Apollo 17: Looking back at the last time the US landed on the moon

The 1972 lunar landing concluded a pioneering time for moon exploration.
large boulder with astronaut
Scientist-astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt is photographed standing next to a huge, split lunar boulder during the third Apollo 17 extravehicular activity (EVA) at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. NASA

In the December 1972 issue of Popular Science, writer Alden P. Armagnac described Apollo 17 as “the most exciting geological field trip in history.” The lunar landing concluded NASA’s groundbreaking Apollo program and ended up being the last time the United States landed on the moon in the 20th century.

This week, after 51 years, the US returned to moon on Odysseus, an uncrewed lander that became the first privately-built spacecraft to survive a moon landing. Odysseus (or “Odie”) was built by Texas-based Intuitive Machines and carried a payload that included NASA navigation and tech experiments. NASA plans to use the instruments to collect vital data ahead of planned crewed missions later this decade.

The December 1972 issue of Popular Science included a preview of the Apollo 17 mission and a look back at previous Apollo missions.

To mark the American return to the moon, we wanted to take a look back at Apollo 17 through images. Commander Gene Cernan, Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt, and Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center on December 7, 1972. The 12-day mission included several notable feats: the first astronaut-scientist on the moon (Schmitt), the first poem read from the surface of the moon, and circling the moon 75 times.

As Armagnac wrote: “When some future lunar settler writes the history of man on the moon, its most dramatic chapter is bound to be the Apollo adventures of 1969-1972.” We’ll have to wait and see what dramatics 21st century moon exploration brings.

the grey surface of the moon in the foreground with earth in the background

The crescent Earth rises above the lunar horizon in this photograph taken from the Apollo 17 spacecraft in lunar orbit during National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) final lunar landing mission in the Apollo program. While astronauts Eugene A. Cernan, commander, and Harrison H. Schmitt, lunar module pilot, descended in the Lunar Module (LM) “Challenger” to explore the Taurus-Littrow region of the moon, astronaut Ronald E. Evans, command module pilot, remained with the Command and Service Modules (CSM) “America” in lunar orbit. Photo: NASA
a robotic vehicle sits next to a boulder on the grey sands of the moon

The Apollo 17 Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) is photographed near a large lunar boulder during the third Apollo 17 extravehicular activity (EVA) at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. About half of the boulder is captured in this scene, photographed by astronaut Eugene A. Cernan, mission commander. While astronauts Cernan and Harrison H. Schmitt descended in the Lunar Module (LM) “Challenger” to explore the lunar surface, astronaut Ronald E. Evans, command module pilot, remained with the Command and Service Modules (CSM) in lunar orbit. Photo: NASA
An astronaut with a camera on his chest stands amongst boulders

Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan stands near an over-hanging rock during the third Apollo 17 lunar surface extravehicular activity (EVA) at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. Scientist-astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt took this photograph. The tripod-like object just outside the shaded area is the gnomon and photometric chart assembly which is used as a photographic reference to establish local vertical sun angle, scale and lunar color. The gnomon is one of the Apollo Lunar Geology Hand Tools. While astronauts Cernan and Schmitt descended in the Lunar Module “Challenger” to explore the moon, astronaut Ronald E. Evans remained with the Apollo 17 Command and Service Modules in lunar orbit. Photo: NASA
An astronaut salutes the american flag

Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan, Apollo 17 commander, is photographed next to the deployed United States flag during lunar surface extravehicular activity (EVA) at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. The highest part of the flag appears to point toward our planet Earth in the distant background. This picture was taken by scientist-astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt, lunar module pilot. While astronauts Cernan and Schmitt descended in the Lunar Module (LM) to explore the moon, astronaut Ronald E. Evans, command module pilot, remained with the Command and Service Modules (CSM) in lunar orbit. Photo: NASA
the shadow of an astronaut is seen in front of lunar vehicles

 Wide-angle view of the Apollo 17 Taurus-Littrow lunar landing site. To the left in the background is the Lunar Module. To the right in the background is the Lunar Roving vehicle. An Apollo 17 crewmember is photographed between the two points. The shadow of the astronaut taking the photograph can be seen in the right foreground. Photo: NASA
an american flag on the surface of the grey, dusty moon

In this view looking out the Lunar Module (LM) windows shows the United States Flag on the moon’s surface. This view looks toward the north Massif. The LM thrusters can be seen in foreground. While astronauts Eugene A. Cernan, commander, and Harrison H. Schmitt, lunar module pilot, descended in the LM “Challenger” to explore the Taurus-Littrow region of the moon, astronaut Ronald E. Evans, command module pilot, remained with the Command and Service Modules (CSM) “America” in lunar orbit. Photo: NASA
orange dust seen amongst grey dust

 A close-up view of the much-publicized orange soil which the Apollo 17 crewmen found at Station 4 (Shorty Crater) during the second Apollo 17 extravehicular activity (EVA) at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. The orange soil was first spotted by scientist-astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt. While astronauts Schmitt and Eugene A. Cernan descended in the Lunar Module (LM) “Challenger” to explore the lunar surface, astronaut Ronald E. Evans remained with the Apollo 17 Command and Service Modules (CSM) in lunar orbit. The orange soil was never seen by the crewmen of the other lunar landing missions – Apollo 11 (Sea of Tranquility); Apollo 12 (Ocean of Storms); Apollo 14 (Fra Mauro); Apollo 15 (Hadley-Apennines); and Apollo 16 (Descartes). Photo: NASA
an astronaut mid-trip with a leg in the air

Scientist-astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt loses his balance and heads for a fall during the second Apollo 17 extravehicular activity (EVA) at the Taurus-Littrow landing site, as seen in this black and white reproduction taken from a color television transmission made by the color RCA TV camera mounted on the Lunar Roving Vehicle. Schmitt is lunar module pilot of the Apollo 17 lunar landing mission. Astronaut Ronald E. Evans, command module pilot, remained with Apollo 17 Command and Service Modules in lunar orbit while astronauts Schmitt and Eugene A. Cernan, commander, descended in the Lunar Module “Challenger” to explore the moon. Photo: NASA
a shiny silver module floats above the surface of a cratered moon

An excellent view of the Apollo 17 Command and Service Modules (CSM) photographed from the Lunar Module (LM) “Challenger” during rendezvous and docking maneuvers in lunar orbit. The LM ascent stage, with astronauts Eugene A. Cernan and Harrison H. Schmitt aboard, had just returned from the Taurus-Littrow landing site on the lunar surface. Astronaut Ronald E. Evans remained with the CSM in lunar orbit. Note the exposed Scientific Instrument Module (SIM) Bay in Sector 1 of the Service Module (SM). Three experiments are carried in the SIM bay: S-209 lunar sounder, S-171 infrared scanning spectrometer, and the S-169 far-ultraviolet spectrometer. Also mounted in the SIM bay are the panoramic camera, mapping camera and laser altimeter used in service module photographic tasks. A portion of the LM is on the right. Photo: NASA