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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

We the People: Landing on the moon was an innovation that came to define Americans’ sense of what’s possible

By Mathew Callaghan For The Spokesman-Review

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: Name one example of an American innovation.

Over the course of human history, only 12 people have left our planet and gone to another celestial body. The last time mankind stepped on a celestial body separate from our own was 50 years ago today.

Apollo 17 launched on Dec. 7, 1972, and sent Commander Gene Cernan, Lunar Module Pilot Harrison “Jack” Schmitt and Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans to the moon. They landed on the moon on Dec. 11. On Dec. 19, the three crew members returned safely to Earth.

“Apollo 17 was the last of a very weird series of missions, in terms of why it was funded and why it happened,” said Toby Smith, an associate teaching professor at the University of Washington. “And just to emphasize the fact that in all of 4.5 billion years of solar system history, of 4.5 billion years of the Earth being around, only 12 humans have left low Earth orbit. That’s crazy. Only 12 humans have been under the gravitational influence of something other than the Earth, and that was those Apollo astronauts.”

Smith said the incentive behind sending astronauts to the moon during this era was heavily influenced by the political tension between the United States and the Soviet Union.

“It is very much us versus them. I mean, that’s how it was sold to Congress.” Smith said. “ And in a sense, that’s what made Apollo such a short mission. From the very first landing to the very last landing was 3½ years. In terms of the history of NASA, the Apollo missions were a very short time. They were very expensive, and once you land on the moon, you’ve beaten the Soviet missions.”

Geoff Nunn, the adjunct space curator for the Seattle Museum of Flight, said the tensions between the United States and the USSR were critical for the success of the Apollo missions.

“The space race was ultimately not sustainable long term; it required an incredible amount of investment. Up to something like 6% of the federal budget was going toward space,” Nunn said. “And a big part of what ended up bringing down that expense was when we set that goal. Also, crafting it as a race was a motivation to move it quickly. But once we crossed that finish line and beat the Russians to the moon, that motivation went away.”

Surprisingly, Apollo 17 was also the first and only mission to send a scientist, Harrison Schmitt, to space. Before Apollo 17, all of the astronauts were fighter pilots and test pilots.

“The evolution of who gets to be an astronaut was a little bit interesting. There was a lot of debate around the benefit of flying scientists versus flying test pilots,” Nunn said. “So early on, all of the astronauts up until Schmitt’s class had emphasized a test pilot background, because the vehicles were experimental, they wanted people who knew how to handle themselves with a vehicle that had limited testing, and in high-pressure situations where something might go wrong.”

Once the end of the Apollo era was evidently closing in, there was a more ambitious and concerted effort to focus the last three Apollo missions toward more scientific endeavors.

“So they canceled 18, 19 and 20. And as I believe, they wanted to cancel 15, 16 and 17,” said Donald Brownlee, a University of Washington astronomy professor. “And those last three missions that were flown, 15, 16 and 17, were called the J missions. And they were actually much more ambitious than the previous missions. Because 15, 16 and 17 used the lunar rover. And they were on the moon longer. They were on there for several days. And they were highly focused on science.”

While today Brownlee is a renowned professor of astronomy, he was also a lunar sample principal investigator for all the Apollo missions after Apollo 12. His job consisted of studying the samples the astronauts brought back from the moon. During the majority of the Apollo missions, Brownlee was still a grad student.

“The astronauts were very special people, you know. They were all pilots and used to taking big risks and stuff. But I tell you, it was cool, because I spent a lot of time down there at that time, and you’d see them at lunch … What always got me, though, during Apollo, is you would see three people jogging across just a huge area around the Johnson Space Center. And you’d see them out there jogging for exercise, and they’d be in threes. And those were the Apollo crews getting exercise,” Brownlee said.

The J missions were the last three in the Apollo project. They were the most science-centered missions of the entire program. They aimed to sample large amounts of the lunar surface and bring those samples back to Earth.

Apollo 17 stands out from the other Apollo missions because of the location of the landing. Apollo 17 landed in an area called the Taurus-Littrow Valley, which was quite different from previous landing spots with flat terrain that resembled states like Nebraska or Kansas, Brownlee said.

“Apollo 17 went to this special place in a valley that included both lowland sites and highland sites,” Brownlee said. “You can break the moon up into highland and lowland areas. And the lowlands are called maria. And those are lava flows. And they have very few craters on them.”

The mission landed in a part of the moon between highland and lowland areas.

“It was especially intriguing because if you look at the images taken from orbit that were used for planning for Apollo 17, you can see that this valley, Taurus-Littrow Valley, had this dark material,” Brownlee said. “It was really dark compared to other dark areas on the moon. They call it dark mantling material, and it was believed that these were volcanic ash deposits, and they were fresh. So, these were thought to be like the youngest surface on the moon. You know, probably maybe less than a billion years old.”

