Apollo 17 was the last mission to put humans on the surface of the Moon, and NASA wanted to share the mission with the world.

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They did this by inviting 80 student representatives from all over the world to get a behind the scenes look at Apollo as it was happening.

Dermot Gethings was the UK representative and 50 years after the launch, he looks back at the experience.

Ezzy Pearson Greetings listeners. I'm Ezzy Pearson, features editor of BBC Sky at Night Magazine. On Today's episode of radio astronomy I'm talking to Dermot Gethings. 50 years ago, NASA invited students from 80 countries to witness the launch of the Apollo 17 moon mission, and get a look behind the scenes look at all aspects of the mission as it was going on as part of the International Youth science tour. Dermot, that sounds like an absolutely incredible opportunity. So can you tell me a bit more about exactly what the International Youth Science Tour was and how you came to be chosen?

Dermot Gethings took a behind the scenes tour of Apollo 17 as the UK's student ambassador. Credit: Dermot Gethings.

Dermot Gethings Hi, Ezzy. Yes, this was a groundbreaking venture of NASA and the U.S. State Department in 1972. Apollo 17 was the last mission to the Moon in the Apollo programme. And NASA, the US State Department and the United Nations wanted to do something very special to mark that final moon landing. And so, as you say, they decided to take one science student who was also very keen on spaceflight and astronomy from each United Nations country that there was at the time and bring them together, paid for by U.S. industries and private sector on this tour, as VIP guests for a whirlwind three week tour of NASA's facilities in the 1960s.

As I always say to people, I was a child of of the the golden age of spaceflight, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo. I was passionately keen on that as many young lads were in the day. I was also a keen amateur astronomer from the age of about 10. And throughout my five years is then secondary school, up to 1972 I formed along with some friends an Astronomy Club and I ran that for my five years there. And part of that I always used to really like was giving talks and presentations. And I got asked to give presentations on Apollo and also astronomy as well to other local schools, primary schools.

Through the local media, the local press, the United States Embassy in London heard about it – the cultural office – and they contacted me in October 1972 to say that NASA is planning this venture. Can you give us a call if you're interested? Of course, yes. And they explained that they would like me to go down to the US embassy for an interview, which I did, and also submit some of the essays I'd written on the benefits of spaceflight, the benefits of the space programme. So I went down in October '72 and had a two and a half hour long interview with three people.

They explained that there were 16 of the students from around the UK that were candidates for this. I answered 20 or so questions on astronomy and space in general and the Apollo missions, and I got them all correct. So I came back home. I heard nothing for a couple of weeks thinking I might get a letter, second class letter saying "we regret to say..." But couple of weeks later, I did get a second class letter, but it said, "Congratulations. You've been chosen to represent the people of the United Kingdom for the Apollo 17 moon mission!" So this was a dream come true.

The 80 students from the IYST. Credit: Dermot Gethings.

Ezzy I can imagine. And so you were one of 80 students who were chosen. What was what were the other representatives like?

Dermot They're from all parts of the world. The other students they were aged between 16 and 18 were from all kinds of backgrounds. Some were from very wealthy backgrounds. Some were from pretty ordinary working class backgrounds, like myself. Some were what NASA referred to at the time on our tour as children of the soil – from very, very poor backgrounds. The African continent and so forth.

NASA and the State Department ensured there no language barriers because they had excellent interpreters. The three main languages spoken were English, French and Spanish. The interpreters ensured that we could all communicate well together and get to know one another, which we did very quickly. I guess it's a bit like our international scientific consortiums of today, and yet I can draw parallels to that where no matter what the politics or religious views are anywhere in the world, people transcend that and work together for a common purpose.

Ezzy I know you began your your trip to the US a couple of days before the launch on the 4th of December. But I think certainly for me, the part I'm most jealous of, I must say, was the fact that you've got to watch the actual launch of Apollo 17 at just past midnight on the morning of the 7th. Can you take us back to that day in 1972 and tell us what that was like?

Dermot I can take you back. Well, first of all, a very early morning on the day of launch because it should have been 6 December and it was going to be the first ever time they launched men into space at night-time – so a spectacular night-time launch was was on the cards. But I, along with the other students and US officials, stayed at a hotel near Orlando in Florida. We had to be very early in the morning, because we were being taken over to Kennedy Space Centre after breakfast.

I recall that stepping out of my hotel room onto a balcony to admire the palm trees and the swimming pool – I'd never been to the States before, I'd never been to Florida – And there, a step to my room I bumped into this very tall, large gentleman with his family and accidentally stood on the edge of his foot. And I looked up to apologise to him and he looked down at me and smiled and I recognised him straight away. It was my hero. It was Neil Armstrong.

