On the 50th anniversary of Apollo 17’s launch, we look back at iconic photos as well as rarely seen images from the mission.

If Apollo 11 is remembered as a first for humanity, then Apollo 17 was a finale of sorts — at least for now. A new chapter of human lunar exploration looks to be on the horizon with the Artemis program, but as of now, the crew of Apollo 17 remain the last humans to venture beyond Earth orbit or to the Moon since 1972.

Commander Gene Cernan, a veteran of Gemini 9 and Apollo 10, led Command Module Pilot Ron Evans and lunar geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt on a record-setting mission that saw three 7+ hour moonwalks, 243 pounds of lunar rocks collected, and a fabulous night launch of the Saturn V. The Command Module America orbited the Moon while the Lunar Module Challenger descended to the surface, to a valley called Taurus–Littrow.

Launching December 7, 1972 and returning to Earth 12 days later, the Apollo 17 crew extensively documented their voyage with film, movie, and TV cameras. To celebrate 50 years since Apollo 17, here is a collection of those images, from the familiar to the rarely seen.

1. The Blue Marble

the earth from space
Credit for this photo and all following: NASA

Besides Apollo 8’s Earthrise, Apollo 17’s The Blue Marble is possibly the most famous photograph of Earth. It is unique because it displays our planet in a “full” phase. Schmitt was likely the photographer and captured this view on the way to the Moon after leaving Earth orbit. In most reproductions, The Blue Marble is typically cropped, but in the full version of the photo Earth is off-center and the photo contains extra negative space around the planet. Here is the original, uncropped version complete with film sprockets.

2. Mare Crisium

Not long after reaching the Moon, the crew of Apollo 17 had this fantastic view of Mare Crisium, a lunar “sea” of dark basalt familiar to lunar observers.

3. Landing Site

Prior to landing, the Apollo 17 crew captured this excellent photo of the Taurus–Littrow landing site from orbit, showing the flat floor of the valley surrounded by massifs. Using the Lunar Rover, Cernan and Schmitt would eventually visit both the north and south sides of the valley.

4. Down to the Surface

a wide shot of the moon landscape with a module on it

An Apollo Lunar Module could land automatically if the crew so chose, but it lacked a hazard avoidance system. So in all six landings, the commander chose to enter a semi-manual control program called P66 once the craft was fairly near the surface. This let the commander use a hand controller to designate the precise landing spot and avoid obstacles.

In his autobiography The Last Man on the Moon, Cernan described the last few minutes of landing Challenger: “Finding a place to land wasn’t as easy as anticipated. A boulder the size of a house — that wasn’t supposed to be there — loomed right in front of me. I slid over it, only to encounter a deep hole that had remained hidden for time eternal. Hitting either would ruin the entire day.”

5. Ready to Roll

a vehicle on a dark grey moon landscape against a black background

Apollo 17 Commander Gene Cernan takes the controls of the Lunar Roving Vehicle, one of only three such vehicles to be used during Apollo. This Moon buggy transported Cernan and Schmitt more than 20 miles (30 km) around the valley. Like the rovers used on Apollo 15 and 16, it’s still parked on the surface of the Moon where the astronauts left it 50 years ago.

6. Orange Soil

orange grey material on the moon

By the time Apollo 17 flew, the lunar explorers had pretty much come to the conclusion that there was extremely little color variation on the Moon. It had long been noticed — as early as Apollo 8 and 10 — that the Moon’s surface could appear brown or white depending on the lighting. Neil Armstrong saw within the first minutes of his moonwalk that the lunar regolith itself is very dark. But with few exceptions, the lunar surface seemed to lack vibrant colors.

So it was something of a surprise on the second day of surface exploration when Jack Schmitt looked down at his feet and saw bright color. “Oh, hey — wait a minute . . . there is orange soil! It’s all over! Orange!” Cernan quickly finished what he was doing and came to see as well. “Hey, it is! I can see it from here!” Concerned that perhaps the gold tint of their visors was causing an illusion, Cernan said, “Wait a minute, let me put my visor up. It's still orange!”

Scientists eventually determined that the orange color marked ancient volcanic activity, which drew material from deep with the Moon’s interior and brought it to the surface in spectacular geyser-like processes.

