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Apollo 17 50th

Season 1Episode 267Dec 2, 2022

Apollo 17 astronaut Dr. Harrison “Jack” Schmitt reflects on his historic mission 50 years later and where we are now and what's exciting about Artemis from the view of a scientist and an explorer. HWHAP Episode 267.

Houston We Have a Podcast: Ep. 267 Apollo 17 50th

Houston We Have a Podcast: Ep. 267 Apollo 17 50th

From Earth orbit to the Moon and Mars, explore the world of human spaceflight with NASA each week on the official podcast of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Listen to in-depth conversations with the astronauts, scientists and engineers who make it possible.

On Episode 267, Apollo 17 astronaut Dr. Harrison “Jack” Schmitt reflects on his historic mission 50 years later and where we are now and what’s exciting about Artemis from the view of a scientist and an explorer. This episode was recorded on May 13, 2022.

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Gary Jordan (Host): Houston, we have a podcast! Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 267, “Apollo 17 50th.” I’m Gary Jordan, and I’ll be your host today. On this podcast we bring in the experts, scientists, engineers, and astronauts, all to let you know what’s going on in the world of human spaceflight. We’re now approaching the 50th anniversary of the most recent human mission to the Moon, Apollo 17. It was 50 years ago, on December 7, 1972, that the Saturn V ignited to bring humans to the lunar surface for the last time during the Apollo program. Commander Gene Cernan, lunar module pilot Harrison Schmitt, and command module pilot Ronald Evans took the journey and continued pushing boundaries of exploration, breaking records for the duration of the mission, the greatest distance covered on the lunar surface, and more. Notably, Harrison Schmitt was the first and only geologist to walk on the Moon, and since his lunar excursion has remained active in the scientific community. Today we’re working to return humans to the surface of the Moon, this time sustainably, and landing the first woman and the first person of color on its surface. In this incredible time, I was lucky enough to talk with Dr. Harrison Schmitt, who often goes by “Jack,” on this golden anniversary to reflect on this historic mission 50 years later and discuss where we are now and what’s exciting about Artemis from the view of a scientist and an explorer. So here we go: 50 years after his launch to walk on the Moon, Dr. Harrison Schmitt. Enjoy.


Host: Harrison, what a pleasure to be talking to you today. We’re, we’re, we’re recording this ahead of the golden anniversary of Apollo 17. I wanted to start there with some reflections on, on this milestone. We’re 50 years past the Apollo 17 mission. Just taking a moment to sit back and, and think about it: 50 years ago you, you were, you were about to launch to the Moon, you conduct, you, you were walking on the Moon. What are some of your initial reactions, thoughts, and emotions?

Dr. Harrison

Harrison Schmitt: Well, it’s hard to believe that 50 years has passed. A lot has happened since then, but it also is really important to remember that Apollo 17, and Apollo in general, was the product of over 400,000 Americans that came together in response to a challenge in the Cold War with the then-Soviet Union; in response also to President Kennedy, and before him President Eisenhower’s challenge, to, that Americans should be ready to go to the Moon and to return safely to Earth, of course, that’s always nice. But 50 years has, has gone by very quickly. We also have to remember that the Apollo crews that landed on the Moon and collected samples brought back 850 pounds of samples from the Moon. And they are indeed a gift that keeps on giving. The research over 50 years has, has been quite remarkable. My current research activities are to try to synthesize all of that analytical data into what I observed while I was on the Moon, and so I stay very active in that, in that field, as you may be aware.

Host: That’s right. You, you alluded to the fact that your current research, 50 years later you’re still, you’re still conducting lunar research. It’s an important thing to do. But maybe some folks might, might not agree that, that the Moon, we’ve already explored it, right, there’s no reason to go back. If you were to try to, try to emphasize the importance of, of why lunar research is important and why we should continue it as part of the Artemis program, how would you characterize that?