Dermot (left) met Neil Armstrong (right) outside of his hotel room before the launch. Credit: Dermot Gethings.

Ezzy My goodness! And you just ran into him outside of your hotel room? Wow!

Dermot He was there to actually join us for the launch. Not travel with us directly, but be present with us at the launch. We had a formal meeting with him the following day, but certainly this was day of launch. We walked down together to his car and his wife grabbed my camera and took a photograph of Neil and I shaking hands together. And we had a conversation for a few moments, a few minutes, and it is a wonderful experience to meet your lifelong hero.

Ezzy I can imagine.

Dermot But getting to the launch, we had a behind the scenes, very privileged view of a Kennedy Space Centre. I know there are tours these days that take you to many places, but we were allowed to be taken into the Vehicle Assembly Building. And in there the Saturn V rocket was fully assembled in the High Bay for the Skylab space station mission, which was being launched the following month. We were able to stand at the base of this thing and look up this 365 feet to the top of this fantastic Saturn V Moon rocket. We were taken out to some of the launch pads from the Mercury and Gemini era.

The flames and steam shot out from the flame trenches miles, to either side. And then slowly, inexorably, the Saturn V began to clear past the tower. It was silence to that time, because the sound waves hadn't travelled the three miles. And then they hit us and boy, did they hit us! Everything was rattling and shaking violently. It's not just a visual thing. You actually experience it. Feel it.
Dermot Gethings

By evening, of course, December darkness fell very, very early. We had dinner and then we were taken out to the front of the VIP stands adjacent to the vehicle assembly building, which was to our right. The launch should have taken place at 9:53PM. The showers began to come down on us. There was lightning in the distance. We were fearful the launch might be scrubbed. But then they were going ahead. Things were running very smoothly. And they turned out all of the spotlights at Kennedy Space Centre so it was in pitch darkness. And they turned out the searchlights that were bathing the rocket. So it really was quite dark. And when the countdown got to 30 second – a critical point where the computers on board decide whether to go or no go – the countdown stopped. It was a hold. That hold lasted for a couple of hours because sensors told them that while the third stage tanks hadn't pressurised correctly and they managed to override that remotely. But finally, at 1233, on the morning of 7th, the final countdown got under way.

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And the launch was... I've got to use the word awesome, although it's a very overly used word these days. Everything seems to be awesome in the true sense of the word. I had a an eight millimetres Cinecamera, movie camera with me, so I could film this. When the countdown reached about 9 seconds, these huge orange flames erupted from the base of the rocket, which was three miles away. That's that's the nearest you're allowed to be to the Saturn V, because you have the explosive force of a small atomic bomb.

The flames and steam shot out from the flame trenches miles, to either side. And then slowly, inexorably, the Saturn V began to clear past the tower. It was silence to that time, because the sound waves hadn't travelled the three miles. And then they hit us and boy, did they hit us! It wasn't just the sound waves. It was the pressure pulse from the engines. They hit you hard in the chest. The ground begins to shake the stands around us. We were all stood up, of course, at this time, and everything was rattling and shaking violently.

I can remember... you never forget anything like that. It's not just a visual thing. You actually experience, feel it. The sound of the engines was a very staccato, like snapping, crackling sound that each pressure pulse from the engines made the snaps and crackles, tingle against the skin on your face. So it was really something that your body experienced and rattled you to your core. I can remember the noise which was almost distressing. It was that loud and it lasted for a couple of minutes as the vehicles pitched over and pointed downrange over the Atlantic Ocean.

Apollo 17 was set up on launch pad 39b of the Kennedy Space Centre (right) before rising into the night sky (left). Credit: NASA

When things quietened down the voices of the astronauts exchange with mission control Houston, who had now taken over the mission once the vehicle cleared the tower. You could hear the exchanges. You could hear Cernan, Schmitt and Evans on board Apollo 17 which appeared like a star arcing out over the Atlantic Ocean and the exchanges between Mission Control Houston and we saw the staging, the separation of the first stage and the ignition of the second stage and a huge bright flash in the sky. I can remember the voice of launch control going back just a few minutes as the Saturn cleared the tower. He said "It's like daylight here at Kennedy Space Centre." It was literally like being stood in the middle of the desert on a summer's day. It was that luminous. Incredibly bright. So that was the launch. I think we got back to the hotel around 4:00 o'clock in the morning and we had a couple of hours later to go on to our our next place on the tour.