7. Flag Day

american flag in the foreground with the moon in the far off background

Because the Apollo 17 landing site was farther from the center of the lunar nearside than past missions, Earth appeared closer to the horizon. This setup resulted in some unique photo opportunities for Cernan and Schmitt, who took turns photographing each other, the American flag, and Earth.

8. Dusty Suits

grey moon ground with the legs of an astronaut and dust around

Many of the Apollo astronauts talked about the problem of the lunar dust, which is quite abrasive and tends to stick fast to surfaces — especially the suits. Some crew attempted to brush off before reentering the lunar module.

“Probably the most difficult job of all the closeouts was trying to dust the suits,” Schmitt recalled later. “It's a difficult and awkward position. It's hard to make fast sweeping movements in a stiff suit. We did our best, and I think probably the time spent was well spent . . . both of us found that our lower limbs and boots could probably be better dusted by jumping up and down on a ladder.”

Apollo 16 commander John Young noted in his autobiography that the lunar dust would probably be the most challenging aspect for future moonwalkers to overcome.

9. Looking Back Toward Home

the earth in the far off background with a lunar boulder in the foreground

It’s so familiar to stand on Earth and look up at the Moon that doing the opposite is difficult to imagine. Cernan was repeatedly amazed at the sight of Earth from the Moon, and he encouraged Schmitt to pause and enjoy the view. During a geology stop on the second day of surface exploration, Cernan photographed Earth over a large boulder.

10. Rugged Terrain

grey moon landscape with an astronaut walking

Under the blazing light of the Sun unfiltered by an atmosphere, geologist/astronaut Schmitt explored the terrain of Taurus–Littrow.

11. Tracy's Rock

a large moon rock with an astronaut and vehicle next to it

No pictorial history of Apollo 17 would be complete without this image of a split boulder nicknamed Tracy’s Rock — surely one of the most famous images of the Apollo era. After parking the rover on a fairly steep slope, Cernan and Schmitt carefully navigated the hill to sample the rock.

12. The Command Module America

a module floating in space above a grey surface

While Cernan and Schimtt explored the surface, Command Module Pilot Ron Evans orbited the Moon in America, performing experiments and taking a large amount of photographs.

13. Tsiolkovskiy Crater

a rocky grey surface

With even a small telescope, astronomers on Earth can observe many central peaks inside lunar impact craters. But during their 72nd orbit of the Moon, the crew of Apollo 17 had this absolutely fantastic view looking straight down at the central peak of Tsiolkovskiy Crater on the lunar farside. If it weren’t permanently hidden from Earth’s view, this crater would likely be a favorite object for amateur astronomers.

14. Light Leak

a grey surface with a red band at the top and a yellow band at the bottom

Traveling to the Moon still seems so futuristic that it’s sometimes difficult to remember that the technology used is indeed 50 years old. With modern digital cameras still decades in the future, all Apollo images (except for the TV camera) were recorded on film. Oftentimes, the images near the end of the film magazines would experience the effects of light leakage — something you might have seen in old family photo albums, too.

15. Crescent Earth

the earth in partial shadow with the moon in the foreground

The juxtaposition of the living Earth against the rocky Moon, as can be seen in this Apollo 17 orbital view of the crescent Earth, never gets old.

16. Sense of Scale

the shadow of a person in the foreground with lunar vehicles far away in front of hills on the moon

Sizes and distances are notoriously difficult to judge on the Moon, caused by the lack of atmospheric haze, the absence of common objects like trees or buildings, and a horizon that is closer than Earth’s. A photo like this can provide a sense of scale by incorporating objects of known size.

17. Footprints on the Moon

footprints in grey dust

No wind, no water, no biological activity, extremely slow erosion processes — all of these factors add up to ensure that these footprints of Schmitt’s will remain in place for ages to come.

At one point, Houston discussed this with the crew of Apollo 17: “Gene and Jack, we're still marveling at the beautiful television pictures that we're getting from your TV camera there. It's fun, in fact, to watch the tracks that you're leaving behind in the lunar soil, both footprints and rover tracks. And some of us are down here now reflecting . . . about what sort of device will ultimately disturb your tracks.”

