Reentry for Apollo 17 took place on Wednesday afternoon December 19th, 1972. This was my last “Apollo day-off from school” and for the first time during the mission the TV coverage was pretty extensive. That was good for me because the lightweight coverage of the rest of the mission had left me with about a half hour of audio tape to fill.
There was an interesting “first” that happened during Apollo 17’s reentry. For the first time NASA PAO allowed us to all hear what the astronauts were actually saying inside the spacecraft, in real time, during the reentry and recovery phase. Apparently they allowed Ron Evans to go on open microphone, or “VOX” with the other crewmen in the background. Either that or Evans had a stuck microphone, no matter, it was still pretty cool. The only time that he could not be heard was during the black-out portion of the reentry. As soon as the black-out cleared, however we could hear him again.
I was entranced! It was so cool to hear them talking to each other and Evans making calls. I did not even care that I did not know what most of it meant; I would figure it out later when I played the tapes over and over driving my family insane. Splashdown was a work of art and the impact of the spacecraft was captured up-close by a TV camera on one of the recovery helicopters. Later we saw close-up pictures of the crew exiting the vehicle and flopping into life-rafts. The images were so good that you could see Schmitt scoop a hand full of the blue Pacific water and toss it gleefully at Evans. In short order the crew were on the deck of the carrier TICONDEROGA making short speeches. I considered Cernan’s statement about Apollo 17 being the end of the beginning. It rang hollow, even to a 15-year-old; Apollo 17 was over, and so was the Apollo program.
The networks went back to their beloved regular programming, because that is what people were “really” interested in, and I packed up my recording gear and my models and went back to my room. I spent the next four hours listening to my Apollo 17 tapes and trying to recreate Apollo itself with my well-worn command module model; it didn’t work.
My model command module- circa 1967
“Where ya’ goin’ sweetie?” I asked, expecting an answer about some cartoon show fairyland.
“To the Moon,” she unexpectedly replied.
Without hesitation I dropped my work and turned to her,
“You wanna go to the Moon eh? Well daddy can help.”
With that I dug into my collection of space stuff and soon we had a LEM, a CM and a couple of astronaut action figures from the “Daddy Shelf.” A bit of dusting off and we were down on the carpet playing lunar EVA. Soon daddy asked,
“Do you wanna see real men walking on the Moon?”
“Yeah,” she replied with a wide smile.
I broke out my Spacecraft Films Apollo 17 DVD set and put EVA number one on the big TV. As they worked the ALSEP she asked, “What are they doing?”
I told her that they were setting up experiments.
“We need some experiments,” she said with a glow.
Thus, we gathered old pen tops, toy thimbles, doll chairs and even a packing peanut with a toothpick stuck in it- they all turned into lunar experiments.
“Ya’ know what else we need?” she asked, “It starts with an “R”… rover.”
Gleefully stunned that my kid even knew what an LRV was, Daddy got one of those from his collection too. For the entire afternoon we played being on the Moon.
At one point she glanced at the TV and asked innocently,
“Are those guys on the Moon right now?”
“No,” I replied and explained that all of that took place long ago when daddy was a little boy and that we do not go to the Moon anymore. Busying her tiny fingers with our “experiments” in our ALSEP on the carpet, she asked,
How does one answer that to a five-year-old? How does one who had the privilege to watch men walking on the lunar surface, live, on television, explain to the next generation why it is that we as a nation simply gave it up? How does one explain to our children that they will quite likely not have the chance to go and do such things themselves— or for that matter even have the chance to see it happen, live? How does one explain the myth that the money spent on Apollo would be better used to cure all of the ills here on earth if we would just stop going to the Moon? How does one explain to a kid what myopic, self-serving politicians are? How does one explain to future generations that my generation stepped away from the peaceful advancement of human civilization because the TV ratings were low? Perhaps we should use the words of President Barack Obama when he casually defunded the Constellation program's return to the moon and simply, arrogantly state that we no longer go to the Moon because,
“…to put it bluntly, Buzz has already been there.”
Indeed, “why?” will be the next generation’s question and my generation has no good answer.
My little girl is all grown up now and in college where her minor is Space Studies. On November 16, 2022 she stood on the river bank just outside of Titusville, Florida and along with her school mates screamed "GO BABY GO!" as the Artemis I launch vehicle boosted the next generation of lunar spacecraft, Orion, to the moon. Yet once again critics from my generation arise in myopic opposition to the program. Wine may get better with age, yet NASA critics just maintain a predictable, worn-out ignorance.
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