New Mexico moonwalker reflects on Apollo 11

Harrison Schmitt, third from left, sits with future Apollo 11 astronauts Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong in Mission Control during the Apollo 8 mission. (Courtesy of Harrison Schmitt)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico native Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, one of the last living men to walk on the moon, watched the launch of Apollo 11 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida with Charles Lindbergh, another pioneer of American aviation.

“We just had a wonderful time thinking about the future and watching that launch,” Schmitt said.

Today, Schmitt is back at the space center to recognize the 50-year anniversary of Apollo 11, in which astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history with the world’s first moonwalk.

“It’s great to see that the country overall is recognizing this historic event,” Schmitt said in a phone interview. “For many people it’s the first time they’ve really been exposed to the history of Apollo. A lot of generations have come and gone since Apollo happened 50 years ago, and so to some degree this is a national history lesson. And a very important one.”

Schmitt was a mission scientist for Apollo 11 and walked on the moon three years later during Apollo 17. Schmitt, 84, said there’s momentum to get back.

“It is a little bit frustrating that it’s taken 50 years to think about getting back there because there’s so much of importance, both geopolitically and scientifically, that needs to be done in space,” he said.

Schmitt, who went on to serve as a U.S. senator from New Mexico, is one of several New Mexico connections to the moon. And both Schmitt and the state are still adding to the world’s knowledge of its moon.

Schmitt is part of a team of University of New Mexico students and researchers, led by Chip Shearer, a professor in the Institute of Meteoritics at UNM, who are working on a project that includes examining moon rocks collected during the Apollo missions. The rocks were carefully preserved for 50 years in order for technology to improve so researchers could glean more information from the samples.

All told, 12 Americans made it to the surface of the moon during the Apollo missions. Schmitt is one of four who are still alive.

He spent his time on the moon in the Taurus—Littrow valley. He said the valley was about four miles long and surrounded by massive 4,000- to 7,000-foot canyon walls. He remembers a brilliant sun illuminating the canyon walls, but the sky surrounding the canyons stayed a deep black.

“It was a magnificent place to be,” he said.

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