NASA
Astronaut Harrison Schmitt collects lunar rake samples during an Apollo 17 moonwalk in December 1972.
By
updated 12/7/2012 11:47:44 AM ET 2012-12-07T16:47:44

The last manned mission to the moon launched 40 years ago today, but astronaut Harrison Schmitt remembers it like it was yesterday.

NASA's Apollo 17 mission blasted off in the early hours of Dec. 7, 1972, carrying Schmitt, Gene Cernan and Ron Evans toward Earth's nearest neighbor. Four days later, Schmitt became the 12th and final person — and the only trained geologist — to set foot on the moon when he and Cernan emerged from their lunar module, Challenger.

The passage of four decades has not dimmed Harrison "Jack" Schmitt 's recollections much.

"The memory is extremely vivid," Schmitt said here Thursday at the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. "And I actually refer back to the transcripts enough that I think I'm keeping that memory correct." [ Lunar Legacy: 45 Apollo Moon Mission Photos ]

No particular moment from the 12-day mission stands out as his favorite, he added.

"I treasure the whole mission. Every day had more than one really spectacular event," Schmitt said. "The first day, we saw this nearly full Earth, and I was able to take that picture of Africa — still the most-requested photograph in the NASA archives. And it just went on from that."

Schmitt did identify one Apollo 17 science find as particularly important, however — the discovery of "orange soil," which turned out to be composed of tiny beads of volcanic glass. Recently, researchers spotted trace amounts of water within these beads and others like them brought back to Earth by Apollo astronauts.

The discovery of indigenous lunar water has helped reshape scientists' understanding of the moon's formation and how it has evolved over time.

No person has set foot on the moon since Schmitt and Cernan clambered back into the Challenger lunar module for the final time 40 years ago. But Schmitt thinks that should change, and soon.

He advocates for a human return to the moon, which could serve as a stepping stone to other deep-space destinations such as near-Earth asteroids and Mars.

"By going back to the moon, you accelerate your ability to go anywhere else — both in terms of experience and in terms of resources, and testing new hardware and navigation techniques, communication techniques and things like that," Schmitt said. "And it's only three days away."

NASA is currently working to get astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and then on to the vicinity of Mars by the mid-2030s, as directed by President Barack Obama. The space agency is developing a crew capsule called Orion and a huge rocket known as the Space Launch System to make this happen.

SLS and Orion could also carry astronauts to the moon and its environs, and NASA officials have recently stated a desire to do just that.

  1. Space news from NBCNews.com
    1. KARE
      Teen's space mission fueled by social media

      Science editor Alan Boyle's blog: "Astronaut Abby" is at the controls of a social-media machine that is launching the 15-year-old from Minnesota to Kazakhstan this month for the liftoff of the International Space Station's next crew.

    2. Buzz Aldrin's vision for journey to Mars
    3. Giant black hole may be cooking up meals
    4. Watch a 'ring of fire' solar eclipse online

"We just recently delivered a comprehensive report to Congress outlining our destinations which makes clear that SLS will go way beyond low-Earth orbit to explore the expansive space around the Earth-moon system, near-Earth asteroids, the moon, and ultimately, Mars," NASA deputy chief Lori Garver said at a conference in September.

Follow Space.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter @michaeldwall or Space.com @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook   and  Google+.

© 2013 Space.com. All rights reserved. More from Space.com.

Photos: The last moonshot: Apollo 17

loading photos...
  1. The last moon crew

    The Apollo 17 mission in 1972 marked the last time that humans walked on the moon. The mission's commander was Gene Cernan (seated), a veteran of the Gemini 9A and Apollo 10 missions. Harrison "Jack" Schmitt (standing, left) was lunar module pilot, and Ronald Evans (right) was command module pilot. The crew members were photographed here with a lunar roving vehicle trainer. Apollo 17's Saturn 5 rocket is in the background at Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The mission patch at upper left is dominated by the image of Apollo, the Greek sun god. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Liftoff!

    A Saturn 5 rocket sends Apollo 17 spaceward from Kennedy Space Center on Dec. 7, 1972. Apollo 17 marked the NASA human spaceflight program's first night launch as well as the last launch to send astronauts to the moon. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Blue Marble

    Apollo 17's crew captured this picture looking back at Earth as they traveled toward the moon in December 1972. This was the first time the Apollo trajectory made it possible to photograph the south polar ice cap. The "Blue Marble" photo is one of the most famous pictures of Earth's full disk. (NASA via AFP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Apollo 17's moonship

    Awkward and angular looking, Apollo 17's lunar module, dubbed Challenger, was designed for flight in the vacuum of space. This picture, taken from the America command module, shows Challenger's ascent stage in lunar orbit. This spaceship performed gracefully, landing on the moon on Dec. 11, 1972. Forty years later, the descent stage remains at Apollo 17's lunar landing site. The ascent stage, however, was jettisoned from the command module prior to the return to Earth - and crashed onto the lunar surface. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Exploring the surface

    Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan walks toward the lunar rover during a moonwalk at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. Cernan and Harrison Schmitt explored the lunar surface while Ronald Evans remained in lunar orbit aboard the America command module. (Harrison H. Schmitt / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Beside the boulder

    Astronaut Harrison Schmitt is photographed standing next to a huge, split lunar boulder during Apollo 17's third moonwalk at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. The lunar rover that transported Schmitt and commander Gene Cernan to this spot can be seen in the background. (Eugene Cernan / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Driving on the moon

    Apollo 17 commander Eugene A. Cernan makes a short checkout of the lunar rover during the early part of the first moonwalk at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. The mountain in the right background is the east end of South Massif. (Harrison H. Schmitt / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Showing the flag

    Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan holds the lower corner of the American flag during the mission's first moonwalk on Dec. 12, 1972. Imagery from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter suggests that the flag is still standing.

    More about the flag from Lunar Surface Journal (Harrison H. Schmitt / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. The pilot

    Astronaut Harrison Schmitt, lunar module pilot, displays several days of beard growth aboard the Challenger lunar module on Dec. 11, 1972. The portrait was made by Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan. (Eugene Cernan / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The commander

    Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan is photographed inside the lunar module on the moon's surface after the mission's second moonwalk. His spacesuit is grimy with moondust. The photograph was taken by astronaut Harrison Schmitt, lunar module pilot, using a handheld Hasselblad camera with a 70mm lens. (Harrison H. Schmitt / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Peekaboo Earth

    Earth rises above the lunar horizon in this photograph taken from the Apollo 17 spacecraft in lunar orbit. While astronauts Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt went to the lunar surface, crewmate Ronald Evans remained in the command module, orbiting the moon. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Splashdown!

    The Apollo 17 spacecraft, containing astronauts Gene Cernan, Ronald Evans and Harrison Schmitt, glides to a safe splashdown at 2:25 p.m. ET on Dec. 19, 1972, about 350 nautical miles southeast of American Samoa. The astronauts were flown by recovery helicopter to the USS Ticonderoga, slightly less than an hour after the completion of NASA's last manned lunar mission. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments