Protected inside a glass case are valuable boots. Technically called astronaut “overshoes”, they seem perfectly preserved, almost pristine. But closer examination reveals lumps of gray moon dust embedded in the white fabric.
These overshoes left the last human footprints in this gray dust, nearly half a century ago.
“They look like, you know, the winter moon boots you’ve seen,” says Teasel Muir-Harmony, curator of the Apollo Collection at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, where the shoes are on display. “Yet they have these traces of the experience of walking on the lunar surface.”
NASM by Mark Avino/Smithsonian
Fifty years ago, on December 7, 1972, a mighty Saturn V rocket lifted off carrying three astronauts, including Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan, who wore these shoe covers.
He knew his crew would be the last lunar visitors for quite some time, but he had no idea how much time would pass.
Now, as NASA commemorates the anniversary of its Apollo program’s final mission, it’s closer than ever to returning astronauts to the lunar surface.
Its new multibillion-dollar moon rocket was launched for the first time last month, sending a crew capsule – without astronauts on board – which is currently on its way home after a test flight around the moon . The spacecraft, called Orion, is due to crash in the Pacific on December 11.
If all goes well, NASA plans to fly astronauts around the Moon in 2024. And soon after, the agency plans to fly astronauts to the surface in a company-built lunar lander. Elon Musk’s SpaceX.
Although 2025 is the agency’s target date for landing near the lunar south pole, most aerospace industry players expect delays. NASA has promised that this time around the moon walkers will include a woman and a person of color.
The historical weight of Apollo 17
On December 14, 1972, at the end of the last moonwalk of the Apollo 17 mission, Cernan spoke a few words from the surface of the moon before following astronaut Harrison Schmitt up a ladder in their ascent vehicle.
“We are leaving as we came and, God willing, we will return, with peace and hope for all mankind,” Cernan said.
Being “the last man on the moon” was Cernan’s claim to fame, but he seemed eager to lose the title.
“I wish I could shake hands with that young man or young woman who replaces me in this category,” he told NPR in 2012, before his death five years later. “But unfortunately the way things have gone and the way things look for the future, at least the short-term future, that’s not going to happen in my lifetime.”
Only a dozen people have ever walked on the moon. During their three days on its surface, Schmitt and Cernan traveled more than twenty miles, while teammate Ronald Evans orbited above in a command module.
“They knew the historical weight of this mission,” says Muir-Harmony, who notes that other Apollo astronauts ditched their shoe covers on the moon, to avoid carrying too much cargo other than moon rocks. But Cernan packed his for the return trip.
Another thing the astronauts brought home, and one of the most important legacies of the Apollo 17 mission, was a photograph of the entire round globe of Earth, resembling a blue marble.
“This image was picked up by the environmental movement. It was on the Whole Earth Catalog,” says Muir-Harmony, referring to the influential counterculture publication launched in 1968. reproduced from history.”
“Apollo was not very popular”
Like the majority of Americans alive today, Muir-Harmony isn’t old enough to remember the days of the moonwalk, which ended before she was born.
His museum has just created a new lunar exploration hall, and he must tell the story of the Apollo program to people who have no personal memory of it.
In the 1960s and 1970s, she notes, the Apollo program didn’t have much public support.
“In general, Apollo was not very popular in the country,” says Muir-Harmony. “It wasn’t until around the Apollo 11 mission that more than half of Americans thought this should be a national priority.”
Many Americans resented the money spent on lunar exploration, and the nation also faced pressing challenges like the Vietnam War. Muir-Harmony notes that “major developments” in this war occurred during the Apollo 17 mission and generated competing titles.
She says the Apollo program ended because politicians like President Richard Nixon were no longer willing to shoulder its high costs and the risks to astronauts, given that the Cold War race to the moon had been won. .
NASA has turned to building reusable space shuttles. These vehicles flew for three decades and helped build the International Space Station, which is manned 24/7 and orbits about 250 miles above Earth. But all that work has kept astronauts close to home, rather than returning to the Moon or Mars.
President George HW Bush proposed a return to the moon, and President George W. Bush did the same. But each time, support dwindled when a new administration arrived with a different agenda.
That hasn’t been true for NASA’s current moonshot, which the agency calls Artemis, after the mythical Apollo’s twin sister.
“One of the things that bodes very well for Artemis,” says Muir-Harmony, “is that it’s a program that has had strong support from multiple jurisdictions.”
And while humans have walked on the moon before, she says it’s hard to predict what effect a moon landing would have on young Americans seeing it for the first time.
As Apollo 11 landed, virtually everyone on Earth stopped what they were doing to watch, gathering “in greater numbers than ever before in human history,” he said. she. “What would it mean to feel like a participant today? »
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