Chapter 4 – 30 Days and Counting

Chapter 4

Thirty Days and Counting[1]

Night view of Saturn Launch Vehicle 512 about two weeks before the launch of Apollo 17 (NASA Photo GPN-2000-000636).

Twenty-four hours before the nighttime launch of Apollo 17, the last Apollo mission to the Moon, I drove alone from the Crew Quarters at the Kennedy Space Center toward Florida’s Atlantic coast. It was hard to believe that just four years prior to this December night in 1972, I had joined another rookie astronaut, Apollo 8’s Bill Anders, on a similar nighttime visit to Launch Pad 39A. As I turned east toward the coast, off a long, north-south stretch of the Kennedy Parkway, the huge Vehicle Assembly Building to my left dwarfed everything around it, including the Launch Control Center’s blockhouse hugging its south wall.

Aerial view of Launch Complex 39 at Kennedy Space Center. The Vertical Assembly Building (VAB) is at center-left; the Launch Control Center is the lowest building angling off from the south wall of the VAB at right; the crawlerway extends towards Launch Pad 39A at right; and the dual-lane Kennedy Parkway crosses the photo at the bottom (NASA photo).

Farther to the north stood the low silhouette of the giant treaded “crawler” that, three months earlier, had carried the Apollo 17 crew, rocket, launch tower, and spacecraft America and Challenger over the Tennessee River gravel roadbed on the first leg of a journey to the lunar valley of Taurus-Littrow. Three miles from the Atlantic’s dim lines of breakers, our Saturn V, all 364 feet of it, now stood on a raised concrete and steel launch pad, poised above the yawning flame diverter trench, waiting for the kerosene and liquid oxygen that would fuel its brief life. Searchlights turned this special rocket into a gleaming white spear, pointed incongruously away from a thin crescent Moon low in the western sky. Reflected beams of light played across lines of low offshore clouds and sped on into space.


As the days moved toward our scheduled launch at 9:53 pm, December 6, 1972, Gene Cernan, Ron Evans, and I began the “last” of many training requirements. The last of our monthly geology field exercises on real geological terrain took place on November 2nd and 3rd with simulated traverses around Sunset Crater northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona.[2] This training site had been chosen because Sunset Crater and its surrounding basaltic volcanic terrain were possibly similar to the apparent “dark mantle” deposits geologists had mapped in the Taurus-Littrow area.[3] To avoid losing the time it would take to fly T-38s from Patrick AFB to Ellington AFB at Houston to Luke AFB near Phoenix and then drive two hours to Flagstaff, we instead flew in one hop from Patrick to Flagstaff on NASA-4, one of NASA’s Gulfstream I turboprop aircraft, arriving in Flagstaff about eight in the evening. I suspect the flight-time was spent catching up on sleep. Soon after arriving at the small airport south of town, our routine, pre-training exercise briefing and discussion covering the simulated “landing site traverse plans” took place over a beer at Astrogeologist Red Bailey’s home.

The first day’s planned traverse would take place near the base of Sunset Crater — actually a volcanic cone with a summit crater. Based on tree ring analysis, this feature formed during an eruption in 1066 AD and almost certainly was viewed by the ancestors of today’s Pueblo Indians. (I joked that the Sunset Crater eruption was a geological celebration of the Norman Conquest of England.) On the second day, we would work through a lunar-like crater field in the dry Cinder Lake southwest of Sunset Crater. Gordon Swann, Red Bailey, and their colleagues from Geological Survey’s local Astrogeology Center created this crater field using explosives of varying energy. The field included salted rocks and boulders of various types to add to its similarity to cratered areas on the Moon. Both days’ sites provided as realistic a lunar exploration tune-up as possible on Earth. On the traverses, we would employ working versions of our various geological tools as well as use the Survey’s “Grover”, a drivable mockup of the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV or “the Rover”).[4] We also had functioning versions of the Traverse Gravimeter[5] (TGE), the Seismic Profiling Experiment[6] (SPE), and the Surface Electrical Properties Experiment[7] (SEP) that we would operate or deploy along our traverses on the Moon.

The same teams that would be working the actual mission staffed the Mission Control Center in Houston, including the Science Support Room under Jim Lovell’s supervision, and participated by radio relay in this last comprehensive exploration training exercise. Most of Lovell’s team had no more specific geological knowledge of the exercise area than did we; however, some on the team, like Gordon Swann, knew the geology of the Sunset Crater region very well. Our Apollo 17 EVA Capcom, Bob Parker, under the watchful eye of Flight Director Gerry Griffin, communicated directly with Cernan and me as we explored, photographed and sampled the lava flows, ash falls, and crater field. Parker, knowing more than did others about how we operated in the field, acted as a filter relative to inputs from the Science Support Room and the Flight Controllers. On a non-interference basis, the Simulation Supervisor (SIMSUP) exposed the Mission Control Center to numerous systems’ failures related to other aspects of this phase of the mission.

On the first day of the exercise, Cernan and I bundled up against a cold wind, so typical of this time of year at the ~7000 feet altitude of the Flagstaff area. It was, in fact, November and a light snow had already fallen in the area. The sun-warmed, dark volcanic rock and ash, however, had melted the little bit of accumulated snow. We drove the Grover roughly along a planned loop relative to a simulated landing point (Fig. 4.1). The Lunar Module was represented by a plywood “cabin” in the back of a Survey pickup truck. In the five and quarter hours of the exercise, we explored and sampled the areas around six stations selected on the basis of a geological analysis of aerial photographs. All the normal traverse tasks were performed, including descriptive and photographic documentation of samples; describing and photo-graphing geological features; coring, trenching, and sampling the soils and ash deposits; filling special sample containers; and taking gravity readings along our route. A radio debriefing with Mission Control and a discussion of any descriptive misunderstandings followed the exercise.

Fig. 4.1. Harrison Schmitt (left) and Gene Cernan (right) on one of many excursions with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Grover (1-g Rover) training vehicle (NASA Photo S72-48864).

Instead of camping at the training site after the exercise, we returned to the newly opened Little America hotel in Flagstaff for a “rest period.” This soon was followed by a good Mexican food dinner at Swann’s favorite restaurant.

Based on Mission Control’s and the Science Support Room’s revised plan, and our pre-traverse discussion with Parker about that plan, we spent the next day exploring five stations in six hours, traveling a total of 12.75 km (7.9 miles). This traverse took us to the south of Sunset Crater into the artificial crater field (Fig. 4.2). Another radio debriefing followed before we headed for NASA-4 at the Flagstaff Airport and a long flight to Houston for the weekend.

Fig. 4.2. The author visually examining one of the larger explosion craters in the U.S. Geological Survey’s artificial crater field near Sunset Crater, Flagstaff, Arizona (NASA Photo S72-54471)

Early Monday morning, November 6th, after fasting for twelve hours, we gave ourselves over to the tender mercies of the flight surgeons for our flight minus 30-day physicals. This physical consisted of “the whole nine yards”[8]: blood draws, urine tests, cardiac monitoring during a max-performance treadmill run, eye and hearing exams, and the hands-on full body examination, including the usual prostate exam. After a big lunch to make up for missing breakfast, Cernan went to Ellington for his next to last round of flights in the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV)[9].

Although it bore little physical resemblance to an actual Lunar Module, the LLTV was a real flight vehicle (Fig. 4.3). A vertically mounted jet engine provided primary thrust and gave it vertical and translation control. During a simulated landing run, that jet engine subtracted five-sixths of the weight of the vehicle to simulate lunar gravity. Hydrogen peroxide thrusters simulated the Reaction Control System of the Lunar Module and, along with similar electronic systems, provided the pilot with attitude control.

Figure 4.3 Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV) in flight with Neil Armstrong at the Controls (NASA Photo).

Early training with the LLTV got off to a rocky start at Ellington after about 200 development flights by NASA ops pilots Joe Walker, Don Mallich, Army Colonel E. E. Kleuver, Joe Algranti, Harold “Bud” Ream, Jere Cobb, and Stu Present at Edwards Air Force Base where it was developed. Two of the early flights at Ellington ended in crashes with staff pilots Algranti and Present bailing out safely. Neil Armstrong also bailed out before a third crash not long before his Apollo 11 mission to the Moon. (Armstrong returned to his office after the crash and did not bother to mention what happened to anyone. We only found out about it by word of mouth from the ops pilots.)

After Armstrong’s bailout, with systems and operational bugs worked out, and with a more conservative approach to flying when windy, all mission Commanders and Backup Commanders flew full training sequences. The original plan had been to have Lunar Module Pilots checked out in the LLTV and for us to fly the full training regimen. That was the primary reason that we all became qualified in helicopters to gain vertical landing experience. It became clear early on, however, that it would tax the training and maintenance system just to train the Commanders and still keep to the launch schedules, so no Lunar Module Pilots flew the LLTV unless they were later assigned to missions as Commanders. If it had been otherwise, it would have been an exciting addition to my experiences, believe me!

While Cernan worked with the LLTV, Evans and I went through another discussion at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) with Flight Control and Engineering personnel on potential problems that could occur during Trans-Lunar Insertion (TLI), that is, the launch out of Earth-orbit on the SIVB third stage of the Saturn V. Later, the three of us flew separate T-38s back to Patrick AFB. Although the T-38 had a back seat, we always flew in different aircraft because the Astronaut Office rule had long been for flight crew members to fly alone in order to minimize the possibility of losing most of a crew in an aircraft accident.

The next day, election-day, and one month before the scheduled launch, Cernan, Evans, and I put on our training pressure suits and spent over four hours in a full Mission Simulation of launch and Trans-Lunar Insertion. Later that day, while Cernan practiced landings in LMS2[10] (Lunar Module Simulator #2), I performed the last deployment of the actual flight hardware of our Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package (ALSEP) that we would deploy on our first lunar excursion. The Astronaut Office had a long-standing requirement that all actual flight hardware would go through a “crew fit and function” check (CF2) prior to seeing that hardware again in flight. The ALSEP CF2 activity took place under many watchful eyes in the large Air Force Hanger S near the Titan launch area east of the NASA Kennedy Space Center.

The most significant question I had during this pre-flight ALSEP deployment concerned an experiment designed to detect the “free” oscillations (inherent vibration modes) of the Moon as a single large body in space. This Lunar Surface Gravimeter[11] basically consisted of a very long period seismometer. If the whole Moon, very low frequency-free oscillations occurred simultaneously with free oscillations observed by seismometers on Earth, it would prove the existence of gravity waves moving through space. Such waves have been predicted by Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. Their detection by using the Moon-Earth System as a giant geophysical sensor in space would potentially be worth a Nobel Prize for Dr. James Weber of the University of Maryland.

My question for Dr. Weber and his team, however, was “Have you tested the release (uncaging) of the instrument’s balance beam on an inclined plane to simulate the Moon’s one-sixth gravity?”

“No, we have not,” was the reply.

“Why not?”

“It would reveal proprietary information owned by the manufacturer,” was the surprising response.

In spite of the hectic training schedule at the time, I should have followed through on this question. Subsequent events on the Moon (Chapters 10, 12), when the instrument balance beam would not fully uncage, made my not following through something I regret to this day.

That evening in the Crew Quarters, Farouk El Baz led another discussion of the lunar geological features along our ground track that could be observed and photographed from orbit during various phases of the mission. Belcomm geologist El Baz had been assigned by NASA Headquarters to take over this training function for Apollo 13 after I had to stop doing this when assigned to the Apollo 15 Backup crew early in 1970. At Bill Ander’s request, I had introduced “orbital geology” training for the crew of Apollo 8 and followed up with the crews of Apollos 10, 11, and 12.[12] El Baz liked to do the photogeological instruction all by himself, unlike my approach of bringing in various specialists from the Geological Survey. For Apollo 15 and Apollo 17, I continued to fill in some of the specialized gaps created by El Baz’s more personalized scheme.

Many, many activities occupied the hours and days leading up to launch. The largest chunks of time involved repeated LMS and CMS (Command Module Simulator) simulator training covering all critical mission and mission abort sequences, as well as systems familiarization, and proficiency flights in our T-38 jets and H-13 helicopters. Our weekend returns to Houston provided additional T-38 proficiency flying, at least until quarantine kicked in three weeks before launch. I kept up a daily exercise routine of running laps on our one and a quarter mile coral sand track through the palmettos and past the occasional rattlesnake. Each evening I would spend an hour in the weight room before bedtime, particularly concentrating on hand and forearm strength. Little did I know that I was not doing enough in this regard. We, along with the Backup Crew, also participated in a wide variety of systems briefings, flight meal menu tasting and selection, physical examinations at 30, 15, and 5 days before launch, and discussions of lunar geology and lunar orbit observation targets.

Most evenings, Cernan and I and Young and Duke would gather with Bill Muehlberger and his geologists, traverse planners, and timeline specialists to go over the routes, stations, and tasks for our geological exploration of the valley of Taurus-Littrow. A final, ½ inch thick, lime green cover, Apollo 17 Traverse Planning Data document appeared early in November. This document generally covered our exploration plans and contingencies based largely on the geological analysis by Muehlberger’s team of available photographs of the landing area. By the time we entered the spacecraft for launch, we knew the features in the valley extremely well, but only within the limits imposed by the ~5 m identifying resolution and limited range of sun angles of the photographs taken of the Taurus-Littrow area by Apollo 15[13] and Lunar Orbiter cameras[14]. The surprises, and there would be many, lay underneath that photographic and illumination resolution.

Wednesday, November 8th, brought on our last full Lunar Ascent Mission Simulation involving Mission Control in Houston. Six weeks hence, we hoped we would be undertaking the real thing and departing the Moon at the conclusion of a highly successful exploration effort. This “Sim” required over three straight hours in LMS2 (Fig. 4.4), including the debriefing with SIMSUP (Simulation Supervisor). Failure or degradation of the primary guidance or engine ignition subsystems constituted the primary concerns addressed in Ascent Simulations. We particularly worked through several scenarios involving failure of the various software-initiated means of igniting the Ascent Engine.

Fig. 4.4. Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt in LMS2 during training at the Kennedy Space Center (NASA Photo KSC-72PC-0539).

[We did not have a great deal of concern about our Challenger Lunar Module, like all the others before it, having just one Ascent Engine, because, in fact, it was at least two engines that just looked like one. Only the solid metal fuel and oxidizer injector ring and the exhaust nozzle below that ring did not have identical, that is, “redundant” components that would function even if a primary component failed. No one could imagine a failure mode for these non-electronic and solid pieces of hardware.

