There are nearly 8 billion people on our planet; only four of them have walked on the moon.
The last to do so was Dr. Harrison Schmitt, nearly fifty years ago.
Banter: At the time of Apollo 17’s launch, subsequent lunar missions were already being cancelled. Apart from the obvious strangeness of space exploration, was it strange to leave the moon without knowing when or even if our species would return?
Schmitt: I don’t recall feeling that way in the moment. The following Apollo missions had been cancelled by that time, so it was common knowledge that 17 would be the last mission of the program, so I presume that I just accepted that and went about my business. It was inevitable that the Apollo program would cease because back during the Lyndon Johnson administration, the decision was made to only purchase fifteen Saturn V rockets. That meant that whatever happened, once those fifteen were gone, the program would be over. It was terminated prematurely by the Nixon administration, and the final three missions that could have been flown were not flown, but there was a clear limit to the program’s capability.
It does seem like a long time, almost fifty years, but that’s not unusual in human exploration. As regrettable as it may be, there are often delays when humans explore, so consideration of our return was not something that occurred to me at the time. I’m glad to see that we are seriously considering returning to the Moon again and using that as a place to step off towards Mars.
Banter: Twelve men have walked on the Moon, but you’re the only one who is a trained scientist. Did you ever feel like the objective of exhibiting advancements in aerospace technology made it difficult to prioritize research in other fields of science, particularly earth sciences?
Schmitt: No, I never felt that way because I was deeply involved with people in NASA who believed that once you had the capability to land on the Moon and return, you would be able to undertake a significant amount of exploration, including various types of scientific activities. The fact that the fourth group of astronauts was selected specifically for their scientific expertise indicates that NASA had already decided that scientific research would be an integral part of the Apollo program--that fell in line with the desires of the National Academy of Sciences, as well as with the desires of organizations external to the mission and laypersons; they also felt that it was important for NASA to utilize the capabilities of the Apollo mission for lunar exploration and scientific research.
It was decided very early, even before Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon half a century ago, to develop a Block II lunar module that would be able to stay on the Moon for a full three days rather than just the one day Neil had. So there was a lot of planning, a lot of activity, and indeed, most of what I did on the Moon was scientific research. Even before 17, Apollos 12, 14, 15, and 16 were all focused on conducting important scientific research.
Banter: Under the present administration, there’s clearly a renewed interest in funding manned missions for both lunar and Martian exploration. Opponents of these initiatives often describe them as excessive and unjustifiable given budget constraints and the existing problems here on Earth. Are the benefits of these missions worth the investment?
Schmitt: Well, not only are they worth the investment scientifically, they’re also worth the investment when you consider geopolitical factors like the long-term future of the free nations on planet Earth. There is a competitor out there in space, as well as on Earth, who does not adhere to the same principles of freedom adhered to by the United States, Canada, and many other nations. Unfortunately, that kind of competition is going to be with us for a long time. We can’t ignore it. At the same time, there are tremendous scientific goals that can be met by a return to the Moon, and it is absolutely essential when you consider the potential of travelling to Mars. Operationally, getting to Mars will be very difficult, but a lot of these challenges can be worked out on the Moon, and by utilizing lunar resources.
Banter: You’ve previously described NASA as lacking “youthful energy” and being too “risk-averse”. In recent decades, partnerships between NASA and private companies like SpaceX have become increasingly common--partnerships that some may view as attenuating your concerns. How do you predict that these sorts of relationships will evolve in the coming years?
Schmitt: I think that the role of the private sector in the national space program is going to be very strong, as it’s always been. You have to realize that most of the roughly 400,000 people who made Apollo successful were actually employees of private contractors. So, it’s not as if there were 400,000 NASA employees. There were only 50,000 NASA employees for Apollo. So that relationship with the private sector has always been strong. What has changed is now the private sector is developing its own capabilities for a launch, and indeed, even a landing on the Moon, and I think that’s advantageous to any sort of national program if it can be successfully integrated. The challenge to the private sector is trusting that the government is going to continue to be a reliable partner in any endeavour that has in its critical path a launch vehicle. It’s certainly going to be a complicated relationship, but I think it’s one that can be managed.
Banter: You’ve been back on the planet for 46 years now, and you’ve probably talked to a lot of interesting people since. Is there anyone whose stories have made you think, “Wow, and I thought walking on the moon was cool”?
Schmitt: Well that’s a great question. There are a lot of cool things going on. I think that people who continue to explore Earth, both on the surface and in the deep sea, are doing amazing work, and often taking on a lot more risk than we took. We were supported by thousands of people in mission control and elsewhere around the world, watching over us the entire time we were in space. The deep sea is a far more dangerous environment than deep space. The difference between the pressure on Earth and in space’s vacuum is only one atmosphere, whereas you don’t have to go very deep in the ocean before that difference becomes much much higher. The ocean isn’t a vacuum; it’s a chemical soup that explorers of the oceans have to deal with. Similarly challenging issues apply for surface exploration in places like Antarctica. There are far greater risks incurred by people who are working in small teams, more or less on their own, because they don’t benefit from massive support networks who are constantly monitoring for potential complications. I think that any type of exploration is cool, and I think that human beings probably have exploration in their DNA. For millions of years, we’ve developed and evolved by moving to locations for improved livelihood. It’s always been an important part of the continued existence of our species.