The AAPG Astrogeology Committee led a field trip to NASA Space Center Houston on April 22 as a part of the GeoGulf 2023 Conference. The NASA field trip was organized by GeoGulf23 technical chair Linda Sternbach, AAPG Astrogeology Committee co-chair Doug Wyatt and the authors.
The field trip featured Apollo 17 astronaut-geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt. Activities on the field trip included visits to historic Apollo Mission Control, the Saturn V rocket, the Apollo 17 Command Module capsule, the Lunar Sample Lab and a luncheon presentation by Schmitt.
At the Apollo 17 capsule, he recounted not getting much sleep on the way to the moon, with one eye open looking for alarm lights on the instrument panel. He graciously posed for a picture with a nine-year-old future astronaut who ran up through the crowd to stand next to him.
At the luncheon, he discussed the geology of the Apollo 17 landing site and various topics on lunar science and resources. He described the ongoing studies of Apollo 17 lunar samples. He is currently working on the three-meter core he drilled near Camelot Crater in the Taurus-Littrow Valley on the eastern rim of Mare Serenitatis. Detailed isotopic analyses have revealed changes in solar activity and solar wind over time. Schmitt explained that it is more likely that the moon formed coeval with the Earth rather than forming in a collision of Earth with a large planetesimal early in solar system history.
The authors co-chaired the technical session, “Geoscientists Will Be Exploring the Moon and Mars in the Next Decade.” The session featured two presentations about the moon: “Water-Ice Resources on the Moon,” by William Ambrose and “Exploring for Lunar Volatiles, the VIPER Mission Instrument Package,” by Doug Wyatt of NASA. The session also included two presentations about Mars: “The Search for Life on Mars,” by Doug Cook, and “Martian Field Geologist: What to Wear When Looking for Life on a Desert Planet?”, an in-depth look at the challenges and radiation hazards of sending a human crew to Mars by James F. Reilly, former NASA astronaut-geologist and U.S. Geological Survey director.
From Apollo to Artemis
After the astrogeology session, the GeoGulf luncheon had keynote speeches by Schmitt and fellow astronaut-geologist Jessica Watkins of the Artemis “Return to the Moon” Program. They were presented with rock hammers engraved with the words, “From Apollo to Artemis, from GeoGulf 2023.”
Schmitt referred to the Artemis program as a challenge in a new space race. China plans a human landing by 2030. He went on to describe his ongoing work on Apollo 17 lunar samples as “the gift that keeps on giving.” He is working on special samples that were kept cryo-frozen for 50 years, using analytical techniques that were not available when he brought them back from the moon in 1972. He is also compiling a synthesis of all the research that has been done on Apollo 17 samples in the last 50 years.
Schmitt also discussed lunar in-situ resources that might one day be utilized for infrastructure in space and back home on Earth. Lunar resources include helium-3 for nuclear fusion energy, and titanium, oxygen and hydrogen from lunar minerals. Oxygen and hydrogen are particularly valuable in space as propellants and for human life support. Sending just one kilogram to the moon can cost as much as $1.2 million, depending on the launch provider. Reusable boosters and spacecraft will bring that cost down dramatically.
Watkins spent 170 days on the International Space Station as a part of SpaceX Crew 4 and ISS Expedition 67/68, and she was a science-team collaborator for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity. Her presentation described biomedical research on long duration spaceflight, her science duties on the ISS and how that experience helps prepare for a human crew to the moon with the Artemis program.
She stands a good chance of being chosen for the next crew mission to land on the moon.
One audience member asked what qualifications were key to be chosen for the Artemis program. Jack Schmitt got a laugh from the audience when he spoke up, “She’s a geologist!”
The Artemis crew moon landing is scheduled no earlier than 2025. These initial missions will hopefully lead to a future lunar settlement near the moon’s south pole and pave the way for sending humans to Mars.