Your Chance to Meet the Second to Last Man to Walk on the Moon

In just over two weeks we get the chance to meet Harrison Schmitt, the second to last man to walk on the moon. He's coming to the great JFK public humanities symposium at BSC (November 5-7) to talk about John F. Kennedy and the space program. At 3:45 on Wednesday, November 6, Schmitt will speak about the extraordinary chain of events that followed Kennedy's May 25, 1961, call to action, before a joint session of Congress, "that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."

If you want to meet someone who stood on the surface of the moon, this is your best chance, because the Apollo astronauts, like the Beatles, are blinking out, and it is clear that the United States is not going back to the moon in the lifetime of anyone who is reading these words. That, I believe, is both a matter of national shame and a monument to President Kennedy, who argued, at Rice University on September 12, 1962 that, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills."

If JFK had not said spoken these words, and—perhaps more importantly—if he had not been cut down by an assassin's bullet on November 22, 1963, we probably would not have landed men on the moon as soon as we did, and perhaps not at all, particularly after the Apollo 1 fire on January 27,1967, in which three astronauts were killed while conducting a liftoff simulation at the Florida launch pad, at the very beginning of the lunar phase of the U.S. space program. NASA overcame that terrible setback, in part to honor the legacy of the fallen President. Leadership matters. If Thomas Jefferson had not been captivated, all of his life, by the idea of exploring the deep interior of the North American continent, Lewis and Clark would never have ventured up the Missouri River in search of a "passage to India" between 1804-06. In that case, the remarkable Sacagawea (ca. 1787-1812) would have lived out her life in complete historical obscurity. We need Presidents who are dreamers and visionaries, not mere caretakers.

Schmitt, the only true scientist to walk on the moon, holds a B.S. in geology from Cal Tech (1957) and a Ph.D. in geology from Harvard (1963). Just before midnight (EST) on December 13, 1972, at the end of the Apollo XVII's third and final moonwalk, Schmitt lumbered up the ladder into the Lunar Module. A few minutes later the mission commander Gene Cernan made the climb, one small step for a man, and the end of an era for mankind. Cernan's last words on the lunar surface were prosaic. "As I take man's last step from the surface, back home for some time to come--but we believe not too long into the future--I'd like to just [say] what I believe history will record. That America's challenge of today has forged man's destiny of tomorrow." That was almost 41 years ago.

In the history of the world, only twelve individuals (all men) have walked on the moon: Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (Apollo XI, July 21, 1969); Pete Conrad and Alan Bean (Apollo XII, 1969); Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell (Apollo XIV, 1971); David Scott and James Irwin (Apollo XV, 1971); John Young and Charles Duke (Apollo XVI, 1972); and Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt (Apollo XVII, December 11-14, 1972). Four of those men are already dead: James Irwin (1991); Alan Shepard (1998); Pete Conrad (1999); and the first human ever to set foot on another world, Neal Armstrong, on August 25, 2012.

Cernan and Schmitt had three separate moonwalks in December 1972 for a total of 22 hours, three minutes, and 57 seconds. Altogether they collected 243.7 pounds of moon rocks in several geologically distinct formations. They were one of three moon crews (Apollo XV, XVI, XVII) to employ a Lunar Rover (a moon convertible that looked like an Erector Set project), which at one point took them a full 4.7 miles from their lunar base camp. When Cernan accidentally broke one of the rover's fenders with his hammer, the pair of astronauts repaired it with—you guessed it—duct tape. Cernan later wrote, "I was going to have to get that damned fender fixed, and there wasn't a repair shop within 250,000 miles."

Schmitt was a somewhat controversial figure in lunar exploration. Because he was a civilian, not one of the military breed of astronaut for whom Tom Wolfe popularized the phrase "the Right Stuff," he was at first regarded as an aloof and "all business" interloper by some NASA space veterans. But once he plopped down onto the surface of the moon, on December 11, 1972, he surprised everyone. His lunar geological work was first rate, but he also took time to enjoy the rapture of the experience. He took a few spectacular falls in his clumsy space suit. After one such tumble the ground crew called him "twinkeltoes," and after another spinning fall the Cap-Com on earth, Bob Parker, informed him that the Houston Ballet was enquiring about his availability for a sublunary performance. Schmitt sang two songs on the moon: "Oh, bury me not, on the lone prairie; where the coyotes howl and the wind blows free," and—later, "I was strolling on the Moon one day, in the merry merry month of December, er May."

Years later, asked to describe what he felt in bounding around on the lunar surface, with the perfect blue sphere of Earth reduced to the size of a marble in the black, black sky, Schmitt said, "It's like trying to describe what you feel when you're standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon or remembering your first love or the birth of your child. You have to be there to really know what it's like."

Schmitt served one term as a United States Senator from New Mexico (1976-82), where he was assigned, naturally enough, to the Science, Technology, and Space Subcommittee. His political challenger in 1982, NM Attorney General Jeff Bingaman, campaigned with the clever but unfair slogan, "What on Earth has he done for you lately?" Bingaman won, and Schmitt became a consultant and college professor.

For many years Schmitt has been one of America's leading advocates of returning to the Moon; and using that achievement as the foundation for a manned journey to Mars. He has a book on the subject called Return to the Moon: Exploration, Enterprise, and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space (2006). Schmitt is also an outspoken Global Climate Change skeptic. He has publicly argued that special interest groups and government are using the idea of Global Warming as a means of exerting greater control over the lives and incomes of the American people.

As a lifelong space junkie, I cannot wait to shake the hand of Jack Schmitt on the fourth floor of BSC's National Energy Center of Excellence, and listen to his insights. Meanwhile, if you want to get into the mood, go see the movie Gravity with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. The plot is sentimental and the dialogue lame, but it is nevertheless, in my opinion, one of the greatest movies ever made.

Eugene A. Cernan & Harrison Schmitt aboard the Apollo 17. From NASA on the Commons via flickr.