On July 20th, 1969, the human race accomplished the most notable technological achievement in history when a man first set foot on another celestial body. Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface and radioed one of mankind’s most transcendent moments, “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” It was the electrifying beginning act of the greatest adventure of all time.
But what is sometimes lost to time are the missions that followed. The Apollo moon missions did not begin and end with Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Apollo 11. In all, there were five more manned lunar landings, each with a different objective.
Apollo 17, which this year’s fifth grade Young Astronauts from Columbus Magnet School celebrates, was the last of these great journeys. Landing on the moon on December 11, 1972 and leaving three days later, this was the last of the Apollo missions. In honoring the last human steps on earth’s nearest neighbor, XVII Quadragesimal not only looks to the glory of America’s past, nearly 40 years ago, but also to the future.
At the end of his third and final lunar EVA, Gene Cernan gazed out at sites that only a very select fraternity could ever claim to have witnessed. He saw the stark, barren lunar landscape of the Taurus Littrow Valley. Here, he and geologist, Harrison Schmitt, had gathered the largest cache of moon samples (253 pounds) of any Apollo flight. As Cernan prepared to enter the lunar module, Challenger, he looked up and saw Earth, a shining blue and white marble, the only color in the absolute blackness of space.
The last words ever spoken while standing on the moon were just as inspiring as Neil Armstrong’s first words. For with them, Gene Cernan did not so much write the last chapter of America’s exploration of the moon, but rather the introduction and challenge for future generations to follow in Apollo’s footsteps:
“… as I take man’s last step from the surface…I’d like to just say what I believe history will record; that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus-Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return: with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”
This year’s 18 Columbus Young Astronauts of XVII Quadragesimal have taken the gauntlet from the inspiration of Apollo 17. “Futurus est nostra” – “The future is ours”. We shall return to the moon and go beyond and these 18 young people are, indeed, our future.