It was literally like being stood in the middle of the desert on a summer's day. It was that luminous! Incredibly bright.
Dermot Gethings

Ezzy That sounds like an absolutely incredible experience as well. The fact that it was a night launch and you got to really appreciate how bright it was. As you said, this was the only Apollo mission that had a hold on it at 30 seconds. Today launches are live streamed with commentary over the top. Did you know what was happening when that hold was going on? Were you all just sitting there waiting for it to go?

Dermot No. The public affairs officer at Kennedy Space Center was continually commentating on on developments. And so we were kept up to speed of what was was happening. I mean, there were silences in between while the ground crews figure things out. There were more than 400 technicians in the firing room, which is adjacent to the Vehicle Assembly Building. Of course, these days it was probably something like a dozen or two people in launch control, I guess. But in those days it was over 400 in analogue technology days. But it was such an enormous relief when they resumed the count after midnight because... This was an historic event which would have been tragic to miss if they had to scrub till another day and we couldn't be around.

Dermot stands outside the Vehicle Assembly Building before the launch. Credit Dermot Gethings.

Ezzy And it was particularly historic, this one, because it was the last Apollo mission. And you all knew that whilst you were there. Did that make being at the launch particularly poignant in any way?

Dermot It did Ezzy. We were 16 and 17 years of age, we knew exactly it was a special moment in history. Apollo was was paving the way for future greatness in space. We knew that Skylab, America's first space station, was being launched the following month, and that the Space Shuttle was in its early stages of development – we did get a chance to to see a mock up of that later on in the tour. But, yes, we were aware of the historic significance of that. And, of course, the Goodwill Moon Rock as well, which appeared later in the tour.

Ezzy Speaking of the Goodwill Moon Rock, one of the other big highlights of your tour was on 13 December, which was the day that Gene Cernan and Jack Schmitt were on the surface conducting their third and final extravehicular activity, EVA. And they actually spoke to you directly from the surface. Can you tell me more about what that day was like?

Dermot We spent three days at Mission Control in Houston, and we had a fantastic behind the scenes view of astronaut training and so forth. On that particular day in question we were situated at the back of the mission control room. We had to all be very quiet because it isn't a noisy place in mission control. We had to be very quiet and we could see on the big screen at the front of mission control, the astronauts walking on the surface of the Moon close to the lunar module.

Directly in front of me and I was in the back left hand corner of Mission Control was Ed Fendell. Ed Fendell was one of the mission controllers who actually controlled the camera, the live television camera, which was mounted on the front of the lunar roving vehicle, on which they traversed some frightening distances around the lunar surface. But you could you could see him move his controls on his console and then a second to so later allowing for the speed of light delay. The camera then moved on the lunar surface.

Ed Fendell controls the lunar rover camera from Earth. Credit: NASA

But Cernan and Schmitt... They mentioned a group of students from all over the world which gathered in mission control that night – it was quite late night at that time – and they picked up an ordinary piece of rock. Commander Cernan spoke to our group directly and said, "Jack has picked up a piece of rock, a fairly ordinary rock, but composed of many fragments that's been on the lunar surface for billions of years. And it has coalesced and lived in harmony with its own components for aeons. And that this rock would be given to each member of the group of the tour and that they would present it to their nations, to the peoples of their country with a message of goodwill from Apollo 17. And peace and hopes for the future." Jack Schmitt then added a few words echoing Commander Cernan's and we were to be custodians of what should be called the Goodwill Moon Rock or Friendship Rock. There were two of these. The Apollo 11 crew brought back a Friendship Rock. This was the Apollo 17 Goodwill moon rock. And I was to be custodian of that.

Ezzy That's a lovely thing. Showing that this this mission was for the entire world and not for the US.

Dermot Yes Absolutely.

Ezzy That's lovely. Those are probably the the biggest highlights from the mission from your time in the US, but you did a whole range of things on your trip. Were there anything else that particularly stood out in your mind?

Dermot Oh yes! We this whirlwind tour lasting some three weeks, flying to different NASA or other scientific facilities on average every other day. We went to the atomic energy facility at Oak Ridge in Tennessee, which is very, very interesting. But then we were getting back to Apollo. We spent a day at the George C Marshall Space Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, and some of the American German rocket scientists, some of them of whom had been part of Wernher von Braun's team – who, as you know, developed much of American rocketry. They were there to give us a guided tour of all the to test stands and so forth.

