40 Years Ago, Humans Took Their Final Steps on the Moon

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Forty years ago today, beginning just after 5:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, men took humanity's final steps on the moon. Apollo 17, the mission that sent them to make those strides, is notable not just for the bittersweet ending that it represents; it also broke records -- as the longest manned lunar landing flight; as the mission with the longest total lunar surface extravehicular activities; as the mission that offered the largest lunar sample return; as the mission that spent the longest time in lunar orbit.

But it will be remembered, largely, for its finality, for the epic era it brought to an end. Below, images -- with captions provided, like the photos themselves, by NASA -- of Apollo 17, the United States's final manned mission to the moon.

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Two Apollo 17 crewmen ready a Lunar Roving Vehicle trainer following its deployment from a Lunar Module trainer in the Flight Crew Training Building at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Taking part in the Apollo 17 training exercise were Astronauts Eugene A. Cernan (right), commander; and Harrison H. "Jack" Schmitt, lunar module pilot. (NASA)

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The prime crew for the Apollo 17 lunar landing mission were: Commander, Eugene A. Cernan (seated), Command Module pilot Ronald E. Evans (standing on right), and Lunar Module pilot Harrison H. Schmitt. They are photographed with a Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) trainer. Cernan and Schmitt used an LRV during their exploration of the Taurus-Littrow landing site. The Apollo 17 Saturn V Moon rocket is in the background. This picture was taken at Pad A, Launch Complex 39, Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Florida. (NASA/Wikimedia Commons)

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The 363-feet tall Apollo 17 (Spacecraft 114/Lunar Module 12/Saturn 512) space vehicle is launched from Pad A, Launch Complex 39, Kennedy Space Center, Florida, at 12:33 a.m., December 17, 1972. Apollo 17, the final lunar landing mission, was the first nighttime liftoff of the Saturn V launch vehicle. Flame from the five F-1 engines of the Apollo/Saturn first (S-1C) stage illuminates the nighttime scene. (NASA)
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Photograph of the Apollo 17 Scientific Instrument Module (SIM) bay on the Command/Service Module. Taken from the Lunar Module in lunar orbit. (NASA/Wikimedia Commons)

[optional image description]Geologist-astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt photographed standing next to a huge, split boulder at Station 6 on the sloping base of North Massif during the third Apollo 17 extravehicular activity (EVA-3) at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. The "Rover" Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) is in the left foreground. Schmitt is the Apollo 17 Lunar Module pilot. This picture was taken by Commander Eugene A. Cernan. (

NASA Commons)


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Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan, Apollo 17 commander, salutes the deployed U.S. flag on the lunar surface during extravehicular activity (EVA) of NASA's final lunar landing mission in the Apollo series. The lunar module is at the left background and the lunar roving vehicle, also in background, is partially obscured. The photo was made by Astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt, lunar module pilot. (NASA)

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Scientist-Astronaut Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17 lunar module pilot, is photographed next to the U.S. flag during extravehicular activity (EVA) of NASA's final lunar landing mission in the Apollo series. The photo was taken at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. The highest part of the flag appears to point toward our planet earth in the distant background. (NASA)

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Scientist-Astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt collects lunar rake samples at Station 1 during the first Apollo 17 extravehicular activity (EVA-1) at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. This picture was taken by Astronaut Eugene Cernan, Apollo 17 commander. Schmitt is the lunar module pilot. The lunar rake, an Apollo lunar geology hand tool, is used to collect discrete samples of rocks and rock chips ranging in size from one-half inch (1.3 cm) to one inch (2.5 cm). (NASA)

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Wide-angle view of the Apollo 17 Taurus-Littrow lunar landing site. To the left in the background is the Lunar Module. To the right in the background is the Lunar Roving vehicle. An Apollo 17 crewmember is photographed between the two points. The shadow of the astronaut taking the photograph can be seen in the right foreground. (NASA)

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The Earth appears in the far distant background above the hi-gain antenna of the lunar roving vehicle in this photograph taken by scientist-astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt during the third Apollo 17 extravehicular activity (EVA-3) at the Taurus-Littrow landing site. Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan, Apollo 17 commander, stands beside the LRV. Schmitt is the mission's lunar module pilot. (NASA)


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Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan, Apollo 17 commander, is photographed inside the lunar module on the lunar surface following the second extravehicular activity (EVA-2) of his mission. Note the lunar dust speckling his suit. (NASA)

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Astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt, Apollo 17 lunar module pilot, photographed inside the lunar module on the lunar surface following the third extravehicular activity (EVA-2) of his mission. (NASA)


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View of boulder at Station 2 (Amundsen Crater) photographed during second Apollo 17 extrvehicular activity (EVA-2). The earth can be seen directly above the boulder in the lunar sky. (NASA)

View of the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) in its final parking space at Station 8 (Cochise Crater) prior to liftoff from the Moon. (NASA)

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The cresent Earth rises above the lunar horizon in this photograph taken from the Apollo 17 spacecraft in lunar orbit during NASA's final lunar landing mission in the Apollo program. (NASA)

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View of the Lunar Module from the Apollo 17 spacecraft during transposition/docking maneuvers. The white dots surrounding the Lunar Module are debris from the Saturn S-IVB stage separation. (NASA)


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Apollo 17 recovering operations on 19 December 1972, with the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga (CVS-14) in the background. The helicopter is a United States Navy SH-3A Sea King of helicopter combat support squadron HC-1 Pacific Fleet Angels. (NASA/Wikimedia Commons)

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A panorama of lunar photographs originally taken by astronaut Eugene Cernan, depicting lunar rocks in the foreground, lunar mountains in the background, some small craters, a lunar rover, and astronaut Schmidt on his way back to the rover. A few days after this image was taken, humanity left the Moon. It has yet to return. (NASA Commons)
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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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