On the 40th Anniversary of Apollo 17

Forty years after the last human visitors departed the Moon aboard Apollo 17, space historian Andrew Chaikin talks about why we should return.

Hardly a day goes by when I don't think about the Apollo missions to the Moon, voyages that collectively have been called “mankind’s greatest adventure.” Today, 40 years after Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt left the last human footprints in lunar dust, I’m feeling a familiar sense of wistful nostalgia. I miss the Apollo adventure the way I miss my childhood.

But the strongest emotion I've had about the Moon in the last couple of decades is frustration. As Apollo receded into history, too many people developed the wrong-headed idea that our nearest celestial neighbor is somehow a “been there, done that” world. Nothing could be further from the truth. As another moonwalker, John Young, has pointed out, the Moon has as much land area as the continent of Africa. To think that 12 people, landing in six places, and only a few hours to explore them, could harvest the Moon’s vast scientific bounty is, well, nuts. The Moon, as lunar scientist Paul Spudis describes in my video below, beautifully preserves the earliest history of our little corner of the solar system, information that has long ago been destroyed on the restless Earth. I think of it as the rare book room of the cosmic library. It may even harbor pieces of the early Earth, flung there by asteroid impacts and bearing priceless windows to the time when life arose on our planet.

And yet, the Moon has often been bypassed by space planners in favor of Mars, which is a truly spectacular goal, but one that remains beyond our reach for now, until we develop the knowledge we need to live on another world. The Moon is crucial there, too, as Spudis explains, not only as a kind of Outward Bound school for learning to live off-planet, but a resource depot for future space explorers. Recently discovered ice at the lunar poles could provide a lunar base with water, oxygen, and even rocket fuel.

When I think about the gifts the Moon offers us, one stands out: the sight of the Earth as a lovely, precious oasis of life in the void. It’s the view the Apollo astronauts talked about as having the greatest impact of anything they saw on their journeys. And it’s a view that is unavailable anywhere else in the solar system. It’s just one more reason why I believe the Moon deserves to be called the solar system’s jewel in the crown, and why it still beckons us 40 years after the last human explorers walked there.

On this anniversary, my frustration is tinged with hope that I may yet live to see future explorers pick up where the Apollo astronauts left off. It’s a return that is long overdue, not just for the sake of scientific exploration, but to enable humanity to become a multi-planet species.

Andrew Chaikin is an award-winning science journalist, space historian, speaker, and author. Chaikin is best known as the author of A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, widely regarded as the definitive account of the Moon missions. For more videos, visit Chaikin's YouTube channel.

6 thoughts on “On the 40th Anniversary of Apollo 17

  1. Anthony BarreiroAnthony Barreiro

    Andrew, your praise of the Moon landings is deeply moving for me, and you and Paul Spudis make a good case for more intensively studying the Moon. I grew up watching the Gemini and Apollo missions on TV, reading science fiction, and dreaming of spaceflights to other worlds. But the big problem with human space exploration is that you have to invest most of your resources into simply keeping the crew alive and returning them safely to Earth. As our robots become exponentially more capable and robust, it makes more sense to send out lots of robotic missions rather than a very small number of very expensive human missions. I guess our fundamental philosophical difference is that I don’t believe humanity will ever be a multi-planet species. Given the dire challenges of global warming, etc., we would do well to strive to remain viable on the planet where we evolved. (P.S. to S&T — I wish the comment feature supported paragraph breaks.)

  2. Peter WilsonPeter Kontrarski

    Sure, there’s water on the Moon…frozen rock-hard @ -137 C, at the bottom of steep, pitch-black craters. Estimated cost to extract the first liter of Moon water? $4.8 trillion. Estimated cost to build an ice-mine and processing-plant that that could supply a rocket ship? Forget it. We are not living sustainably on Earth, and humanity is lurching towards collapse on a planetary scale, a la Easter Island. It makes good books and movies, but until we learn how to live on the Earth, there is no point trying to live on the Moon.

  3. Frank ReedFrank R.

    Peter K., I don’t know who convinced you that it would take "$4.8 TRILLION" to "extract the first liter of Moon water", but it is clear that your stark worldview and your strident political views DEMAND that you believe such nonsense. You’re not reasoning; you’re declaring your politics. I won’t try to change your mind. But just to remind folks that there is another side to this, here’s Peter Diamandis at a TED conference:
    http://www.ted.com/talks/peter_diamandis_abundance_is_our_future.html And finally I would not a curiosity. The Moon incites "protest". But do those same people protest the billions and billions spent, and still being spent every day, on the International Space Station? Generally no. They couldn’t care less. Perhaps it’s because the Apollo missions coincided with the peak of the "sixties" (which, as Steve Jobs used to say, actually happened in the early 1970s). Maybe that explains why so many Moon-bashers today are in their late fifties or a bit older. They’re not opposed to Moon missions today; they’re opposed to the APOLLO Moon missions of forty years ago, and they’re just dusting off their old protest signs… "We can’t go to the Moon, man… We’ve got too many problems right here on Mother Earth, man…."

  4. Frank ReedFrank R.

    Thank you, Andrew Chaikin for writing this brief essay, and thank you to the editors of Sky & Telescope for providing space for it. I only wish you had written something ten tims longer for this forty-year anniversary of the end of the Apollo moon landings.

  5. Peter WilsonPeter Kontrarski

    Frank R: I’m glad I didn’t say anything controversial, like predict that sea levels are going to rise, or suggest that the Drug War is a failure. Of course, the first liter of Moon water could probably be had for less than $4.8 trillion, but it takes fuel to land on the Moon and fuel to leave it, so the fueling station on the Moon is not going to work unless it’s a lot cheaper than bringing it up from Earth. And the cost of making fuel on the Moon cannot go down unless it’s done in high volume, which requires a large, functioning, lunar infrastructure. Pretty soon, we’re talking some serious money. Anyway, if it makes you feel better, those of us who want to save Mother Earth before mining the Moon for rocket-fuel probably won’t get funded, either.

  6. Tony Pace

    Over a four-year span we put a dozen fellows on the Moon; the longest they were in space was about ten days. Now we keep six people in space for abut Three Months each, in a vehicle that took Ten Years to assemble.
    To put anyone on Mars will involve following Hohmann Orbits to minimize the fuel expenditure at each end of the trip, which means eight months out, twenty-two months at Mars, and eight months back.
    Thirty-eight Months outside our Ionosphere, good people.
    We can shield them from the Sun, but what do they do in the event a nearby Gamma-Ray Burst comes in? Or say a football-sized rock hits anywhere on the hardware?
    For the money this involves, we could put orbiting Super-Casssinis around many interesting satellite and asteroids under the Sun.

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