I once asked a Graphics Media class at the Polytechnic if they knew what the unit sitting in the reception area, with the words “United States” on its body, was. None of them had a clue. Their answers ranged from “an engineering model” to “a symbol of America’s domination” and everything else in between.
The unit in question is actually an imitation of the vessel that delivered astronauts onto the surface of the Moon decades ago. It was called the lunar module. It separated from the command module when the spaceship entered the moon orbit and was piloted onto the surface of the Moon. On completion of their lunar tour, which typically lasted a few hours to a few days, the astronauts would pilot the lunar module back to the command module, which would have been orbiting the moon, then they would start the home-bound trip.
The programme that landed people on the moon, implemented by the National Aeronautical Space Agency (Nasa) of America, was called the Apollo programme. Several Apollo missions were sent into space to conduct a series of scientific experiments or observations. A number of them were not designed to land. The first one to land was Apollo 11. Between Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 all but one mission landed on the moon. Apollo 13 was aborted because the spacecraft developed a fault just before the landing operation was launched.
Almost every one of my readers by now knows the first human being to walk on the lunar surface was Neil Armstrong in July, 1969. The world lost Neil in 2012. He was 82. On 16th January, we lost another of the Apollo astronauts, Eugene Cernan. Coincidentally he, too, was 82. Eugene was the last human being to walk on the moon before the Apollo programme was retired. This was back in 1972. No other human being has been to the moon since then.
Eugene started his flying career in the US Navy, flying military aircraft, and spending thousands of hours in jet aircraft. As a result of this experience, Nasa roped him in to become a trainee astronaut in October, 1963. His first flight into space was with Gemini 9 spacecraft in 1966. He conducted one of the first-ever spacewalks aboard Gemini 9. In May, 1969, he was back in space with Apollo 10. Aboard the lunar module, whose imitation sits by the Porter’s Lodge at the Polytechnic in Blantyre, he descended towards the moon’s surface from Apollo 10 to test the functionality of the module, coming to within 15.6 kilometres of the moon’s surface. This was, if you like, the “dress rehearsal” for the first landing on the moon, which was to be achieved two months later.
In 1972, Eugene was back in space with Apollo 17, this time as the commander of the mission. His crewmates were Ronald Evans who was the pilot of the command module and Harrison Schmitt, pilot of the lunar module. Apollo 17 launched at 27 minutes to one in the morning of December 7 1972 (33 minutes after midnight) and was the first night launch of manned spaceflight in the USA.
Evans remained in the command module orbiting the moon while Cernan and Schmitt descended onto the moon’s surface aboard the lunar module which had been christened Challenger. They touched down in the afternoon of December 11 1972. They spent three earth days on the lunar surface, making observations, conducting experiments and collecting samples.
Like the previous two Apollo missions (15 and 16), Apollo 17 featured a lunar rover delivered onto the surface of the moon together with the astronauts by the lunar module. The rover was a battery-powered four wheel vehicle designed to be driven on the low gravity, air-starved surface of the moon. Eugene and Harrison covered a total of 36.9 kilometres on the moon’s surface with the aid of the rover during their three-day stay there. At the end of their tour, Eugene and Harrison re-entered the lunar module and piloted it to the command module. Eugene was the last astronaut to re-enter the lunar module and effectively became the last person to walk on the surface of the moon.
The lunar rover was left on the moon; just like the rovers brought by Apollo 15 and Apollo 16 had also been abandoned. They will probably remain there forever because, in the absence of living organisms and air, “no moth or rust will destroy, and neither will thieves break in and steal.”n