Acquaint yourself with some space program milestones that occurred 50 years ago in the year 1972.   

In January, 1972, President Richard Nixon announced the beginnings of a Space Shuttle program, designed to make space missions easier and less expensive. Reusing the spacecraft would cost one-tenth of the cost of previous crafts. The Space Shuttle could deploy and maintain communication satellites, along with making space journeys safer and less demanding for astronauts. Although the plan was to have a manned shuttle flight by 1978, that wasn’t accomplished until 1981, when the Columbia was launched for its first flight. Over the next 30 years there were 135 Space Shuttle flights with a fleet consisting of the Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour. The final flight was made by Atlantis in 2011, a mission to deliver supplies and parts to the space station.

    Apollo 16 blasted off from Cape Canaveral on April 16 of 1972, landing on the moon four days later. Astronauts John Young and Charles Duke spent more than 20 hours exploring the lunar surface during their three days on the moon. They collected upwards of 200 lbs. (91 kg) of rocks before returning to the spacecraft.

    The final Apollo moon mission, Apollo 17, was launched on December 7. Astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt began the final Lunar Rover ride six days later, leaving crewmate Ronald Evans in the command module. The Lunar Roving Vehicle was used for nearly 22 hours out of their 75 hours on the moon, travelling 22.3 miles (35.9 km), gathering 243 lbs. (110 kg) of moon rocks. All three LRV’s from Apollo 15, 16, and 17 were left behind and remain on the moon. On December 14, Cernan became the last person to walk on the moon.

    The Apollo program ran from 1961 to 1972, with the first crewed mission in 1968. Between 1968 and 1972, 12 astronauts walked on the moon. A total of 842 lbs. (382 kg) of lunar rocks and soil were brought home to Earth.

On March 3, 1972, Pioneer 10 was launched from Cape Canaveral, a space probe sent to capture pictures of Jupiter, the solar system’s largest planet. In December, the craft was at its closest point to the planet, a distance of 82,178 miles (132,252 km), and began transmitting the first of 500 images. By 1976, the 569-lb. (258-kg) Pioneer 10 had crossed the orbit of Saturn, and crossed the orbit of Uranus in 1979, and Neptune’s orbit in 1983. By 1997, the probe had traveled an estimated six billion miles. The final signal received from the craft in 2003 was very weak, from a distance of 7.5 billion miles (12 billion km) from Earth.

The Mariner 9 began sending pictures of the surface of Mars in February, 1972 after 349 days in space. It was the first spacecraft to orbit another planet. Due to dust storms on Mars, the Mariner was unable to send any clear pictures before February, but before its mission was concluded, it had transmitted 7,329 images, covering 85% of the planet’s surface. The craft’s current location is unknown – it may still be in orbit, it may have burned up in Mars’ atmosphere, or crashed into the surface. Its final transmission was in October, 1972.