If all internal Ascent Engine ignition options actually failed, and many such options existed to fall back on, we also had two sets of jumper cables, the use of which will sound a little familiar. We also had set of jumper cables that could be used as a next to last backup to ignite the Ascent Engine. These were called the “ED/APS Emergency Jumper Cable” and would use power from an independent Pyrotechnic Battery in the Descent Stage to open the engine’s fuel and oxidizer valves and fire the pyrotechnic cable and bolt cutters that would simultaneously separate us from the Descent Stage.

To use the second of these cables, however, one of us would need to egress Challenger in order to access a regular Descent Stage battery. Integrity checks of our suit would determine which one of us would perform this emergency EVA. If Cernan’s pressure suit did not pass its pre-egress checks sufficiently to permit egress with the jumper cables, we would change positions in the cabin, a tough task on its own. As we would have already jettisoned our Portable Life Support Systems, it would be necessary to use the OPS (Oxygen Purge System) we had retained to support the EVA that Evans would perform to retrieve film canisters from America’s Scientific Equipment Bay after leaving lunar orbit for home. The 8000 psi oxygen bottle in the OPS could provide a maximum of 30 minutes of oxygen and air-cooling once activated. There would be no water cooling, however, without a PLSS.

With the Challenger’s cabin depressurized, the winner of the integrity check contest would take one end of the pair of cables out the hatch and down the ladder and move to QUAD III where a battery could be accessed. He would then tear away the Kevlar covers and attach the color-coded pair of cables to the positive and negative terminals of a battery and then return to the cabin. At the optimum liftoff time for ascent into a rendezvous sequence with Evans, Cernan would attach the cables to two circuit breakers near his left shoulder. This action would supply instant power to the two sets of hypergolic (ignite on contact) hydrazine and nitrous oxide valves in the Ascent Engine. Once power reached these valves, they would open and lock open. With opening of these valves, a signal would go to the cable and bolt cutters. We would be instantly on our way into lunar orbit, still in an un-pressurized cabin, dragging our jumper cables behind us. Once back in lunar orbit, we could clear and seal the hatch and pressurize the cabin.]

As exciting as they were professionally stressful, these full Mission Simulations pitted the crew against the Mission Control team as to who could first detect the systems’ problems introduced by SIMSUP. Mission Control invariably won these imagined competitions; however, there was no question such efforts sharpened everyone’s skills and understanding of the spacecraft.

Thursday, Cernan and I put on our training EVA (ExtraVehicular Activity) suits for another full Mission Simulation, this time dealing with our first lunar EVA and partly in the Florida sunshine. We again used the realistic training mockups of the ALSEP, the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), and other equipment that would be stored in Challenger’s Descent Stage.

A new sampling device I asked for to save some time during Apollo 17 exploration consisted of a set of Teflon Dixie Cup-type containers on a long handle that would allow us to get periodic samples of the lunar regolith without dismounting from the LRV (Fig. 4.5). When analyzed back on Earth, these more frequent samples would permit the detection of subtle changes in regolith composition that might not be visible to the eye. Refining the techniques and motions for documented sampling, including proper placement of the gnomon and consideration of sun angle, possibly constituted the most important aspect of these repeated suited training exercises (Fig. 4.6). Without this documentation, the identification and original location and orientation of most samples would have been impossible. I also spent time developing the best technique for implanting small ALSEP geophones that would pick up the seismic signals from explosive packages we would deploy for remote detonation after leaving the Moon (Fig. 4.7).

Fig. 4.5. Practice operating the Lunar Roving Vehicle trainer (Grover) and using the Rover Sampling (“Dixie Cup”) device during EVA training at the Kennedy Space Center. Harrison Schmitt with tool on the left and Eugene Cernan driving on the right. (NASA Photo 72-H-1227)

Fig. 4.6. Practice in lunar sample documentation during training at the Kennedy Space Center. Schmitt directing sampling on the left with Cernan on the right. (NASA Photo 72-H-1228)

Fig. 4.7. The author practicing implantation of the last of the small geophones that would be part of a linear array to detect seismic signals from explosives that would be part of the ALSEP Lunar Seismic Profiling experiment. The geophones were wound on a reel and each had a flag (both in the author’s left hand) to show its position in photographs. (NASA Photo AP17-72-H-1412)

These three- to four-hour suited simulations in Earth gravity challenged us physically but always gave Mission Control and the EVA planners a better perspective on how long deployments would actually take. Even then, for work on the Moon, we always built in even more time to take into account the rough terrain, the more difficult body control in one-sixth gravity, and the few but inevitable unexpected problems with hardware. This long, suited training exercise also gave me a chance to see how Cernan’s injured leg was going to hold up.[15] I suspect the leg hurt by the end of the SIM, but he never complained, as I recall, except to wince a little getting in and out of the suit.

The pressure suits weighed about 80 pounds and the training backpack added another 20 pounds or so. On the Moon, the actual Portable Life Support System (PLSS) on our backs would weigh 120 Earth pounds, with the total of the two and me weighing about 370 Earth pounds…but only 62 Moon pounds. Unfortunately, we could not train in one-sixth gravity but rather had to work on a pretend lunar surface area in a back lot of the Space Center, in the central Florida sun, and move around about 270 pounds of suit, backpack, and body. Fortunately, the pressurized suit supported most of the weight of the suit and PLSS. I remember, however, helping with Apollo 12’s suited training of a similar nature, when we almost gave Alan Bean heatstroke. This close call made me realize that, if ice water could be pumped through it, we could use the water-cooled underwear (Liquid Cooled Garment or LCG) we would have on the Moon. From then on for EVA training, each suited crewman had a technician trailing behind carrying an ice water backpack, connected by hoses to the water port on the astronaut’s suit. We never were conscious of anyone behind us and were able to physically tolerate much longer training exercises (Fig. 4.8).

Fig. 4.8. Schmitt returns to the LRV trainer (Grover) after deploying a mock-up of the Surface Electrical Properties experiment’s transmitter. He is followed by a technician carrying a backpack of ice water that is being fed by hoses into water-cooled underwear worn inside the pressure suit. Cernan is on the Grover (NASA Photo AP17-72-H-1410)

For training in the pressure suits, we use circulating fresh air for breathing and could remove the suit helmet if an air supply problem occurred. On the Moon, however, failure of the oxygen supply system on one of the space suits during actual lunar exploration was one of the potential problems for which we also prepared. Because of this possibility, the Lunar Rover stowage included an insulated hose that could be attached to suit ports on the two suits and that would allow both of us to breathe oxygen from the remaining working system. The hose was long enough so that we could either ride the Rover or walk back to the Challenger, side by side. Once at the LM, the crewman without a working oxygen system would disconnect the hose, activate oxygen from his emergency OPS and climb the ladder to enter the cabin. This procedure probably would have been necessary, temporarily, when getting on and off the Rover.

While Cernan and I worked with Mission Control on the activities of the first EVA, Evans trained simultaneously with flight controllers responsible for America’s systems that would be active during this part of the overall Flight Plan. His simulation included working the SIM-Bay cameras and sensors. Having both EVA and CSM simulations going together gave SIMSUP the opportunity to stress the Flight Director and his Flight Controllers from two different directions. After some physical recovery time and lunch, Cernan and I spent another three hours in the LMS, working various abnormal landing sequences again and again.

Fig. 4.9. Harrison Schmitt preparing for a flight in a T-38 by giving the ground crew the signal to divert the air starter hose to engine #1. These T-38 flights not only provided transportation between the Patrick AFB near the Kennedy Space Center and Ellington AFB near the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, but gave continued proficiency in the operation of high-performance systems and in the assumption of the risks associated with such operations (NASA photo KSC-72PC-0604).

That evening, the three of us flew separate T-38s back to Ellington AFB in Houston for four days of activities at MSC (Fig. 4.9). This would be our last visit to Houston until we returned from the Moon. For these commuting trips, the fuel load and high altitude efficiency of a T-38 allowed a non-stop flight east from Ellington to Patrick AFB in Florida, particularly if Air Traffic Control would clear us for the direct route across the Gulf of Mexico at about 40,000 feet altitude. Flying west against the prevailing westerly winds, however, required a re-fueling stop at Barksdale AFB near Bossier City, Louisiana, or Maxwell AFB near Montgomery, Alabama. The choice between the two depended on local weather. These brief re-fueling visits, and others like them in travels around the United States, always impressed me because of the enthusiasm and competence of the Air Force and Navy ground crews that serviced our planes.

Friday, November 10th, Cernan flew his 13th and 14th LLTV flights and Evans worked suited on docking probe removal and installation in the MSC mockup of the tunnel between the Command and Lunar Modules. In the meantime, I went over some details of our lunar exploration plans with Muehlberger’s geology team. Later, Evans and I met up with Reta Rapp for a briefing on the menu options we had for the daily food onboard the flight. Reta provided detailed instructions on removing food from stowage, reminded us to put a germicidal tablet into each used food package, repeatedly told us to take our time in re-hydrating the freeze-dried and dehydrated meals, and emphasized that we be careful and not cut our fingers on keyed can lids. Usually, what we selected for our menus appeared in sequence on the appropriate day and meal in space; however, somehow, the salmon salad that no one ever requested still showed up as part of an occasional meal.

Later in the day, Young and Duke joined the three of us for a press conference, largely for the local Houston media. Friday also happened to be Ron Evan’s birthday, which he celebrated at home with Jan and the kids.

On this trip, we also met with General Jacob E. Smart (USAF-retired) for a classified discussion of some possible contingency options that would have us staying in Earth orbit rather than going to the Moon. For example, after reaching orbit, one possibility might be that the Saturn IVB third stage could not be reused for the Trans-Lunar Insertion burn. General Smart (1909-2006) was an extraordinary American, receiving the Distinguished Service Medal for heroism during World War II and spending the last year of the war as a prisoner of the Germans. Many years later, I realized a connection with my wife’s father, Lieutenant Francis “Fitz” Fitzgibbon, a B-24 pilot with the 8th Air Force, who also spent the last year of the war as a prisoner in Poland and then Germany.

Our last face-to-face, pre-mission press conference occurred on Saturday, November 11, five days before we entered our three weeks of protective quarantine. The late Jules Bergmann (1929-1987), space reporter for ABC and a fixture at astronaut press conferences beginning with the Mercury Program, was expected to be present on this day. Until the Apollo 13 accident, Bergmann had been a very optimistic supporter of Apollo; but for some reason, the Apollo 13 experience changed him. Maybe he felt betrayed by NASA, but why, I do not know. Since I replaced Joe Engle as the Apollo 17 Lunar Module Pilot, Bergman had been repeatedly trying to get me to say publicly that NASA waited too long to fly a scientist. As we prepared for questions, I sought him out and quietly asked him to leave this non-issue alone at this conference. So, of course, the first question he asked was, “Jack, do you think NASA waited too long to fly a scientist?” “Jules,” I replied, “that is water under the bridge. Leave it alone.” And we went on to other reporter’s questions dealing directly with the mission.

On Monday, November 13th, while Cernan flew his last two training flights in the LLTV (making a total of 46 flights in his career), Evans, Young, Duke, and I had a briefing on the possible sources of fire in the Command Module. We went over all the recommended responses if such an event actually occurred. This briefing built upon the tragic loss of astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Ed Chafee in the January 1967 fire during a pad test of their Apollo 204 spacecraft. Most importantly, the cabin was no longer ever pressurized with pure oxygen during tests or launch. Also, since the 204 fire, the redesign of the Command Module, the elimination of flammable material from the cabin and cooling system, and the atmospheric nitrogen that remained in the cabin for the first few days of the mission, made a fire extremely unlikely. But we tried not to ignore any credible possibility.

After Cernan finished with the LLTV, the combined Prime and Backup Crews had a last briefing on South Pacific Recovery Operations from Landing and Recovery Division Chief Jerry Hammock and his small team. Hammock was a friend who, in late 1968, helped me sell the idea of slipping the launch date of the Apollo 10 operational test mission to the Moon by one day.[16] After the recovery discussion, while Cernan repeated Evans’ exercises in the Command Module-Lunar Module tunnel mockup, Young, Duke and I spent a couple of hours talking with David Carrier, James Mitchell, and other lunar geotechnical experts (soil mechanics, e.g., bearing strength, internal friction, etc.). They wanted to be sure we knew what to expect mechanically when walking and driving across the mixed rock and glass debris (regolith) covering the lunar surface.

Mid-afternoon, we cranked up the T-38s and flew back to Florida for dinner with NASA Administrator James Fletcher and Deputy Administrator George M. Low. Fletcher had taken over as Administrator from Thomas Paine in late 1971. World War II submariner Paine, previously, had replaced James Webb just prior to the Apollo 8 mission in December 1968. (Paine and I first became acquainted when we handled the March 2nd, 1969, pre-launch briefing the night before Apollo 9 flew into Earth-orbit to flighttest the Lunar Module for the first time. (In 1984, I joined Paine on the Board of the Orbital Science Corporation where we worked together for several more years.)

Low took the Deputy Administrator’s job late in 1969 after having superbly managed the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office at the Manned Spacecraft Center during the period between the Apollo 204 fire in January 1967 and the successful lunar landings of Apollos 11 and 12 in 1969. I had interacted with Low on many technical and programmatic issues from 1966 until his departure from Houston, and, of course, he had overruled Deke Slayton to have me assigned to Apollo 17. It was a delight to spend this relaxed time with Low at dinner. The subject of my replacement of Joe Engle on Cernan’s crew, of course, was not discussed at this dinner; but I am sure that both Low and I, and, indeed, Cernan remained conscious of this change in the original Apollo 17 crew makeup throughout much of our more technical discussions about the mission.

[In 1974-75, I worked for Low and Fletcher at NASA Headquarters after they asked me to organize and run an Energy Program Office, aimed at transferring space-related energy conversion technologies to other users. After Low became President of Rensselear Polytechnic Institute, he invited me to give RPI’s graduation address in 1975 and to receive an honorary doctorate from that highly respected institution.]

After dinner, Fletcher and Low left to fly back to Washington and Cernan, Young, Duke, and I adjourned to our crew quarters’ conference room to work with Bill Muehlberger and his Geological Survey colleague, Val Freeman, on refining the objectives for our third exploration excursion in Taurus-Littrow. Muehlberger, a former Marine and Caltech graduate and then Professor of Geology at the University of Texas-Austin, had the role of Principal Investigator for the Lunar Field Geology Experiment, that is, he led the field geology planning team for our mission. He had the same responsibility for Apollo 16 so Young and Duke knew him well. The plan for this last Apollo exploration excursion had us concentrating, first, on the expected large boulders near the base of the North Massif wall of the valley. One such boulder was large enough to be visible in the relatively low-resolution Apollo 15 photographs. Then, we would try to sample and decipher the nature of the materials underlying the enigmatic Sculptured Hills to the east of the Massif. Finally, we would examine the crater Van Serg, another possible volcanic crater like the crater Shorty we planned to visit on our second excursion. As we worked on lunar surface geology plans, Evans and Roosa had another orbital observation and photography planning session with El Baz.

