Editor’s Note: Harrison “Jack” Schmitt’s career has taken him to the moon and back, not to mention the U.S. Senate.
He sat down with Journal Senior Editor Kent Walz in a recent interview to talk about his stellar career and this week’s 45th anniversary of mankind’s last trip to the moon.
Forty-five years ago Thursday, at 12:33 a.m. EST, a massive Saturn V rocket lifted off from Cape Kennedy carrying the crew of Apollo 17 on the last manned mission to the moon.
America had already won the space race President John F. Kennedy kicked into high gear in 1961, just weeks after the Soviet Union, following on its Sputnik success, put the first man into orbit. The Apollo 17 mission in 1972 resembled an ambitious victory lap, a scientific expedition that focused on the geology of the moon’s Taurus-Littrow valley.
Apollo 17 had several firsts, one of them being that its three-man crew included a civilian scientist from New Mexico – Silver City native Harrison “Jack” Schmitt – who is the 12th and last man to step out of a lunar lander and onto the surface of the moon. Schmitt was both lunar module pilot and, as a specialist in lunar geology, responsible for guiding the exploration of Taurus-Littrow.
The science was a bonus of sorts. The driving force behind the Apollo program was geopolitical competition with the Soviets.
In 1969, America won the race by landing a man on the moon and by the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, America had clearly reclaimed its technical superiority. But patriotism and excitement were still high that December morning with an estimated 500,000 people watching the first nighttime launch of an Apollo mission as it lifted off and streaked across the sky and beyond Earth orbit.
It is the last time humans have gone beyond low Earth orbit – let alone to our nearest celestial neighbor.
Schmitt is the only Apollo 17 crew member still living.
Schmitt was born in Santa Rita, N.M., and his father was a geologist who worked for a mining company. His mother was a teacher. He graduated from what was then called Western High School in Silver City.
So how does a kid from Silver City end up on the moon?
“It’s a very complex path as most of life’s paths are,” Schmitt said. “Out of high school I went to Caltech. I got my BS there and then did field work in Norway for my Ph.D. at Harvard. I was looking for a job and there was an interesting one going to work for the late Eugene Shoemaker, the famous planetologist, out in Flagstaff.
“He had organized within the U.S. Geologic Service a branch of astrogeology, and while I was there NASA asked for volunteers for a scientist-astronaut program. I thought about 10 seconds, raised my hand, and I guess the rest, as they say, is history.
“I was one of six scientists selected, the first one to fly and the only one to go to the moon.”
Apollo 17 team
The crew consisted of commander Eugene Cernan, command module pilot Ron Evans and Schmitt, the scientist and lunar module pilot.
Three days and some 250,000 miles after launch, rockets ignited to slow the spacecraft into lunar orbit. At 2:55 p.m. EST on Dec. 11, the lunar module with Cernan and Schmitt touched down on the moon. Cernan disembarked, followed by Schmitt.
The two astronauts spent the next three days on the surface collecting samples and deploying scientific instruments. In an example of making do with what you have in space, the fender of the lunar rover came off and they repaired it with duct tape and maps.
“Duct tape was a standard tool on the Apollo missions as one could never anticipate when taping something together might be important,” Schmitt recalled.
Apollo 17 shattered various records including most time exploring the surface outside the module, 22 hours, and biggest sample collection, 249 pounds.
What was it like to step out of the lunar module?
“Nothing can prepare you for stepping onto the surface of the moon,” Schmitt said. “You can talk to the people who did it before and think about it as much as you want, but when it happens it’s much more than you ever expected.
“We were in a valley twice as deep as the Grand Canyon – mountains 6,000 to 7,000 feet high on either side separated only by about three miles.”
The canyon floor was selected to maximize the scientific return by allowing a three-dimensional view of the geology.
“Of course there is a black sky, not blue, and that’s one of the hardest things to get used to. A brilliant sun against a black sky. It’s really quite remarkable.
“I recommend it.”
There were some major boxes Schmitt had to check off before mission training even started.
“I initially had to go to jet pilot training, so that was a year learning how to fly smaller airplanes and then high-performance jet aircraft.”
Then it was off for Navy training to fly helicopters.
“So I ended up flying both jets and helicopters – something I never would have thought I would do.”
Most of the astronaut corps came from military backgrounds, so the Harvard-education geologist was a rare breed in the astronaut corps.
The training, he said, “Was very rigorous but very exciting.”
And it kicked in just like it was supposed to when Apollo 17 launched.
“There was tension. But we trained for 15 months (after flight school) so we were really prepared. You have confidence in yourself and in the machines and in the skilled workers who produced those machines. And Mission Control was a major part of the confidence that was built through simulations. …
“After the Apollo 1 fire where Gus Grissom and his crew were killed (a flash fire swept through the command module during a launch rehearsal Jan. 27, 1967) the program really matured very rapidly and confidence was very high.”
Could the training simulate weightlessness?
No. The crew first experienced it for an extended period during the mission.
“You could get about 30 seconds of it in the parabolic of a KC135 – called the vomit comet for obvious reasons – and that was helpful because you knew sort of what weightlessness was like. But until you are in continuous weightlessness …”
With his astronaut/scientist background, Schmitt has high praise for the movie directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks that depicted the aborted Apollo 13 mission. The 1995 film showed the astronauts floating, which raised the question of how they did that when NASA couldn’t simulate weightlessness.
“They had teeter totters and people off camera were moving them,” Schmitt said. “I ran into Ron Howard in an elevator at the premiere and asked him, ‘How did you pull that off?’ and he told me.”
The launch was Dec. 7, the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Schmitt chuckled when asked if there were any significance to the launch date.
“It’s just the way it worked out. The Nixon administration budget had canceled Apollo 17 and the then-deputy administrator of NASA, George Lowe, went to the White House to find out why. It turned out the original schedule was for July 1972 and the White House was concerned about the effect a possible problem would have on the ’72 election.
“So Lowe’s very common-sense proposal was, ‘Let’s just launch it in December.’ And that’s what the White House agreed to.”
Schmitt also took a run at politics, beating incumbent Democrat Joseph M. Montoya for the U.S. Senate in 1976.
Montoya had taken a hit for his subpar performance on the Senate Committee investigating Watergate – “Sominex or Montoya” – as one magazine headline read. And Schmitt’s campaign got a boost from an Associated Press story when Montoya made fun of Schmitt and compared him to a monkey in a Spanish language campaign speech. He was referring to the early U.S. space program that included launches with chimps rather than humans aboard.
Schmitt served one term. His six years had several highlights but one he points to is his work with New York Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan “trying to convince our colleagues that a mutually assured destruction policy was very dangerous long term and that a national missile defense system needed to be put in place.”
“That had significant influence on the Reagan administration when it put forth the Strategic Defense Initiative, sometimes called ‘Star Wars.’ ”
Schmitt lost his re-election bid to Democrat Attorney General Jeff Bingaman and says the recession during 1982 was a factor.
“It hit people really hard,” he said. “There really wasn’t a good chance for a first-term Republican from New Mexico in a recession.”
At 82, Schmitt hasn’t slowed down.
Physically fit and good-humored with an easy laugh, he hikes “three miles up the mountain every other day,” with shorter hikes in between. That, coupled with an exercise routine, keeps him in shape.
Married to Teresa for 32 years, he continues to consult, write and do public speaking. He is on the board of Orbital ATK Inc., an aerospace manufacturer with revenues of about $4.5 billion last year.
He recently spent two weeks giving lectures in China and has attended Starmus, billed as the world’s “most ambitious science festival.” Schmitt has been working on an academic paper synthesizing research on geologic discoveries on the moon and personal observation.
He’s also working on a book: “Apollo 17: Diary of the Twelfth Man.” He has a chapter posted on his website – America’s Uncommon Sense – titled “30 Days and Counting.”
It would be fair to consider someone who launched into space atop a rocket and walked on the surface of the moon – in service to his country at the height of the Cold War – to be a hero.
So does Jack Schmitt consider himself to be one?
First, he credits the 400,000-plus NASA workers who helped win the Cold War.
As for himself, “That’s something other people would have to define. All of us (astronauts) were in the right place at the right time. The real heroes were celebrated Saturday (Veterans Day). The people who put their lives on the line to protect the country. Those people on the front line,” he said, recalling Bataan Death March survivors who lived in Silver City.
“Those were the real heroes.”
No one would question that. But Jack Schmitt and the Apollo crew were also on the front line – 250,000 miles away.
TOMORROW: Harrison Schmitt talks about where we might be if America had continued its push into deep space after Apollo 17.