In December 1972, geoscientist Harrison Schmitt traveled more than a quarter-million miles, dropped 8.7 nautical miles out of lunar orbit and took a stroll on the moon.
That was 50 years ago, and today Schmitt is one of the last of the living Apollo astronauts to have stood on the lunar surface. Of the 12 individuals who walked on the moon, four survived as of November 2022: Schmitt, Buzz Aldrin of Apollo 11, David Scott of Apollo 15 and Charles Duke of Apollo 16.
With his Apollo 17 mission mate, the late Gene Cernan, Schmitt spent more than 22 hours exploring the moon in what NASA calls “extra vehicular activities,” or EVAs. They also drove 22-plus miles in their lunar roving vehicle, zooming up to 11.2 miles per hour, while Command Module pilot Ronald Evans continued to orbit above them.
Since then, NASA has launched a series of space shuttle missions, sent robot exploration rovers to Mars and photographed and measured the solar system with multiple satellites. The U.S. space program has gone through extensive changes since the Apollo launches, but at least one factor remains exactly the same.
Harrison Schmitt is pumped about astrogeology.
“It is an awesome time to be an astrogeologist,” he said in a recent interview with the EXPLORER.
“Astrogeology’s future will be closely tied to both: first, the harvesting of lunar resources for use in space – and, in the case of lunar helium-3, fusion-power production here on Earth,” Schmitt observed.
“And, second, (to) the lead of commercial entities, particularly energy companies, in accessing those resources and in the permanent settlement of the moon. As an important side benefit, lunar resources will enable future exploration of Mars,” he said.
A longtime advocate of extraterrestrial resource development, Schmitt’s interest has focused on lunar helium-3, a potential energy source and fuel for yet-to-be-developed fusion reactors. In a 2004 essay, he wrote that learning to mine helium-3 on the moon “will create the technological infrastructure for our inevitable journeys to Mars and beyond.”
Gateway to the Universe
As the first true U.S. scientist-astronaut in space, Schmitt represents a pivotal and transitional figure for NASA. He was a candidate for the proposed Apollo 18 crew before that mission was canceled due to budget cutbacks. Pressure from the scientific community and some members of Congress landed Schmitt a place on Apollo 17.
“Harrison Schmitt’s participation in the final Apollo mission cements the transition from President Kennedy’s transportation paradigm – landing a human on the moon and returning them safely to Earth – to the larger mission of scientific discovery of which humans are a crucial component,” noted Brian Odom, NASA’s chief historian.
“Schmitt’s education and experience in the field of geology made him the first true scientist to explore the moon. Now the Artemis mission looks to pick up where that mission left off and push the boundaries of science even further,” Odom said.
With Artemis, NASA envisions a multistage program to return humans to the moon and eventually create a sustainable manned lunar habitat. In Greek mythology, Artemis was a moon goddess and twin sister of Apollo.
The Artemis I Space Launch System rocket launched on Nov. 16. A test run, the 25.5-day mission was planned to carry the unmanned Orion spacecraft into orbit around the moon, then return it to Earth.
After Artemis II, a lunar fly-by with four crew members, Artemis III will return NASA astronauts to the moon’s surface and to on-site astrogeology. Currently scheduled for 2025, that mission will put two astronauts on the moon for about 6.5 days.
Artemis IV will be a crewed mission to the proposed Lunar Gateway station, set for no earlier than 2027. A small, lunar-orbiting space station (known simply as “The Gateway” at NASA), the outpost will support manned landings on the moon and be a staging point for deep-space exploration
According to NASA, Artemis V through Artemis VIII, and beyond, “are proposed to land astronauts on the lunar surface, where they will take advantage of increasing amounts of infrastructure that are to be landed by support missions. These will include habitats, rovers, scientific instruments and resource extraction equipment.”
“The Artemis project to land at the lunar south pole, as currently envisioned, is extraordinarily ambitious and challenging – even more so than Apollo. But a new generation of young designers, engineers, skilled workers, managers and astronauts and their families should be able to carry it off,” said Schmitt.
“The establishment of bases and settlements, however, probably will be mostly based on a commercially viable lunar economy rather than on NASA, other than having the United States government’s management of the legally challenging rules of the road and interactions with other international players,” he noted.
International Cooperation, Competition
Artemis is just one of several moon-related exploration programs now under way or proposed by NASA, plus other international space programs. In China, space scientists have said a new rocket capable of taking a crew to the moon should be ready for test launch in 2027.
“Exciting concepts are at work with the final outcome still to be determined,” Schmitt observed.
The European Space Agency, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and Canadian Space Agency are partnering in the Artemis program with NASA, which also has pledged to expand its cooperation with commercial space entities like SpaceX.
Schmitt welcomes it all, even billionaires in space:
“Anyone’s interest in enabling and participating in space travel is a net plus,” he commented.
Today, the memories that linger most about Apollo 17 for Schmitt are “being a part of the mission, its remarkable team of Americans and the entire Apollo program, as well as continued research on the observations, images and samples we brought back with my many colleagues.”
“With impetus from Sputnik and President Eisenhower 65 years ago, and spurred on by President Kennedy and Apollo, space was added to land, sea and air as working environments for human beings,” he noted.
Astrogeology’s Awesome Reach
After Apollo 17, Schmitt retired from NASA to enter politics and served a term as a U.S. senator from New Mexico. He later became a consultant and college-level educator.
Schmitt, who earned his doctorate in geology at Harvard University, has received many honors both inside and outside astrogeology during his career, including this one: AAPG’s Special Award for outstanding contributions to geoscience by individuals and organizations was renamed the Harrison Schmitt Award in 2011.
Over the past half-century, astrogeology has greatly expanded scientific understanding of the Earth’s formative period. Evidence of powerful primordial events and transformations, mostly erased on this planet, still exist for study on the moon, Mars and other bodies.
“Astrogeology has provided the world with new options for human endeavor on the moon and Mars and for fusion power here on Earth,” Schmitt noted.
“Although Apollo and subsequent remote sensing missions around the moon have greatly increased our scientific knowledge about the moon and its origins and evolution as a small planet, more importantly, we now have a vastly increased awareness about the violent early history of the Earth and the origins of life here and potentially on Mars,” he said.
“Increasingly, cores of lunar regolith are revealing the history of the sun and its ties to major evolutionary changes on Earth,” he added.
And the future outlook for astrogeology, which includes manned excursions to the moon and beyond? As Schmitt himself said: