The solar system offers a beautiful display at first light tomorrow, as three planets flank the crescent Moon. Golden Saturn stands close to the upper left of the Moon. Dazzling Venus, the “morning star,” is farther to the lower left of the Moon, with shy little Mercury to the lower left of Venus.
At least one spacecraft is orbiting each of these worlds right now. And several missions to the Moon are scheduled for the next few years.
But the grand era of lunar exploration came to an end 40 years ago this month, with the flight of the final Apollo mission — Apollo 17.
Over the preceding dozen years, the United States had launched about 30 missions to the Moon. Many of them failed — especially the early ones. But about 20 succeeded. They dispelled many myths about the Moon, and helped us understand our satellite world in detail — its composition, its structure, and even its origin.
They also brought a greater appreciation of our own Earth, showing the vibrant blue world against the blackness of space and the stark grandeur of the Moon.
In the 40 years since Apollo 17, the U.S. has sent only about a half dozen missions back to the Moon. And plans for future exploration keep getting axed.
So today, the Moon is much as it was a half-century ago — a world beyond our grasp. Even so, it’s a world made familiar by the accomplishments of a bold era of exploration — an era that ended four decades ago.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2012