The next day, November 14th, we participated in the last full Mission Simulation of the Service Propulsion System (SPS) rocket burns required for Lunar Orbit Insertion (LOI). This Sim took over four and a half hours and also included the first of a sequence of two short SPS burns, called Descent Orbit Insertions (DOIs), necessary to lower the orbit of the docked spacecraft so that Challenger could carry more landed payload than otherwise possible. The Sim took place an entire month before we actually would initiate those burns behind the Moon. Although we had practiced the LOI-DOI procedures and possible failures many times before, a month still seemed like a long time to wait before actually doing this for real. All three burns would occur behind the Moon where we would be out of communications with Mission Control. SIMSUP, however, was not so constrained and could still insert systems or guidance problems with which we would have to contend without any assistance, at least until communications were acquired once again. Needless-to-say, this and most other full Mission Simulations challenged everyone.

After the LOI Sim with Mission Control, thoroughly wrung out mentally, Cernan and I still went through a “bench check” of all the flight items (except the ALSEP) that would be stored in Challenger’s four Descent Stage bays. This included the Lunar Rover, a graphite cask that would contain the plutonium fuel for the ALSEP’s power system, a Radioisotopic Thermoelectric Generator (RTG), and geological tools, film and other items stowed in the Modular Equipment Stowage Assembly (MESA) that filled the bay nearest the Challenger’s ladder. We hoped that the next time we would see these items would be on the lunar surface.

But I was not yet through for the day with training actually related to Lunar Orbit Insertion. Late that afternoon, I drove out to Patrick Air Force Base, south of Kennedy, for an hour of proficiency flying in the bubble-canopied H-13, a Korean War Era “M*A*S*H” type helicopter temporarily stationed there for our use. This hour consisted of various landings and practice autorotations rather than just sightseeing along the beaches and bayous. Because flying the H-13 required full use of both left and right hands, I found that my level of proficiency in flying the H-13 corresponded directly to how well I could do my part in flying the Lunar Module to recover from a SPS under-burn during LOI. If a particular class of early under-burns occurred, Cernan and I would have to immediately go through the access tunnel and partially activate the Challenger. As reaching the 20º North Latitude site of Taurus-Littrow required flying out of the Moon-Earth ecliptic plane on a non-free-return trajectory, we would need a large burn on Challenger’s rocket engines to return to such a trajectory and a safe entry in the Earth’s atmosphere. This is exactly what was required for Apollo 13 when the oxygen tank explosion eliminated the use of the Service Propulsion System.[17] Being less out-of-plane than we would be, however, they had more time to prepare before such an emergency burn was required.

In this class of early LOI aborts, we would need to burn the Descent Engine within 30 minutes of the LOI under-burn in order to have enough energy to get back on a free-return trajectory. There was even a possibility that the Ascent Engine also might be needed after the Descent Engine had burned to depletion in order to gain sufficient total energy for this trajectory correction. The time constraint and lack of communications with Houston while behind the Moon prevented initializing the Challenger’s internal guidance so that it could control the burn. This meant that burn would have to be controlled manually.

The difficulty in manually controlling the attitude of an LOI Abort burn from the Challenger came from the fact that the center of gravity of the two combined spacecraft was offset significantly toward the more massive America from where it normally would be during a Descent Engine burn to land on the Moon. This offset meant that we would have to continuously null the attitude error needles relative to a reference attitude given to us by Mission Control in an update prior to LOI. These error needles were displayed on our two Attitude Indicators (“eight balls”) on the panels in front of us. To obtain enough control authority, we each would simultaneously use our left hand, x-y-z thrust hand controller (TTCA) along with our right hand, attitude controller (ATC). This created a significant challenge for hand-eye coordination, that is, to use two hands to null the error needles. To make this task humanly possible, Cernan would control only yaw, that is, “fly” only the yaw error needle, and I would control only the pitch needle. Even then, I found that I performed this task much more precisely the more helicopter flying time I had. Flying the H-13 also required two hands (plus two feet) coordinated with what my eye and brain told me about attitude and vertical velocity.


Three weeks of protective health quarantine began on November 15th. Direct contacts were limited to just over 100 people, and each of these contacts had their health closely monitored with daily medical checkups. This effort to limit our close interactions to a relatively small number of essential support people and immediate family grew out of the apparent exposure of T. K. (Ken) Mattingly to measles a few days before his planned launch as Command Module Pilot for Apollo 13. Although Mattingly’s actual exposure was questionable (he never contracted measles), the Flight Surgeons strongly recommended that Backup CMP Jack Swigert replace him on the mission. No one elsewhere in management felt they could take the risk of overruling that recommendation.[18] It became a good example of why pilots in general did not trust flight surgeons (Air Force and Navy physicians) — they could ground you, i.e., remove you from flight status, at the stroke of a pen with little possibility of appeal. Every pilot seemed to have a personal experience that re-enforced this belief.

The daily physicals for cleared contact personnel minimized the chances that cold, flu, or other germs could come into contact with the Prime and Backup crews. Johnny Hart created a wonderful set of B.C.©[19] comic posters and cards for what was known as the Flight Crew Health Stabilization Program[20]. One poster had the snake, after being clobbered again by The Fat Broad, reporting “a change in my health” to B.C., identified as Medical Officer. Another had Wiley being refused entry to the Crew Quarters because of termites in his peg leg. A third showed Peter’s stone sign with the words “Take an Astronaut to Launch” with Curls telling Peter “That’s the worst pun I’ve ever seen!”

None of last four mission crews became sick so maybe the quarantine and associated inconveniences of the Stabilization Program worked. Talking with family and guests through a large glass window, however, was not very satisfactory. My Mother kept a detailed diary all her adult life, but for this date she merely stated, without other comment, “Astronauts went into quarantine Nov. 15.”

This first day of quarantine also included the last full Mission Simulation of activities related to landing on the Moon, that is, Descent Orbit Insertion and Landing. The Sim consumed over six hours and involved use of the simulators for both spacecraft, with Cernan and me leaving Evans in the CMS and moving to LMS2 for activation and landing. For the simulated landings, the projected view from LMS2’s windows was provided by a small video camera moving toward a three-dimensional model of the valley of Taurus-Littrow, hung upside down above LMS2. The simulator’s computer controlled the movement of the camera, as altered by the various control inputs we made in the cabin, all based on the trajectories provided by the computer’s model of the guidance system.

Even though this was a long and challenging Sim for all three of us, later in the day, Evans and Roosa covered the final Crew Fit and Function (CF2) check of the flight cameras and other sensors to be installed in the Scientific Instrument Module Bay (SIM-Bay) of America. Evans had a particular interest in this check as he would next see these same cameras when he recovered their film canisters during a space-walk he would undertake on the way back from the Moon.

November 16 found us polishing up our skills in the two spacecraft simulators with the continuing help of the outstanding computer engineers manning their consoles. I particularly kept working with the Abort Guidance System (AGS, pronounced “aggs”), a backup computer for controlling Challenger in case of a failure of the Primary Guidance and Navigation System (PNGS, pronounced “pings”). Instead of having a set of three, three-axis gyroscopes like the PNGS to maintain knowledge of attitude changes in inertial space, the AGS used three strapped down accelerometers, mounted perpendicular to each other, and thus was subject to a higher rate of error accumulation. The AGS attitude control function, however, actually provided a preferred fine control for changing and maintaining orientation of the Challenger and was used routinely for that purpose.

Early in Apollo 17’s training cycle, I asked the AGS engineers if it were possible to provide the AGS computer with an altitude update during the latter phases of descent to the lunar surface and after the PNGS had a good Landing Radar altitude input. My reason for doing this was for the AGS to have altitude data good enough for Cernan to land Challenger in Taurus-Littrow in the event of a PNGS failure. Our official Mission Rules required an abort after such a failure, but there was general agreement among crews that after getting that close, it was worth a look at landing on the AGS. The AGS engineers took up the challenge and found that I could manually enter a single altitude fix. We decided that I would enter 30,000 feet when the PNGS displayed that radar-sensed altitude. This became my major operational contribution to the use of the AGS, but fortunately the PNGS worked perfectly, and we never had to make a decision on whether or not to use the AGS to land.

On November 17th, the three Apollo 17 astronauts spent four and a half hours practicing various entry profiles for our return to Earth on December 19. Then, Cernan and I went through three hours in LMS2 working through the complexities of suiting up (“donning”) and preparing the Challenger’s cabin for a lunar surface excursion, or Extravehicular Activity (EVA), and then reversing the process for the post-EVA removal of the suits (“doffing”). Thirteen years later, November 17 became extremely important, namely, my wedding to the love of my life, Teresa Agnes Fitzgibbon of Los Alamos, New Mexico.

That Saturday afternoon, as the medical quarantine now was in place, and we could not fly back to Houston for the weekend, Cernan and I worked together on landings in the LMS for about two hours. Long before this, we had our routine for landing well in hand. Once we accepted the validity of the landing radar data and allowed it to update the Primary Guidance And Navigation System (PNGS), the computer display provided the numerical intersections on an optical grid called the COAS (Crew Optical Alignment Sight) mounted in Cernan’s window that indicated where the guidance system would land the Challenger if not directed otherwise by manual inputs. I called out the COAS grid coordinates from the PNGS computer display since that display lay out of Cernan’s easily accessible field of view. Frequent altitude readouts were interspersed with these grid numbers.

Manual control of the projected landing point actually meant using the right hand controller to communicate with the guidance system. Clicks forward or back or left or right would tell the computer to re-designate the landing point in those respective directions. The re-designated distance for each click decreased continuously as the distance to the landing site decreased giving the pilot more and more precise landing control.

Cernan’s attention throughout the landing sequence, from pitch-over at 8,000 feet when the landing area became visible to us, was concentrated out of his window and on the COAS grid while also cross-checking flight control instruments at eye level to his right. Meanwhile, in addition to providing the COAS grid numbers, I cross-checked between the computer display, the AGS display, and instruments showing fuel and engine status. We depended on Mission Control to alert us if they saw any other problem develop. Once we reached about 500 feet above the surface and entered P66, the PNGS’s final landing program, I would call out only the information being shown by the computer display relative to altitude, altitude rate of change, and the velocities in the two horizontal axes. Every quarter minute or so, I cross-checked the AGS display to be sure it agreed with the PNGS and was ready to take over in any possible contingency.

After we finished landing practice and Cernan left the LMS, I continued to work LM systems and AGS landings for another three hours. Later, I drove out to Patrick AFB and flew a T-38 out over the Atlantic for an hour and a quarter of high performance aerobatics. These aerobatics, with high g-loads and roll rates, would give me a slight headache and a slightly nauseous feeling after I landed. This recognition of specific symptoms of self-induced motion effects would stand in good stead when exposed to weightlessness for the first time on December 7th.

We took things easy on Sunday with football games and reading and went back to work on Monday, the 20th. After our early morning launch minus 15 days medical exam, Cernan and I spent nearly four hours in the LMS practicing normal and off-nominal lunar landings and aborts. That afternoon, we went through another suited practice for our lunar surface EVA-1 activities, but in this case we cross-trained on each other’s ALSEP deployment tasks. Cross-training made sure we knew what the other would be doing and prepared for the remote possibility that a malfunction in one of the backpacks would force a one-man EVA. After that, I worked with the engineers through details of the AGS subsystems once again.

Tuesday morning, Backup Commander John Young and I trained on lunar landings for over three hours in the LMS just in case he had to replace Cernan. Then, the Prime and Backup crews joined together for a three-hour, pre-lunch emersion in the complexities of guidance and navigation programs employed by the primary computers. With lunch over, Cernan, Evans and I suited up as we would on launch day (Fig. 4.10) and went out to PAD 39A to occupy America’s cabin for four hours as part of a full, pre-launch test of the Saturn V called Countdown Demonstration Test-Dry (CDDT-Dry). The “Dry” in this test referred to the fact that everything would be the same as on launch day except that the Saturn V fuel tanks would not be filled. CDDT use to be done “Wet”, that is, all the propellants and other fluids in the Saturn and spacecraft would flow into their respective tanks at the appropriate point in the launch countdown. After the 204-fire in January 1967 that killed Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, it was decided that the “Wet” demonstration during CDDT represented an unnecessary risk. The “Wet” part of the demonstration of launch preparedness took place without the crews present. The benefit to us for participating in the “Dry” test was two-fold: first, we would be able to see how the spacecraft systems and displays responded to various items covered by the test, and, second, we could be reminded of the few differences in appearance between the America and its simulator.

Fig. 4.10. Apollo 17 crew walks toward the Crew Transfer Van on the way to Pad 39 for the Countdown Demonstration Test-Dry (CDDT-Dry) as a final verification of launch day procedures (NASA Photo AP17-72-HC-876HR).

That evening, all six of the crewmen had another two-hour session on lunar orbital geology after dinner. Later, I checked in again with Mother in Silver City. She planned to drive to Tucson a few days early and spend the mission duration with my sister, Armena, and her family. As usual, she had begun to prepare for the trip well in advance (See Mother’s diary, Appendix I, November 21). For her stay with Armena, the Public Affairs Office representative from Houston set up a live voice feed from the spacecraft communications as they did for each of our families. My older sister and her husband, Sandra and Bob Decker, and their daughters, Janis and Linda, were coming to Florida to watch the launch. My father’s sisters, Helen Staples and Gretchen Strong, and a number of Mother’s kin from Tennessee and Alabama also had been invited and said they were coming.

November 22nd, the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death, found the three of us, Evans in the CMS and Cernan and me in the LMS, going through over five hours of full Mission Simulations and working though the many possible permutations of lunar ascent and rendezvous. We were given failures of the Rendezvous Radar; the LM guidance system so the CSM became the active vehicle; communications and power failures; depressurization of the LM; Ascent Engine under-burns; and the like. Quite a workout, but I recall that SIMSUP generally approved of the decisions made by Mission Control and the Crew, which in itself was unusual. Maybe he was just being nice which also would have been unusual.

