It’s not quite up there with the auspicious 1969 landing on the Moon but perhaps the Apollo 17 mission should be, because we’ve not been back to the Moon since. Eugene Cernan had the honour of being the 11th person to set foot on the Moon on 11 December 1972, and the last person to leave it as he re-entered his Challenger lunar module to return to Earth on 19 December.
Like many astronauts, Eugene Cernan was an experienced Navy pilot who had spent some previous time in space, having been part of the Gemini IX as well as the Apollo 10 crew that broke the fastest speed achieved by a manned vehicle, with a re-entry speed of 39,897 km/h (24,791 mph) on 26 May 1969.
Cernan clearly had ambitions to walk in the same footsteps as Neil Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11, yet he took a big career gamble in turning down the opportunity to fly on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission in the hope that he might be able to command a mission to the Moon. It was a big risk that paid off twofold: he dodged the mission that failed to make a lunar landing (although arguably, he missed out on being immortalised as a character in a major Hollywood movie) and was made space commander of Apollo 17 two years later.
Two others joined Cernan on Apollo 17: command module pilot Ronald Evans and lunar module pilot Jack Schmitt, who was a geologist with no previous flight training. Cernan wasn’t happy with NASA’s choice of lunar module pilot, especially as he was given precedence over US Air Force pilot Joe Engle, although ultimately Schmitt proved equal to the task.
The Challenger lunar module landed on a region of the Moon known as Taurus-Littrow, in the Mare Serenitatis (Sea of Serenity), where Cernan and Schmitt explored and gathered 115kg (249lb) of geological samples, the biggest hoard ever returned from the Moon.
Some of these samples were set into acrylic blocks and handed out to heads of state by the then US president, Richard Nixon, known as the Goodwill Moon Rocks. These are worth up to around $10 million (£6 million) on the black market, and one even turned up in a box of files that belonged to former president Bill Clinton.
Cernan even admits to leaving something behind – not a flag, but a camera. Hassleblad cameras had been left behind on the Moon in the past, notably, 12 of them remained having been discarded by the Apollo 11 crew. But Cernan wanted it to be a final experiment, leaving the lens pointing upwards to collect radiation on its surface.
At a recent 40th anniversary event, Cernan expressed dismay that no one had landed on the Moon since Apollo 17, and that he expected man will have landed on Mars before the end of the 21st century.