Marshall Center’s Saturn V and Lunar Rover Were Vital for Apollo 17 Mission Success
By Michael Wright, MSFC Historian
Forty years ago, NASA launched Apollo 17--the last human mission to the moon and the final Apollo lunar mission. That mission’s success depended on two complex space systems provided by the Marshall Center: the Saturn V launch vehicle and the Lunar Roving Vehicle.
The mammoth Saturn V generating more than 7.5 million pounds of thrust launched Apollo 17 on at 12:33 a.m. EST, Dec. 7, 1972 from Kennedy Space Center, Fla. On the Saturn V’s first and only night launch, the largest rocket ever built carried the last three men to travel to the moon: Commander Eugene A. “Gene” Cernan, Command Module Pilot Ronald E. “Ron” Evans, and Lunar Module Pilot Harrison H. “Jack” Schmitt, the only scientist-astronaut to explore the moon.
On their way to the moon, the Apollo 17 crew captured one of the most famous and most reproduced NASA photos called The Blue Marble, an Earth image that became part of the Earth Day flag. On Dec. 11, 1972, as Evans continued to orbit the moon, the lunar module carried Cernan and Smith to the Taurus-Littrow landing site, a combination of mountainous highlands and lowlands valleys. The next day, they left the lunar module, unpacked and deployed the lunar rover, and began exploring the lunar surface.
As part of three extravehicular activities, Cernan and Schimtt loaded the lunar rover with automated experiments that they set up at nine geology research stations. Before their first lunar excursion, Cernan accidentally hit the roving vehicle’s right rear fender with a hammer and knocked off the fender extension. This allowed lunar dust to be thrown on the astronauts and cargo during their first outing. Cernan and Schmitt later improvised a fender extension using leftover plastic-covered maps and lamp clamps. The repair took only nine minutes. Cernan took the rover for its first ride across the lunar landscape. “This is quite a machine, I tell you,” Cernan reported to Mission Control in Houston.
The rover developed by the Marshall Center performed safely and reliably on each excursion and enhanced the astronaut’s work efficiency as they explored the moon’s geologic features. Cernan and Schmitt drove the Apollo 17 lunar roving vehicle 35 kilometers or 21.7 miles — more than it had been driven on either of the two previous missions. Cernan also holds the speed record of about 18 kilometers per hour. The entire mission lasted 504 hours, and the astronauts spent 75 hours on the moon. On the return trip, the vehicle carried more than 257 pounds of lunar rock and soil samples, including a unique orange soil sample that had not been found during the previous five lunar missions. The astronauts took more than 2,100 photographs on the lunar surface during their excursions, which totaled 22 hours and four minutes, also a record.
Cernan and Schmitt later said “The Rover performed admirably.., that vehicle that sits out there at Taurus Littrow. We talked an awful lot about having two good spacecraft, but we told ourselves that we had three good spacecraft. That thing couldn't perform better--and we pushed it in many cases to the limit. But let me tell you that vehicle for a long time was just a little bit better than we were because it's a super performing vehicle. If you take a couple more batteries up there, that thing would just keep going."
On Dec. 14, Cernan and Schmitt left the trusty rover behind on the moon, stepped off the lunar soil for the last time and re-entered the lunar module. That same day, the lunar module ascent stage lifted off and docked with the command module in lunar orbit. Cernan, Schmitt and Evans journeyed back to Earth and splashed down on Dec. 19, 1972, 648 kilometers (350 nautical miles) southeast of American Samoa. The astronauts were flown by recovery helicopter to the U.S.S. Ticonderoga slightly less than an hour after the completion of NASA's sixth and last manned lunar landing in the Apollo program.
During one of his many visits to Huntsville, Cernan told a Marshall audience that he used to think of himself, and his fellow Apollo-era moonwalkers, as “just a bunch of ordinary guys who had an extraordinary experience” until someone told him: “You may think you are ordinary, but you’re one of only 12 human beings who have walked on another planet.” Referring to the Apollo 17 mission, Cernan said, “folks at Marshall ... and all across the country, were the ones that made it possible.”
For detailed coverage of the Apollo 17 mission including videos, transcripts of air-to-ground and imagery, visit the Apollo Lunar Surface Journals on the NASA Headquarters history site:
Apollo 17 Lunar Surface Journal
Back to Top