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On a mission for more scientists

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Silver City native Harrison Schmitt was 37 when he landed on the moon with the Apollo 17 crew in 1972.

It was the last of the lunar missions.

Many of those who helped him and others get there, though, were much younger.


Harrison Schmitt, a former NASA astronaut and U.S. senator, shows the “Blue Marble” photo he took of the Earth enroute to the moon in 1972 during a speech to AFRL Scholars on Wednesday.  (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

“The average age of the engineers in the mission control center during the Apollo 13 mission was 26,” Schmitt said to a group of students at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base on Wednesday morning. “Keep that in mind.”

Schmitt addressed an audience of high school, undergraduate and graduate students from around the country who are wrapping up their summer in the Air Force Research Laboratory Scholars program.

Around 150 students were selected for this year’s program from 1,000 applicants, said program manager Eunsook Hwang.

The program is a paid summer internship offered at three other AFRL sites throughout the country where students in engineering and science fields work and research with AFRL mentors.

“They see the actual projects of the AFRL and how that applies to help the nation’s security, defense and the future of the space program,” Hwang said.

Astronaut Harrison Schmitt (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

The summer program culminated on Wednesday with an award ceremony, Schmitt’s speech and poster presentations of their findings.

Rio Rancho native Steven Maurice, a University of New Mexico electrical engineering graduate student and “Outstanding Scholar” award recipient, said the program afforded him opportunities not always available in the classroom.

“It’s a very different environment than academia,” said Maurice, who researched artificial intelligence in robotics. “You don’t necessarily have the resources you need all the time. Whereas here, it’s, ‘What do you need? We’ll get it for you.’ ”

Maurice said the program has also opened doors to other possible research opportunities within the Air Force.

Hwang said AFRL tries to hire as many scholars as it can. For those it can’t hire, the program tries to connect them to other positions. Students attended a job fair in mid-July, for example.

Outstanding Scholars Steven Maurice of Rio Rancho, left, Kyle Bissonnette of Mahtomedi, Minn., and Joseph Kloeppel of Bernalillo talk about the AFRL Scholars program on Wednesday at Kirtland Air Force Base. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

“There’s 149 students (in the scholars program), so we can’t hire every one of them, but as long as they stay in science and technology areas, we are happy with that,” Hwang said. “We do need those kinds of capabilities in the country.”

Schmitt agreed, advocating for the injection of more young blood into the country’s research institutions, especially at NASA.

“You’ve got to have agencies that stay young,” he said. “The Air Force Research Lab obviously is trying to do that with the scholars program.”

The vast majority of NASA’s employees today are older than 50, according to NASA data.

The average age of the AFRL workforce is 51 to 60, an AFRL spokeswoman said.

After the Apollo 17 mission, Schmitt went on to represent New Mexico in the U.S. Senate from 1976 to 1983.