Everyone knows Apollo 11.
I was barely more than a boy, but I still remember it vividly. Neil Armstrong, descending the ladder. The words ‘LIVE FROM THE MOON’ emblazoned across our tiny black and white television. My mother, telling me over and over that I was sitting “too darn close!”
Everyone watched the launch, and the landing itself, but I watched the whole thing (or at least every chance I got, pretty sure dad carried me to bed the first night). Even thinking about it now after all these years gives me goosebumps. Man on the moon. I’ll say it again for the kids on the back row - man on the goddamn moon! When Neil said those famous, beautiful words… I’m not ashamed to say I cried, in fact I was proud. Proud to be American. Proud to be a human being. What else could we achieve? What was the ceiling of our potential? That one defining moment is to thank for my entire career. For my love of science fiction. For all the hope that I hold in my heart for the human race.
So yes, everyone knows Apollo 11.
But not many people know Apollo 17. 1972. The last man on the moon.
It’s a mission I know quite a lot about, considering I helped run it. It was eight years on from the first landing, and I was a wet behind the ears technician, supervising the flight director. My first mission, actually, and without doubt my most memorable.
I’ll pause here. All my life I’ve done what I was ordered to. I never told a soul about what we saw that day. Not to my parents, rest their souls. Not even to my wife. Even if integrity wasn’t at stake, we knew this wasn’t a standard NDA. Breaking this wouldn’t be some lawsuit and a slap on the wrist - I had friends go missing.
So I kept schtum. I’ve followed orders all my life, and this was no exception. But, it’s funny how feelings can change when we get close to the end. Me and Sandra never had kids, though lord knows we had fun trying. She was my world, and my rock. I feel lucky to have even met her, nevermind married her. Last year she passed away, and it kind of felt like I was done. Life decided to emphasise that point, and two months ago I found out I had the big C followed by the t-word that nobody wants to hear next. I’ve come to terms with it, if I’m honest. I’ve got no family to leave anything to, just this secret that’s burning a hole in my soul. If I’d had children, perhaps I’d whisper it to them. Maybe it’s that little bit of hope inside me, but I feel like people need to know.
There’s a reason we never went back.
I know someone who tried to speak out before. He put it on a conspiracy theory forum, apparently. I figure they have people looking on there, scanning for keywords and the like. That’s why I’m posting here. Maybe they don’t track fiction with the same filters, on account of all these stories setting them off non stop. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe they’ll kill me. But as I said, I’m kind of finished anyway, so here goes nothing.
Apollo 17 was primarily a geological and scientific venture. We’d mastered the art of launching a tin can filled with spacemen by this point, and wanted to learn as much as we could about this new frontier that had only been in our grasp for eight years. That meant samples; lots and lots of samples. Taken from as many different locations as we could manage in the alloted time that the harsh conditions and our technological limitations allowed. We set multiple records actually. Longest time spent on the Moon (three days), longest vehicular trip on the surface, largest rock samples gathered, most lunar orbits (seventy five), longest time spent in lunar orbit. As you can see, duration and scale were the name of the game.
Three astronauts went up with the shuttle, but only two travelled to the surface with the lunar lander. One man has to watch his dreams completed from afar. Close but no cigar, as they say. The two men who would be the last to set foot on our closest heavenly body were Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt. Nice guys, it has to be said.
The first moonwalk took place within hours of touching down at the landing site. There was an immediate screw-up when the rear fender of the Lunar Rover (also called an LVR or, if you’re completely dimwitted, a Moon buggy) broke during offloading. That’s American engineering for you - can get you to the Moon, but the mud guards of your go-kart will fall right off. Might seem like a small problem, but without the mud guards, all that dust is going to kick up right over you and your spacesuit. You know, the pressurised suit keeping you alive. That suit.
So the crew on the Moon, in space and back on Earth put our heads together and devised a method of repair using the most advanced technology available. We used duct tape. This worked for a while, but the duct tape kept getting covered with lunar dust the moment it peeled from the reel, which drastically reduced its adhesiveness. As such, the fender kept falling off. This would be mildly annoying on a bike ride, nevermind on a cold, dead rock in the middle of space. The first day ended, and whilst the crew slept in their lunar lander, we tried to create a prototype fender using materials we knew the guys had available. After an all nighter and much head banging, we came up with the solution. We used duct tape again. But this time, we used it inside the lunar lander (no lunar dust in there) making a new makeshift fender, and clamping it back on.
As such, day two was a tremendous success. Without having to offload the LVR and track back to pick up the mudguard every half hour, Eugene and Harrison made astonishing progress, surpassing all expectations we had for the quantity and diversity of samples. By the end of the second day, we had reached our best estimate of samples for the journey, and still had a day in hand. The hope was that without having to spend the morning constructing a makeshift fender or offloading equipment, it might be possible to travel to even further reaches on the surface and collect samples we’d originally had to remove from the scope of the mission,
We had cameras mounted to the LVR, which had a slight delay; around five seconds. There were also cameras that could be carried and operated by the crew, but we’d carried out all our initial shots and footage on day one, wanting to focus the rest of the mission on scientific discovery rather than documentation. Much of day three went without incident, but as the crew travelled to a valley which we believed would contain materials from impact craters, we noticed a blip on the cameras.
