Fifty years ago: Splashdown ends the age of Apollo

Dec. 19, 1972: Apollo 17 descends on its three main parachutes during the final seconds of the Apollo program.

*****

There’s the moon, reduced to the same size as when seen from Earth.  We — Gene Cernan, Ron Evans and Jack Schmitt — are approaching splashdown on Dec. 19, 1972.   It’s 2:10 p.m. EST.  We’re about to hit the fringes of the atmosphere, a point called Entry Interface.  Fifteen minutes ago, with a jolt, we jettisoned our cylindrical Service Module.  Our capsule-shaped Command Module named America now is all that is left of Apollo 17.  And we are about to ride it through an intense deceleration to splashdown in just 13 min.

We hit Entry Interface at an altitude of 400,000 ft. — about 76 mi. — and 1,044 mi. from our target point in the Pacific Ocean, 300 mi. southeast of American Samoa.  Seventeen seconds later, as a sheath of hot ionized air molecules forms around the spacecraft, we enter communications blackout.  The ionization appears as a pink shimmer that deepens to orange with green streamers trailing behind us.  The blackout and the period of intense heating lasts 3 min. 20 sec. as the g-loads press us into our couches.  

. . .And we’re through the fires!  Still pulling 3 g’s with the rapid deceleration.  Ron Evans, in charge of the Command Module, tells us, “We’re stable — looking good.”  And coming down fast, as the atmosphere brakes us.  “Man-oh-man!”   Below 90,000 ft., we can hear the air rushing around the blunt end of the spacecraft.

Four minutes after leaving blackout, at 23,000 ft., two drogue parachutes, each 16.5 ft. in diameter, deploy to steady our descent.  They really shake the spacecraft as they bite the air.

And not a minute later, the three main chutes, each 83.5-ft. in diameter, blossom, one taking just a bit longer than the other two to fully unfurl . . . “OK, Houston, we’ve got three good main chutes.”  The Command Module revolves back and forth on the parachute lines. “It feels like we’re on a merry-go-ground,” Ron says.

We make contact with the recovery force, and say, “Roger, Recovery.  It’s a beautiful day.”   Seas are good, just scattered clouds.

“Recovery, this is America.  We’re at 4,000 ft. now, and all is well.”

Almost in the next breath, with about a minute to splashdown, we call, “America, now at 1,500 ft.”

Less than 4 min. after we deployed them, the main chutes have slowed us to 22 mph.  Splashdown!  We hit the water with a sharp thud, hit sooner than we expected, as our altimeter is a bit off.  Splash at 2:25 p.m. EST.  The capsule remains upright, in what we call “Stable one.” 

Our flight of 12 days, 13 hrs., 51 min. and 59 sec. is over.  In that time we’d spent 75 hours on the lunar surface, exploring it a total of 22 hr. 5 min. on three EVAs.  

We’re bobbing in the Pacific salt air, just 1.5 mi. from the target and 4 mi. from the recovery carrier, the USS Ticonderoga.  A half hour after splash, we’re lifted into a recovery helicopter.  I wave to a TV camera on a ‘copter flying in formation.  Less than an hour after splash, we’re on the deck of the the Ticonderoga, the same ship from which Ron Evans flew missions over Vietnam in 1966 until selected as an astronaut.  He’s come full circle.  As has Project Apollo.

Bands play, and we each say a few very brief words.   I strike a theme echoing similar words spoken by Dave Scott on Apollo 15: “There’s a fundamental law to nature — either you must explore or you must died, whether that be an idea, whether that be a man, whether that be a flower or a country.  I thank God our country has chosen to grow.”

And thus Apollo ends — but not exploration. Everything is still ahead of us. 

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