Thanksgiving, the 23rd, gave us a chance to relax, make family calls, and watch football games. Geologist Bill Muehlberger, never one to miss a chance to reinforce our understanding of the lunar surface exploration before us, spent Thanksgiving evening with the four lunar surface astronauts refining plans for the three exploration traverses across the valley of Taurus-Littrow[21]. By this particular evening, the team’s understanding of what was known and interpreted about the geology of Taurus-Littrow, based largely on photographs taken during the Apollo 15 mission (Fig. 4.11) and the Lunar Orbiter unmanned spacecraft many years before, was as complete as it could be.[22] All that remained was to add detail to the plans for adding direct visual observation and sampling as tests of the various interpretations about what could be seen in the photographs.

The overall approach to Apollo lunar field exploration had become well-honed over the last several missions.[23] Basically, that approach involved the application of long-standing field geological principles of planning, field observation, and plan iteration, modified as necessary relative to time and operational constraints.[24]

Fig. 4.11. Apollo 15 Metric Camera high sun photograph of the region surrounding the Apollo 17 landing site in the valley of Taurus-Littrow. The right hand arrow points along the axis of the valley while the left hand arrow points toward the center of the Serenitatis Basin (NASA Photo AS15-M-0972).

A landing at Taraus-Littrow had been selected for the last Apollo mission because of the opportunity it presented to explore several important geologic formations exposed there in three dimensions, including the possibility of sampling young volcanic materials. Photogeologic mapping by my former colleagues in the Geological Survey[25] indicated that the dominant geologic event shaping the features of the region consisted of the asteroid or comet impact that created the 740 km diameter Serenitatis basin (Fig. 4.12). That impact penetrated a portion of the lunar crust covered by blankets of ejecta from several older impact events and may have excavated portions of the original lunar crust. The Serenitatis impact also resulted in four, recognizable structural rings concentric to the center of the basin. The second ring from the basin center is a mountainous rim cut by radial faults, two of which bound the valley of Taurus-Littrow.

Fig. 4.12. Location of the Serenitatis Basin and the Apollo 17 landing site relative to the Tranquillity Base landing site of Apollo 11. This near-full Moon photograph was taken by the author after leaving lunar orbit and shows a portion of the far-side of the Moon to the right. (NASA Photo AS17-152-23308).

Taurus-Littrow’s 50 km long, locally 2100 m deep valley cut deeply through Serenitatis’s southeast mountain rim that makes up the second structural ring and the primary topographic rim of the basin. Subsequent to the valley’s formation, the region was partially covered by an unknown thickness of ejecta from the impact event that formed the younger, 1000 km diameter Imbrium basin, adjoining Serenitatis to the northwest. The massif walls of the valley probably would be composed of impact ejecta (breccia) comparable to but of different ages from that sampled by earlier missions; however, the possibility remained that the massifs could be in whole or in part volcanic as suggested by their distinctive physiographic shapes. Expectations were that we could reach boulders that formed talus accumulations at the base of the massifs and, indeed, one such boulder, large enough to be seen on the Apollo 15 photographs and with a track leading back up the Massif, would be a specific exploration objective.

The Apollo 15 photographs also revealed a distinctive area forming the northeast wall of the valley that is very different in morphology from the other massifs. This area consisted of closely spaced domical hills generally without the steep slopes of the massif walls of the valley. The geologists had applied the name “Sculptured Hills” to this distinctive area.

The more or less level floor of the valley indicated that, subsequent to the valley’s formation, relatively fluid material partially filled it. One of the geophysical objectives would be to determine the original depth of the valley or at least the thickness of the fill. Uncertainty remained as to whether this fill material was basaltic lava similar to that forming the lunar maria elsewhere on the Moon or fluidized ejecta from the Imbrium impact, and because of this uncertainty, the team used the rather innocuous name “Subfloor Material” for this fill.

Some time after the emplacement of fill in the valley, a relatively thin, irregular deposit of relatively young, dark, probably volcanic material covered much of the region including the valley floor. This late arriving cover became known as the “Dark Mantle”. Of course, as everywhere on the Moon, a layer of small impact generated rock debris (regolith) had formed on all but the steepest slopes. Finally, an apparent avalanche of regolith flowed down the highest portion of the southwestern wall of the valley, leaving a plume-like deposit over part of the valley floor that was referred to as the “Light Mantle”. Mapping of the whole Moon suggested that this avalanche might have been triggered by debris thrown from the relatively young impact, 86 km diameter Crater Tycho, about 2000 km to the southwest. The pre-mission geologic map of the exploration area in Taurus-Littrow is shown in Fig. 4.13.

Fig. 4.13. Extract from the pre-mission geological map of the exploration area in the valley of Taurus-Littrow. The black circle with 4 outer tick marks above center and overlapping the green-colored Camelot crater denotes the proposed Apollo 17 landing site target. (USGS Geological Map Taurus-Littrow Plate 2[26], [27]).

In addition to deploying the many experiments comprising the ALSEP, our primary exploration objectives consisted of the following:[28]

  1. Massifs and related units – Determine their modes of origin and emplacement, vertical and lateral variation, and relationships to the dark mantling volcanic material and the unusual “Sculptured Hills” northeast of the landing site.
  2. Dark Mantle Material – Determine modes of origin and emplacement, internal layered variations (stratigraphy), relationships to other materials, and lateral variations.
  3. Subfloor Material – Determine modes of origin and emplacement and depth and lateral variations.

In addition, we would deploy geophones and charges for an active seismic geophysical experiment that, along with a portable gravimeter profile along our traverse routes, would provide information on the density, structure and depth of Subfloor Materials.

Although it may seem that a great deal was known about the geologic units we would examine, much was missing in the details of what comprised those units and, of course, we had no samples for later analysis. Specifically, exploration at Station 1 on the first EVA after the ALSEP experiments were deployed would examine Subfloor Material exposed by the Emory and Steno (see Appendix B for an explanation of feature names) impact craters to the southeast of the landing point. During the second EVA, Station 2 would put us at our longest distance from the Challenger and in the midst of talus boulders at the base of the South Massif, southwest of the landing point; Station 3 would be on the plume of Light Mantle material; Station 4 would be at the rim of the very dark, possibly volcanic crater (Shorty) that had apparently penetrated the Light Mantle; and Station 5 would be at the rim of the largest impact crater (Camelot) in the exploration area, providing samples of boulders from the deepest accessible portion of the Subfloor Material. The third and final EVA would take us to Station 6 at the very large, tracked boulder at the base of the North Massif wall of the valley; Station 7 would be at another talus boulder from the North Massif to be selected at our discretion; Station 8, also at our discretion, would be at the best place to observe and sample the Sculptured Hills; Station 9 would be at the rim of another possible volcanic crater (Van Serg); and Station 10 on the route back to the Challenger would be at the rim of Sherlock, another crater in Subfloor Material. In all, this plan would require a total traverse length of about 35km (almost 22 miles). All in all, it should be a busy three days on the Moon!

Cernan and I went back to work on Friday, the 24th, with three and a half hours of suited training in the exploration activities planned for the second and third lunar EVAs. Then, he joined me for the first part of a four-hour session in LMS2. As we continued to train at the Cape, Mother began to see increasing interest in my activities on the part of her friends in Silver City. (See Mother’s diary, Appendix I, November 24).

On Saturday, I spent an hour and a half working in the CMS on procedures to deal with various malfunctions of systems for which I had responsibility, joined Cernan for three hours of Lunar Roving Vehicle systems discussions, and then went through yet another briefing on the permutations of America’s complex communication’s system, operation of which was my responsibility except when on the Moon. In the afternoon, I headed for Patrick AFB and another aerobatic session in the T-38 and about an hour of practice autorotation landings in the H-13. (See Mother’s diary, Appendix I, November 25).

Sunday, Cernan and I went through a number of manual launch and manual Trans-Lunar Insertion simulations in the CMS. If the Saturn’s automatic control went out during the launch and America’s computer could not take over, the Commander could fly the launch profile using manual control from the Command Module and following an attitude versus velocity profile on a cue card mounted on the panel in front of him. This never had to be done, but could have been, if necessary. (See Mother’s diary, Appendix I, November 26).

Monday, eight days before launch, we split the time with Young and Duke for a full Mission Simulation with Mission Control on lunar descents and landings. After we finished our stint, Cernan and I went through another long session in pressure suits, practicing the pre- and post-procedures for the third lunar EVA. The post-EVA-3 procedures were somewhat different in that, for the purpose of reducing lunar ascent mass, we would depressurize the Challenger a fourth time in order to jettison garbage and various pieces of unneeded equipment. (See Mother’s diary, Appendix I, November 27).

On Tuesday, the 28th, Cernan and I spent the full morning deploying the ALSEP training units for one last time, this time without wearing pressure suits. After another early afternoon session covering LRV systems and operations, we went to Patrick for separate, individual sessions of T-38 aerobatics.

The evening’s geology session with Muehlberger, Swann, Wolfe, and Freeman covered the four, resolution-limited hypotheses for what we might discover at Shorty Crater on our second EVA. First, and the most likely case, Shorty would turn out to be what it looked like, that is, an impact crater that had penetrated a relatively thin covering of light-colored material and exposed underlying dark mare basalt; and, second, and much less likely, it would be a volcanic vent that had spread dark volcanic debris over an area of the light mantle. If it were a volcanic vent, we discussed the possibility of seeing evidence of hot fluid alteration of the surrounding materials. (See Mother’s diary, Appendix I, November 28).

Most of the day on the 29th, the three of us worked with Mission Control in a five-hour Mission Simulation of Lunar Module activation, descent and landing. This would be our last training for this activity before we hoped to do it for real, nearly thirteen days later. Nearby in the CMS, in addition to always being prepared for a rendezvous challenge if we had to abort a landing, Evans provided support for the landing itself with landmark tracking data that Mission Control used to improve our navigation to the planned landing site. On the orbit prior to landing, Evans would track and mark on small craters near the planned touchdown point using his steerable 60X telescope (“sextant”) normally used for star sightings. The position of these craters relative to the center of mass of the Moon had been determined using photographs and orbital tracking data from the Lunar Orbiter missions of the mid-1960s. These data would be relayed to Houston and used to improve the knowledge of America’s inertial position and velocity (“state vector”) which, in turn, would be used to improve the Challenger’s state vector a few minutes before we began our Powered Descent into the valley of Taurus-Littrow. Inserting this update into the PNGS just before Powered Descent Initiation (PDI) represented a new procedure for Apollo 17. It reduced the calculated landing accuracy dispersions to a circle one kilometer in radius, sufficient to permit a landing in a valley only seven kilometers wide at its narrowest point.

SIMSUP also worked a variety of challenges into these landing simulations, including delayed landing radar data acquisition; PNGS and/or AGS degradations; under performance of the Descent Engine; leaks or possible leaks in various tanks of consumables and propellant; sensor failures; and many other possible anomalies. His purpose, as always, was to teach the entire team how to make good decisions, based on the data at hand. Everyone’s goal remained not to abort a landing unless absolutely the only option left.

Our last full Mission Simulation covering Launch through TransLunar Insertion (TLI) took place on November 30, six days before launch. We spent the Sim fully attired in our training pressure suits as that would be the way we would launch. The Mission Rule had evolved that crews would be fully suited for any planned event that required a change in the external configuration of the rockets or attached spacecraft. The only exception to this Mission Rule was when, just before Entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, we would change the America’s configuration by detaching the Service Module from the Command Module. (After this change, we would use America’s Entry Batteries rather than Service Module’s fuel cells for power.) Following the Apollo 12 mission, it had been decided that the Command Module heat shield constituted sufficient protection against any unexpected dynamic or explosive occurrences related to that specific pre-Entry change in configuration. In addition, the crews felt that they could respond better to any entry guidance or control problems if they were unsuited. The physical discomfort from heating of the spacecraft interior due to post-splashdown soak-back of entry heating also played a part in this decision.

This Sim had its usual set of challenges, but SIMSUP could have pushed us even harder had he been inclined to do so. Cernan had a chance to fly the Saturn into orbit on one run, and I had plenty of communications, power, and environmental control problems to work out with the EECOMs in Houston. All in all, everyone felt ready for the real thing.

At the end of this four-hour Launch Sim, Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM) Bob Overmeyer said, “All your friends in Mission Control wished you God Speed.”

“Thank you and thank you for everything. I look forward to the splashdown party at the Hofbraugarten,” I responded. Flight Control tradition had us meeting often at this excellent German restaurant in Dickinson, just down the Galveston Freeway from the Manned Spacecraft Center. This particular gathering took place some weeks after each mission, although the regular Splashdown Party always occurred the same day as the spacecraft recovery in the Pacific. We, of course, would miss that particular party this time. I always attended the Hofbraugarten gatherings, but few other astronauts ever did. I never understood why my colleagues did not spend more social time with the people on whom, more than anyone, their operational success and maybe their lives would depend. (See Mother’s diary, Appendix I, November 30).

Friday “morning,” we had our Launch minus 5-day physical exam. Of course, for the last two weeks, we had been adjusting our internal clocks to accommodate a 10pm launch on the December 6th, so our morning actually was near everyone else’s midday. We would just go to bed an hour earlier each day and get up an hour earlier the next day for two weeks until we matched the flight plan schedule to begin our workday late in the Florida afternoon. Everybody involved in the training and preparations had to adjust to the same schedule, of course.

The evening prior to the physical, I took a break and spent some time on the beach near the isolated Crew Beach House that stood just off the Atlantic shore. The original Beach House, now a small conference center, apparently had been the scene of many escapades prior to past missions, but only had been used for a support team party by the Apollo 17 crew. Relaxing for a few hours in the darkness of a new Moon, watching searchlights reflected from the Saturn play across the offshore clouds made my last visit a special time. Unfortunately, some consternation developed at my physical the next morning when it became evident that, unknown to me; numerous sand fleas had feasted on my flesh. This did not, however, become grounds for Charlie Duke to replace me and get another flight to the Moon. (See Mother’s diary, Appendix I, December 1).

After the physicals, Cernan and I met up at the LM training mockup in our training pressure suits and did a full run-through of the procedures for the first EVA suit donning, check-out, LM depressurization, egress, ingress, LM re-pressurization, and suit doffing. Saturday and Sunday we took it easy, talked with family, watched football, and generally relaxed. The three of us used part of Sunday afternoon to take our last aerobatic flights in T-38s. (See Mother’s diary, Appendix I, December 3).

