Fifty years ago: One last spacewalk in deep space

Dec. 17, 1972: Ron Evans, carrying a film cassette, works his way along handrails on the exterior of Apollo 17’s Service Module. The Scientific Instrument Module is in the shadows to the left.

*****

“You’re a long way from home.”

It’s 3:27 p.m. EST on Dec. 16, 1972, and the hatch is open.  We, the crew of Apollo 17, are one day out from leaving lunar orbit and 183,000 mi. from Earth.  As Ron Evans sticks his head out of the Command Module, we’ve begun the last important event before the most important one at all, splashdown.  Ron takes center stage on a spacewalk to retrieve three cassettes of film and data from the Scientific Instrument Module (SIM) bay of the cylindrical Service Module behind us.

You, Jack, will serve as Ron’s helper, managing the long umbilical line that feeds is suit oxygen and electricity.  Looking out of the open hatch, you say, “Nice day for an EVA.  Ron go out and have a good time.”   And then you unceremoniously toss out a big bag of trash.  It’s trash day in space!

Poking his head out the hatch, Ron says, “Man, the sun is bright.  Whoo!”  

“First, get the old Lunar Sounder cassette,” he says, sounding as relaxed as can be.  Pushing off, his foot becomes snagged on something.  “Am I clear?”

“You’re clear babe — go!” I call

He floats free and grabs a handrail at the end of the open SIM bay.  “Hot-diggity-dog.”   Holding on with his left hand, he waves to the TV camera extended on a pole from the hatch.  “See me wave?!”

“Affirmative,” replies Capcom Gordon Fullerton.  

Inspecting the skin of the Service Module, he notes, “The paint here — it’s just silver paint — is blistered.”   He moves head-first down the middle of the SIM bay.  Turning across it, he says, “I can see the moon back behind me” — a full moon hanging like fruit off one side.  “And off to the left, just outside the hatch . . . is a crescent Earth” beyond our silvery Command Module. 

He inspects the SIM bay, humming “do-da-do-do,” and swings over the far end of the bay, aiming his feet for gold-colored foot restraints in the well of the bay.  He has a bit of trouble getting his feet in the stirrups, his umbilical snaking in the way. “OK, the right one’s in.”  And kicks the umbilical out of the way, and locks his left foot in.   He lets go with his hands.  “Pretty stable.”

He waves again at the camera and exclaims, “Hey, this is great.  Talk about being a spaceman, this is it.”

And then says, “OK, back to work,” and dives into the bay.  “First get the old tether on this.”  He secures the Sounder cassette to him with a wrist tether so there’s no way it will float off.  “There — the tether’s on, and it’s locked.  . . .Let’s try the ol’ cassette.”  To release the cassette, he pushes down on it.  It take more force than he anticipates.  “But it came out.” 

He swims back toward the hatch.  His feet have a tendency to swing up perpendicular as he “walks” his hands along the railings.  “My feet are bouncing in the air.”  It looks like he’s doing a handstand.   He forces his legs down and moves to the hatch, and pushes the small cassette through to our waiting hands.  “OK, you got the old Lunar Sounder cassette.”

“You’re go to get the pan camera.”

“Let’s get that big old pan camera.”  He decides that instead of turning around, he’ll back himself down the handrail.  And starts humming again, “Bum-da-bum-bum.”   He has an easier time wedging in the foot restraints this time, laughs.  “Ha-ha.  This is great.  Beautiful moon, full moon down there.”  He’s soaking in every sight and sensation of the experience.  “I can see the engine bell sitting back there.  That’s a pretty good-sized thing, too.”  Indeed, it’s about the same size as the Mercury capsules that took the first astronauts into space. 

And back to work, he removes the covers from the panoramic camera.  “And out she comes — nice and easy!”  As with the previous cassette, he tethers it to his wrist so it cannot float off and down the handrails back toward the hatch.  “This is a heavy son of a gun” — and corrects himself.  It’s not heavy, of course, in weightlessness, but the mass carries a lot of momentum.  “It just takes a lot of force to stop it.”

Stop it he does, and eases it through the hatch where we take it.  “Ahh, there it is — delivered it right to you.”  And laughs.  

One more to go, the mapping camera.  Once again he backs himself down the handrails to the foot restraints.  “That’s an unorthodox way to enter the SIM bay, but it works!”  Once again he hums as he takes a breather, attaches a tether, then releases the film cassette.  So relaxed, he says hello to his family.  Looks back at us.  “There’s Jack.  Hey, how are you doing?”  Returning, he loses his hold on the cassette, which remains secured by the tether.  “Whoops — come back here, little cassette.” 

After delivering it, he still wants to look around, inspect our ship, and notes how the thrusters have blistered the pain near their nozzles.  Finally Houston hurries him inside. “OK Ron, we don’t need any more spacecraft commentary.  We’d like you to go ahead and terminate the EVA.  Everybody’s real pleased, and we’d like to go ahead and terminate.” 

The hatch is closed at 4:13 p.m.  The spacewalk officially ends with repressurization of the cabin at at 4:33 p.m. after just 1 hr. 6 min.

We’re now 46 hrs. from Earth. 

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