NASA Photos Celebrate Apollo 17 Anniversary, 45 Years After Historic Mission Put Men on the Moon

On Dec. 13, 1972, scientist-astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt is photographed standing next to a huge, split lunar boulder during the third Apollo 17 extravehicular activity (EVA) at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. NASA

At 12:33 a.m. on December 7, 1972, NASA launched Apollo 17. It was the first night launch for a crewed mission, and it was the last of the historic Apollo missions that once put men on the moon.

Gene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt became the 11th and 12th people to walk on the moon, while Ron Evans remained on board (Evans did perform a spacewalk that lasted over an hour). Schmitt, a geologist, was the first person trained as a scientist (as opposed to a test pilot) to walk on the moon. 

  17portrait The crew of the Apollo 17 mission. NASA

Apollo 17 was actually the first mission to include no test pilots at all. Joe Engle, the test pilot originally considered for the mission, lost his spot to Schmitt. According to NASA, Engle still supported the mission, saying "when something like this happens, you can do one of two things. You can lay on the bed and cry about it ... or you can get behind the mission and make it the best in the world."

s72-55070 The Apollo 17 space vehicle is launched from Pad A, Launch Complex 39, Kennedy Space Center, Florida, at 12:33 a.m. (EST), Dec. 7, 1972. NASA

Half a million people watched as a Saturn 5 rocket launched the 363-foot-tall spacecraft from the Kennedy Space Center. The mission included a full three days on the moon's surface, and was also just the third to utilize the Lunar Roving Vehicle, an electric rover built to get around in a low-gravity environment.

The voyage also marked the first time an Apollo craft was able to capture an image of the Earth's south polar ice cap.

ss-121206-apollo-17-03_15c0499aa5f3639509e6b3502cbbc1ef The polar ice cap. NASA

The Apollo 17 mission broke not only the record for longest moon landing, but also for longest total extra-vehicular activities (EVAs). The excursions included three on the moon's surface and the one Evans completed in space. Apollo 17 also remained in the moon's orbit longer than any other mission.

363737main_pg124_as17-152-23274_full The crescent Earth rises above the lunar horizon in this spectacular photograph taken from the Apollo 17 spacecraft in lunar orbit during final lunar landing mission in the Apollo program. NASA

On the surface, Cernan and Schmitt collected samples, many of them rocks just half an inch or so across. They returned from the last of their three moonwalks with nearly 150 pounds of  lunar samples from that trip alone.

11-6-17_schmitt-382x150 From Harrison Schmitt's Diary of the Twelfth Man. NASA

On December 19, 1972, the spacecraft and its crew safely splashed down into the Pacific Ocean as planned, a few hundred miles southeast of American Samoa.

as17-140-21388_medium Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan, mission commander, walks toward the Lunar Roving Vehicle. NASA

Cernan, who died earlier this year, remains the last man to walk on the moon. He famously traced the initials of his young daughter on the moon's surface before he left, where, undisturbed by any atmosphere, they'll likely remain for as long as the moon does.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Cernan said he imagined future generations coming upon their lunar rover and footprints and those initials and saying, "I wonder who was here? Some ancient civilization was here back in the 20th century, and look at the funny marks they made."