We also had a really good look at the neutral buoyancy tank, which was then the the biggest training tank in the world. We looked through the portholes there of the tank and saw a full sized mock-up of the Skylab space station. Some of the astronauts actually suited up with divers practicing an EVA on the Apollo telescope mount, which is used for solar observations. It made quite a valuable contribution to solar observations in the early 70s.

But another highlight was the famous JPL, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. We had a chance to sit in mission control, where they were monitoring the Pioneer probes which are well on the way to the outer edge of the Solar System. So we had some fantastic experiences there. I think another highlight – which was rather cheeky – but we did a tour of of North American Rockwell plant in Downey, California. They were the people that built the Apollo Command module. So amongst other things, and they had there Casper, the Apollo 16 command module, which had been to the moon a few few months earlier, and it was on the test stand in the factory for post flight analysis. And of course, we were VIP guests and we split up into small groups to tour the huge facility and an IAC official very cheekily. And if we would allow me to just climb inside the centre seat of the command module, which staggeringly he allowed me to do so as long as I didn't touch anything.

Apollo 16 command module (without Dermot in the control seat). Credit: North American Rockwell.

Ezzy Really?

Dermot So I was able to climb up little steps and climb through the hatch into the centre seat, which is more like a hammock, really, on the collapsible frame where astronaut Ken Mattingly would have sat during the flight of Apollo 16 with Charlie Duke and John Young and take a tiny piece of the heat shield as well, which I still have.

Ezzy You took a piece home?!

Dermot I mean, you would never be allowed to do that, understandably and quite rightly so these days, because these artefacts are quite rightly valuable museum pieces. The Smithsonian in Washington particularly do a lot of restoration and take great care of these items.

Ezzy You already mentioned there that you met Neil Armstrong. Were there any other notable figures that you met during your time?

Dermot Whilst in Mission Control, Admiral Alan Sheppard, met us and he took us to the auditorium and gave us a presentation on the future of NASA.And.

Ezzy Alan Shepard, of course, being the first US astronaut.

Dermot Yes, indeed he was Ezzy and also commander of Apollo 14. He he led the mission to the highlands from Fra Mauro, where Apollo 13 should have landed had it not been for the near fatal explosion on board. And Alan Shepard, he was wonderful. And he led us down to the lunar receiving laboratory, now known as the Planetary Materials Laboratory. But there they had these special containers with the yet unstudied moon rocks from the previous Apollo missions, which we were allowed to look at very, very close up. So that was an incredible experience.

But there were the scientific figures, such as Harold P Klein, who had worked with people like Carl Sagan on the Viking missions, in particular life detection experiments on board Viking. And over at the University of Berkeley in California, we have a tour of the Bevatron particle accelerator there. And our host for the day was Dr. Louis Alvarez, who is a Nobel Prise Laureate. He worked on the bubble chamber and the discovery of the positron, I believe. He had also worked with Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project as well. So he was a very distinguished scientist to meet.

I think the final person on the tour that of at the time maybe didn't have quite the fame but later he would was the the tour finally ended on 19th December at the United Nations Mission in New York and following a tour of the U.N. We had a lunch with the United States ambassador to the United Nations, and his name was George H. W. Bush. Later, to become President of the United States. We had lunch with him and three of us, one from Spanish, French and English speaking nations gave a thank you speech to the nation State Department and the people of the United States for their kindness and courtesy and privilege. Fantastic privilege is given to us by NASA, in particular, during that tour. And it was closed by Mr. Bush.

Ezzy There were a lot of people there from around the world reporting. Was there anybody from the UK that you met whilst you were out there on your trip?

Dermot Yeah. A couple of people in Houston, James Burke, who was the BBC correspondent. James Burke used to present Tomorrow's World back in the 1960s. He, along with Sir Patrick Moore, covered for the BBC just about all of the Apollo missions, long hours of broadcasting day and night. Patrick was having a rest period, it was nighttime and he was having a break. But I did spend quite a bit of time with with James Burke and kind of became pen pals with him for a while. And also another sort of great BBC correspondent from the day, Reginald Turnhill, he was there with his wife and he had just written a book on spaceflight so we spent time with him.

Ezzy Whilst you were looking behind the scenes, did you actually manage to get to see any of the lunar material that been brought back from the previous Apollo missions?

The Planetary Materials Institute examines Apollo samples. Credit: NASA.

Dermot Yes. At the lunar receiving laboratory, as it was known then, these days you call the Planetary Materials Laboratory. But we were led down there and they had a room and they set it out in these alloy caskets that were kept in a vacuum or in inert gas. There were samples of rocks and soil from all of the previous missions. One particular one that they had separated was the the famous Genesis Rock from Apollo 15, which is a very white coloured, almost like pumice stone. I had a really good class view of that. They had these special chambers set up within a vacuum with the gloves that you could put your hand in and touch a piece of Moon rock – I think they had those as we were VIP guests. They just had that one set up to one side to enable us to do that.

