On December 19, 1972, a command module came careening back into Earth’s atmosphere, deployed its parachutes and landed in the Pacific Ocean at 2:25 p.m. The USS Ticonderoga, an Essex class aircraft carrier that has since been decommissioned and scrapped, was located only four miles away and they picked up the three astronauts, safely bringing them aboard. They had completed the final mission of the Apollo program: Apollo 17.

Twelve days prior, Commander Eugene Cernan, Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans and Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt climbed aboard the Saturn V expendable rocket developed and built by NASA. It was the Commander’s third flight into space and Evans and Schmitt’s first, and they flew to the moon to spend more time on its surface than any astronaut had previously done. It was also the last time astronauts left low Earth orbit, and of course the last time a human being set foot on the moon.

Cernan and Schmitt took the Lunar Module down to the moon’s surface while Evans stayed in orbit, holding down the fort up above. The two conducted several excursions/moonwalks, encountering various problems along the way. One such problem: the rover’s fender broke off, and how did they fix it? Duct tape. Though the fix wasn’t perfect, they eventually devised a better method of taping it back on. This is just one such instance of the ingenuity and problem-solving skills the astronauts had to utilize to defeat the problems they encountered in the unknown perils of space.

Eventually they left the surface, met back with the orbiting Command Module and headed back home to Earth. On December 19th, they successfully and safely landed in the Pacific.

Eugene Cernan had previously served in the U.S. Navy and was a Navy Pilot, flying FJ-4 Fury and A-4 Skyhawk jets. Ronald Evans also served as a Navy Pilot, and had actually flown an F-8 Crusader off the same USS Ticonderoga that would pick him up later as an astronaut returning from the moon. Harrison Schmitt did not serve in the military, but was the first of NASA’s astronaut-scientists to make the journey. He was a geologist, and crucial to the scientific investigations on the moon’s surface. Schmitt is the only one of the three still living today.

Jon Evans, 11, son of Apollo 17 command module pilot, Ronald E. Evans, points out one of the highlights of the television of the first EVA by moon explorers Eugene A. Cernan and Harrison B. Schmitt, Dec. 11, 1972. Watching with Jon are his mother, Jan Evans , and sister, Jaime, 13. While the Evans family was watching television in their home near the Manned Spacecraft Center, Houston, Texas, commander Evans was orbiting the moon in the command module. (AP Photo)

The United States’ Apollo program is arguably one of the country’s greatest achievements. It put people on the moon, a feat that still seems beyond our immediate reach some 40 years later. The program cost a hefty $25.4 billion, which translates to approximately $216 billion now. Not only did it serve as one of America’s proudest moments as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon’s surface, but it proved invaluable for countries and scientists everywhere as firsthand materials were collected and experiments were conducted in space and on the moon, rather than in theory. As the space race carried on, technology seemed to develop much like it does in a war — minus all the bloodshed.

The program was named after Apollo, the Greek and Roman deity of many things — including the sun and light.

Featured image courtesy of the Associated Press.

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