18. “Talk about being a spaceman!”

an astronaut in space works on the outside of a module

During the long coast back to Earth, Evans had a chance for a spacewalk of his own — this time to the outside of Apollo 17’s Service Module to retrieve some of the film that he’d exposed during his orbital mission.

a closeup of an astronaut's helmet with the moon in the background

He also had a moment or two to enjoy the view. “Beautiful! Yes, I can see the Moon back behind me! Beautiful! The Moon is down there to the right — full Moon — and off to the left, just outside the hatch down here, is a crescent Earth. Maybe I can get a picture of that — the Earth as I'm coming back in there. But the crescent Earth is not like a crescent Moon. It's got kind of like horns, and the horns go all the way around, and it makes almost three-quarters of a circle.” Eventually, Evans would get his selfie with the crescent Earth.

19. “God willing, as we shall return.”

an astronaut on the moon next to the lunar module

A few moments before stepping off the Moon’s surface for the last time and climbing back into the lunar module, Cernan stopped to mark the occasion of Apollo’s last footsteps through a brief speech with an eye for the future.

“…as I take man's last steps from the surface, back home, for some time to come, but we believe not too long into the future, I'd like to just list 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 come and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.”

You can listen and watch the full mission in "real time," or for a briefer glimpse into the mission, watch this clip of astronauts singing on the surface of the Moon:

NASA; Digitization by Ken Glover / Apollo Lunar Surface Journal

Happy 50th anniversary, Apollo 17!


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December 7, 2022 at 10:34 am

Seeing these photos brings back the excitement I felt as a ten-year-old. Thank you, Sky and Telescope, for sharing this with your readers!

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December 7, 2022 at 11:25 am

I was 20 at the time, see the Apollo project is one of my most cherished memories. Those of us who were alive at the time were certainly lucky to be able to experience the wonder of it. I have been lucky enough to have met most of the Apollo astronauts. They all depended on technology that was primitive by today's standards and took tremendous risks to help us be the first country to land on another world.

Every one I met were modest and giving of their time. Very special people.

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December 9, 2022 at 5:47 pm

I was 17 years old and fortunate enough to be in the bleachers by the VAB with my Dad for the night launch. Next to the birth of my kids, it is the most amazing thing that I have ever experienced, and I’ve done and seen lots of interesting things. Randomly, I was seated next to Dr. Elbert King who was the first director of the Lunar Receiving Laboratory and who had provided geological training to some of the astronauts. I didn’t know that at the time, but Iater read his autobiography. He was very generous conversing with me as a 17 year old kid who was interested in science. I’ve never forgotten it and have tried to inspire young people to pursue science careers as a result. The launch itself was stunning. At the point of ignition, the dark cool Florida night became as bright as day. The sound of the engines had not yet reached us. Suddenly the ground shook and the sound was like 100 old 727s at takeoff thrust all at the same time. Slowly the Saturn V beast left the pad and then the wind immediately picked up as the cool Florida air was replaced by a hot desert blast. There was a sense of awe that humankind and the USA could build and launch something so massive. It was an emotional experience to see the Saturn ride off into the night sky. I recall that the second stage burned a different type of propellant which had a greenish tint that was different from the bright yellow flame of the first stage. I still have the visitor kits for the mission that NASA gave us. It was a time when we as a nation thought that we were trying to make the world a better place. It was a moment of pride, adventure, and excitement. I hope that Artemis will recapture some of that spirit.

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December 9, 2022 at 10:32 pm

One of the things worth mentioning about the Blue Marble photo is it was the first time the launch trajectory took them almost over the South Pole, and thus this was the first photo of a good-sized chunk of Antarctica in one piece from orbit or just beyond.

Exploration of the moon really didn't begin until the moon dune buggies got up there for the last three missions, so it was really a shame that it ended with 17 because in a way we were just getting going by then.

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December 13, 2022 at 1:12 pm

Can someone please explain why Earth (when viewed from the moon) appears smaller than the Moon when viewed from the Earth? Given the Earth is 4x larger, how can this be possible? The Earth should be a huge, magnificent sight from the Moons perspective…

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December 13, 2022 at 1:34 pm

Look at the NASA images taken from the Artemis mission on 11-21-22…they show the Moon in the foreground and the Earth is a miniature marble in the background. What am I even looking at? This can’t be true to scale.

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