Not everyone did – all 80 students didn't go places altogether. The groups were were split into very small groups and to make it more manageable. All the students did different things. So that was very memorable to see these iconic samples so close up.

As I understand it, into the 90s percentage of all the lunar materials have not yet been studied as NASA had that foresight not to do destructive testing on them until the technologies improved over the decades. That was quite an interesting foresight. So globally, only a very, very tiny percentage of these rocks are under study.

Ezzy And in fact, I believe earlier this year [2022] there was a sample that they put into cold storage for 50 years, specifically to thaw out this year to take advantage of modern techniques, which I thought was very smart of them. There's been quite a lot of advancement in the last 50 years. But as you said, they are obviously quite careful with these pieces of rock so I'm curious how you managed to get yours. Obviously the crew came back just as you were finishing your trip and presumably they didn't just hand you a piece out of the module. So how did you eventually get your piece of goodwill Rock?

Dermot (centre) receives the Goodwill rock from Jim Mc Divitt (right) along with Michael P Store (left) from the cultural office. Credit: Dermot Gethings.

Dermot The Goodwill Moon rock sample has a designated catalogue number with NASA of 70017. That was fragmented. Not the entirety of that rock, but a portion of that rock was separated and fragmented down after the mission into 80 small pieces.

Several months later, seven months, actually, I got hold of it. I had to travel down to the U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square, as it was then in London in 12th July, 1973. We went to the Air Force attache, his office, and there was the Air Force attache, along with Brigadier General Jim McDivitt, who was former astronaut, commander of Gemini 4 with Ed White, the late Ed White, and he was commander of Apollo 9, and he was there to travel with me to Downing Street. And another chap from the cultural office there, Mr. Michael P Store, he he brought in the the Goodwill Moon Rock, which was embedded in a glass ball on a hardwood plaque and along with a small Union Jack, which had been taken to the lunar surface by Schmitt and Evans.

Indeed, all of the Goodwill moon rocks that were presented throughout the world had a small flag of their nation taken to the lunar surface, and the plaque had a message of goodwill and peace from the then President of the United States, Richard Nixon. So I was briefed on the protocols of being custodian for this rock. That day we travelled in a couple of cars to 10 Downing Street where we presented it to the then Prime Minister, Mr. Edward Heath, along with Mr. Walter Annenberg, who was the the United States ambassador to the United Kingdom then. I gave a short speech to Mr. Heath thanking NASA, to the people of the United States, for the privileges of handing over this piece of rock for the people of the United Kingdom. That was a very special day. It subsequently went to the Natural History Museum, where it is still on display some 50 years later.

The Goodwill rock, currently on display at the Natural History Museum. Credit: Natural History Museum.

Ezzy And hopefully some of our listeners will be hearing the story and be inspired to go down and visit it. I've seen it myself down in the Natural History Museum before I met you and found out the story behind it, so that's absolutely brilliant to hear. It's the 50th anniversary of Apollo 17 this year. How will you be spending those first few weeks in December commemorating the day?

Dermot Well, I have a number of presentations to give on this very subject. For the past couple of years, friends in my own astronomy society that I'm involved with Preston, the District Astronomical Society and also the University of Central Lancashire, Jeremiah Horrocks Institute, amongst others, said "You need to write a booklet on this. You need to give presentations because this is an important piece of history that you were involved in." So I have some presentations to give in December at one or two of the astronomical societies. I'm also involved in with Liverpool Astronomical Society on 10th December. They are doing a special Apollo 17 50th anniversary event, a huge event in Liverpool Library, a couple of evenings prior to that on 7th December, which is the 50th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 17. I'm giving a couple of the late talks at the National Space Centre in Leicester, which I'm really looking forward to.

Ezzy So it certainly sounds like there's a lot going on.

Dermot There is.

Ezzy Thank you very much, Dermot, for taking the time out of your day to talk to us. That was an absolutely fascinating story and I'm very glad that you got to be able to experience that and to share it with us. So thank you very much.

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Dermot It's an absolute pleasure and thank you for a great magazine as well!

Authors

Elizabeth Pearson
Ezzy PearsonScience journalist

Ezzy Pearson is the Features Editor of BBC Sky at Night Magazine. Her first book about the history of robotic planetary landers is out now from The History Press.