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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Under the blazing light of the Sun unfiltered by an atmosphere, geologist/astronaut Schmitt explored the terrain of Taurus–Littrow.
11. Tracy's Rock
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
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
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
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 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
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
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!”
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.
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.”
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:
Happy 50th anniversary, Apollo 17!