Harrison Schmitt: Well, the Moon is a, is really a pretty good size planet, even though it’s not called a planet. It is a small one. It has, we’ve hardly scratched the surface, literally as well as figuratively. And there’s a great deal more to be learned. For example, what we know right now about the violent early history of the Moon tells us what the violent early history of the Earth was. That probably is one of the most important scientific, as well as philosophical, aspects of the Apollo program, was to gain that insight into what was happening on the Earth during a time in which life actually formed and evolved, became self-replicating. The, and I think the two are very clearly related. The impact history of the Moon is the impact history of the Earth, except on Earth there was water present and that water would combine very quickly from a geo, mineralogical point of view with the debris produced by those impacts and form clays. And clays have some very interesting properties, so, some of the clay family do, in that they, their structure, their crystal structure mimics to some degree what we see today in complex and primitive molecules. And so the clays may well have been the templates on which those complex molecules began to get organized, inorganically initially, and picked up essential elements for life like phosphorus, and that then gradually took the shape of RNA (ribonucleic acid) and became self-replicating. So it, I think there’s a real story there, but we haven’t fully completed that story. And the Moon is part of it. Mars will be part of it because we see the signatures of the same kind of clays on Mars. And it’s just going to be very exciting for the future, not only to, to settle the Moon and get, build sustaining settlements there, which you can do — the resources are on the Moon for humans to live indefinitely — and then to use the Moon as the stepping stone for the resources necessary to get to Mars and to sustain, sustain yourself initially on Mars. So it’s a, it’s a very broad picture that I, I’m sure NASA understands, and that the Artemis program was going to be an important first step…

Host: As you, as you mentioned…

Harrison Schmitt:…or should I say second step, because Apollo really was the first step.

Host: Of course. What you described was, in part, how much we’ve learned, but then also how much we have yet to learn. And I’m sure this is a story that you’ve described to audiences because, you know, you’ve been sitting down and, and, and telling these stories and reaching out for 50 years now. I wonder, I wonder if there’s something that as you, as you go out and you talk about your mission and you talk about exactly this, the importance of the Moon, what we’re learning, what we have yet to learn, if there’s something that you have found that captures, seems to capture audience, audiences most, that you think is, is really an important point to reiterate?

Astronaut and geologist Dr. Harrison

Harrison Schmitt: I think the most important thing that audiences realize is that human beings have gone beyond the Earth, and that they’re beginning to move out into space, into, literally into the universe over the long haul, and that there are many new things to be learned out there. If we knew everything there was to be learned, we wouldn’t be going. And that’s what, what, what Apollo did. It taught us many, many things that we just did not know, not only about the Moon but about the Earth. And also we’re just now beginning to be able to do what the famous planetologist Eugene Shoemaker told us to do, and that is to begin to decipher the history of the Sun. The cores that we took on Apollo 17, particularly the deep drill core as it’s called, appears now to have a record of a major change in solar activity and the energy coming into the solar wind about 550 million years ago. And that happens to coincide with a time on Earth that we’ve known for many decades, called the Cambrian explosion, when life increased exponentially here on Earth both in diversity and in quantity. And it’s always been assumed that that’s because the Earth got warmer, and it stimulated that evolution of life beyond what, the simple forms that had existed before. And now we may be seeing in the, in the regolith of the Moon, in the debris layer that covers the Moon, through these cores evidence that it indeed was driven by the Sun, as you might expect it to have been but we didn’t have any definitive evidence of that, it was just a hypothesis. So the Artemis program and future programs need to get sample the cores, get core samples of the lunar regolith so that we can really start to dig into this business of how has the Sun evolved and how is it going to evolve and, and what has been its role — which we know is extensive, obviously, we wouldn’t be here without it — in the history of life on Earth, and the continuing history of life on Earth.

Host: What you’ve described is, is, is like a, is a revelation. It’s, it’s, it’s, it’s deepening our understanding of, of, of our own place on this planet and, and what we know about the history of the planet. I think the cores that you reference are the ones, are they the ones that were opened very recently that the, as part of the ANGSA (Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis) initiative?

