The Last Words on the Moon
image: LM Challenger’s ascent from the lunar surface, caught remotely on video by the lunar rover’s camera. Credit: NASA
We’ve just passed the 40th anniversary of Apollo 17 leaving the Moon. On December 14, 1972, commander Gene Cernan and lunar module pilot Jack Schmitt in the LM Challenger blasted off from Taurus-Littrow, ending the last manned lunar sojourn. It was a significant event, one worth commemorating with some well chosen words akin to Armstrong’s one small step on Apollo 11. So, what were the last words on spoken on the Moon 40 years ago?
Cernan and Schmitt wrapped up their third and final EVA – Moon walk – twenty minutes before midnight in Houston on December 13, 1972. They’d spent about 7 hours and 15 minutes on the surface that day covering more than 22 miles in the lunar rover. Over their three EVAs they’d chalked up a total of 22 hours 5 minutes and 6 seconds on the surface.
As Cernan made the last bootprints, he paused to end the EVA with an appropriately poetic statement:
I’m on the surface and as I take man’s last steps from the surface, back home, for some time to come, but we believe not too long into the future. I’d like to just list what I believe history will record, that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus- Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.
Cernan at Taurus-Littrow. Credit: NASA
But of course, the astronauts didn’t blast off after Cernan closed the LM’s door behind him. There were practical things to do before they could actually leave the Moon, things that kept them at Taurus-Littrow for an additional 17 hours, 13 minutes, and 41 seconds.
One of the most important things was to catalogue everything on board and determine just what they could bring back to Earth with them. They weighed and stored samples, checking with Houston that they weren’t too heavy to lift off safely from the Moon’s surface. Luckily for the scientists, their total haul of samples kept them within safe limits and they were cleared to bring everything back.
But they had to get rid of some things, so they depressurized the LM twice, opened the hatch, and threw materials they wouldn’t be bringing back to Earth outside. Among the items discarded on the surface were two clean pairs of EVA gloves; the crew felt more attached to those that were dirty. Of course, having dust-covered materials inside the LM made a mess; as they packed up Schmitt lamented that they hadn’t thought to pack a broom.
Cernan and Schmitt had rest periods. They ate. They answered questions from scientists relayed through Houston capcom about the interesting sites they’d visited, committing their recollections to official records before forgetting the details. Houston also relayed updated information about their pending rendezvous with command module pilot Ron Evans in the CM America. Both astronauts also set up their hammocks and slept; Cernan managed about five hours and Schmitt six.
Commander Cernan and LMP Schmitt, the last men to ascend from the surface of the Moon. Credit: NASA
With all these pre-ascent preparations completed, Cernan and Schmitt were ready to leave. They took their places at the LM’s control panel and moved systematically through their pre-ascent checklist like a well-oiled machine. 185 hours, 21 minutes, and 37 seconds after launching from Cape Canaveral, Cernan and Schmitt fired their ascent engine
The last word spoken from the Moon was rather utilitarian. Right as the engine fired, Schmitt called out “IGNITION.”
Author’s note: Since publishing this article, a number of people have pointed out that Cernan’s last words are typically cited as something along the lines of “Alright, Jack, let’s get this mother out of here.” He might have said something similar at some point (though off any official recordings), but right before launching from the Moon both astronauts were moving through their checklist so methodically that nothing but a professional call could have ended their time spent on the surface.