American Culture

“One last fiery hurrah”: LIFE’s final issue

Final part in a series.

How appropriate that a publication whose launch was dominated by photography of the technological wonder of the day should end its run with an equally impressive tribute to mankind’s latest technological accomplishment. As noted earlier, LIFE’s final issue was released a scant three weeks after Apollo 17, NASA’s last trip to the moon, and in the magazine’s concluding essays it found a fitting kinship with that mission.

Both LIFE and the Apollo program remained physically strong to the last – many regard Apollo 17 as the most successful of all the moon landings (12/29/72), and while LIFE was awash in red ink, its failures arguably related more to mismanagement than to substantive textual issues (in 1969 the magazine had reached an all-time circulation high of 8.5 million) (van Zuilen). Both were, in the end, overcome by financial difficulties and a lack of institutional will to carry on.

The Apollo program and LIFE each accomplished their final missions with distinction. The moon shot returned with a rich geological payload, and LIFE did a remarkable job summing up THE YEAR IN PICTURES, deftly reviewing the Apollo program; a presidential election campaign that was addling enough to elicit Hunter Thompson’s brilliant Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail; and yet another year of pointless mayhem in Vietnam. Perhaps most daunting of all, the editors had to manage some concise concluding statement of LIFE’s own long and storied history.

The photo-essay on the end of the Apollo program asks a number of good questions, and as was so often the case with LIFE, comes tantalizingly close to broaching a deeper critical discussion of technology’s place in American society. Four pictures of the mission’s spectacular night launch dominate an across-the-fold spread, with the caption “One last fiery hurrah for Apollo” introducing these reflective comments:

In 1961, when President Kennedy launched a national effort to send a man to the moon, the goal seemed incredibly far away. But 11 years and $26 billion later, the last chapter of man’s spectacular first venture into space began in a blaze of glory as Apollo 17 left the earth and rose through the Florida night like a roaring beacon, lighting up the sky for hundreds of miles around. Over the years of Apollo, a dozen men landed on the lunar surface and returned safely to earth, and with such efficiency that moon travel had come to seem almost routine. Each mission added to scientific knowledge, and Apollo 17 turned out to be the most fruitful of all, with a professional geologist aboard for the first time and a homebound payload that will keep the experts busy for years. With the ending of the Apollo program, the moon will be left undisturbed for the next decades – at least by Americans. Apollo 17’s splashdown prompted again an old question: Had the whole stupendous undertaking been merely an expensive digression from more pressing terrestrial concerns? Or was it justified by technologies learned, by knowledge gained and – as important – by man’s inspiring urge, in Tennyson’s words, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”? (7).

The editors fittingly invoke Kennedy, the man to whom the American space program owed its life. They note the cost and difficulty of the task, and the eloquence of the language employed pays fitting tribute to the grandeur of the accomplishment – whether we were being duly critical of technology or not, the simple fact remains that the Apollo program presented humanity with one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of the species. American expertise is praised, for what we once thought impossible came to be executed with such ease and efficiency that going to the moon and back became commonplace, routine (Apollo 13 notwithstanding, we assume).

And of course, the quest for scientific knowledge is invoked, in true Baconian fashion, and then is questioned, in typical LIFE fashion. Not only have we gained knowledge, but the Apollo program has been so successful that scientists on Earth will be tied up for years trying to study it all.

Most fascinating, though, is this editorial question: “Had the whole stupendous undertaking been merely an expensive digression from more pressing terrestrial concerns?” Longtime LIFE readers had heard words like these before: they conjured images of a vastly expensive technological program initiated by a popular, progressive president, and the expenditures were questioned in light of other significant national priorities. Ironically, the final words of the passage appealed to antiquity, employing Tennyson in the construction of a standard by which the program might be judged.

The editors’ technique is not unlike that used 36 years earlier by their predecessors, who shared similar concerns about F.D.R.’s Grand Coulee Dam. The latest crop of editors quote Tennyson, while the original staff invoked the specter of Cheops, but in each case the point is the same: historians will revisit these moments, and the great decisions of great leaders will be judged, perhaps in ways we cannot fathom at present. To be sure, the Apollo program comes off better – LIFE liked the space program, even when its value was obscured by other national concerns. Tennyson’s words are inspirational, while Cheops’ ghost was intended as a cautionary.

From its first cover to its last, LIFE spent 36 years promoting the progress of science and technology as surely as any of its contemporary publications. That it did so as honestly and intelligently as perhaps any popular vehicle of its kind this century is to its eternal credit.


LIFE and Technology series


van Zuilen, A. (1977). The life cycle of magazines: a historical study of the decline and fall of the general interest mass audience magazine in the United States during the period 1946-1972. Uithoorn, Netherlands: Graduate Press.

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  2. Dr. Slammy,

    A much as I enjoyed reading Life as a kid, we also subscribed to Look magazine, which was almost as good. Look did a better job of capturing the essence of the 60’s, and profoundly influenced my older sister in her quest to be a hippie. Although she was a world class hippie in the 60’s, she eventually got her shit together and is now a university administrator.


  3. I grew up in the 50’s, reading Life and Look and dreaming about the life of a photojournalist. I still have a small display case of some of the classic 35mm rangefinder cameras as used by the great photographers of those years: a Leica IIIc, Leica M3, Contax IIa and Nikon S2. I worked on a weekly paper in the 60’s but spent most of my time teaching school. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gene Smith, Alfred Eisenstadt and the others are still my heroes today.