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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

On this date 40 years ago, NASA launched Apollo 17 - the final Apollo mission - to the moon. After three days of exploring and driving around in a lunar buggy, here's what Commander Eugene Cernan said as he prepared to step off the moon's dusty surface and head home...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EUGENE CERNAN: We leave as we came, and God willing as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.

MONTAGNE: No one has returned to the moon. As NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, NASA has set its sights elsewhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All engines are started. We have ignition.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Apollo 17 blasted off just after midnight on December 7, 1972.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We have a liftoff and it's lighting up the area. It's just like daylight here at Kennedy Space Center as the Saturn 5 is moving off the pad.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: John Logsdon was at the launch. He's a space history expert at the George Washington University.

JOHN LOGSDON: You saw the light first and then you felt the rumble of Saturn 5. So it was really a thrilling experience.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says everyone there knew that this would be the last trip to the moon for a while. With the space race won, the Nixon administration wanted to save money. And after five previous moon landings, NASA wanted to try something new, like building a reusable space shuttle and an orbiting station.

LOGSDON: I mean there was a sense of melancholy that a great program - the Apollo trips to the moon - was coming to an end.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But for the astronauts it was still a glorious mission, and the audio beamed back from the moon was definitely not melancholy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CERNAN: (Singing) I was strolling on the moon one day, in a merry, merry month of...

HARRISON SCHMITT: December.

CERNAN: May.

SCHMITT: May.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt says four decades later he can still see the beautiful lunar valley that he and Cernan were in with mountains all around.

SCHMITT: They were illuminated by as brilliant a sun as you can imagine. And, of course, hanging over the southwestern mountain was this apparently small planet that we call the Earth.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Not until he returned to Earth did Schmitt really ponder the fact that people weren't going back anytime soon.

SCHMITT: I certainly would have to be honest and say that I didn't think it would be 40 years. And actually it's going to be quite a bit longer than that.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: For a while, under President George W. Bush, NASA did start work on another moon shot. The goal is to return by 2020 and set up a lunar base to prepare for an eventual Mars mission. But after President Obama took office, a blue ribbon panel said the effort had been way underfunded and was behind schedule. So President Obama set NASA on a different course - to go beyond the moon and explore new places.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We'll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: NASA's deputy administration is Lori Garver. She says NASA is developing a large rocket and crew capsule to reach that goal.

LORI GARVER: And we are working on refining this capability, allowing us to take those first steps as soon as possible, to an asteroid and on to Mars.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A test flight of the big rocket is scheduled for 2017. But historian John Logsdon says there's a lot of skepticism about what NASA is doing.

LOGSDON: NASA's building the capabilities for deep space exploration without a very clear sense of how they're going to be used, probably with inadequate budgets and on a schedule that doesn't make much sense.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: This week, a new report from the National Research Council said there's a real lack of support for the asteroid goal, both within NASA's rank and file and in Congress. Many people, like Logsdon, think there's plenty of science left to do on the moon, and it's still the best stepping stone to Mars.

LOGSDON: All the other spacefaring countries, when they think about a destination for exploration, say moon first. The United States is the only country that says not moon first.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: When asked when humans might revisit the moon, NASA's Lori Garver answered by talking about the private sector, like a company named Golden Spike. Yesterday it announced plans to sell private flights to the lunar surface at about one and a half billion dollars a trip.

GARVER: And they say by 2020. So we would, of course, be very excited for Americans next to land on the moon.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan says he doesn't care if the next mission is NASA or private as long as they're carrying the American flag. But he doubts we'll get there in the near future. He says he'd loved to give up his claim to fame as the last man on the moon.

CERNAN: I'd like to be able to shake the hand of that young man or young woman who replaces me in that category. But unfortunately, the way things have gone and the way things are looking for the near-term future, that won't happen in my lifetime and that truly is disappointing.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But he believes people will go back to the moon - eventually - and then go on to Mars. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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