Apollo 17 was the last manned lunar landing mission and the first mission to include a scientist, a geologist, in its crew. The total duration of the mission was 12 days, 13 hours and 52 minutes. It was launched on December 7 and the astronauts returned back to earth on December 19, 1972. The landing site on moon, Taurus-Littrow, is a mountain-ringed valley on the edge of the Sea of Serenity that was chosen because of its particular geological features. The pre-mission photographs showed boulders which had rolled down from the tops of the mountains on the lower slopes, just above the flat valley floor. There was a landslide that had flowed out into the valley off the side of one of the mountains, and there were small, dark craters that looked like they might be volcanic.
A two man crew with probably the broadest range of capabilities of any of the Apollo missions crews, was picked to explore all of this. Commander Gene Cernan was a veteran of two prior missions – having flown with Tom Stafford on Gemini IX and with Stafford and John Young on Apollo 10. He was the only LM Commander to have flown a mission as Lunar Module Pilot. Lunar Module Pilot Jack Schmitt not only knew the LM but was also a professional geologist who was an active participant in the planning that had gone into the prior missions. Commander Ronald Evans who served as a member of the astronaut support crews for the Apollo 7 and Apollo 11 flights, and as backup Command Module Pilot for Apollo 14, remained in lunar orbit on board the Command Module America.
On the way back to Earth, Evans completed a one-hour, six-minute extravehicular activity, successfully retrieving three camera cassettes and completing a personal inspection of the equipment bay area. He logged 301 hours and 51 minutes in space, 1 hour and 6 minutes of which were spent in extravehicular activity. He holds the record of most time spent in lunar orbit: six days and four hours.
One of the highlights of the mission was the discovering of the orange soil. As Cernan and Schmitt worked near the rim of Shorty Crater on the second day, Schmitt exclaimed that he could see orange soil. In Cernan’s autobiography, he said he feared Schmitt “has been up here too long and has overdosed on rocks.” But when Cernan clambered over to take a look, he could see the soil was indeed that color. Later examination on Earth showed the rocks were tiny spheres of colored glass that probably came from a surface vent.
Apollo 17 marked the end of an era. The Apollo program took 12 people to the surface of our moon but it is certain that it still has some surprises for the humanity to discover.