Harrison Schmitt: The ANGSA initiative actually went to core, a drive tube core that was frozen, shorter than the one I described, the three-meter core from Apollo 17. The, the drive tube core, 73001/2, is about 72 centimeters long and is going to be very, I think, interesting in many, many different ways. Number one, it was driven into an avalanche of dust that came off the high mountain to the south of, of our landing point. And it also will help us tie together some information from that deep drill core about the evolution of the lunar regolith, and potentially we’ll see some more evidence of this change in the history of the Sun. That change shows up at about the maximum depth of the deep drill core, so I, so we’ll see…at, at about the same depth as the as a drive tube core. So we’ll see whether or not the two will correlate. I, I’m part of the ANGSA team, particularly as, out of the University of New Mexico; Chip Shearer at the University of New Mexico is a professor there and also the, the leader of the entire national and international team that is working on these samples that NASA released, oh about two, two years ago.

Host: You seem very excited about this whole thing. What you’re talking about are, are samples that have been preserved for, since, since you last went to the Moon, 50 years ago. And there was the, the vacuum sealed one that was opened earlier this year in 2022. And you just seem so, so energetic about it, you seem so excited about the possibilities. Is the, how does that feel, you know, knowing 50 years later some of the, some of the samples that you’ve, that you collected and, and now and have been preserved for so long, that the science and technology has, has gotten to a point where we can, where we can look at some of these very interesting things that even to this day you’re very excited about?

Harrison Schmitt: Well, they, one of the things that excites me is that friends and colleagues of mine 50 years ago made the, convinced NASA — these were mostly people on the outside, and NASA certainly was well aware of the possibilities as well — convinced them to preserve these samples as frozen samples. And, and for the most part, I think they, they survived that. In fact, I mean it was a very important decision because everybody at the time, you can see, looked ahead into the future and knew that analytical technology was going to advance; it advanced during Apollo, there was no reason to assume that it would not advance further. And, and then to preserve these samples so they were not in any way altered by investigations 50 years ago, now they can be looked at with these new technology, and believe me there are a lot of new technologies. For example, we can use x-ray technology to look inside the rocks and at least see what the textures are, and, and once we start analyzing those rocks we’ll, we’ll be able to correlate those textures with actual minerals and things like that. So it’s, it was an important decision, I’m glad that those friends and colleagues of mine made that decision. It was very important at the time.

Host: A lot of this, a lot of this comes, a lot of this work is coming from all of the work that was done on the Apollo program, a lot of your work and, and, there’s just been so much that has been learned over these 50 years. Reflecting on, you know, 50 years ago you were on the surface of the Moon, did you think we would, we would learn as much as we learned, or that, that we would make as much progress in this, in this field of, of understanding more about the lunar surface and, and the planet, did you have an expectation going in when you were on the Moon of what would come from the, from the Apollo program?

Harrison Schmitt: Well, of course, when I worked on the Moon I was “standing on the shoulders of Giants,” as (Isaac) Newton said, and because we already knew a great deal from the other missions, not nearly as much as we know now but we knew enough to know what, much more, what we wanted to look for, what kinds of samples would be important. I can still think of samples I wish I had taken because we’ve learned so much in 50 years. But nevertheless, I, I, we were not going in with blinders on. We knew a great deal from our understanding: we knew that the Moon almost certainly had evolved about the same time as the Earth, in, in about the same part of the solar system because of the isotopic compositions that we had seen in the rocks; we also knew that the, the cratering history of the Moon was extremely important, and were beginning to see that obviously it was going to be important to understand that history relative to the Earth. Just many things, basic knowledge of magma ocean of the Moon, the outer, at least the outer 500, 550 kilometers of the Moon, were once molten, probably due to the energy release of the, of, of the accretionary impacts that were happening and building the Moon at the time. That almost certainly happened on all the terrestrial planets about the same time, so that was an insight that we hadn’t had before, before we went to the Moon. So, and there are many others, the, of that, of that nature. So Apollo 17 was, had a landing site selected for, I think, two reasons. One is it looked like it was going to have a very complex history. And, and, and frankly, we were going to have a field geologist there to try to at least gather samples that would help unravel that, that history by, there was no instantaneous unraveling but the idea of field geology is that you, you look at what you have, what nature has provided you, and, and try to determine what is going to be important to gather insights from by analytical techniques as well as just general observation.

