Oral History Transcript/Harrison H. Schmitt

Oral History Transcript/Harrison H. Schmitt
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The oral histories are the transcripts from audio-recorded, personal interviews. To preserve the integrity of the audio record, the texts are presented with limited revisions and thus reflect the candid conversational style of the oral history format. Brackets and ellipses indicate where the text has been annotated or edited for clarity.

Selected quotes have been extracted and edited for the Apollo 17 Flight Journal.


[edit] Part 1: July 14, 1999

[edit] Oral History Transcript: Harrison H. "Jack" Schmitt interviewed by Carol Butler

Houston, Texas – 14 July 1999[1]

Butler
Today is [July] 14th, 1999. This oral history is with Dr. Harrison Schmitt, who was commonly referred to as "Jack" by his colleagues at NASA at the time. Dr. Schmitt is here at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. This interview is being conducted for the Johnson Space Center Oral History Project by Carol Butler. Thank you for joining us today.
Schmitt
It's my pleasure. And congratulations on getting this project going finally.
Butler
Thank you. Thank you. It's a fascinating project. It's wonderful just to be able to have a chance to talk to you and your colleagues and get your oral histories down. Today we'd like to start with talking about how you first got interested in planetary geology.
Schmitt
Well, I had no overriding interest other than in the planet we call the Earth until I was looking for a job in 1964; and I sent a letter to Eugene [M.] Shoemaker of the US Geological Survey, one of the foremost planetologists that has ever lived. And he, it turns out, had sent me a letter almost simultaneously [after] looking at the list of people who had taken and done reasonably well on the US Geological Survey exam. And so, since there was a depression in most other parts of geology, I decided to go out and work with Gene.
It was aided by knowing many of the people that Gene had attracted to his group that had, by that time, become known as the Branch of Astrogeology within the US Geological Survey. People like Danny [Daniel] Milton and Newell Trask and Don [E.] Wilhelms and others who I had known for other reasons, and really very, very strong individuals in their science. And it was clearly a credible group to go work for.
I had met Gene some years before in — when I was introduced to him, it was by a hard rock geologist, more in tune with what I was working on at the time, who said, "You have to go down the hall and see what this crazy guy Eugene Shoemaker's working on. He's trying to map the Moon!" Well, indeed Gene did instigate the — that effort — modern effort — of mapping the Moon; and, much to the excitement of the Apollo astronauts and the Apollo managers when they finally decided that we were going to land there, that background was extremely important.
But that really triggered it. I had become interested somewhat in — in spaceflight after leaving Caltech [California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California] and going to Norway in 1957 as a Fulbright student. And like so many people, when Sputnik was launched in the fall of 1957 (October 1957), it caught my attention. But it particularly caught the attention of the other students, from all — from countries all over the world, who were in residence at the University of Oslo. And that's what triggered my interest, more maybe than — even than the technical achievement, because at Caltech we had been around people who were going off to work in the missile industry and things like that. And so, rockets were not an unusual phenomenon to us. But the degree to which the then Soviet Union's success with a artificial satellite of the Earth, Sputnik 1, influenced and excited and literally scared the students who were around at that time from all over the world. That really did get my attention about how important space almost certainly was going to be in the future of humankind.
And so, I was more interested in a general sense than I was in actually ever thinking about participating directly myself. And really that thought didn't occur — well, it occurred once in a jocular vein when the National Academy of Sciences put out a report (I believe it was) probably in the very early '60s (I was still at the Harvard Geological Museum as a graduate student). And that report said the — it was done for NASA, and that report said that it — the first person on the Moon should be a hard rock geologist. Well, of course, all the geologists in Harvard and probably everywhere else that had wind of that report cheered and said, "Yeah! That's right." And then we promptly forgot about the whole thing because nobody was — it was sort of a joke.
But in 1964, while I was working in my early time with the US Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Arizona, NASA and the National Academy of Sciences asked for volunteers for the fourth group of astronauts who were to be scientist-astronauts. And I thought about 10 seconds and raised my hand and volunteered. Primarily because I felt — I can remember feeling, at the time, that if I didn't volunteer, no matter what happened to my application, that I'd almost certainly regret it when human beings actually went to the Moon.