The weekend also saw us take on a complete review of the “Flight Data Files” (Fig. 4.14) we would have in America and Challenger. As we had been working continuously with most of the routine checklists for the two spacecraft, their review went very quickly. On the other hand, we would not work with cuff checklists (Fig. 4.15) until our actual exploration began on the Moon, so I spent significant time on their review. I particularly wanted to be sure that what was called out in my cuff checklist relative to special samples, ALSEP deployment, and Rover deployment and operation was consistent with related activities in Cernan’s. The many evening sessions working on the various traverse stations and the many different deployment exercises had matured these checklists to the point that nothing needed to be added.

Fig. 4.14. (ccw from right) Schmitt, Evans, and Cernan reviewing Apollo 17’s flight data file (NASA Photo AP17-72-H-1505).

Fig. 4.15. The author’s cuff checklist, that is, small sheets of stiff, bound and easily turned pages that we wore on the left wrists of our pressure suits (NASA Photo AS17-134-20472).

Monday and Tuesday became ease-up days with a few short simulator sessions to polish off fifteen straight months of training. On Tuesday, the 4th, we met with Rita Rapp to go over the stowage of our food packs in the America (see Fig. 4.16) just before the food locker went out to the Pad for insertion into the spacecraft cabin. Our food in Challenger had been stowed several days earlier, just before that spacecraft had been closed out for launch.

Fig. 4.16. The Apollo 17 crew examining the packing of food for stowage in America. (Principals in foreground, right to left): Dietician Rita Rapp, head of the Apollo crew food development and packaging; Ron Evans next to her; Gene Cernan leaning over bin; Jack Schmitt, facing left. (Background): An unknown KSC Quality Assurance engineer in dark jacket; and face averted, Bob Horne, Crew Equipment Engineer (NASA photo KSC-72P-536)..

We also went out to PAD 39A for a run through on pad egress or how to get the hell out of spacecraft and off the Launch Tower (LUT), if there was an Apollo 204-like fire in America or the Saturn rocket looked like it might blowup. The myriad of technical responses to the Apollo 204 fire, for which Frank Borman had overseen implementation[29], included a rapid release and opening mechanism for the hatch that I would operate by reaching over my head. In an evacuation, once outside the spacecraft with helmets off, we would run to a tram-like cage on a slide-wire that would move us quickly from a dangerous situation at the top of the LUT to a bunker at ground level. This particular visit also let us pose for a few pictures around our Saturn V (Figs. 4.17 and 4.18).

Fig. 4.17. (left-to-right) Evans, Schmitt, and Cernan on the Catwalk leading to the White Room access to the Spacecraft America (NASA Photo AP17-72-HC-872HR).

Fig. 4.18. Schmitt, Evans, and Cernan standing next to the first stage of the Apollo 17 Saturn V (NASA Photo AP17-72-HC-873HR).

I ran through my tasks to prepare America’s hatch for a rapid opening and then opened it when the emergency egress signal was given. Once open, we removed our helmets, disconnected hoses, and exited the spacecraft, (Evans first, Cernan second, and me last) to run and join Gunter Wendt and his White Room team in the big cage for a fast slide down a long cable, ending up in a bunker a few hundred yards from the pad. Fortunately, no one ever had to do this because of a real problem. (See Mother’s diary, Appendix I for December 4)

On the 4th, we also looked closely at the emergency equipment that would be stowed in America, hopefully, never to be needed. This gear included oxygen masks if the Command Module depressurized, survival kit for possible landings out of reach of the recovery forces, and the like (see Fig. 4.19). In total, the number of individual items that the crew might use and that needed to be tracked always astounded me — food, cameras, film, experiments, space suits, backpacks, clothing, LiOH canisters, checklists, cue cards, emergency items, hygiene items, and the list went on and on. The Support Team members and the astronaut Support Crew spent months watching over the design, manufacture, test, procedures development, training and preparation for launch for each of these items. I did a lot of this support work for Apollo 8, 10 and 11, but it had become vastly more complicated by the time Apollo 17 prepared for launch.

Fig. 4.19. Final check of emergency equipment that will be stowed in the Command Module. (Left to right): Ray Malone (CSM Crew Station Engineer); Jack Schmitt; Bob Overmyer (astronaut support crew); Ron Evans; Bob Horne (Crew Equipment Engineer); Gene Cernan; and Dave Ballard (Flight Crew Support Team Leader). Not shown is Gene Chase (Crew Equipment Engineer) (NASA Photo KSC-72P-537).

The President

At T-24:25, twenty-four hours and twenty-five minutes before scheduled launch at 9:53pm, Wednesday, December 6, the office staff interrupted us during another of Lew Hartzell’s great breakfasts with “Hey, guys, we have a call from the President for you!” We gathered around a speakerphone in the dining room to have a conversation with a President of the United States – my first. From the start of the conversation in this pre-launch phone call from President Richard M. Nixon, he seemed relaxed and maybe even anxious to talk about something other than other issues he was worried about in late 1972.

The Camp David operator started with “Mr. President, I have Captain Cernan for you, go ahead please.”[30]

“Hello,” greeted President Nixon.

“Yes sir!” replied Cernan.

“How are you?”

“Fine, sir.”

“Good to talk with you. How are you and all the crew there?”

“We are doing great, sir.”

“Rather an unusual time to call you, but I understand you are eating late to get adjusted to what you’re going to be doing later on.”

“Yes sir. It’s quite an honor. We certainly do appreciate your call.”

“You got the first civilian along. You think you can handle him?”

“Oh, well, he’s created a few problems, but we figure we have enough Navy strength on this flight to handle him.”

“Yeah, you got two Navy . . . Commander Evans and then Dr. Schmitt. Do you call him Doctor or Jack?”

“We call him Jack so he doesn’t get too high on the hog, sometimes.”

“That’s right, I know. Well, I just want you to know that we will all be going to be pulling for you, we’ll be watching you on television, and we’ll be looking forward to welcoming you and your wives on your return at the White House.”

“Well, thank . . .”

“And we will be in touch with you then and in the meantime you can . . . I was just thinking that this is the last of the Moon landings, but it is not the least because its gotta be the best.”

“Yes sir. That’s the way we feel about it. And I think it goes without saying how we feel about what it means to the country and, I guarantee you, sir, we’ll do our best and we certainly hope that’s good enough.”

“It will be good enough, I mean, I mean, as a former Navy person, I can . . . you guys rank me as far as Navy is concerned . . . [laughter] but I certainly will follow with great interest. I will not as much as I would like as I have few other things to do, but I will catch it late at night and sometimes in the morning, too.”

“Well, great sir. And God Bless you on your peace negotiations, too.”

“Well, it’s a tough one we’re . . . we’re having some . . . they’re tough . . . they’re . . . we may have to go another round with them, but we’re gonna keep at it until we get the right kind of deal. We don’t want to make a bad deal. A bad peace will lead to more war. We want the right kind of a peace.”

“I think you know the people of this country are behind that feeling and it is very important to a lot of ’em.”

“Are the others on the phone?”, asked Nixon.

“Yes sir. I know they would like to get on. They are getting on now, Mr. President.”

“Fine, fine. But you are an old timer. You were on [Gemini] 9 and [Apollo] 10, right?”

“Yes sir.”


“But you never,” continued Cernan, “. . . when you look out at that big Saturn V . . . of course it’s going to be a night launch . . . you never really feel like an old timer. It’s almost . . . it’s like the first time, again, for me.”

“Of course, of course.”

“I think Commander Evans may be on.”


“Mr. President, Ron Evans, here.”

“Well, fine, we just wanted to wish you the best. You’re going to be up there circling around while these other fellows are looking around on the Moon.”

“Yes sir, but I’ll tell ya, that is a mighty important part of the mission.”

“I’ll say it is!”

“I feel proud to be able to do that part of it for my country.”

“That’s right. You will be up there and up there for a hour . . . whatever they say . . . these guys have to depend on you, because if you aren’t there they’re not going to be able to get back. Well, give them a good ride.”

“I sure will.”

“And, is Doctor Schmitt there, too?”

“This is Jack Schmitt, Mr. President.”

“Well, finally one civilian made it.”

“Well, we’ve had civilians before, it just happens that I didn’t take the military route.”

“I know, I know.”

“Hopefully, you can’t tell much difference between us,” I added.

“Yeah, well, it says here, you’re a scientist, but I guess the other fellows are scientists, too.”

“Well, [chuckling] we really tried our darnedest to make ’em that way and something came out right.”

“You’ll be able to educate them a lot. You’ll have a long time on that thing going up and back.”

Laughing, I responded, “If I haven’t educated them now, I’ve given up . . . ”

“Well, we look forward to . . . ”

“Okay sir. A good team of scientists and a good team of pilots.”

“What did they give you to eat, tonight?”

“Oh boy!” I exclaimed.

“We ate very well,” broke in Cernan. “We had a nice big piece of roast beef.”

“Roast beef, right.”

“Like the fatted calf.”

“Well, you will lose a little weight but you’ll gain it back when you get back.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, we’ll look forward to welcoming you, and we wish you the best, and give our best to your families, and we know it’s going to be a great mission.”

“Thank you, sir. The names of our spacecraft . . . America and Challenger,” Cernan inserted, quickly.

America and Challenger. America is a great name and of course, Challenger, that’s the [Lunar] Module, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“The one that touches down. Well, December 11th the day of the landing, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Landing the 11th and then golfing . . . hit the golf ball 700 yards. One thing you don’t have to worry about, distance.”


“The way I am able to hit it – get more than 200 yards this time, can’t you,” stated the President.

“Yes, sir, you sure could,” replied Cernan.

“Right. Well, wish you the best, when you get back, I’ll give the crew golf balls just as a reminder. Okay?”

“Thank you, Mr. President. We are very honored. Personally, you know, feel very thankful you called, and we again will do our best.”

“I have had the honor of calling every one of the crews since I have been in office, and its always a big thrill to talk to and to know we have some great fellows in this program and willing to take these great risks in service to the country and service to science, as well.”

I followed up with, “With the people we have backing us up, Mr. President, it is really not that great a risk.”

“I know, I know. I know those thousands on the ground in Houston and down at the Cape and around the world . . . It’s quite a group. Well, we wish you the best and God Speed all the way.”

“Thank you, Mr. President,” acknowledged Cernan. “As you hang up here, we wish you God Speed in your next four years. And we look forward to a super four years…”

“We got a few little problems. We will try to work this Vietnam thing out. It will come out in the end. It will take a little more time, but it will work out. And, anyway, we will try to do as well here as you do there.”

“Okay, we’ll look forward to talkin’ to you when we get back,” I concluded.

“You bet. We’ll welcome you at the White House.”

“Thank you,” we said in unison.

Cernan’s published recollections of this conversation[31] appear to reflect impressions formed by events that had not yet happened rather than those relevant to December 5, 1972. The conversation lasted eight minutes not “forty-five” as Cernan writes and indicated a relaxed, just recently re-elected President rather than one who felt “persecuted and pilloried”. The progress of the Vietnam peace negotiations in Paris, to be concluded six weeks later, appeared to be the main item that occupied President Nixon’s mind besides wishing us well on the mission. No hints of the Watergate scandal that would force Nixon’s resignation twenty months later had yet surfaced. Listening to the audio recording made at the Presidential retreat at Camp David, the President clearly does not sound like a “demoralized stranger, almost pleading with us to understand his position, as if he sought our benediction,” nor did he sound “like a tired and lonely old man, living an isolated and empty existence in his big white house, more prisoner than president (sic).” Our conversation certainly did not create the “bewildered surprise” on my part that Cernan recalls.

After breakfast and the conversation with the President, Cernan and I put in a half hour of landing refresher runs in the Lunar Module Simulator and then went around the simulator area, thanking some of the finest engineers in the country for their assistance, innovation, and patience. Evans worked for about the same amount of time in the Command Module Simulator, probably on his critical lunar landmark tracking tasks. Before dinner, I went for my last run in the morning daylight on the coral sand track beyond the Simulator Building. No rattlesnakes seemed to be out this early. Later, after a final workout and a full, roast beef dinner, I exchanged goodbyes with Sandra, Bob, Janis, Linda, and Helen through the quarantine window of the visitor’s area and then took a casual walk on the beach. One of the last, much appreciated “good luck” and “break a leg” phone calls I received came from the bar in the Cocoa Beach Holiday Inn where 20-25 Geological Survey colleagues had begun the launch festivities a little early. Afterwards, as I recall, I had a good sleep before beginning the most exciting two weeks of my life. (See Mother’s diary, Appendix I for December 5).

Launch Day

Awakened four hours and fifteen minutes before the scheduled launch, I called Mother and the others in Tucson to give them an update, and then joined a larger than normal group for Lew’s low fiber breakfast (Fig. 4.20). The low fiber content of the meal was designed to minimize the number of bowel movements during the flight! (See Mother’s diary, Appendix I for December 6a).

Fig. 4.20. Apollo 17 launch day breakfast in the Crew Quarters, attended by (cw from top) Dave Ballard, Harrison Schmitt, Gene Cernan, Ron Evans, Stu Roosa (back to camera), Charlie Buckley, Al Shepard (partially hidden), Deke Slayton, and Charlie Duke (NASA Photo AP17-KSC-72P-539).

Our “last meal” partners included our bosses, Deke Slayton and Al Shepard, backup crewmen (Stu Roosa and Charlie Duke), the support team leader,[32] Dave Ballard. Backup Commander John Young and support crew members Gordon Fullerton and Robert Parker were taking care of last minute details at the Launch Pad. Support crew member Bob Overmyer was already in Houston to serve as our launch and first day Capcom in Mission Control. Ballard provided the support team’s report on the final preparations of our Saturn V (S-512), Command and Service Module America (CSM-114), and Lunar Module Challenger (LM-12) for launch. The final list of small anomalies had been worked and cleared to the team’s satisfaction; they had carefully set and double-checked America’s switches in the launch configuration (Challenger’s switches had been set and checked prior to it being stacked at the top of the S-IVB third stage before rollout last August 28th.); and the team told us nothing remained but to get though the final countdown. Only the batteries in Challenger’s Descent and Ascent Stages and the Lunar Rover needed continued attention until close to launch to maintain maximum charges.

A final physical exam and bathroom visit followed breakfast. We then went off to the “suit room” to don our flight suits, including urine collection bags. We each had two identical, custom made and fitted EMUs (Extravehicular Mobility Units) or space suits (internally called “pressure suits” most of the time), but one had been designated the “flight suit” and the other its “backup.” During this suit-up time, while trading jokes, thank you’s, and words of good luck with Ballard and Randy Hester and the other suit techs, I felt simultaneously relaxed and excited.

