45 years ago: The last walk on the moon



Forty-five years ago today, two Apollo astronauts took the final walk on the moon.  Today only someone beyond the age of half a century, can remember when humans walked the moon.  I remember.

Forty-five years ago, I was just beginning college, a freshman, my first term at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.   As Apollo 17 with Gene Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt made a steep descent into the valley of Taurus-Littrow, I was beginning the intense agony of my first finals week.  I did not have time to watch the final moonwalks, even if they’d been televised, which they were not, except in late-night recaps.  The moonwalks occurred in evening when I was studying, spending hours at the library, which remained, as I recall, open all night during finals week.

On the wide library steps, that’s where I remember the final moonwalk.  An arm loaded with books, I stopped, looked up to the south, above the trees of the College Green, to a waxing crescent moon.  I paused in the cold, crisp December air, and absorbed the its unfiltered light, telling myself to realize and remember:   “Two men are up there, right now.  Two men are walking on the moon, right now.”

Cernan and Schmitt set out for the final time on the moon to explore the opposite side of the valley than the day before, making a 2.2 mile drive to the lower slopes of the North Mountain, riding their rover up the lower slope to a point 160 feet above the valley.  Leaning at a severe angle to maintain balance on the steep 11-degree grade, feet slip-sliding along, they sampled a huge house-sized boulder that had rolled down the mountain and split into five pieces.  It was later determined that the boulder rolled down the mountain 22 million years ago.  Now there were handprints in the dust coating it.

I stood between hills in the valley of the Hocking River, the December cold seeping through my thin army-surplus jacket, yet I stood stock still a moment longer, the moon in my eyes, giving myself, a moment longer . . .  Then turned for the library entrance and a long evening of studying.

Cernan and Schmitt were six miles across the valley from the area at South Massif they explored the days before.   Looking down at the valley and overlapping slopes of undulating hills spread before him, Cernan exclaimed, “You know, Jack, when we finish . . .we will have covered this whole valley from corner to corner.”

When I left the library, they would have been climbing the ladder into the lunar module for the last time.  The last time for how long?  As Apollo 17 left the moon, President Nixon issued a statement, saying, “This may be the last time in this century that men will walk on the moon . . .”

The last time in the century?  I remember how I stubbornly rebelled against such a thought.  I was eighteen, the end of the century was twenty-eight years away, an infinite span to me.  Alas, Nixon’s estimate was more than true.  They’re now making plans to return to the moon, just as they did in 1989 and 2004.  And like those time, the plans carry little budget weight, plans now stretched out over decades.  I hold no doubt that humans will return to the moon, but I’m cynical about when that will be.  I doubt I will be alive to once again gaze up at the moon and exclaim, “There are humans up there.”


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