Host: Apollo 17 was famously the last Apollo mission. But of course, as you describe, the, the legacy of the Apollo program is, is very apparent in the, in the science that’s been ongoing over these past 50 years. But reflecting on that, 50 years ago, that, what you were part of the last mission to the Moon where, where man last walked on the Moon, what do you think stands today, 50 years later, as the legacy of that program?

Harrison Schmitt: Well, it, it, it’s the foundation. The legacy of Apollo and Apollo 17 is the foundation that we laid, that my colleagues and I laid, for advancing further. You can always wonder why in the world didn’t we go back; well, there are all sorts of explanations for that. Well, now we’re going back and, and we’re going to a very challenging part of the Moon, and that is the South Pole. The, the lighting conditions at the South Pole are going to be very, very different than what we had for Apollo. There are going to be other thermal challenges as well. There are permanently-shadowed areas that are, are, have temperatures at four degrees, 40 degrees Kelvin, that, near absolute temp, zero, that, it, it will be as challenging as Apollo was early on to land and operate at the South Pole. So, yes, it’s going to be challenging operationally, and it’s going to be challenging relative to the science that can be observed. We have to realize that there is a very large impact basin on the far side of the Moon; I think it was the second large impact basin formed on the Moon, but that’s something my colleagues and I discuss quite frequently. But nevertheless its impact ejecta blanket will be covering the area being considered for landing of a part of us, of Artemis near the Shackleton crater. So, gathering information about the far side of the Moon, which we, we don’t have significantly at this time, will be a very important part of that program.

Host: There’s certainly, I think, a lot of lessons that we can apply to the Artemis program, and as you mentioned the, the astronauts that are going to be setting foot have some challenges ahead of them. There’s a, there’s a lot of science, there’s a lot of work to do to get to that point. As an experienced moonwalker yourself, what are some key lessons that you think should be passed on to future astronauts that are going to be conducting some of this challenging work?

Harrison Schmitt: Well, I’ve been fortunate to work with the team here at JSC that is looking at the toolkit for Artemis and also been working with people involved in just the Human Landing System activity. And that, I think everybody now realizes that the, the primary, environmental challenge, in addition to cold and lights, lighting at the poles, will be dust. Dust was a big problem for us; tool connectors ceased to operate after a couple EVAs (extravehicular activities). And, and that, and I think though that already the imagination of young people has, has come to the fore as it did in Apollo, and they’re figuring out how to prevent that kind of a problem for Artemis. And I, I’m, I, I appreciate very much that they asked me to, to look at, to review what they’ve done, and I think they’re making a lot of great progress.

Host: Great to hear. Now, now you as an experienced moonwalker yourself, you know, listening to some of your previous discussions, you talked about how focused you were on the timeline and, and a lot of the objectives of, of Apollo 17, but of course a lot of folks over the past 50 years as you’ve been talking to them have been fascinated by the idea of the experience itself. What would you say to future astronauts who might be in the same mindset, who want to do a good job for, for NASA, who want to do a good job for science and are very focused, but, but a piece of advice to make sure that they pull back and really experience the moment?

