The final manned lunar landing mission lifts off atop a Saturn V rocket. Apollo 17 is the first mission to include a qualified geologist, Harrison Schmitt, in its crew; Gene Cernan and Schmitt descend to the surface aboard the lunar lander Challenger, where the last two men to walk on the moon spend a total of 22 hours exploring the Taurus-Littrow valley. For the third mission in a row, a lunar rover is stowed into one side of the lander. Astronaut Ron Evans orbits overhead in the command/service module America. The astronauts return on December 19th, bringing home nearly 250 pounds of lunar soil and rock samples.
The first three-man Skylab crew lifts off to undertake a mission far different from the one for which they had trained. Their primary objective is now to save the crippled station from the damage it suffered during launch; as it is, Skylab is uninhabitable, with temperatures in its workshop and crew quarters soaring above 100 degrees, threatening to heat up items inside enough to fill the space with toxic gases. The first repair spacewalk takes place less than 24 hours after the crew arrives in an Apollo capsule, and succeeds in starting to drop the temperature inside.
Having repaired and secured the damaged Skylab over the course of three spacewalks, the space station’s first three-man crew leaves the station and returns to Earth after 28 days in space, experiencing gravity after nearly a month of zero-G.
The first Skylab crew’s stay in space sets a new record, twice as long as the previous longest American manned spaceflight, Gemini 7 in 1965.
With the first Skylab crew having salvaged the first American space station, the second crew – designated Skylab 3 – lifts off for another long-term stay in space. Alan Bean, Jack Lousma and Owen Garriott spend 59 days aboard Skylab, performing a spacewalk to conduct further repairs to their damaged space station, investigating the effects of long-duration weightlessness and space travel on the human body, and observing the sun through Skylab’s solar telescope system. A thruster leak in the Apollo command/service module forces NASA to consider a rescue mission.
A thruster leak in the Skylab 3 crew’s Apollo command/service module forces NASA to consider a Skylab Rescue mission using a modified five-seater Apollo vehicle, mounted atop a Saturn IB and rolled out to the pad in readiness for the emergency flight. NASA brings in enough engineers and employees to have shifts working around the clock, seven days a week, to get the emergency mission ready for launch on September 9th. The thruster issue is later resolved, and the first-ever planned space rescue mission stands down. Astronauts Vance Brand and Don Lind are assigned to the rescue mission; both men later flew the Space Shuttle, though Brand will also fly in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. The modified command/service module and Saturn rocket are retained in case a rescue is needed for the final Skylab flight, and then as an Apollo-Soyuz backup vehicle, before being retired and displayed at the Smithsonian and Kennedy Space Center.
The third and final crew of the first American space station, Skylab 4, lifts off for an 84-day stay. The crew’s tasks include medical and biological experiments, solar observations (including the first space-based recording of solar flare origination), and observations of Comet Kohoutek. Crewmembers Gerald Carr, William Pogue and Edward Gibson have a frank discussion with ground controllers about their extremely busy work schedule (similar to heated discussions between Apollo 7’s crew and Houston) halfway through the nearly-three-month mission. Skylab is left powered down, but still habitable, at the end of the crew’s stay, in anticipation that future Space Shuttle crews will someday occupy Skylab.
The final launch of an Apollo spacecraft takes place as the last Saturn rocket carries the American component of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project into orbit. A cooperative international mission intended to see the Apollo capsule dock with a Soviet-launched Soyuz, the ASTP will be the last Apollo flight as the push toward the reusable Space Shuttle takes over NASA’s resources and planning. Aboard the Apollo command/service module are Commander Thomas Stafford, command module pilot Vance Brand, and docking module pilot Deke Slayton, the last of the seven original Mercury astronauts to reach space (heart conditions have prevented him from taking part in a mission until now). Soyuz 19, carrying cosmonauts Alexei Leonov and Valery Kubasov, lifts off a few hours earlier.
The “age of Apollo” comes to an unbreathable end in an incident during the return of the final Apollo spacecraft. Returning from their successful Apollo-Soyuz Test Project flight, astronauts Thomas Stafford, Deke Slayton and Vance Brand are exposed to fumes from their vehicle’s own reaction control thrusters, thanks to the thrusters firing after the capsule’s air vents open during descent toward the Pacific Ocean. Brand reportedly passes out momentarily due to the toxic fumes. All three astronauts are hospitalized for two weeks in Hawaii.
Pete Conrad, the Apollo 12 commander who was the third human to walk on the moon, dies at the age of 69 from injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident. Conrad went to the moon in November 1969, and flew two earlier Gemini missions, one of which was a new human endurance record at the time. Conrad later went on to set a new record for time spent by a human in space (28 days, unprecedented at the time) in 1973 as a member of the first Skylab crew. Conrad and fellow Skylab astronaut Joseph Kerwin performed an extended and very hazardous spacewalk to repair the station, which had been heavily damaged during launch a few weeks before its crew arrived.
As Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin leaves a speaking engagement in Beverly Hills, a self-proclaimed skeptic accosts him, demanding that the astronaut swear on the Bible that he actually went to the moon. With a Japanese news crew’s cameras rolling, Aldrin proceeds to punch the man in the face. The heckler and self-proclaimed “ambush journalist” tries to file assault charges, though police decide in Aldrin’s favor – especially since this is the third time the man has ambushed Aldrin with his theory that all of the Apollo flights to the moon were hoaxes.
Last flown in the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission, the Apollo command/service module is – briefly – given strong consideration by NASA to serve as a “lifeboat” for the crew of the International Space Station, even to the point of conducting a study about un-mothballing the surviving unused Apollo hardware sitting in museums around the world. Part of the reason for this unusual study is that NASA’s budget has run out for finding a workable solution to keeping a “lifeboat” available to station astronauts in the anticipated long gap before the Space Shuttle’s return to service. Ultimately, even the seemingly unthinkable return of Apollo is nixed, since at least a Saturn IB booster would need to be similarly refitted – at huge expense – to lift a 30-year-old Apollo capsule into space.
A veteran of the Gemini, Apollo and shuttle programs, 74-year-old astronaut John Young retires from NASA, capping off a 42-year career with the space agency. Young joined NASA in 1962 after hearing President Kennedy’s historic directive to launch a manned mission to the moon, and only three years later Young flew with Mercury veteran Gus Grissom on Gemini 3, the first manned two-person NASA mission. Young commanded Gemini 10 in 1966, was the command module pilot for the moon-orbiting Apollo 10 mission, and in 1972, Young commanded Apollo 16, landing in the moon’s mountainous Descartes region. Young commanded the first space shuttle mission, the maiden flight of Columbia in 1981, and commanded the ninth shuttle flight in 1983. Young had also served as the Chief Astronaut, determining crew assignments and making personnel decisions. In the wake of the Challenger disaster in 1986, Young became one of NASA’s most outspoken critics, and was reassigned to the position of special assistant for engineering, operations and safety – a move he regarded as a political one.
NASA recalls an actual 1960s F-1 engine – of which clusters of five once launched the mighty Saturn V rockets during the Apollo lunar program – from the Smithsonian for refurbishment and, for the first time in over four decades, re-firing on a test stand at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. NASA engineers examine the properties of the F-1 engine – whose performance still outrates the engines used during the Space Shuttle program – to learn how to improve the J-2X engines planned for use in the first stage of the SLS (Space Launch System) booster that will launch Orion vehicles.
On the eve of the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 14 moon landing, astronaut Edgar “Ed” Mitchell dies at the age of 85. The sixth human being to set foot on the moon, Mitchell accompanied Alan Shepard to the lunar surface aboard the Apollo 14 lander. Following his visit to the moon, Mitchell had become interested in researching human consciousness and extra-sensory perception, but later surrounded himself with controversy by claiming that he was certain that UFOs had visited Earth.
Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan, the last human to leave the surface of the moon in the 20th century, dies at the age of 82. One of the members of NASA’s second astronaut class, recruited in 1963 to take part in the Gemini program, Cernan first flew into space aboard Gemini 9 in 1966, a mission in which he became the second American spacewalker, though his assigned tasks outside the Gemini spacecraft proved to be dangerously exhausting. His second flight, as the lunar module pilot for Apollo 10, saw him flying a lunar lander to within miles of the moon’s surface in May 1969, a dress rehearsal for the upcoming Apollo 11 mission. He commanded the final Apollo moon landing mission, Apollo 17, in December 1972, where he earned the title of “last man on the moon” by being the last astronaut to leave the lunar surface to re-enter the Apollo 17 lander. He later wrote an autobiography about his spaceflight experiences, and was frequently outspoken about his disappointment that no one walked on the moon again in his lifetime.
Gemini and Apollo astronaut Richard “Dick” Gordon dies at the age of 88. A veteran of the record-setting Gemini 11 mission (during which he undertook a spacewalk at the unprecedented altitude of 850 miles above Earth’s surface) and the Apollo 12 mission (during which he manned the command module Yankee Clipper while crewmates Pete Conrad and Alan Bean walked on the moon), Gordon was a naval aviator who eventually graduated to test pilot duties, eventually specializing in the F4H Phantom II fighter and teaching other pilots how to fly it. After his Apollo flight and retirement from NASA, Gordon kept working in the technology and engineering industries, but also diversified, becoming Executive VP of the New Orleans Saints football team.