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Mankind took its last steps on the moon in 1972. On Dec. 7 that year, NASA launched Apollo 17. Today, we see the lunar mission as the last time humans traveled beyond low Earth orbit and the last time man landed on another celestial body. But back then, people saw it as the beginning.
Crewed by commander Eugene Cernan, command module pilot Ronald Evans and lunar module pilot Harrison Schmitt, the first scientist-astronaut to land on the moon, Apollo 17 focused on the Taurus-Littrow region. According to NASA, this location was chosen because it was thought that this was where “rocks both older and younger than those previously returned from other Apollo missions, as well as from Luna 16 and 20 missions, might be found.” The mission succeeded in collecting geological samples, surveying the surface of the moon and deploying experiments.
Astronauts Cernan and Schmitt logged nearly 75 hours on the lunar surface, explored nearly 22 miles and collected about 250 pounds of rock and soil. According to NASA, the lunar rover vehicle was able to travel about 30.5 kilometers of the moon’s surface. The astronauts were also able to set up the sixth automated research station. All of this was caught on video, and the short film “The Last Steps” by Todd Douglas Miller, heart-pounding footage and audio to retrace the record-setting mission.
These days, it doesn’t seem like humans will be physically exploring beyond low Earth orbit again anytime soon. As much as technology has advanced, and as capable as the minds at NASA are to build the vehicles and instruments needed to explore not just the moon but Mars, there isn’t enough of a budget—at least, not for NASA to do so.
"Manned exploration is the most expensive space venture and, consequently, the most difficult for which to obtain political support," Apollo 7 astronaut Walter Cunningham said during his 2015 congressional testimony. “NASA's portion of the federal budget peaked at 4% in 1965.”
According to NASA’s 2020 budget amendment summary, it needs $1.6 billion more than the $21 billion currently allocated from the federal budget to launch another mission to the moon by 2024. Until then, Apollo 17 will be known as “the last steps.”
But as Cernan said in an interview three months prior to the Apollo 17 mission, “It’s not just the end, we’re not putting our rockets in the barn and closing the door. We’re just beginning to understand and accept the challenges that this universe has for us.”
This Great Big Film was made in collaboration with our friends at CNN Films.
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