Editor’s Note: As the 45th anniversary of Apollo 17 approaches, New Mexico astronaut Harrison Schmitt says there are important reasons for the U.S. to invest in space. This is Part 2 of his interview with Senior Editor Kent Walz.
A settlement on the moon.
Mankind well on its way to Mars.
A potential clean power source so powerful that about 200 pounds could provide electricity to a major city for a year.
New Mexico astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt says these are a few of the possibilities that might well have been reality by now had the administration of President Lyndon Johnson not decided to limit production of the massive Saturn V rockets that carried Apollo astronauts, including Schmitt, to the moon.
“Had things gone differently we could be much further along than we are today,” he said in a recent interview. “No question we would have a settlement on the moon and would very seriously have a program going to Mars if not already there.”
“The budget-driven decision made in the Johnson administration and confirmed in the Nixon administration was to fly only 15 of these large Saturn rockets,” Schmitt said. “That immediately limited the amount of exploration we were going to do in deep space. You need rockets of that size to go to the moon or to Mars. We really gave up on deep space exploration.”
Schmitt, Eugene Cernan and Ron Evans were the astronauts on the last moon mission, Apollo 17, which launched 45 years ago Thursday for a record-shattering mission highlighted by Schmitt and Cernan spending three days on the surface deploying scientific instruments and collecting samples.
Schmitt, a Silver City native and geologist who graduated from Cal Tech and earned a Ph.D. at Harvard, is the only scientist ever to fly on a moon mission and is the 12th and last man to step on the lunar surface. He is writing a book on the mission: “Apollo 17: Diary of the Twelfth Man.”
Schmittt says one of the important discoveries from Apollo was the resources present in the lunar soil.
“Those are resources derived from the solar wind and particles of the sun. One of those, Helium-3, isn’t readily available on Earth but it is embedded in lunar soil. It is a nearly ideal fuel for fusion power. If we had it here on Earth I’m convinced we would be using it right now. It doesn’t produce neutrons but it does produce alpha particles and protons and those can be converted directly to electricity without any waste products.
“We would have a plentiful clean power source,” he says, adding that “it’s still there and it’s not going anywhere.”
Schmitt says roughly 220 pounds of Helium-3 “would provide the power necessary to serve Dallas for a year … You would have to mine a fair amount of lunar soil to produce 100 kilograms, but it’s certainly feasible.”
Could a moon settlement mine Helium-3 and ship it back to Earth?
In theory, although the economics would dictate.
What about water?
“Some of the hydrogen in the moon’s soils react with minerals at a few hundred degrees centigrade and will produce water. So anywhere on the moon you can produce water.”
While NASA works toward expanding deep space exploration, there is a flurry of private activity with some of America’s biggest high rollers, including Elon Musk, developing their own rocket and flight systems.
“But the one company I think you really have to keep an eye on for purely commercial activities is Blue Origin,” Schmitt said.
Blue Origin is the brainchild of Jeff Bezos, the Amazon guru. It has headquarters and an engine plant in Kent, Wash., and a launch site in Texas.
“I visited their engine plant and it was very impressive,” Schmitt said. “They are building new engines, which haven’t been built for a long time in the U.S. and he (Bezos) is putting entirely his own money in.”
The company wants to put low-cost satellites, and eventually people, into orbit and expects to launch its newest rocket, the “Glenn,” in 2020.
Schmitt said the company is even looking at lunar missions to take payloads to the moon for whatever customer might want it.
Bezos, he said, “is a bright guy with a lot of money and I wouldn’t bet against him.”
“He said publicly at a fundraiser for (astronaut) Buzz Aldrin’s STEM foundation in Florida last fall that ‘I won the Amazon lottery and I’m going to use those winnings in order to get us into space.'”
As for New Mexico’s Spaceport America, which cost over $200 million, Schmitt says, “I’m not sure there’s a long-term business case that doesn’t depend on space-related business.”
The primary tenant, Virgin Galactic, has been slowed by problems in developing its craft designed to carry tourists and others into low Earth orbit.
Schmitt sees no technical obstacles to that or to the vision of international suborbital travel from a site like the Spaceport to Tokyo or London, making global air travel the equivalent of commuter airline flights. But, he says “They have a long way to go before that business reaches the level of reliability and acceptance that the airline industry has. There will be hiccups, but I don’t know why there would be roadblocks to suborbital space travel of that kind, and it has potential military applications as well.”
Schmitt says the Spaceport has the same challenge New Mexico did when the state “finished second only to what was then Cape Canaveral for the nation’s primary space launch site” — something he says is a little-known fact.
“The main thing that kept us from getting it was transportation issues. How do you get very large rocket components into the state and to a launch site? It would take a whole new rail system of some kind — where they could use barges to get things into Canaveral.”
Schmitt said one of the challenges for a Mars mission is that NASA needs to be a “young” agency.
“The effort to go to Mars is going to be multigenerational and it needs to stay young. It needs to have that stamina, motivation and courage young people bring to a program, like they do in the nuclear Navy.”
But Schmitt believes America will return to space — in large part for the same reason President John F. Kennedy pushed hard to put a man on the moon after the Soviets put the first man into orbit: Competition with other countries on Earth.
“In the Apollo era it was the Soviet Union that was our primary geopolitical competitor. … Today it’s probably more China, although Russia is still a player. China is really the most ambitious spacefaring nation today.”
Some blogs contend China is working on a plan to mine Helium-3 on the lunar surface.
And with no large rocket capability, the U.S. now pays Russia “a lot of money” to carry our astronauts to the International Space Station.
Many other scientific and technological benefits will flow from future space exploration, as they did from Apollo, but, Schmitt says, “The overriding rationale has to be geopolitical.”
He believes the current administration is committed to continuing construction of a large rocket called the space launch system. It is designed to carry Orion, NASA’s new spacecraft, which is a larger and newer version of the Apollo capsules. NASA says Orion is “built to take humans farther than they’ve ever gone before.”
Schmitt says there is another benefit to America having a large rocket system.
“Settlements off the Earth can be very important philosophically into the future,” he said. “It is one way in which the human species can perpetuate itself against the very remote possibility of a very large asteroid impact on the Earth.”