Butler
Well, it looks like that volunteering turned out pretty good for you in the long run.
Schmitt
Well, I was very lucky, very fortunate. And I think all the astronauts of that era, whatever they may say now, really were accidents. We happened to be at the right place at the right time. Unlike today, where young people can career-plan to become astronauts and go through several applications and every 2 years or so they can have that opportunity, we — it was presented to us in a very spontaneous way for the most part. And although some people applied two or three times on the pilot side, we were the first group of scientist-astronauts. And it really — we were an accident. And I think most of the astronauts have to say (if not all of them) — have to say that if they really were true to what happened, they were accidents. Not very many people can claim — like Eugene Shoemaker could claim that he had dreamed of going to the Moon from the time he was a child. (There's no question that he did.) Unfortunately, he was not qualified medically in order to volunteer for that group.
Butler
It must've been challenging for him to have been — be able to help you all that were applying, and to help you get into the program in that way.
Schmitt
Well, he seemed to get a big kick out of it. Some regrets, I'm sure, for not being there himself. But he certainly, in those early years, gave heart and soul to trying to organize and stimulate NASA to put together a true field geology experiment for the Apollo Program. And ultimately, we did that. He was disappointed in how sophisticated it was for its time. But nevertheless if he hadn't been pushing, people like George [M.] Low and Gene [Eugene F.] Kranz and even [Gen.] Sam [Samuel C.] Phillips at Headquarters would have had a harder time selling the kinds of things we ultimately did.
Butler
As you were going through the selection process to become a scientist-astronaut, as you said, the new group and it was a new realm that NASA hadn't selected anyone for before, what was that process? What did you do? Can you tell us about that?
Schmitt
Well, roughly, I believe the announcement of opportunity for the scientist-astronaut program, the first selection, came out in November of 1964 (if I remember correctly). And about 1400 young scientists applied — scientists and engineers, essentially none of whom were women, which is interesting when you — later on, we'll talk about the situation today. Or how that changed. Out of that 1400, based on a Federal Aviation Administration flight physical that we all had to submit with our application, NASA took that number down to (as I recall) about 400; and those 400 were asked to send in some additional information. I believe it was published papers and things of that nature. Transcripts.
Stuff to establish their academic credentials. And from that second submission, then 80 (I believe) were selected to be reviewed by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences. And those 80 also were asked to submit additional written material, an essay that I recall about "What would you do if you were suddenly on the Moon?" I don't recall exactly what I said, but I was deeply involved in working on those kinds of problems for Dr. Shoemaker. And so, I suspect that it had a little bit more knowledge and information in it than the average applicant would have had a chance to do. Or to provide.
From that 80, 16 then were selected by the National Academy, submitted to NASA to then take a physical at the Brooks Air Force Base [San Antonio, Texas], where those physicals were being given at that time. It was an 8-day physical; 15 of the 16 showed up. I don't recall the 16th's name or anything at this point — but that would be available somewhere — but he apparently decided that he really wasn't as interested in this program as he thought he was when he put in this application. So, the 15 candidates then went through that physical, came down, and were interviewed by a group of NASA managers here. I know Al [Alan B.] Shepard [Jr.] and Deke [Donald K.] Slayton were in that group. Max [Maxime A.] Faget was there. I would have to, again, refer to the records of all the people that were interviewing us. Oh, Chuck [Charles A.] Berry, the flight surgeon, was obviously in the room. And based on that, six were selected then as astronauts.
At that time, they didn't have any of this idiocy of calling people "candidate astronauts." Once you were selected, you were an astronaut. And I have argued with the local powers that be here and tried to foment rebellion within the astronaut corps not to allow themselves to be called "candidate astronauts." It's ridiculous, this! If somebody's not going to qualify and not going to make it, they're not going to make it. You don't have to call them a candidate to prove that they're on probation. It's a bit demeaning.
