.7 km. Finally, the largest sample collection of the entire Apollo project – 110.5 kg.

However, what caught the most attention was a subjective record set by Cernan and Schmitt: they were named the astronauts who had the most fun on a lunar sojourn.

“If you judge by the images we took, Apollo 17 has been called the most fun mission we’ve had to the Moon,” Cernan said with a laugh. “We said and did a lot of things, we accomplished a lot of things, we did all the right things, all the experiments, but we had fun too. And we brought a lot of geological results. But I said to my two colleagues: ‘You are only going to come here once. So enjoy. Enjoy the moment. Don’t worry about whether or not you’re going to come home. When we have to start the return trip, it’s a good time to say a little prayer. Not before, okay? So enjoy.’ And that’s what we’ve done.”

And note that on the first day, they had another problem: one of the blades that protected the wheels of the LRV broke. An impromptu repair was performed by Cernan and Schmitt, and the vehicle ran perfectly the entire time with this fix.

After completing the third moonwalk, how did you feel? “Ah, I was disappointed. We would have liked to stay longer,” admitted Cernan. no electricity, we didn’t have enough oxygen, maybe we had to stay an extra day, but the plan was 72 hours, and it worked out well. You can’t argue with success. Maybe to be that if we had stayed another day things could have gone wrong. It was the right decision. I had immense pride and satisfaction in what we were able to do.

With the return of Apollo 17 to Earth on December 19, 1972, the first great era of lunar exploration came to an end, after six expeditions to the surface. The next, after five decades of waiting, begins now, with the Artemis 1 mission, which completes its unmanned test flight this Sunday (11).

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