Jack Schmitt

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Jack Schmitt

Harrison "Jack" Schmitt (born 1935), a geologist, was the first professional scientist to walk on the moon. In December 1972, he and Gene Cernanspent three days on the moon's surface, logging a record 301 hours on the surface and collecting a record 249 pounds of lunar material.

America's First Scientist-Astronaut

Born in Santa Rita, New Mexico, on July 3, 1935, Jack Schmitt received a bachelor's degree in science from the California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) in 1957. He then traveled to Oslo, Norway, on a Fulbright Scholarship. He studied at the University of Oslo in 1957 and 1958 and worked with the Norwegian Geological Survey. Schmitt received his Ph.D. in geology from Harvard University in 1964.

After finishing his studies, Schmitt worked for the United States Geological Survey in New Mexico and Montana. He spent two summers in Alaska doing fieldwork. After that, he worked on photo and telescopic surveys of the moon for the U.S. Geological Survey's Astrogeology Center in Flagstaff, Arizona. While there, he helped teach geology to astronauts bound for the moon. On regular field trips, Schmitt and other geologists taught the astronauts how to recognize rocks and geological formations they might find on the moon.

In June 1965, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) selected Schmitt as the first of its scientist-astronauts. Alone among the astronauts in the Apollo program, Schmitt had no background as a pilot. He first had to learn to fly aircraft before he could progress to spacecraft training. After a 53-week flight training course at Williams Air Force Base in Arizona, Schmitt was certified by the Air Force as a jet pilot in 1965. He was also certified as a helicopter pilot by the U.S. Navy in 1967. He was an active participant in the space program during this time, helping to design the science mission to the moon and select landing sites and participating in the development of the field equipment used on the moon to sample rocks and other lunar material.

Chance of a Lifetime

Schmitt was named mission scientist for Apollo 11, the first flight to land people on the moon. He also trained as backup lunar module pilot for Apollo 15, the first flight to make use of a lunar rover, or "moon buggy."

Because he was not a career pilot, Schmitt initially felt that his chances for a moon landing "were very, very small, almost nonexistent," as he told EXN.ca, the Discovery Channel's Canadian web site. "It wasn't until really 1970, five years later, that I began to think that there was a possibility I might have a chance to go to the moon." In August 1971 Schmitt learned that he would walk on the moon. As he told EXN.ca, "That was when NASA finally made a decision to put a scientist on the last crew, and unfortunately to bump Joe Engle, who was the lunar module pilot on the backup crew for Apollo 14 that normally would have cycled into that mission."

Originally named for the Apollo 18 crew, Schmitt was reassigned to Apollo 17 after budget cuts and a dwindling public interest in manned moon flights led to the cancellation of all the moon missions scheduled to follow Apollo 17.

"A Geologist's Paradise"

On December 7, 1972, Schmitt took the geologist's ultimate field trip. After a three-day flight to the moon, Schmitt and mission commander Gene Cernan descended to the lunar surface aboard their lunar module Challenger, while the third crew member, Ron Evans, orbited the moon in the command module America. Schmitt and Cernan landed in a valley called Taurus-Littrow for a three-day stay on the moon. They stayed on the surface longer (301 hours, 51 minutes), spent more time out of their spacecraft (22 hours, 4 minutes), and returned more samples of lunar material (115 kilograms, or 249 pounds) than any previous lunar mission.

In an article titled "A Field Trip to the Moon," and published on the Internet, Schmitt wrote about seeing the moon after touchdown: "My first view out of the right-hand window, looking northwest across the Valley of Taurus-Littrow at mountains 2000 meters high, encompassed only part of a truly breathtaking vista and geologist's paradise. Only later, when I could walk a few tens of meters away from the Challenger, did the full and still unexpected impact of the awe inspiring setting hit me: a brilliant sun, brighter than any desert sun, fully illuminated valley walls rising against a blacker than black sky, with our beautiful, blue and white marbled Earth hanging over the southwestern mountains."

In the same article, Schmitt described the lunar module to be "one of the more serviceable and comfortable camps in my experience as a field geologist. … Although two large, empty spacesuits made things cramped, sleeping in one-sixth G provided better rest than on Earth—just enough gravity to feel the hammock beneath you but not enough pressure to cause you to toss and turn. The freeze dried, dehydrated, and irradiated foods tasted fine, certainly better than some food prepared by geological field assistants in Alaskan field camps I have known. Possibly most important, there were no black flies or mosquitoes."

The most significant discovery Schmitt and Cernan made on the moon's surface was an unusual orange volcanic glass. The material was made up of microscopic glass beads formed in an ancient volcanic eruption as hot gasses thrown out of the moon's interior cooled into tiny spheres and fell back to the moon's surface. The Apollo 17 astronauts returned to Earth safely on December 19, 1972, and Schmitt was the last human being to walk on the moon in the twentieth century.

Served as U.S. senator

Schmitt stayed at NASA to manage the agency's Energy Program Office until 1975, then entered politics. In 1977, he became a United States senator representing New Mexico. He served on several Senate committees, including the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee; the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee; and the Select Committee on Ethics. He also served as chairman of the Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space.

After his single six-year term as senator, Schmitt remained in the public eye, teaching, lecturing, consulting, and writing on lunar exploration, space policy, and geology. He became an adjunct professor of engineering at the University of Wisconsin, teaching a course called "Resources from Space." He has advised or served as a board member of the Independent Strategic Assessment Group of the U.S. Air Force Phillips Laboratory, the Orbital Sciences Corporation, the Draper Laboratory, the National Space Society, and the Lovelace Institutes, a biomedical research organization for which he served as chief executive officer in 1996.

Schmitt continued to be a strong advocate for the exploration and eventual settlement of space, lecturing extensively on the use of the moon as a natural resource and a source of non-polluting, non-toxic nuclear power. As he told EXN.com, " … Most important is the light isotope of helium that has been implanted in the lunar soils [by solar wind], called Helium 3. That is ideal fuel for fusion power. It is non-radioactive to begin with. It does not produce radioactivity in its purest form. It provides highly efficient power, twice as efficient as other types of power plants that we now use here on earth."

Schmitt predicts that, once power generation using nuclear fusion is perfected, Helium 3 from the moon would be worth "about $3 billion a metric ton" in today's dollars, allowing a lunar colony to be profitable. Schmitt told the University of Wisconsin publication Wisconsin Engineer, "The government will not sponsor the next major space program; the money will have to come from a private investor."


Chaikin, Andrew, A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts, Penguin Books, 1994.


"Apollo 17 Crew Information," Apollo Lunar Surface Journal,http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/alsj/a17/a17.crew.html (October 29, 2001).

"Ask an Astronaut: Archives: Apollo 17 Crew," National Space Society,http://www.ari.net/nss/askastro/Apollo17/schmitbio.html (October 29, 2001).

"Astronaut Bio: Harrison Schmitt," Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center,http://www.jsc.nasa.gov/er/seh/schmitt.htm (October 29, 2001).

"Faculty Profile—Professor Harrison Schmitt," Wisconsin Engineer,http://www.cae.wisc.edu/~wiscengr/issues/feb98/faculty.html (October 29, 2001).

"A Field Trip to the Moon," NEEP533 Syllabus,http://silver.neep.wisc.edu/~neep533/FALL2001/neep533/FILES/trip.html (October 29, 2001).

"Harrison Schmitt," Astronaut Hall of Fame,http://www.astronauts.org/astronauts/schmitt.htm (October 29, 2001).

"Harrison Schmitt," EXN.ca,http://www.exn.ca/Stories/1999/07/07/54.asp