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It's been 50 years since the Apollo 17 mission put humans on the moon


On this day 50 years ago, Apollo 17 left Earth.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We have ignition. Two, one, zero - we have a liftoff.

CHANG: It was NASA's last mission to send astronauts to the dusty lunar surface. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that this anniversary comes as NASA is closer than ever to going back.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Only 12 people have ever walked on the moon. The Apollo 17 astronauts didn't just walk. Sometimes, they rode in a high-tech moon buggy. And sometimes, they strolled.


HARRISON SCHMITT: (Singing) I was strolling on the moon one day...

HARRISON SCHMITT AND GENE CERNAN: (Singing) ...In the merry, merry month of...

SCHMITT: (Singing) ...December.


SCHMITT: (Singing) May.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Harrison Schmitt and Eugene Cernan. They explored the moon for three days, traveling more than 20 miles. At the end of their final excursion on December 14, Harrison Schmitt climbed a ladder into their return spacecraft. Eugene Cernan got ready to do the same.


CERNAN: We leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return - with peace and hope for all mankind.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The pair of moonwalkers knew they'd be the last for a while, but they had no idea that decades would pass. Their memories of the moon remained vivid. Harrison Schmitt once told me he could recall walking in a lunar valley with mountains all around.


SCHMITT: They were illuminated by as brilliant a sun as you can imagine. And, of course, hanging over the southwestern mountain was this apparently small planet that we call the Earth.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: A photograph of the Earth, the entire round globe looking like a marble, is one of the most important legacies of the Apollo 17 mission.

TEASEL MUIR-HARMONY: That image was taken up by the environmental movement. It was on the Whole Earth Catalog. It's one of the most reproduced images in history.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Teasel Muir-Harmony is curator of the Apollo collection at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. She shows me around its brand-new lunar exploration hall and points out that except for the first moon landing, the Apollo program wasn't that popular with the public, which was focused on other things.

MUIR-HARMONY: The Vietnam War in particular was something that would have been competing with headlines during the Apollo 17 mission. Major developments were happening in the Vietnam War during this mission.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Having achieved the Cold War goal of a moon landing, politicians were no longer willing to shoulder the Apollo program's high costs and risks. But now the space agency is poised to return to the moon in the not-so-distant future. NASA's new moon shot is called Artemis, after Apollo's twin sister.

MUIR-HARMONY: One of the things that bodes very well for Artemis is that this is a program that has sustained support through multiple administrations.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says that hasn't been true for earlier programs that aimed at the moon. This time, NASA actually has a space capsule that's currently on its first test trip around the moon. It's due to return to Earth on Sunday. The first flight with astronauts is planned for 2024. Shortly after that, NASA wants to land the first woman and first person of color on the lunar surface. At the museum, Muir-Harmony shows me a glass case with Eugene Cernan's overshoes, which he wore while making his final lunar footprints.

MUIR-HARMONY: They look like, you know, the winter moon boots that you've seen. And yet they have those traces of the experience of walking on the lunar surface.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: There's gray moon dust embedded in the white fabric. They look good, perfectly preserved, like someone could just slip them on and go for a stroll.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.