On December 13, 1972, Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt performed the third and last extravehicular activity (EVA) of the mission. This was the last moonwalk ever performed (as of 2023). Cernan and Schmitt were the last humans to set foot on the Moon.

December 13 story of what happened this day in Science, Technology, Astronomy, and Space Exploration history.

Apollo 17 EVA 3, The Last Moonwalk Ever Performed

On December 13, 1972, Mission Control let Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt sleep an extra hour before waking them with the Texas A&M University War Hymn “E Pluribus Gig’em,” chosen by Gold Team Flight Director Gerald D. Griffin, a Texas A&M graduate.

Schmitt was the only professional geologist to land on the Moon. Having a professional geologist like him was crucial for scientific exploration. Schmitt brought specialized knowledge and skills to lunar studies. His expertise enabled a more focused and insightful analysis of lunar geology on-site. This was vital for selecting the most scientifically valuable samples and for understanding the Moon’s geological history.

Schmitt could interpret geological features directly, providing immediate, expert insights. This enhanced the quality and relevance of the lunar samples brought back, significantly contributing to our understanding of lunar and planetary science. His presence marked a unique intersection of human exploration and specialized scientific inquiry.

As on the previous two days, Cernan and Schmitt ate breakfast, donned their suits, depressurized the Lunar Module Challenger’s cabin, and climbed the ladder down to the surface, Cernan followed by Schmitt.

Schmitt retrieved and stowed the cosmic ray experiment. They loaded up the Rover, made a brief stop at the SEP transmitter, and then headed north toward a house-sized boulder known as Turning Point Rock, from where they turned to the northeast to reach Station 6 near North Massif.

Apollo 17 Extravehicular Activity [EVA 3 - The last moonwalk ever performed]
On December 13, 1972, scientist-astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt (born July 3, 1935) is photographed standing next to a huge, split lunar boulder during the third Apollo 17 extravehicular activity (EVA) at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. The Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV), which transported Schmitt and Eugene A. Cernan (March 14, 1934 – January 16, 2017) to this extravehicular station from their Lunar Module (LM), is seen in the background. The mosaic is made from two frames from Apollo 17 Hasselblad magazine 140. The two frames were photographed by Cernan. As of 2023, Apollo 17 EVA 3 was the last moonwalk ever performed. Photo: NASA

The main attraction there involved the five fragments of a large boulder named Split Rock that long ago tumbled down from North Massif. About 250 feet (75 meters) above the plain below, Cernan parked the Rover on a 20-degree slope, prompting him to report, “You can’t believe how tough it is getting around this Rover, on this slope!”

The two astronauts collected a sample from a north-facing overhang of the boulder, to gather soil that had not been exposed to the solar wind, and chipped samples from several of the boulder fragments. Cernan took a core sample before they packed up the Rover and headed east to Station 7, a short downslope drive away where during a brief stop they sampled another large boulder.

From there, they drove further east to Station 8 at the base of the Sculptured Hills, where they collected rock and soil samples including from a trench that Schmitt dug.

Less than an hour later, Cernan and Schmitt drove southwest in the general direction back toward the Lunar Module (LM) to Station 9 at the Van Serg Crater. They collected rock and soil samples and a core sample from the area strewn with boulders, mostly likely the result of a meteorite impact, and deployed another LSPE charge.

Due to timeline constraints, the Mission Control Center (MCC) decided to cancel the Station 10 stop, so Cernan and Schmitt headed directly back to the LM. Driving downhill, they set a lunar speed record of 18 km/h (11.2 mph).

They stopped along the way to collect a rock sample and deploy another LSPE charge. Near the LM, Schmitt collected a dark rock he spotted during the first spacewalk, at 8.1 kg (about 18 lbs) the heaviest rock collected during Apollo 17. Later, NASA placed pieces of this rock on public display, and these pieces still remain the only lunar fragments that the public could touch.

Cernan and Schmitt held a brief closeout ceremony, saluting students from around the world who had attended their launch. They displayed a rock composed of many fragments, noting how that symbolized the group of international students, and stated that a piece of the rock would be sent to museums in each of the students’ countries of origin. The rock became known as the Goodwill Rock, the most widely distributed rock from the Apollo program.

Cernan then uncovered the plaque commemorating their landing at Taurus-Littrow, mounted on the LM’s forward landing strut. While Schmitt walked out to the ALSEP site for some housekeeping chores, Cernan drove the Rover to its final resting place, dubbed the VIP site, about 158 meters (492 feet) from the LM, from where it televised their liftoff several hours later.

The last moonwalk - Apollo 17
During the third lunar surface excursion (the last moonwalk ever performed), Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison H. “Jack” Schmitt takes photographs in front of Split Rock. Image source: NASA

As they did on their previous two spacewalks, Cernan and Schmitt packed up the 137 pounds (62 kg) of samples they collected on this excursion and hauled them up the ladder. Schmitt climbed up the ladder for the final time as Cernan handed him the last items.

As Cernan prepared to climb the ladder, he radioed to the Mission Control Center, “As I take man’s last step from the surface… – but we believe not too long into the future – 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.”

He climbed up the ladder, entered the LM, and closed the hatch behind him. America’s first epoch of lunar surface exploration, and also the last moonwalk ever performed, had come to an end.

Eugene A. Cernan takes a core sample during the last moonwalk
Eugene A. Cernan takes a core sample during the last moonwalk

December 13 in Science, Technology, Astronomy, and Space Exploration history


M. Özgür Nevres

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.