[The space suits had been made by the wonderful and dedicated seamstresses of the International Latex Corporation (ILC) at its plant in Dover, Delaware. My several visits to ILC for fittings always will be remembered with great fondness for the friendly, highly motivated welcome received from employees. As my Tennessee, farm-raised mother was an accomplished seamstress, I understood a lot about the challenges they faced in fabricating our suits from rubber, aluminized Mylar[33], and Nomex[34] (fiberglass) “fabrics”.

One such visit to ILC resulted in being contacted by William Conner, County Judge of Wilmington and, until then, unknown to me. Conner turned out to be the grandson of my great grandfather’s brother, Frank Schmitt. Frank and my great grandfather, John Schmitt, last names originally “Nagelschmitt,” had emigrated through Ellis Island in 1848 from Alsace, presumably to escape the revolution and counter-revolution that swept Germany that year. The name “Nagelschmitt” appears to translate to “a maker of horseshoe nails,” a position at the top of the blacksmith profession during the pre-automobile era.

Also, a mid-December visit to Dover in 1971 led to the purchase of a local cedar Christmas tree for a friend in Houston who grew up in this region. Unfortunately, three days after arriving in Houston, all the needles of this originally beautiful cedar fell off. This unfortunate event puzzled me for a while until I realized that, flying at 40,000 feet, the tree had been exposed to temperatures as low as minus 60°F in the exterior baggage pod of the T-38! Although bringing a Christmas tree to Houston was a cool thought, it was not one of the smartest moves in my flying career, to say the least.]

Cernan recalls[35] that he gave Evans and me sage advice on the importance of savoring the upcoming experience of space flight. I do not recall that he did so, but if he did, it would not have been out of character. Cernan would have ignored the fact that, although spaceflight rookies, each of us had nearly 15 years of professional maturity behind us – Evans as a combat fighter pilot over Vietnam on two deployments and I as a professional geologist, pilot, and an active space mission support or backup crewman beginning with the Apollo 8 mission.

As most pilots in the modern era, we received our last weather update before flight from the Air Force meteorology team from Patrick Air Force Base. They not only covered the launch area weather but also the several abort landing areas around the world. In addition, these gentlemen delivered copies of the latest geosynchronous weather satellite photographs that I had requested a few days earlier. I wanted to carry these near-full Earth photographs as a pre-launch control on my plan to systematically observe changing cloud patterns during the three and a half days it would take us to get to the Moon (Chapter 6).

Prior to putting on our helmets, we put on the brown, non-flammable fabric “Snoopy Caps” to which lip mikes were attached and that also contained our earphones. The electrical lead from the Snoopy Caps connected to a lead under my chin near the suit neck ring. Closure of the locking ring for my helmet began the process of physical isolation from all those who had worked to get our equipment and us ready for this last Apollo adventure. As Ron had a final cigarette before donning his helmet, we took the liberty of telling him that it actually should be the last one he ever smoked. “Take advantage of having to go cold turkey for two weeks, Ron!” Gene kept up his usual banter until, finally, all you could see were his lips moving inside the Lexan helmet bubble.

With the suits, Snoopy Caps, and helmets on and the hoses of the portable pure oxygen ventilation units attached to blue inlet and red exhaust ports, we lay back in the suit room’s oversized couches. This began the several hours of pre-breathing oxygen in order to remove dissolved nitrogen from our blood stream and tissues by the time the Saturn lifted off. The pre-breathing eliminated the danger of the formation of nitrogen bubbles in the blood and joints (bends or caisson disease) as suit and cabin pressure dropped during launch. We would continue to breathe pure oxygen until we reached Earth orbit. At that time, we would take the helmets off and breathe cabin air, still containing nitrogen trapped there at closeout. Some of that nitrogen, however, would have bled off during launch as the cabin pressure went down from 15 to 5 pounds per square inch. The rest of the nitrogen would gradually be diluted by make-up oxygen during the mission, by pressurization of the Challenger for landing, and then disappear altogether when America was totally depressurized for Evans’ spacewalk on the way back from the Moon.

With some final shouted words with the team and Al Shepard (Fig. 4.21), we left the suit room and walked down the third floor hall to the elevators that would carry us to where the transport van waited. Technicians and crew training building support people lined the hallway, wishing us well as we moved toward the elevator. In the documentary movies, it looks like we were having a good time and we were. With our helmets on and no direct communication, all we could do to acknowledge comments directed to us was wave and mouth “thank you”. In the spirit of the evening, I pretended to get distracted from entering the elevator by one of the young ladies I knew, but soon we were climbing into the van (Fig. 4.22) under the watchful eye of our boss, Al Shepard, and Charlie Buckley, head of KSC security.

[The Black September Islamic terrorists were active in 1972, so Buckley and I spent time in the preceding weeks worrying about the potential of a terrorist rifle attack on the Saturn during launch. Patrols were beefed up on the nearby beach and no sign of trouble developed.]

Gene entered the van first, Ron next, and then I. Just as I got inside, I pretended to have second thoughts and turned around to leave. Buckley went along with the gag, shook his head “no way,” and pretended to make a move to push me back in the van.

Fig. 4.21. Al Shepard attempting some final words with the author just prior to the Apollo 17 crew leaving the Suit Room for Launch Pad 39 (NASA Photo AP17-KSC-72P-547).

Fig. 4.22. The Apollo 17 Crew carrying their oxygen pre-breathing canisters and heading for the Crew Transfer Van. At left are several suit technicians, Jack Schmitt and Ron Evans (being hugged by his wife, Jan). Gene Cernan is nearest the van; and Charlie Buckley is partially hidden by him at right (NASA Photo AP17-KSC-72PC-616HR).

A few hours earlier, Merritt Island, the geographic name for the location of the Kennedy Space Center, began to be populated by a million people as hundreds of buses and thousands of cars moved across the causeways from Cocoa Beach and Titusville and beyond. Tents and RVs lined the sides of the causeways with views of PAD 39A. The temperature held in the 80s all day for the visitors who came to view the one and only night launch of an Apollo mission. The night was clear and the thermometer read about 72º by the time we left the crew training building.

As far as I knew at the time, those relatives, friends, and colleagues, past and present, I had formally invited to the launch had made it to their NASA buses and had arrived at the special viewing area about three miles from the launch site. My invitees included my older sister, Sandra and her family; a lot of Hagan and Schmitt relatives; former classmates and teachers from Silver City, Caltech and Harvard; colleagues from the Geological Survey in Flagstaff, and friends from Houston. The Harvard Graduate School geology alumni and Geological Survey personnel particularly took this opportunity to have informal reunions with significant consumption of food and alcohol. My mother could not be persuaded to attend any of the Apollo launches and, after reading entries in her diary, I think I better understand why. (See Mother’s diary, Appendix I for December 6b).

The invited visitors occupied the same site from which I had watched the launches of Apollo 8 and Apollo 11 in the company of Charles Lindbergh. My sister accompanied the two of us for Apollo 8 and my former USGS boss, Eugene Shoemaker[36], joined us for Apollo 11. At this point in his life, Lindbergh was thinking deeply about the meaning of nature and science[37] and the pre-Apollo 11 launch conversations between him, Shoemaker, and me may have ventured into deep philosophical waters. Unfortunately, Shoemaker by the time of Apollo 17 had become so disillusioned with what he viewed as NASA’s abandonment of exploration science that he did not attend the launch.

Now, at T minus 3 hours, about five hours before midnight on December 6, 1972, while our visitors settled in to wait, Gene Cernan, Ron Evans and I left the Crew Quarters area in the Crew Transfer Van and headed toward Pad 39A. As the last Apollo lunar astronauts, we were prepared as we could be to follow Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders of Apollo 8; Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins, and Buzz Aldrin of Apollo 11; and 16 other astronauts to the Moon. Fifteen months of training behind us, and Apollo 17 finally approached reality.

The van driver drove north for a couple of blocks along Avenue C, turning west on NASA Parkway and then north on the Kennedy Parkway, past the famous eagle’s nest, and then east onto the Saturn Causeway past the Launch Control Center blockhouse next to the Vehicle Assembly Building. From the blockhouse, the Saturn Causeway to Pad 39A parallels the wide double track of coarse Tennessee river-gravel on which the Crawler Transporter[38] moved with our rocket and spacecraft on August 28, 1972. We traveled as necessarily subdued but still excited passengers on that first leg of an Apollo’s last journey to the Moon. (See Editor William Mellberg’s recollection of watching us during this period, The Apollo 17 Launch: An Eyewitness Account. [Click Here] for a 1.5 Mb PDF file of the story.)

Unfortunately, the van restricted our forward view until we arrived at a nearly deserted Pad 39A about twenty minutes after leaving the Crew Quarters. Finally, standing outside the van, I could look up through the top of my helmet and absorb the view of the immense Saturn V and the steel, pipes, and access arms of the Launch Umbilical Tower (LUT) that supported it. The van discharged us about a hundred feet away from the LUT’s south base-level entrance, and we walked, without escort, to the elevator that would take us up 30 stories to a waiting spacecraft called America. On previous visits on PAD 39A, I had been impressed by the purposeful activity of the hundreds of workers around it. Now, the absence of any activity impressed me even more. Their work done, they had left the Saturn V to its own, well-choreographed devices.


I pressed the elevator button for Level 320 and the illuminated lower levels began to flash rapidly by. At Level 320 (96-meter), the door opened, and we walked single file toward the White Room, 320 feet above the launch pad, across the catwalk’s 60 feet of open steel mesh. Looking down, and comparing what I saw to earlier visits to Pad 39A during tests and simulations, our Saturn V, SA-512, seemed to have grown even larger and higher. The familiar statistics took on new meaning – three main rocket stages, 363 feet long including the Launch Escape Tower, more than one million individual components, 6.5 million pounds in weight fully fueled, and 11 main rocket engines with the five huge first stage F-1 engines each having 1.5 million pounds of thrust. Viewed at night in the brilliant light of searchlights, and as close as we were, the mammoth, frost covered cylinders of the rocket dominated everything I could see along the catwalk.

Streamers of vapor, venting from internal tanks of extremely cold, liquid hydrogen and oxygen, swirled around us, dissipating as they blew away to the west on the night wind from the distant the Atlantic shore. Crystalline, icy condensation glistened on the bright rocket skin. Through the mists loomed the large red words “UNITED STATES;” the red, white and blue flag; and the red-lettered “USA,” all painted with great care on the Saturn’s gleaming white sides. In this glaring, searchlight enclosed world of swirling mists, family and friends disappeared from thought. Pride, commitment and anticipation remained.


The PAD-39A lighting produced about 225-foot candles of light, provided by banks of seventy-two 20-kilowatt Xenon lights and two 60-kilowatt Xenon searchlights. These lights would remain on during the first 60 feet of flight, but at liftoff, the flame of the Saturn V’s five, F-1 rocket engines would overwhelm these puny attempts at illumination by a factor of over 33! The first stage engines would create 7500-foot candles of light, almost equivalent to daylight in the area surrounding the launch complex.

Atop the rocket’s SIVB third stage sat our transport to lunar orbit and back, the Command and Service Module America. Beneath America, temporarily dormant and enclosed in the top compartment of the SIVB, rested the Lunar Module Challenger with its exploration payload of tools, experiments, life supporting consumables, and a lunar rover. The protective White Room, surrounding America’s open hatch, provided our last direct contact with human assistance. As we approached, Gunter Wendt and his closeout team[39], as the last support personnel remaining on the Pad, waited for Apollo 17’s crew as they had for all Apollo crews before us. Their job, again, was to strap us into America for the adventure of a lifetime.

We crawled into the dimly lit Command Module cabin, first Cernan on the left, then me on the right, and finally Evans in the middle. We slithered on our backs into position on the hard couches, placed between various z-axis shock absorbers, with our feet pointed away from the hatch and toward the Lower Equipment Bay (LEB). The couches would give support through the acceleration and deceleration loads of launch and entry while the shock absorbers provided protection against any abnormal forces that could be encountered during an ocean landing or launch aborts. Although now seemingly cramped, America’s cabin would more than double in useful size once we were in the weightless environment of space. Supplies necessary for a two-week trip to the Moon and back to Earth filled the various compartments in the LEB.

One by one, as we took our positions in the cabin, Wendt’s team snapped each set of shoulder harnesses and lap belts together and, placing a foot on our shoulders, pulled them as tight as they could leverage within the cramped conditions of the spacecraft. Then they disconnected our portable oxygen packs and connected our spacecraft oxygen and communications lines, providing cooling, continued pre-breathing of pure oxygen, and our first external voice link (other than touching helmets) since we put the helmets on.

After checking and double-checking our harnesses and connections, Wendt’s crew began to close the hatch. As the hatch moved, Cernan quipped “We’ll see you when we get back.”

Wendt responded, as he probably had done many times before, “The next face you see had better be a frogman or you’re in trouble.”

I then set up the inside emergency release mechanism for the hatch, making sure, again, that I could reach over my left shoulder to quickly open the hatch. The specter of the fire that destroyed the Apollo 204 spacecraft and killed Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, January 27, 1967[40], still lurked just below the surface of our primary thoughts, as unlikely as a reoccurrence was. Awareness of this remote risk surfaced again briefly a few minutes later, when, with less than an hour remaining before launch, the catwalk arm and attached White Room moved away to a temporary holding position, ready to return quickly in any abnormal, pre-launch spacecraft or rocket situation that required rapid evacuation of the spacecraft and Pad 39A.

With the hatch and its release mechanism secure and our quick review of the emergency egress procedures out of the way, I could turn my attention to the status of spacecraft systems monitored or controlled from the right side of America’s cabin. My job in the Command Module, in addition to being very familiar with and able to perform Gene and Ron’s jobs, was basically that of a flight engineer. In front of me, displays provided the status of various parameters of the electrical, environmental control, communications, and propulsion systems. The functioning of these systems could be adjusted or turned off and on by rotary and toggle switches placed amongst the displays. Metal loops on either side of each switch guarded against inadvertent movement as we floated around the cabin once we were in Earth orbit or on the way to the Moon. A large number of black, push-pull circuit breakers protruded from a panel to my right. They allowed electrical isolation of the spacecraft systems for which I was responsible. Open breakers showed a white dot on the projecting end to avoid any confusion.

