ONCE again the earth will tremble for miles around. Once again tongues of flame will spill across Cape Kennedy's Pad 39A. Once again a mighty rocket will lift into the sky. But, if all goes according to plan, this week's scheduled blast-off of Apollo 17 will be remarkably different from past launches. It will take place at night, turning dark into daylight at the cape, presenting a fiery spectacle that may be seen by millions of people from Cuba to as far north as the Carolinas. The magnificent display will serve as a fitting farewell not only to the departing astronauts but to the entire Apollo program. For with the launch of Apollo 17, the U.S. is bringing to an end its exploration of the moon.
Historians will have a difficult time explaining the decision to abandon the Apollo program. Having trained the men, perfected the techniques and designed the equipment to explore the earth's own satellite, having achieved the ability to learn more about man's place in the universe, Americans lost the will and the vision to press on. Barely three years after the first lunar landing, the nation that made it all possible has turned its thoughts inward and away from space.
Three additional manned missions to the moon originally planned by NASA have been canceled for lack of congressional funding and public support. Though the U.S. spent $5.9 billion to develop the complex Apollo system of rockets, the production of Saturn boosters has been halted. The painstakingly assembled team of skilled technicians, engineers and scientists that made Apollo possible is slowly being disbanded.
Despite gloom at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, there are encouraging signs that man's ability to explore the solar system will not be completely lost. Next year NASA will use one of its surplus Saturns to launch Skylab, a primitive orbital station in which three men will remain in space for up to 56 days. In 1975 a spare Apollo will take part in the greatly publicized linkup with a Soviet Soyuz, an operation that will serve as a gesture of amity between the two great space rivals and also help develop space-rescue techniques. Finally, in the late 1970s NASA hopes to fly its vaunted space shuttlea hybrid of spaceship and rocket plane that could ferry men and supplies to orbital launch pads for journeys far beyond the moon.
In America and elsewhere, there are those who have branded the moon landings as brazen propaganda ploys or technological stunts. They are prisoners of limited vision who cannot comprehend, or do not care, that Neil Armstrong's step in the lunar dust will be well remembered when most of today's burning issues have become mere footnotes to history.
Yet even those who have pressed hardest for an end to manned space flight so that funds can be diverted to social needs on earth, cannot gainsay Apollo's ultimate value. The dramatic landings on the moon won acclaim and worldwide respect for America in a decade when the U.S. garnered more disapproval and distrust than at any other time in its history. Wherever touring astronauts appeared, on either side of the Iron Curtain, they were cheered by huge, admiring crowds.