Space historian examines parallels of NASA’s last moon landing and the Artemis mission

The nearly month-long Artemis 1 mission to the Moon is slated to end on Sunday with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. On that very day 50 years ago, Dec. 11, 1972, the last Apollo astronauts set foot on the moon. Space historian Andy Chaikin, author of the definitive account of the Apollo missions “A Man on the Moon,” joins Miles O'Brien to discuss the parallels.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This is a big weekend for NASA's plans to go back to the moon and eventually to Mars.

    And it happens to come at the same time as a milestone anniversary of the original moon missions.

    Our resident space correspondent, Miles O'Brien, has some perspective on the moment.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The nearly month-long Artemis 1 mission to the moon is slated to end on Sunday with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

    On that very day 50 years ago, December 11, 1972, the last Apollo astronauts set foot on the moon, Apollo 17. It was the longest mission to the moon, and in many respects delivered the most science.

    What better time to check in with space historian Andy Chaikin, author of the absolute definitive account of the Apollo missions, "A Man on the Moon"?

    Andy, good to see you again.

    Andrew Chaikin, Author, "A Man on the Moon": Thanks, Miles. It's great to be with you.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    You were there 50 years ago, the one and only night launch of Apollo, Apollo 17.

    Tell us about that experience.

  • Andrew Chaikin:

    Well, I was 16 at the time.

  • Speaker:

    All engines are started.

  • Andrew Chaikin:

    I was an Apollo fanatic. It was utterly spectacular. It was like a sunrise in the middle of the night. The emotion for me was just raw excitement, as only a 16-year-old space fanatic could feel, I suppose.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Fast-forward to 50 years. There's the space launch system with the Orion capsule.

  • Speaker:

    And liftoff of Artemis 1!

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Another night launch. What was that like watching that, considering your experience when you were 16?

  • Andrew Chaikin:

    To me, it seemed like the SLS got going more quickly than the Saturn V, just really leapt off the pad and was on its way.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    But it happens to fall, coincidentally, on the 50th anniversary of Apollo 17.

    This is landing number six, the longest stay on the surface. Gene Cernan, the commander. Jack Schmitt, the lunar module pilot, he was the only scientist to fly in the Apollo program. What did Jack Schmitt find, scientifically?

  • Andrew Chaikin:

    Jack found pieces of the primordial crust, allowing us to look back almost to the origin of the moon itself.

    You're looking at a surface that hasn't changed hardly at all in billions of years. It's like getting led into the rare book room of the cosmic library and getting to page back through the earliest chapter of solar system history.

    And the biggest surprise of the mission, he discovered orange-colored soil.

  • Speaker:

    There is orange soil.

  • Speaker:

    Well, don't move it until I see it.

  • Speaker:

    It's all over.

  • Andrew Chaikin:

    And it turned out to be beads of volcanic glass that erupted in a fire fountain on the moon billions of years ago. Just in the last 10 or 15 years, scientists have found that they contain traces of water. Everybody always thought that the moon was bone-dry, but that orange soil really told a different story.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Let's talk about the lunar rover. That was an extraordinary accomplishment on its own right, wasn't it?

  • Andrew Chaikin:

    The lunar rover was a spacecraft on wheels. It could carry supplies for the exploration of the moon. And, of course, it could range over the surface for miles, even up the sides of lunar mountains, to some of the most spectacular places on the moon.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    This shot stands apart among the Apollo shots of Gene Cernan kind of covered in dust after a hard day's work on the moon. There's kind of a sense of accomplishment, exhilaration, and exhaustion all at once there in that shot.

  • Andrew Chaikin:

    Absolutely. This is a truly human moment that this picture captures.

    The other thing you notice is that his face is smudged with lunar dust, and that dust is something that the astronauts who go back to the moon on Artemis are going to have to deal with. When we go farther out, to Mars, we're going to experience the same kinds of hazards, the same kinds of difficulties. And the moon is only three days away. It's kind of an outward bound school for learning how to live off planet.

  • Speaker (singing):

    I was strolling on the moon one day.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    You get the sense that they were actually having fun.

  • Andrew Chaikin:

    Oh, yes.

  • Speaker (singing):

    In the merry, merry month of December.

  • Andrew Chaikin:

    No doubt. I mean, they were having a blast. It was great fun. And you can hear it. You can hear the exuberance. You can hear the laughter. It made it a pleasure to watch.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Let's talk about earthrises.

  • Andrew Chaikin:

    This is from Apollo 17. It's the last earthrise of Apollo.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    What is it about seeing our planet in that fashion that stirs our emotions?

  • Andrew Chaikin:

    When you see the Earth suspended in the blackness of space above the barren, lifeless lunar horizon, it's the contrast that is so striking.

    This is our home. It has the emotional attachment of home. It's been so cool to see the pictures from the Orion capsule as it goes around the moon, looks back at the moon and the Earth. And these pictures really give a sense of how small the Earth looks from lunar distance.

    It is so small, in fact, that, as the Apollo astronauts talked about, you can literally put out your thumb and hide the Earth behind your outstretched thumb. And that really gives you a sense of being far from home. It is that leap in awareness that Apollo gave us that we will get to reexperience soon when humans go back to the moon with Artemis.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The public lost interest in Apollo relatively quickly.

    Will it be different this time?

  • Andrew Chaikin:

    You have to accept the fact that a certain segment of the population is going to lose interest.

    What really matters is, there are so many kids out there who are just turned on by this stuff. And they're going to space camp, or they're trying to go to engineering school, or they're becoming scientists, or they're applying for the astronaut program. It just keeps going. I don't see that stopping.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Andy Chaikin, always a pleasure to talk with you. Thanks for your time.

  • Andrew Chaikin:

    Thank you so much, Miles.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you can watch the Orion spacecraft's return to Earth on Sunday at 11:00 a.m. Eastern. That's on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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