I began my usual systematic scan of all of the displays of critical system status — fuel cell voltages, battery voltages, inverter status, oxygen tank pressures, fuel and oxidizer tank pressures, radio antenna signal strength, etc. This process prepared me to take immediate responsibility for these systems in the event of a loss of data transmission (telemetry) to or from Mission Control Center during launch. The telemetry the “ground” was seeing, monitored by EECOMs[41] Charlie Dumis, John Aaron, and Bill Moon of the flight control team, accessed much more accurate information and many more parameters than I could in the spacecraft. If necessary, however, the crew could perform the monitoring and control functions for safe flight. We also double-checked the placement of the launch set of “cue cards,” mounted on small Velcro patches in every strangely shaped space of the instrument panel not containing switches or dials. The cue cards contained the bare essentials of procedures that might be required during time critical maneuvers or emergencies when regular checklists could not be used. Earlier, Stu Roosa and Gordon Fullerton, had placed the cards on the instrument panel and verified that all the switches and circuit breakers were in their proper positions for launch.

Until about 20 minutes before the S-IC stage ignition of its five, 1.5 million pound thrust, kerosene and liquid oxygen rocket engines, the three of us in America’s cabin would work with the two Control Centers in various tests of spacecraft, communications, and manual flight control systems.

Unheard by us, the Public Announcer began to fill in the waiting crowd and media on what was happening[42]:

Launch Control: “This is Apollo Saturn Launch Control. We’re at T minus 1 hour 22 minutes and counting. Cabin purge has now been completed and the boost protective cover has been closed [over the hatch]. The 65 percent nitrogen 35 percent oxygen mixture will now be enriched to a 60-40 mixture at liftoff. Just completed were some preflight command tests with the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. These tests are to insure that Houston can send commands, and that they are being received on or by the launch vehicle. Also just completed was a first motion signal. This is the “first motion” of the vehicle as it lifts off the pad. A test signal is sent to the eastern test range and to the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston to assure that they will get this signal at liftoff. Also, we just received a final go for a Jimsphere release. The Jimsphere is a weather balloon which is the final weather balloon to go up before launch indicating the wind direction [profile at altitude].”

The “Jimsphere” helium-filled balloon gathered high altitude wind data necessary to evaluate potential wind shear stresses on the Saturn V at various altitudes. If these stresses appeared that they would be too great, the launch would be delayed until a safe condition arose or the 3 hour 33 minute launch window[43] closed for this month. Conical projections on the balloon’s exterior and its low overall mass provided stabilization so that the balloon quickly would take on the varying speeds of the winds through which it traveled as it ascended. Its radar-reflective surface materials allowed direct tracking to provide the needed wind speed determinations.

Launch Control then began to test the C-band radio beacons attached to the Saturn V stages. These beacons provided the signals for Doppler tracking of the velocities of the Saturn stages during flight. At this time, Launch Control also commanded simulated signals from the “Q-ball” so that Cernan could check if his angle of attack indicator responded correctly. The Q-ball was a sensor mounted on the Launch Escape Tower and whose measurements of tower orientation relative to air movement direction could be read on a dial in front of Cernan. Normally the Q-ball signal would be zero. Any deviation of the Saturn’s flight orientation relative to uniform airflow around the angle of attack indicator would show as a change in this signal. All simulated signals came through as expected.

At T minus 1 hour and 21 minutes and counting, support crew astronaut, Bob Parker, working as the Launch Control Center’s “Stony,” as they called their CAPCOM, called: “We are running ahead of the timeline and looking good.”

“We’re looking good up here, too,” replied Cernan.

At T minus 1 hour and 13 minutes, Cernan and Launch Control checked out the emergency hand control for America’s Service Propulsion System (SPS). This rocket engine would provide the energy needed to enter lunar orbit and to leave lunar orbit to return to Earth. It would normally operate in response to computer inputs loaded prior to any planned burn. For a launch abort occurring late in the launch sequence, however, we might need to thrust into Earth-orbit using the SPS in order to fly an alternate mission or enable a planned recovery operation. This abort burn might have to be controlled manually and thus the need to perform these pre-launch checks.

The Commander of a mission always carried the final authority as to what course of action would be followed in any given flight situation that departed from what was planned or from what was considered to be normal operation. Commanders, however, realized that the person with access to both far more information and the bigger picture was the Launch Director in Launch Control Center or the Flight Director in the Building 30 Mission Control Center in Houston. The Launch Director’s authority lasted only through the first fourteen seconds of flight or “tower clear”. So, once the Saturn had cleared the launch tower, and absent a loss of communications, the de facto authority rested with the Flight Director on duty in Houston Mission Control. He could not be over-ruled during a mission even by his ultimate superiors — a level of “the buck stops here” authority long established as absolutely necessary for rapid, disciplined responses to unexpected situations.[44]

Walter “Kappy” Kapryan held the responsibility of Launch Director for Apollo 17 and Clarence “Skip” Chauvin served as Spacecraft Test Director. Kapryan had been involved in launch operations throughout Apollo and Chauvin had served as the test conductor for many of our vacuum chamber runs we conducted inside our two spacecraft. Unfortunately, other than a tour or two of their facilities, crews did not spend the time they should have with the Launch Control team. Clearly, outstanding and dedicated men and women made up that team or the unbroken string of launch successes would not have occurred.

In Houston, Flight Directors headed up three rotating teams of flight controllers that provided overlapping, twenty-four hour coverage. In case of the launch, Earth-orbit, and Translunar Insertion phases of our Apollo mission, Gerry Griffin led the Gold Flight Team. Griffin also functioned as the overall lead Flight Director for Apollo 17. Griffin relied on lead flight controllers in various broad specialty areas to provide advice and recommendations. For the launch of Apollo 17, these lead controllers were Charlie Dumis for EECOM[45] (CSM systems officer), Jay Greene for FIDO[46] (flight dynamics officer), Will Presley for GUIDO[47] (Guidance Officer), Chuck Deiterich for RETRO[48] (retrofire/re-entry officer), and Gary Scott for INCO[49] (instrumentation and communications officer). I knew all these young men well and could not imagine a more dedicated and qualified team.


With an hour to go, the three men of the last Apollo crew to attempt to land on the Moon lay inside America, both alone and not alone. Nearly half a million Americans put us in this position and thousands still watched over us — the planners, the designers, the builders, the test teams, the trainers, the support teams and, finally, the launch and flight controllers. Tangible and intangible expressions of their patriotism, spirit, ingenuity, courage, and stamina enclosed and sustained us. Even though thousands would see their jobs eliminated as we lifted off for the Moon, not one failed us. Few, if any, ever expressed regret for the sacrifices that they and their families had made on their country’s behalf. At this moment each believed, truly believed, that the Apollo Program had become and would remain the most important commitment they would make with their lives!

Today, many would say that the Johnson and Nixon Administrations erred in 1968 and 1969, and erred big time, when they decided not to purchase Saturn Vs beyond that which would be required for Apollo 20. This decision meant that Americans would forego the manifold benefits and future potential of the Apollo-Saturn, deep space flight capability once Apollo 20 landed on the Moon.[50] Later, additional shortsighted decisions by the Nixon Administration and Congress canceled Apollos 18, 19 and 20.

Once I secured the hatch, however, all of this lay outside the conical world of America. The years of thought and training, planning and preparation, and chance had placed the three of us together in a quiet, humming capsule, one-fifteenth of a mile above the Saturn’s waiting first-stage engines.


At T minus one hour, Launch Control completed the C-band tracking beacon tests followed by a check of the weather camera coverage of the launch area. Although a few cloud buildups had appeared, weather did not appear to pose any threats to our launch. Apollo 12’s experience made everyone more careful when it came to cloudy weather. Apollo 12’s Saturn V and the ionized gases of its rocket engines’ flame became a lighting rod when it launched through rain clouds. All turned out well, but many hearts jumped a beat when that bolt knocked the spacecraft’s power off line. Their Saturn and its guidance computer, however, acted like nothing had happened!

Meanwhile, Gunter Wendt and his closeout crew completed securing the White Room area, took the elevator down, and moved away from Pad 39A. After they had cleared the area, “Stony” Parker remotely set the elevators back at the 320 foot (96-meter) level for us to use for a calm evacuation from some situation that held no short-term threat. These elevators, however, could move at 600 feet per minute if required. At the ground or A-level floor, we could take a tubular chute into a bunker or continue out on to the Pad where armored personnel carriers would meet us.

Checks of radio receivers forming the guts of the range safety systems also took place at T minus an hour. Each of the three Saturn stages had two identical receivers and through this system of radios and explosive devices, the Range Safety Officer could terminate the launch at his discretion. If the rocket deviated from its planned launch envelope, a signal to the receivers could initiate an emergency cut off and propellant dispersion. By the time this happened, we would have left the Saturn using the Launch Escape Tower to pull the Command Module away from the situation and on to an Atlantic splashdown. Not the plan we wanted to execute, to say the least.

Until 50 seconds before liftoff, the pre-launch power requirements of the Saturn V were met from an external source through various umbilicals. Afterwards, internal batteries would supply necessary power to launch systems. At T minus 50 minutes the launch control center initiated a power transfer test, switching the Saturn V momentarily onto its own battery power and then restoring external power. For about five minutes, the launch team evaluated the effects of the power transfer on various systems as well as the batteries and reported that everything functioned properly.

Meanwhile, Launch Control reported, “Depending on local weather conditions in the various areas around the United States, the flight of Apollo 17 will be monitored or be able to be seen by people as far as 500 miles away. This is…the first stage of powered flight. This would include a large portion of the southeastern United States, northern tip of Cuba and the Bahamas Islands.”

At T minus 45 minutes, Swing Arm #9 – the White Room and catwalk access to the spacecraft – moved 12 degrees to a standby position. Cernan commented, “We’re really hanging out here in the breeze now.”

“It is just a small breeze,” retorted Chauvin, apparently referring to the nice weather outside.

Five minutes before launch, Arm #9 would fully retract so we could arm and use, if necessary, the Launch Escape Tower rocket. The solid fuel rocket of this escape system had 155,000 pounds of thrust or nearly two times the thrust of the Redstone rocket that our boss, Al Shepard, used in his May 1961 suborbital flight. The Tower had a length of 33 feet. In an emergency, this rocket would take us at high acceleration g-loads to an altitude sufficient to allow the Command Module parachutes to deploy.

At T minus 35 minutes, Cernan told Chauvin, “You’ve delivered us the best, now it’s our turn. Thank the guys. We want to see them as soon as we can when we get back, and I guarantee you we’ll do that.”

Far below and away from America, the anticipating crowd could see little white wisps of vapor, indicating the topping off of the propellant loads in the liquid oxygen and hydrogen tanks of the Saturn V to make sure the tanks were full for launch.

Mission Control in Houston reported that, at T minus 30 minutes, it was “Go” for the final countdown sequence. All C-band tracking checks had been repeated and the last propulsion checks were complete. Beach Boss reported to Launch Control that recovery helicopters and launch abort recovery forces were ready and the Range Safety Officer completed another set of range safety command checks.

On board America, at T minus 25 minutes, Evans armed America’s Reaction Control System (RCS) (spacecraft attitude control) by opening the valves that put hypergolic fuels in lines to the individual thrusters in case maneuvering thrusts were needed late in the launch sequence or during an abort. Liquid hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide constituted our thruster as well as our spacecraft propulsion fuels. Hypergolic fuels ignite on contact when a hand controller movement commanded their valves to open for a thruster firing. After arming the RCS, we verified proper indications of its fuel quantities, pressures, and temperatures.

At this point, Launch Control reported:

“Our weather continues to look good. The major frontal area which had been of some concern earlier, has remained well west of the launch area. Also, some smaller buildups that we have been monitoring do not appear to be coming close enough to cause any concern for our 9:53 PM launch time. That launch will be aiming Apollo 17 for the Taurus-Littrow area of the Moon. This area is named after the Taurus Mountains in southern Turkey and the Austrian astronomer, [Joseph Johann von] Littrow. The site is expected to yield some of the oldest and some of the youngest lunar samples returned during the Apollo flights to the Moon. Now T-24 minutes 50 seconds and counting. This is Kennedy Launch Control.”

We transitioned to the CM-Launch Checklist at T minus 20 minutes, although we had already gone through its long list of switch and circuit breaker configurations for launch given in the first several pages as verification of what Fullerton and Roosa had already done. As expected, all were properly set. Cernan verified that the launch azimuth in our on-board computer was correct and then configured the Reaction Control System to AUTO so that the Launch Abort programs in various modes could orient the Command Module properly for entry and parachute deployment, if that became necessary. An updated weather report from Parker told us that the few offshore cumulus clouds would not be a problem to which Cernan replied, “I hope it’s as beautiful out there as it is in here.”

Meanwhile, Launch Control began chilling the J-2 rocket engines in the S-II and S-IVB stages to eliminate any thermal shock, about 20 and 25 minutes from this point, when extremely cold liquid oxygen and hydrogen would begin to flow from their fuel tanks.

Fifteen minutes to go. We check the relevant switch positions, hand controller arming, and cue card and checklist attitude profiles needed for Cernan to manually fly the launch profile should the Saturn V’s computer degrade or fail. Reconfiguring the side hatch so that it could be opened from the outside made up one important task for me as I alone could reach the release mechanisms over my left shoulder without un-strapping. This meant verifying that the Cabin Pressure Dump valve was closed, the Gear Box selected to LATCH with the Actuator Handle selected to UNLATCH, the Lock Pin selected to LOCK with the Lock Pin indicator flush, and the nitrogen gas release valve and the Boost Protective Cover Jettison Knob positioned for exterior jettison by rescue personnel. If we needed to evacuate America quickly, all I would have to do is pull the Actuator Handle down and the hatch would open as the White Room moved into position. Cernan and Evans would simultaneously be releasing their straps and connectors with Evans leaving the spacecraft first, Cernan second, and me last. We could be out of there, into the White Room, headed for the elevator or the cage on the slide wire in less than 30 seconds. We only had to do this in practice, thank God!

After we perform the called-for voice communications check with Launch Operations, we are told that Vice-President Spiro Agnew, a friend of Cernan’s, had taken a visitor’s seat in the Launch Control Center. This was about the same time as the Command and Service Module went to internal fuel cell power in addition to power from the LUT. With the fuel cells sharing power with an external source, we go through a final, coordinated systems check. An S-Band radio voice check with Mission Control Center in Houston follows these power checks. At this point, we also arm the Service Propulsion System in case needed for one of the high altitude or Earth-orbit abort modes.

Ten minutes: Launch Control terminates external power to America while the launch vehicle controllers go through their final checks of the Saturn V’s computers, housed in the rocket’s Instrument Unit (IU) placed just above the S-IVB. With Parker, we check out the quality and integrity of the communications circuit that would be used throughout the launch.