Ultimately, the materials in the Taurus-Littrow Valley were a lot older than initially believed.

“So this is an area where you thought you’re going to get young ages and recent activity, and then to everyone’s shock, the ages of the stuff was over 3.5 billion years. Typically, it was 3.8 billion years old, making it really, really quite old. And so that was really the nail in the coffin, the idea that the moon hadn’t had geologic activity in recent times,” Brownlee said. “So that really changed their feelings toward lunar history. The moon basically ran out of interior heat to drive volcanic activity about 4 billion years ago.”

It was also discovered that the moon once had a magma ocean.

“Before Apollo, it was imagined that the moon was like a big meteorite, and it formed slowly and never got very hot, never melted. And that’s entirely wrong, the moon got really hot, and melted down to at least the depths of 500 kilometers, probably all the way to the core. And so this idea now of an early magma ocean is thought to be the case for all rocky planets, including Earth,” Brownlee said.

Schmitt, the geologist aboard Apollo 17, discovered some intriguing material on the surface of the dusty moon. Schmitt found orange glass beads, smaller than a millimeter, that were the result of ancient volcanic activity.

“They’re melted material that was sprayed out and concentrated. They gave an interesting way to sample materials in depth on the moon. Most of the material on the moon is all mixed up, it’s called regolith, this debris from impacts scattered around,” Brownlee said. “But this was a deposit that came up, and so it looked quite fresh. And it was unusual that it wasn’t mixed up. But it was also old, it was over 3.5 billion years old.”

This discovery also led to other revelations.

“The other intriguing thing is, just in the last, I think the last five years or so, working on the glass and found out that they were an interesting probe with the lunar interior, because they contain much higher water content than the typical lunar materials and also higher volatiles of things like chlorine and fluorine,” Brownlee said. “So this goes into the idea that the moon is not quite as dry as everybody thought it was.”

In total, the Apollo 17 lunar rover traveled about 30 kilometers over dangerous terrain. The main danger, apart from being in the vacuum of space, came from the worry that the rover would fall into a crater and the astronauts would be unable to get it out. In the end, the astronauts took more than 2,200 pictures and brought back countless samples to Earth. Compared to Apollo 15, whose rover only traveled about the same distance as the infield of a baseball diamond, Apollo 17 dared to be adventurous.

Not only did Apollo 17 go beyond the distance previously traveled, there were many other records set by the mission.

“They had a record length of time of walking around and working on the moon (22 hours). I think they set a record for how far they drove the rover. And it was really like the first little glimpse of what living on the moon was going to be like,” said Emily Levesque, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Washington.

The Apollo missions helped form the fundamental basis for the field of planetary astronomy, Smith said.

“The moon is the only surface that we have ancient samples from known places. And so when we look at other worlds in our solar system, we’re always comparing them to the surface of the moon, because it’s the only surface that we call calibrated, that we could look at a surface, we know how old it is, we know its specific history. We can’t do that on the Earth. The Earth doesn’t have any ancient surfaces, they’ve long since been turned over by the geological activity of the earth. So, you know, most of the ancient history of our solar system comes from just those six Apollo missions,” Smith said.

When reflecting on Apollo 17 50 years later, it may seem hard to understand the significance of what was accomplished so long ago. But most of the infrastructure that was built for the Apollo missions were used for future shuttle missions, even the Artemis mission today.

With the Artemis missions aiming to return to the moon in the near future, there is hope that those missions cover much more ground, as there is a lot left of the moon to be discovered.

“There is a bit of a space race happening right now, as well,” Nunn said. “And the space race that’s happening now is really a land grab for the Lunar South Pole. Because you’ve got Russia and China, which are talking about establishing permanent moon bases, as well. One of the big reasons is because if you have water ice, you can provide life support for a moon base, you can set up a refueling station for vehicles going further into the solar system because you can split that water into hydrogen and oxygen using infinite solar power.”

Apollo 17 and all of the Apollo missions have been a pinnacle of human achievement for the past 50 years.

Mankind has been able to justify the possibility of reaching almost any goal because we have gone to the moon. Going forward, NASA hopes to expound upon the remarkable discoveries made during the Apollo missions.

“When it comes to exploration, and this goes all the way back, the greatest benefits are often the ones that aren’t planned for, and the ones that you don’t set out to achieve or you don’t know you’re going to achieve,” Nunn said. “Trying to do challenging things leads to unexpected shifts and evolutions in progress and in our society. And so I think it’s the unknowns that will help.

“That will be some of the biggest benefits coming from Apollo, to shuttle to Artemis.”