Doing Science on the Moon

Harrison H. “Jack” Schmitt discusses what can be done to advance Lunar Science

by Michelle Evans


Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt was the only scientist to ever have the opportunity to actually conduct a geology field trip to the Moon. (At least so far!) He has been a very vocal advocate of returning to the Moon and continuing the science that he was able to start back in 1972. A recent trip to Southern California had Mr. Schmitt serve as the keynote speaker at the annual event, the Riverside Telescope Makers Conference held at a YMCA camp outside Big Bear.


He took time to talk about his Apollo flight where he mentioned the unusual way that astronauts walked on the surface.


“The backpack, the suit, and the man weighed about 370 Earth-pounds, but on the Moon that’s only about 61 pounds. If you’re wondering why all the astronauts seem to be having such a great time while they’re working on the Moon, it’s because it’s a lot easier than the training. Any of you cross-country skiers will appreciate the fact that that’s the best way to move across the surface of the Moon, gliding just above the surface instead of on it, always accelerating with each toe push. You can go several meters at a stride. The only difficulty comes in actually anticipating where to stop!”


Dr. Schmitt showed the audience a photo that was taken of the lunar module liftoff from the Moon. “This is not a very good picture. It was taken off a TV monitor in Houston. Gene Cernan, the commander of this mission, tried to get me to go outside and take a really good picture of this but I’ll leave that to someone else!”


To put Apollo in perspective, we have to start looking back.


“The history of Apollo is really a very remarkable one. Even with thirty years under our belt we have to be a little bit hesitant in trying to evaluate it. But I think that we can anticipate some aspects of that history. Certainly in the history of science we gained our first understanding of another planet.”


“It symbolizes a new evolutionary status for humankind in space. We certainly have shown technologically that we can go into space and live there. We know now that the resources exist on the Moon and Mars for a permanent settlement to exist someday. The only thing we have not mastered as yet is the will to move the species off to new enclaves in space. I believe that we will, and I am very actively pursuing one means how that might be done by going back to the Moon to find energy resources we can need here on Earth.”


Dr. Schmitt took this opportunity to call upon the gathered amateur astronomers to help planetary scientists and geologists in continuing what was barely started during Apollo. He believes that anyone can make useful discoveries and that anyone who looks at the Moon should consider themselves qualified to conduct real science and advance our knowledge.


“It seems to me that the amateur world may be in a better position than the professional world to begin to integrate data with observation. For example, one of the more interesting aspects of the formation of the Moon in its early phases is development of its magma ocean. That magma ocean on the Moon was probably about 480 to 500 kilometers deep. It crystallized, once it got cool enough, into an upper mantle and crust.


“The structure of that crust has been largely unknown to us until recently and it is still very nebulous in many people’s minds. But it is beginning to appear that as you go down in that crust (some 60 to 70 kilometers thick on the average) that there are within it increasing numbers of large igneous bodies that have crystallized and stratified in the lower crust. One way that that has been determined is with the work of people like Harlie Peters at Brown University who has been looking at the central peaks of the larger impact craters of the Copernicus-type of size. And those central peaks seem to represent material that has come from quite deep and have shown the types of signatures that are distinct of magnesium, iron, and aluminum-rich rocks. It is the kind of observation that the astronomy community which you represent could start to get involved with.”


But to truly study the surface of another planet we must go there for ourselves and start picking up rocks. To make that happen we need to figure out how we are going to get there and what role our government will play in that exploration and settlement.

“There are a lot of things that the government can do to make it difficult. They also could do some things to encourage you. They could take a positive approach to this. They could take a positive approach say to what property rights might be on the Moon. If our government took a proactive position on it, it would help raise capitol.


“If the private sector will undertake a job, open itself up to appropriate regulation, and make a reasonable return on investment by doing that, then the taxpayers shouldn’t spend the money.


“In the case of energy resources on the Moon, I think that’s one example that the amount of capital one needs to raise is about the same as a couple oil companies raised to build the Trans-Alaska pipeline, about $15 billion. That’s compared to about $70 billion (in today’s dollars) for the Apollo program. So we’re taking about, I believe, the ability to do these kind of things now with the private sector. You just need to put together a business plan to attract capital. But if the government wants to make it difficult, they can do it just by taking a negative view of that type of activity.”


Jack Schmitt believes that humankind’s future is in space. Not to vicariously feel it through robot explorers, but with our own senses, up close and very personal.


“A hundred years from now we’re going to be thinking about going to the stars. Think about where we were a hundred years ago, then think about where we are now, and if we survive ourselves, a hundred years from now we’re going to be thinking about going to the stars. You don’t have to be very much more advanced in time to be thinking about those kinds of things.”