At any rate, these six of us were then put in a position where we had to qualify as pilots. As everybody should know, everybody in the Apollo spacecraft really needed to operate as a pilot-astronaut as well as whatever else they might have been in their previous life. And so, four of us who had no previous pilot experience (or at least not jet pilot experience) were sent to Williams Air Force Base [Chandler, Arizona] for jet pilot training. Two, Joe [Joseph P.] Kerwin and Curt [F. Curtis] Michel, had previous flying experience. Joe had just qualified as a Navy carrier pilot, as a flight surgeon-pilot; and Curt Michel had been in the Air Force and flew F-86s (if I remember correctly) during the Korean conflict. So, he just had to get back into thinking about being a pilot again.
The other group — consisting of Owen [K.] Garriott, Ed [Edward G.] Gibson, Duane [F.] Graveline, and myself — then were sent to Williams Air Force Base for what's called — was called their Undergraduate Pilot Training Program. And about 3 weeks after we arrived out there — actually, the news broke even before we were sent. But Duane Graveline ran into a bit of a problem (it turned out for him a great problem) in that his wife sued for divorce. And that, at that time, was not a very acceptable position to be in; and he resigned after about 3 weeks of pilot training. So, the other three (Garriott, Gibson, and myself) remained at Williams Air Force Base and went through the full Pilot Training Program. Except for the military instruction that the Air Force cadet-pilots had to go through.
Most of our group, the class of '[19]67A, were Air Force Academy graduates. So, it was a really remarkable group of young men that were going through pilot training, all of whom were about 10 years younger than we were. So, I would — became terribly impressed, not only with the quality of the people that were becoming pilots in the Air Force, but the unbelievable (in my estimation and experience) professionalism of the Air Force training staff — the Captains and Majors, for the most part (some Lieutenants), that were part of Air Training Command and just did a really remarkable and highly professional job. They really — you can understand why American pilots do as well as they do in combat as well as in peacetime, because of the quality of the training they're getting.
Butler
That's very good to hear. While you were down there, how was the environment for you? This was obviously new for them to have scientist-astronauts come train with them, and new for you as well, not having had the pilot training before. What was it like from both sides?
Schmitt
Well, I, of course, don't know the Air Force side. I'm sure they had some difficulties putting up with these three civilians who appeared on the base. If I remember correctly, we were told we were the first civilians ever to receive Air Force pilot wings and — after our 54 weeks of training. The Air Force seemed to tolerate us. We were probably a bit of a thorn in their side, because we could not be disciplined in the same way that the military pilots. They could just tell NASA, "We don't want them anymore," I guess, and then deal with NASA at that point.
From our perspective, I think we fit in very well. We were spread academically throughout the class in terms of the — well, I believe that Ed Gibson graduated number 2 in our class (if I remember correctly). (He'll have to verify that.) Owen Garriott was a bit higher. I was a bit farther down. I had a harder time learning how to fly these things, particularly on instruments, than the others did — for whatever reason that was. Eventually, I succeeded. But it was a bit traumatic for me to try to work my way through that. And in the middle of all this, just as we transitioned from T-37s to T-38s, in a basketball game I broke my elbow. So, I had to sit down for a few weeks while that elbow healed, and then try to catch up. (Which I ultimately did.) But it meant an awful lot of flying, awfully fast. Which was fine. That's the best way to learn, I think, is just to get all your flying in at once.
Butler
Jump right in there and do it.
Schmitt
But we, I think, had a good — I think everybody was satisfied with the relationship with the Air Force. They continued to do that for the next group that came on board a couple of years later. And I really, personally, cannot speak too highly of the quality of the training that we received. It really was a remarkable experience.
Butler
Good. Going back a little bit, when you did learn of your selection to become an astronaut, what were your thoughts at the time?
Schmitt
Well, I learned about my selection about 3 days before anybody else. And that was a result of a phone call from a consultant to NASA who was basically the head of aerospace medicine for NASA — Dr. [W.] Randolph Lovelace [II] — who had a clinic in Albuquerque [New Mexico]. I'd never met him before and, unfortunately, did not meet him afterwards. (He was killed as a result — or died as a result of an airplane accident about 6 months after this all happened.) But I was in my office in Flagstaff; and Fern Beeson, my secretary, informed me that a Dr. Randolph Lovelace was on the phone and wished to talk to me. And I sort of vaguely knew who he was because of my New Mexico connections; and so, I talked to him. And his first words were, "You don't have to worry about anything. You're in."
