This photo is very famous and many people have seen it, but it’s worth looking at again, and not just because this week marks the 43rd anniversary of the launch of Apollo 16, the mission on which it was taken. The astronaut in the photo is John Young, commander of the mission, and it was taken on April 21, 1972 during one of the record-breaking moon walks taken by Young and his colleague Charles Duke. Apollo 16 was the second to last of the Apollo missions, and Young and Duke were the 9th and 10th human beings, respectively, to walk on the surface of another world. Although Apollo 11 is far more famous as the first of the moon landing missions, the later ones in 1971 and 1972 were technically far more complex, much longer and more involved, and resulted in much greater scientific breakthroughs than did the famous mission of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (and Michael Collins).
When I was growing up I had a framed print of this photo hanging on the wall of my bedroom. Maybe I was a bit slow, but I didn’t even realize until I was in high school that Young is not actually standing on the surface here–he’s jumping up, and in fact a video clip exists of him leaping into the air so Duke could capture him “hovering” above the lunar surface. You’ll notice the terrain is much more rugged, at least by lunar standards, than the flat dusty plains on which the original missions landed; NASA specifically sent Apollo 16 to highland areas to study contrasting geology. And of course the photo contains the famous moon buggy, which is actually one of the most amazing and ingenious wheeled vehicles ever created. Its “tires” are made of wire whisks and the whole 2-person car unfolds from a package the size of a suitcase. There’s a moon buggy preserved at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, and it’s pretty cool.
I love this picture, but I’m a sucker for space exploration, which I believe is an important endeavor well worth spending more public money on. The vast technical achievements of the moon program still cast a long shadow over our pale modern space efforts, even though the Apollo program is now more than 40 years in the past.