Night Owl Launch Watch
50th Anniversary of Apollo 17 - Final Crewed Lunar Landing
This month marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 17, the final lunar landing mission of the Apollo Program. Carrying astronauts Eugene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt, and Ronald Evans, the mission launched on a Saturn V on 7 December 1972, landed on the Moon on 11 December, and returned on 19 December; the mission lasted over 12 days total, 3 days of which were on the Moon, and 22 hours of which were spent on extravehicular activity (EVA). Cernan and Schmitt performed the landing in the Lunar Module Challenger, while Evans remained in the Command Module America. The landing site was in the Taurus-Littrow valley in the Montes Taurus range, southeast of Mare Serenitatis, a region of volcanic activity in the Moon’s distant past. While on the surface the two astronauts, using the Lunar Rover as with the previous two missions, explored a wide area of the surface around their landing site, reaching a maximum distance of 7.6 km, the furthest of any of the Apollo missions.
Apollo missions 18, 19, and 20 were planned but got canceled and became Skylab missions in low Earth orbit. No humans have traveled to the Moon since Apollo 17, and the next time they do will likely be on Artemis 2 in 2023 (orbiting) and Artemis 3 in 2024 (landing). Artemis 1 paved the way for these near-future missions when it launched an Orion Crew Vehicle to the Moon last month.
Notable launches this month include the Japanese/Arabian Hakuto-R & Rashid Lunar lander/rover mission, launching on a Falcon 9; the first launch of New Zealand's Rocket Lab Electron rocket from the Wallops spaceport in Virginia (title is a reference to Virginia tourism campaign, "Virginia is for Launch Lovers"); the first launch of Virgin Orbit's air-launched Launcher One rocket from the new Cornwall Air & Space Port in UK. We are still awaiting the first test launches of two new small-lift vehicles: RS1 by ABL Space Systems, launching from Kodiak, AK, and the 3D-printed Terran-1 rocket by Relativity, launching from Cape Canaveral, FL. Two new Chinese rockets also may have test flights this month (Jielong-3 & ZhuQue-2), but there is limited information available for those.