Six minutes: Bill Schlick, Launch Control’s Test Supervisor, begins his roll call of the various launch controllers to get their “go-no-go” call-outs for launch of Apollo 17.

“S-Ic Stage, Go!”

“S-II Stage, Go!”

“S-IVB Stage, Go!”

“Range Safety, Go!”

“Launch Operations, Go!”

“Launch Director, Go!”

Five minutes: Launch Control arms the Saturn destruct system. Now, the rocket could be destroyed if it strayed significantly off course during launch. Also, at five minutes, Swing Arm #9 with the White room retracts fully. With any deteriorating situation that had the eminent possibility of an explosion, we would now use the Launch Escape System to get away from the pad.

Four minutes: Norm Carlson announces, “Launch Vehicle Test Conductor, Go!” Just prior to this call, the five red launch vehicle engine status lights illuminate on the panel in front of us in America’s cabin. These lights would go out as each F-1 rocket engine came up to full thrust. At this time, we also perform a final launch operations communications check, verify that the spacecraft computer showed it was in the launch program (PO2), and start the onboard tape recorder.

“Thank the launch team for all their prayers and all their help,” Cernan says on behalf of the three of us.

“The launch team wishes you good luck and God Speed,” returns the Launch Operations Manager.

Three minutes, seven seconds: The Spacecraft Ready Light illuminates in Launch Control and the automatic Terminal Countdown Sequencer takes over, and we are headed for launch provided the Sequencer stays happy with everything during checks performed far faster than humans could do. All functions required from here on will be initiated automatically with launch controllers monitoring each action and its effects and able to override the Sequencer, if necessary.

The Terminal Countdown Sequencer also conducts repeated programmed checks of the Saturn’s readiness for launch. If it detects something the computer program does not like, it will hold the launch before ignition. All is going as expected.

Two minutes, thirty seconds: The Instrument Unit and Emergency Detection System Ready Lights illuminate in Launch Control and helium begins to flow to pressurize the Saturn V’s propellant tanks. The only problem observed in Launch Control is that the Sequencer did not automatically command the pressurization of the S-IVB liquid oxygen tank, so the responsible controller pressurized the tank manually.

Two minutes, fifteen seconds: We pull the control handle that causes glycol coolant to by-pass the radiators until we need heat rejection in orbit. Soon after, Launch Control notes that the SII liquid oxygen tanks are fully pressurized.

One minute, fifteen seconds: I tie the main electrical power buses together so that one can feed the other in case of a bus failure during launch.

One minute: Water from a 400,000-gallon supply begins to flow into the huge flame deflector trench below the Saturn V and over the launch tower for noise suppression as well as protection from the intense flame of the five F-1 engines. At liftoff, the various swing arms and hold-down arms will retract into this deluge. Onboard, we turn off the now unneeded communications system we could have used to talk to PAD 39A personnel and increase the communications volume to above normal listening level in order to counteract the noise the Saturn IC first stage will produce outside our Snoopy Caps and helmets.

Fifty seconds: The Saturn automatically connects to its own internal batteries for power. Launch Control sees that the S-II hydrogen tank has pressurized, followed by the SIC oxygen and kerosene tanks.

Forty-five seconds: Cernan pushes the GDC ALIGN push button to give a final alignment to the strapped down gyros of the backup guidance system, the Gyro Display Coupler (GDC), in case it would be needed during an abort.

“Thirty seconds and counting.” The quiescence of America broke as the rocket awakened. Like an immense, cold-blooded animal, moving, stretching and alive beneath us, the rocket in an instant aligned is great engines, pressurized its web of fuel and oxidizer lines, and checked its electronic vital signs one more time. Our attention in the confines of the cabin became even more concentrated on the displays of sensor readings from throughout the spacecraft. Somewhere, using millions of bits of information coming over thousands of wires, the launch computer complex also performed the last series of checks, as it had been programmed to do long ago. Faster than an eye blink, the launch computer did what years of analysis, thought and test had designed it to do — it stopped the launch countdown!

“We have a hold.” Instantly, the calmly spoken words came into our headsets. Then, Thirty seconds and holding.

(continued in: Chapter 5 . . .)


    1. In the quoted dialog and annotations directly related to the Apollo 17 Mission, black = normal mission activity and commentary; red = spacecraft anomaly discussions; blue = Earth observations; brown = Lunar Module Challenger discussions; green = Public Affairs Office transcripts or news updates from Mission Control; purple = lunar observations; italics = onboard recorder transcripts (Data Storage Equipment or Command Module DSE and Data Storage Electronics Assembly or Lunar Module DSEA); and turquoise = probable dialog derived from the author’s memory.

      Double-indented paragraphs enclosed with brackets [ ] denote clarifications.

    2. Schaber, G. G., 2005, The U.S. Geological Survey, Branch of Astrogeology—A Chronology of Activities from Conception through the End of Project Apollo (1960-1973), Open-File Report 2005-1190, U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey; Phinney, W. C., 2005, Science Training History of the Apollo Astronauts. Appendix I, p. 72-73, Draft.

    3. Wolfe, E. W., and V. L. Freeman, 1972, Detailed Geologic Map – Apollo Seventeen (Taurus-Littrow) Landing Area, U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report, Center of Astrogeology, Fagstaff, Arizona; Wolfe, E. W., et al, 1972, Apollo Seventeen exploration at Taurus-Littrow, Geotimes, 17, 11, p. 14-18.

    4. Grover: This name for the Geological Survey’s working mockup of the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) is a contraction of “One-g Rover”. Click [here] for details.

    5. Talwani, M., et al., 1973, Traverse Gravimeter Experiment, in R. A. Parker et al., Editors, Preliminary Science Report, NASA SP-330, Government Printing Office, Washington, p. 13-1 – 13-13.

    6. Kovach, R. L., et al., 1973, Lunar Seismic Profiling Experiment, in R. A. Parker et al., Editors, Preliminary Science Report, NASA SP-330, Government Printing Office, Washington, p. 10-1 – 10-12.

    7. Simmons, G., et al., 1973, Surface Electrical Properties Experiment, in R. A. Parker et al., Editors, Preliminary Science Report, NASA SP-330, Government Printing Office, Washington, p. 15-1 – 15-14.

    8. “The whole nine yards.” I first encountered this expression when I began my Air Force flight training at Williams Air Force Base in Arizona in 1965. I asked many seasoned Air Force personal about its origins and received many different answers ranging from the length of the lanyard between an ejection seat and its life raft to “it sounds better than the ‘whole eight or ten yards.’” Many years later, a long-serving, Senior Master Sergeant at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico told me the expression related to the Chicago construction industry in which you could only buy “nine yards of concrete” at any one time, that is the capacity of a cement truck. I think that may be the answer.

    9. Jones, E. M., Lunar Landing Training Vehicle NASA 952, provides a brief history with many photos on the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal page: click ALSJ. A more detailed history of the development of the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV/LLTV) is given by: Matranga, Gene J., Ottinger, C. Wayne, Jarvis, Calvin R., with Gelzer, C. Christian , Unconventional, Contrary, and Ugly: The Lunar Landing Research Vehicle, Aerospace History Monograph #35, NASA SP-2004-4535, 2005. A PDF copy of the latter can be downloaded by clicking [here].

    10. LMS2 – Lunar Module Simulator located at the Kennedy Space Center was designated #2 whereas the LMS at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston was designated #1. As crews spent most of their training time during the last few months at KSC, LMS2 always was updated with new software before LMS1 and was usually employed in full Mssion Simulations.

    11. Giganti, J. J, et al., 1973, Lunar Surface Gravimeter, in R. A. Parker et al., Editors, Preliminary Science Report, NASA SP-330, Government Printing Office, Washington, p. 12-1 – 12-4.

    12. Further discussion will be provided in Chapter 2.

    13. Manned Spacecraft Center, 1972, Apollo Seventeen Traverse planning data (3rd Edition), November 1, unpublished Manned Spacecraft Center document, Houston, 116 p.

    14. Byers, B. K., 1977, Destination Moon: A History of the Lunar Orbiter Program, NASA, TM X3487, 411p.

    15. Cernan, E. and D. Davis, 1999, The Last Man on the Moon, St. Martin’s Press, p. 287-290.

    16. Further discussion will be provided in Chapter 2.

    17. Kranz, G., 2000, Failure Is Not An Option, Berkeley, New York, p. 305-339.

    18. Slayton, D. K., 1994, Deke!, Forge, New York, p. 256-257.

    19. Copyright, 1971, by Hall Syndicate, Publisher.

    20. Medical Research and Operations Directorate, 1972, Flight Crew Health Stabilization Program, Revision C, November 23, MSC-03465, unpublished Manned Spacecraft Center document, Houston.

    21. See details in Chapters 8, 9, and 10.

    22. See Wolfe, E.W., et al., 1981, Geologic Investigation of the Taurus-Littrow Valley: Apollo Seventeen Landing Site, United States Geological Survey Professional Paper 1080, United States Government Printing Office, Washington, p. 4-7.

    23. Schmitt, H. H., et al., 2011, Motives, methods, essential preparation for planetary field geology on the Moon and Mars, in W. B. Garry and J. E. Bleacher, editors, Analogs for Planetary Exploration, GSA Special Paper 483, Geological Society of America, Boulder, p. 8-11.

    24. See Hodges, K. V., and H. H. Schmitt, 2011, A new paradigm for advanced planetary field geology developed through analog experiments on Earth, in W. B. Garry and J. E. Bleacher, editors, Analogs for Planetary Exploration, GSA Special Paper 483, Geological Society of America, Boulder, p.17-32.

    25. Wilhelms, D. E., and J. F., McCauley, 1971, Geologic map of the near side of the Moon, U.S. Geological Survey Geological Atlas of the Moon, Map I-703, scale 1:5,000,000; Scott, D. H.,and M. H. Carr, 1972, Geologic map of a part of the Taurus-Littrow region of the Moon in, Geologic Maps of the Taurus-Littrow Region of the Moon, U.S. Geological Survey Miscellaneous Inventory, Map I-800, sheet 1, scale 1:250,000; Lucchitta, B. K., 1972, Geologic map of part of the Taurus-Littrow Region of the Moon, in Scott, D. H., et al., Geologic Maps of the Taurus-Littrow Region of the Moon, U.S. Geological Survey Miscellaneous Inventory, Map I-800, sheet 2, scale 1:50,000; Wolfe, E. W., and V. Freeman, 1972, Detaied geologic map – Apollo Seventeen (Taurus-Littrow) landing area, U. S. Geological Survey open-file map, 1:25,000.

    26. Lucchitta, B. K., 1972, 1:50,000 Geologic Map of part of the Taurus-Littrow region of the Moon, USGS Geologic Atlas of the Moon, I-800, Sheet 2 of 2.

    27. The area of the full map is 45″ x 30″. It can be downloaded as a PDF file from:

    28. Manned Spacecraft Center, 1972, Apollo Seventeen Traverse planning data (3rd Edition), November 1, unpublished Manned Spacecraft Center document, Houston, p. 33-36.

    29. Borman, F., 1988, Countdown, Silver Arrow Books, New York, pp. 152-181.

    30. Conversation No. 157-2 in the Camp David Tape Subject Log, p. 14, December 5, 1972. Transcript of this call produced by the author from an audio download available from the Nixon Library. Click [here] for an audio copy of the mp3 recording listed in the table: Tape 157, conversation #2.

    31. Cernan, E. and D. Davis, 1999, The Last Man on the Moon, St. Martin’s Press, p. 295.

    32. Support Team: Dave Ballard, Leader; Terry Neal, LM Crew Station engineer; Ray Malone, CSM Crew Station Engineer; Bill Leverich, Systems Engineer; Gene Chase, LM Crew Equipment Engineer; Bob Horn, CSM Crew Equipment Engineer; Tex Ward, Training Coordinator; John Covington, Lm EVA Engineer; Jim Ellis, CSM EVA Engineer; Dan Bland and Ron Blevins, Lund Surface Operations; Randy Hester, Mission Manager for EMU (space suit).

    33. Mylar or “BoPET (Biaxially-oriented polyethylene terephthalate) is a polyester film made from stretched polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and is used for its high tensile strength, chemical and dimensional stability, transparency, reflectivity, gas and aroma barrier properties and electrical insulation.” See also,

    34. “Nomex (styled NOMEX) is a registered trademark for flame resistant meta-aramid material developed in the early 1960s by DuPont and first marketed in 1967.” See also,

    35. Cernan, E. and D. Davis, 1999, The Last Man on the Moon, St. Martin’s Press, p. 297.

    36. Levy, D. H., 2000, Shoemaker, Princeton University Press, 303 pp.

    37. Lindbergh, C. 1967, The wisdom of wilderness, Life Magazine, December 22.

    38. Murray, C., and C. B. Cox, 1989, Apollo: The Race to the Moon, Simon & Schuster, p. 98-99.

    39. Wendt, G., 2001, The Unbroken Chain, Apogee, Burlington, Ontario, 216 pp.

    40. Kraft, C., 2001, Flight, Penguin, pp. 269-76; Kranz, G., 2000, Failure Is Not An Option, Berkeley, New York, p. 197-206; Slayton, D. K., 1994, Deke!, Forge, New York, p. 188-195; Chaikin, A., 1994, A Man on The Moon, Penguin, New York, p. 11-26; Brooks, C. G., et al, Chariots for Apollo, NASASP-4205, Government Printing Office, Washington, p. 213-227.

    41. Lybergot, S., 2001, Apollo EECOM, Apogee, Books, Burlingame, Onterio, p. 101-167.

    42. Swanson, G., 2000, The Mission Transcript Collection, NASA SP-2000-4602, Apollo Seventeen PAO transcripts.


    44. See Kraft, C., 2001, Flight, Dutton, p. 158-161.

    45. EECOM: CSM flight controller responsible for electrical, environmental, structural, cryogenic, and communications systems; , fuel cells and batteries; and pyrotechnic devices.

    46. FIDO: Mission Control Center flight controller responsible for launch and orbit trajectories.

    47. GUIDO: Mission Control Center flight controller responsible for navigation and computer software.

    48. RETRO: Mission Control Center flight controller responsible for reentry trajectories.

    49. INCO: Mission Control Center flight controller responsible forall instrumentation, communications, telemetry, command, and television systems.

    50. Schmitt, H. H., 2006, Return to the Moon, Copernicus-Praxis, 335 pp.


Copyright © by Harrison H. Schmitt, 2017. All rights reserved.