A panoramic view from Station 4, taken during the second Apollo 17 Extravehicular Activity (EVA). Astronaut Dr. Harrison

Harrison Schmitt: Well, you actually don’t have to pull back to experience it. If you’re prepared, if you trained well, and things, the routine things are indeed routine, you can absorb the experience simultaneously with carrying out the plan for the mission. And that’s what I did. And that’s what I tried to help other crews do before me. That, you know, make sure that you’re ready to do everything that’s routine so that the unexpected, including the, the ambience of the, of your landing site, can be absorbed. And indeed I think we did, did that, and I did that. I, I certainly well remember my first opportunity to move away from the Challenger on the, in the valley of Taurus–Littrow and, and take a panorama of photographs, which was part of the plan. But at the same time as I took that panorama photograph, rotating with each shot slightly, I was able to see this magnificent valley, a valley deeper than the Grand Canyon; mountains on the south were up to over 7,000 feet, mountains on the north were over 5,000 feet; the width of the valley was only about five miles, less than five miles. So you can see that it was really a remarkable place to be. The, there was a brilliant Sun, as bright as any New Mexico Sun that I had ever seen, and, but it was, and illuminating the mountains, the sides of the mountains that it could reach, but against, those mountains were set against a blacker than black sky. And of course hanging over the South Massif, the south wall of the valley, was this planet Earth that you could always look up and see and say, yeah, there’s home.

Host: What an incredible description, Harrison. Amazing. You know, it’s, it’s becoming more apparent in today’s day with, with private travel, that space is becoming more accessible than ever, and a lot of people may get to experience a lot of the things that, that you’re describing. It’s starting in low-Earth orbit but we can only expect it to, to expand. The, the industry’s changed, for sure, in, in 50 years. Do you have any thoughts about the state of the space economy and, and the growth of commercial industry’s investment in, in space and exploration?

Harrison Schmitt: Well, I think it’s a very important advance, particularly if these commercial people remember the lessons that we’ve learned about human safety as well as human capabilities in space. The challenge that NASA clearly recognizes and, and really maybe a more difficult challenge even than we had with Apollo, with Apollo we had to develop our advanced technologies that had been partially developed in the World War II, in the Cold War, and, and, and that was a challenge in its own right. But now NASA has to figure out how to integrate advances in technology that occurred because of the interest of the private sector. And we’re seeing that happening in the Commercial Crew operation and things like that. That, that is another type of challenge to have. And in fact, and actually without a Saturn class launch vehicle, NASA has to think about how do we manage the risk of many more events that have to occur in order to actually put a large payload on the Moon. So it is, the current Artemis program is not without its challenges; Apollo didn’t solve all those challenges. We had a different approach at the time and an approach that worked. And Artemis needs to make sure that they’re coming up with an architecture, as they like to say, that actually will work.

Host: Now, you’re, you’re reflecting a lot on the, on the past 50 years, of course, and, and the changes that have happened to, to get us to this moment. It may be hard to predict, but since you have experienced this change over the past 50 years in the space industry, what do you think, what do you think is, holds for us in the next 50 years?

Harrison Schmitt: Oh, I have no doubt that we have the capability long-term to have sustained settlements on the Moon. The resources are certainly there, and those settlements will probably be, not unlike, historically, to the settlements that supported the production of mineral resources here on Earth in remote areas. But still, I think that that capability certainly can be put together and we can have those kind of settlements that may support tourism as well as, as the harvesting activities that will be there on the Moon. The, and also, the economy of those settlements may well depend on shipping a light isotope of helium back to Earth, which can be used for new, for clean fusion power here on Earth. There’s no question in my mind that the advance of civilization anywhere in the, in space or on Earth, depends on the advance of energy technologies. And the Moon may well be the reservoir for a very long period of time of one of the more important sources of electrical power.

Host: Very interesting. There’s, there’s going to be a lot of, a lot of people over the years that are going to maybe pursue these, these, these goals, and these discoveries. Reflecting now, it’s been well covered that, that you were invited to go watch the launch of Dr. Jessica Watkins, fellow astronaut, fellow geologist, and, and you and your support for her mission was, was very well documented. How, how would you describe the importance of increasing diversity in the astronaut corps and the accessibility to space as well as the importance of scientist-astronauts continuing to, to go to space and travel to the Moon?