Eugene and Harrison had disembarked, then a moment later, the screen must have jumped back, because Harrison walked past the buggy again. I flagged it up as a camera glitch and thought nothing else of it.
One thing you have to understand is that expeditions are long. Very long. All day meticulously pouring over data, the screens almost become a luxury. A vanity. We mostly ignore them. The numbers are more important. That’s the only explanation I can give for why it took us so long to notice.
“Is Ronald with them?”
To this day, I don’t know whose voice it was. I just remember the way it sounded. Confused, afraid, hopeful. As if the words themselves were saying ‘please’.
All eyes turned to the screens above us. At the astronauts. One. Two. Three.
You might have heard loud noises in your life. I promise you no sound is louder than mission command falling deathly silent.
I don’t know how long we watched that screen. I couldn’t look away. Eugene and Harrison, collecting rock samples from the ground. Just behind them, another astronaut, stood patiently watching.
My supervising flight director spoke first. He grabbed the comms module and spoke in a calm, flat voice that felt like spiders crawling along my spine.
“Eugene, Harrison, this is command, we need you to return to the lander.”
I didn’t dare breathe as I watched the two men continue to lethargically collect rocks, low gravity making them look infinitely slow. There was still that delay to factor in too. I tried to estimate the distance between the figures. Twenty metres, maybe fifteen? Eugene’s voice came over the comms before the video showed him raise his hand to radio in.
“Sure thing command, we’ll wrap up here then-”
“We need you to return to the lander please.”
There was a pause as the Astronauts digested this. My director jumped in before they could raise further protests.
“Situation has changed, we need you to return immediately.”
Command was slowly waking up now, people were moving. Telephones were ringing. We had prepared for every situation imaginable. Crashes. Launch failures. One astronaut dying. Both astronauts dying. All astronauts abandoned. But an additional astronaut, of unknown origin? No. No, we hadn’t planned for that.
We heard a panicked cry. On the video feed, Eugene and Harrison had turned to look at each other, and Harrison had seen the strange addition. He flinched backwards, lifting off the ground and stumbling in slow motion. Eugene saw him too.
“We need you to return to the lander immediately.”
“Command, who is that?”
“Return to the lander.”
“Command, wh- who - Ron? Is that you?”
“Return to the fucking lander!”
Harrison was scrambling amongst the dust, Eugene stepping backwards. The third figure just watched, black screened helmet turning as it followed them. We could hear frantic breathing. Comms that had carried vital information now just recorded the simple sounds of two men running, fighting their way through thick black soup in spacesuits. The camera feed - how many nightmares I’ve had of that camera feed - showed them trying their best, bouncing around, dust everywhere, clawing their way across the surface. Behind them, the third figure just stood perfectly still.
They made it to the LVR, one astronaut to each side of the screen, this stranger stood between them in the distance. Their breathing was still laboured over the comms, but you could hear the shift. The hesitation. We had the same moment at mission control. We were people who demanded answers. We were people who would literally go to the moon to get them. What in the name of God was this third person doing there?
My flight director made the call. It was the call we all knew was right, but none of us truly wanted.
“Return. To. The. Lander.”
There were a few considering breaths before Eugene’s voice came through.
“Yeah. Yeah, OK.”
Then Harrison began shouting.
“Oh fuck, go go go!”
Our eyes drifted to the screen, the images still with their slight delay. The moment the LVR began to shift into reverse, the third astronaut began to move. Not the slow, methodic bounces of a moonwalk, but the same frantic scrambles Eugene and Harrison had made to escape. As though it was copying them. As though it thought that was the way people always moved. An astronaut doesn’t move quickly. Whoever was inside wouldn’t be able to punch or strike with any real speed or damage in low gravity. It couldn’t get me through the screen. And yet I have never felt fear like I did in that room at that moment.
The lunar surface reeled as Eugene turned the LVR, dust kicking up and masking the camera. We couldn’t see behind them, only directly in front. The LVR is never operated at full speed, best practise is to take it nice and steady. It got a full performance test on day three. It was a long, horrible drive that took two hours.
In that time, as I wasn’t prepping for the launch, I poured over the footage. A few people were arguing it must be a secret space program, from another nation - most likely Russia. The suit looked American, but perhaps it had been done that way on purpose. I just remembered the way it ran. It didn’t move like a trained astronaut. It didn’t move like a person at all. It moved like something pretending to be human and getting it wrong. Earlier, I’d flagged up a camera glitch. That let me easily find the first frame where the third astronaut had appeared. It wasn’t a camera glitch at all. The thing had been following them for twenty minutes.
Loading and unloading the LVR takes around half an hour, if you’re doing it properly. We abandoned it on the surface. Eugene and Harrison ran straight on the lunar lander and we carried out the fastest launch procedure ever performed (another record, albeit unrecorded).
There were additional cameras, watching the engines. These ignited, spitting fire out and blasting the lander back into space, back towards the command module. I know I wasn’t the only one to get one last glimpse though. As the rocket lifted off the ground, the camera caught a wider angle of the surface.
For just a moment, you could make out a solitary astronaut. Looking up. Watching us leave.