During the 40th Anniversary Commemoration Event for Apollo 17, moonwalker and NASA retired astronaut and geologist Harrison Schmitt said "one of the most significant contributions of the Apollo Missions was confirming the presence of Helium-3 on the moon."
Helium-3 (He-3) is a light, non-radioactive isotope of helium with two protons and one neutron. Its presence is rare on Earth, it is sought after for use in nuclear fusion research, and it is abundant in the moon's soil by at least 13 parts per billion (ppb) by weight.
Commemorating the Apollo 17 launch 40 years later, the anniversary event was held October 12, 2012 at the New Mexico Museum of Space History (NMMSH) in Alamogordo, NM. Schmitt and Jan Evans, widow of Apollo 17's Ron Evans, were the guests of honor. Both Schmitt and Evans addressed the approximately 600 students in the Tays Center at New Mexico State University Alamogordo. The students then attended the rocket launch event sponsored by Fellowship of Local Area Rocket Enthusiasts (FLARE) and a NASA program at NMSU, the Southern New Mexico Science, Engineering, Mathematics, and Aerospace Academy (SNM SEMAA).
"As the only geologist on the NASA team, I trained the Apollo crew members," said Schmitt. The mission brought back 244 pounds of moon rocks. "I am amazed at the continued scientific interest in the moon rocks," he said at the event.
Apollo 17 was the eleventh and final manned mission in the United States Apollo space program. It launched at 12:33 a.m. EST on December 7, 1972, with a three-member crew consisting of Commander Eugene Cernan, Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans, and Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt. Schmitt was the last explorer to walk on the moon. Michael Shinabery (NMMSH) moderated the reenactment launch and made the replay of the Apollo 17 radio announcement possible.
Schmitt assisted in the integration of scientific activities into the Apollo lunar missions and participated in research activities requiring geologic, petrographic, and stratigraphic analysis of samples returned and collected the rock sample designated Troctolite 76535, which has been called "without doubt the most interesting sample returned from the moon." Among other distinctions, it is the main piece of evidence suggesting that the moon once possessed an active magnetic field.
And it is the young students that Schmitt and Evans spoke to and inspired to be the next explorers.
Evans challenged the students to "be proud of your country and be proud to be Americans!" at the end of the presentation. Schmitt and Evans received a standing ovation from the students.
"I liked the rocket launch and learning more about science and space at the museum today," said Nieverz Gonzalez, also a student at Holloman Middle School.
"Lots of practice, attention to detail, and wind cooperation always helps perfect launches," said Denzil Burnam, FLARE Range Safety Officer for the event. Burnam is a veteran employee of the White Sands Test Facility and has safely launched thousands of rockets with students throughout his affiliation with rocketry.
Another classmate at Holloman Middle School, Travis Tisdale, found all the information at the museum on Holloman Ham, the chimpanzee test pilot, to be "cool and interesting." Ham was a vital part of NASA's Race to the Moon, where his lever-pushing in space was only a fraction of a second slower than on Earth, demonstrating to NASA that tasks could be performed in space. Ham's historic flight made way for human Alan Shepard's flight on Friendship 7. "I like having animals participate in space exploration, too," Tisdale commented. Ham, who lived to be 26, is buried within the space museum's grounds.
After the rocket launch, students and visitors were invited by museum director Chris Orwoll to look at all the displays within the museum, and the NASA Johnson Space Center White Sands Test Facility's (WSTF) lunar module prototype that was displayed in the parking lot at the museum, along with its ascent and descent test engines. The test facility (commissioned by NASA Headquarters in 1962) was first known as the Apollo site because of the successful propulsion engine tests completed on the Service Command Module and the Lunar Module. Today, 50 years later, WSTF continues to test propulsion engines in both ambient and vacuum atmospheres, test the components and materials that fly on spacecraft, and has both NASA and commercial customers.
"It would be an extraordinary high challenge to work on the high risk programs that we have at NASA without the youth of today," said Schmitt, at the dinner held in his and Evan's honor. "We need them to continue the great things NASA does."
Students are encouraged to visit the following websites to learn more about Harrison Schmitt's accomplishments and education, and about space history in New Mexico:
NASA's White Sands Test Facility http://www.nasa.gov/centers/wstf/home/index.html
New Mexico Civil Air Patrol http://www.nmcap.org/
New Mexico Museum of Space History http://www.nmspacemuseum.org/
New Mexico State University SEMAA http://semaa.nmsu.edu/
David Kovar (President, FLARE)
Chris Orwoll, Division Director
Robert Cort (Public Affairs)
NMSU SNM SEMAA
Lugia Ford, Director
Cheerie R. Patneaude
NASA’s White Sands Test Facility