Schmitt shares stories from his journey to the moon

By Joe Southern

Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, the 12th person to walk on the moon, talks about his mission during a panel discussion Thursday at Space Center Houston. (Photo by Joe Southern)

Space Center Houston went out of this world to launch its fundraising campaign to restore the historic mission control center at Johnson Space Center.

The nonprofit visitor’s center used Thursday, July 20 – the 48th anniversary of the first moon landing – to launch its $250,000 Kickstarter campaign and invited the 12th man to walk on the moon to help get things going. Dr. Harrison “Jack” Schmitt headlined several panels at Space Center Houston that day to talk about the effort it took to send men to the moon and back.

This December will mark the 45th anniversary of his flight. He was the lunar module pilot and, along with the late Gene Cernan, who commanded the mission, walked on the moon and collected rock samples while command module pilot, the late Ronald Evans, circled above in the capsule that is now on display at Space Center Houston.

Schmitt, the only trained geologist to visit the moon, spent a lot of time working in mission control prior to his flight, as did all the astronauts. In December of 1972, Cernan and Schmitt spent three days in the Taurus–Littrow valley on the moon. They completed three moonwalks, took lunar samples and deployed scientific instruments.

Despite his connection to the last mission to the moon, Schmitt remains in awe of the first, the Apollo 8 mission that orbited it for the first time.

“I think for a lot of us that worked at mission control, that was THE mission. We didn’t expect to do it. It happened within a few months. It was a very important mission in terms of exercising the overall system, of proving it out, and answering publicly the geopolitical question relative to the Soviet Union,” he said.

He compared the decade-long challenge to get to the moon issued by President John F. Kennedy to the effort today to send humans to Mars.

“The program was accomplished in a decade and that’s important to remember because Mars may not be accomplished in a decade,” he said.

He said one of the keys to going to Mars is keeping a youth movement into NASA.

Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, the 12th person to walk on the moon, poses with the Apollo 17 command module that took him, Gene Cernan and Ronald Evans on their historic journey 45 years ago. The module is on permanent display at Space Center Houston. (Photo by Joe Southern)

“Those of you in your 20s right now, think of how you’re going to do great things, and those approaching their 20s,” he said, noting that most of the engineers of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo era were in their 20s and just out of college.

“How do you keep an agency that’s implementing a Mars program young – young enough to do it?” he asked. “You need that stamina and imagination; it’s so important.”

Schmitt said he and the other astronauts had mixed feelings when Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins left on their historic journey to the moon.

“By July 1969 everybody was ready to go and both elated and disappointed that they were not on the first mission,” he said.

Schmitt outlined his keys to success on the Apollo missions. They included having a sufficient base of technology, a reservoir of young engineers, adequate funding, strong management reserves, and, “a working environment of liberty.”

While on the moon, Schmitt was in a geologist’s paradise. His big find was orange colored volcanic rock, which has given scientists a good look into the origins of the moon. He also commented on the difficulty of working in the moon dust, which coated everything. He also discovered a good way to get around in the dust and the moon’s low gravity.

“I think the best way to move across the moon is using a cross-country skiing technique, which will allow you to glide over the surface,” he said.

Marveling at the giant Saturn V rocket that sent men on voyages to the moon, he said they shook violently but worked perfectly. He encouraged the audience to view the one on display at JSC.

“I get a little upset when I go there because it’s a little like going to a zoo. Why didn’t we use that Saturn V? Why wasn’t it put out in the wild?” he said.

Concluding his remarks, Schmitt offered a recommendation to NASA as it prepares for missions to Mars in the 2030s.

“Before a Mars crew has a departing view of the Earth … it’s probably wise to take another walk on the moon,” he said.

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