Harrison Schmitt: Well, I think the most important thing, and I think Jessica is a clear example of that, is to search out and find the people, and get them to volunteer, that will contribute directly to the success of, of the programs that are put together now and in the future. The talent is the most important thing. And I think Apollo showed that, and I think we’re showing that now through shuttle and through the space station. But having the skill set that’s necessary to make, to not only to operate in space but to do so safely, is extraordinarily important and I think it has to be considered number one, and that skill, those skill sets go throughout all of human civilization and, and humanity. And so, just make sure that we’re, we’re getting people to volunteer who have the right skill sets to, to be successful. And Jessica Watkins is one of the, a great example of that, you know, Caltech Ph.D. And I was an undergraduate at Caltech, so I’m sympathetic with her. And we’ve had a chance to interact, looking at lunar samples in the rock lab here at JSC. And it’s just, I know she’s having a great time right now and, and honing her observational skills as she looks at the Earth.

Host: Absolutely. And, and last question, Harrison. I wanted to go back to, to come full circle with, with this anniversary, the 50th anniversary of Apollo 17, the last mission in the, in the Apollo program. And I wanted to reflect on all of the people that made that possible and all of the people that took the lessons and the experiences from Apollo to continue the, the continued exploration of space, continued science, and, and get us to where we are today. How would you reflect on all of the teams, really not only at NASA but around the U.S. and the globe, that have participated in continued space exploration and shown their passion for the value of, of that exploration?

Harrison Schmitt: Well, of course, Apollo was the direct result of having over 400,000 mostly young Americans, average age probably in the 20s, who were motivated by patriotism and, but who had the technical skills, the courage and commitment in order to carry out the challenge that was put forth by President Kennedy 60 years ago, a little over, 61 years ago, with his address to Congress and then maybe even as, as important was his address at Rice University here in, in Houston, which added the momentum, I think, to the Apollo program that was necessary for full public participation and Congressional participation in that effort. So those, that was our foundation, those young Americans who stepped forward and said, yeah, we want to do this; it’s not only exciting but it’s important to, to the future of the country to do it. And we now see, at least I see as I work with NASA, that we’re, and also with commercial entities, that we’re seeing another generation of young people who are providing the imagination, and as I said, the courage and commitment, in order to make these things possible. That’s, that’s really important to have that youthful element in the program, and to sustain it, to not let an agency age as it did for a while with NASA. And I hope that when you do your statistics on age, that that, that average age is going down and going down rapidly. One of the, one of the things that I found, and particularly working in mission control with missions before Apollo 17, that these young people were capable of getting together almost instantaneously to solve problems. And that the, the, the team, the small teams that got together to solve those problems had much more capability than you would think, just looking at them individually. The interaction of the team was certainly much more a pride, much more capability than just the individuals did themselves.

Host: Harrison Schmitt, what a wonderful time I had talking with you. It was an absolute pleasure. Thank you very much.

Harrison Schmitt: Well, thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.


Host: Hey, thanks for sticking around. I was very lucky to get to talk to Dr. Harrison Schmitt this close to the 50th anniversary of Apollo 17. You can check out a lot of our Apollo content on 50th. If you go to our webpage at, you can check out many of the other NASA podcasts across the whole agency. But for us at Houston We Have a Podcast, we have a collection of Apollo episodes. If you’re interested in the Apollo program and a lot of the history, we’ve had a lot of conversations with some really cool people over the years, and you can check out our collection there. On social media, we’re on the NASA Johnson Space Center pages of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And if you’d like to make a topic suggestion or maybe ask a question, you can use the hashtag #AskNASA on any of your favorite platform, whatever it is, to submit an idea and make sure to mention it’s for us at Houston We Have a Podcast. This episode was recorded on May 13, 2022. Thanks to Will Flato, Pat Ryan, Heidi Lavelle, Belinda Pulido, Brandi Dean, and the production team that made this conversation possible. Thanks again to Dr. Harrison Schmitt for taking the time out of his busy schedule to speak with us. Happy 50th anniversary of Apollo 17. We’ll be back next week.