Well, what he was referring to is that both the Air Force doctors and the NASA doctors were a bit taken aback that I had had, in 1960 (and we're talking about 1965 now) — in 1960, I had had what's called a partial colectomy in order to repair a congenital defect in my intestines; namely what's called a malrotation. And as you can imagine, Air Force doctors and NASA doctors, who are used to eliminating anybody with any abnormality, were not too enthusiastic (as I gathered) about my becoming an astronaut. But Dr. Lovelace apparently was asked to review the case. He went to the surgeon — a Dr. Claude Welch, a famous surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, who did the surgery back in 1960 — and they reviewed it and concluded that I would, as in Dr. Lovelace's words, "would be better off than anybody else because of the geometry of my intestinal tract."
And so, he said, "You're in." So, that — I guess he figured that I had been concerned that I was going to be eliminated on the basis of that operation. It turns out, I think, that everybody in our group had something that potentially could have eliminated them if you applied the strict standards that the Air Force normally would apply to a young pilot. But 10 years is a long time physiologically, as I've learned more about it subsequently; and where in your — when you're 18 or 19 or 20, you will look extremely qualified physically, 10 years later almost everybody has something that you can find out about them that might disqualify them. Whether it's eyesight or a bout of osteomyelitis, which one of the people had and came through okay on, but another didn't. And so, it was a — I didn't envy NASA in trying to make these kind of decisions for people who were in their late 20s and early 30s.
Butler
Human body's pretty intricate. Once you got through with the pilot training, what did you move on to next? Is that when you moved down to Houston?
Schmitt
We immediately came down and took up training, general training — classes primarily — and tours and familiarization with the Saturn Vs and stuff like that with the fifth group of astronauts, who had been selected while we were in pilot training. These were pilots that basically we ended up being in the same training class with them, even though we were senior by one group. Because of the pilot training, we had to go through the classes with them.
And so, the first year probably (maybe even more, again you — all of this tends to merge into a haze with time), but we were training in a wide variety of engineering and spaceflight courses with the fifth group of astronauts. This included people like Fred [W.] Haise [Jr.] and Vance [D.] Brand and Jack [John L.] Swigert. That whole group of people who really became the second wave of the Apollo astronauts. I was the only one of our group that ended up being directly involved in Apollo. But most of the pilots who were in that sixth group did have some direct or indirect role in Apollo.
After that (and during that time) — again, in those days once you were selected as an astronaut, they expected you to perform at an immediately high level and at the old 8-day week/16-hour days that everybody else in the Apollo Program was performing at. And so, we also took on some assignments from the Astronaut Office to oversee certain aspects of the engineering or operations of the Apollo Program as it was developing. That was a very, very important part of the success of Apollo.
And I don't think it's gotten nearly enough credit, of what Al Shepard and Deke Slayton decided to do with the astronauts who weren't directly involved in flights. Weren't assigned to flights. And they were — maybe partly because, "What else do we do with them?" but partly because I think their insight was correct. In that having astronauts who were going to be at the tip of the spear, part of the review teams, part of the Critical Design Reviews, getting very familiar with certain aspects of the spacecraft, the rockets, and the planning and operations of Apollo, was extremely important in making it real to everybody else that people are actually going to use these things that we're building.
It was a, you know — in a way — an adjunct — an important adjunct to the Snoopy Program, which was the Quality That You See Program that was developed, where the astronauts gave Snoopy awards in the factories and assembly plants and — throughout the country for really high-quality work. I really was impressed with how that whole program of quality control and quality management came together and, again, was an extraordinarily important part of the Apollo Program. And the astronaut's role was two-fold: both a visible part of that quality control, but also a working part of it, in that as an astronaut thinking about flying, you bring a different perspective to the engineering, planning, the design of equipment. And we ended up having an office full of experts on different things.
And all of us became experts on a lot of — I mean, not — non-experts on a lot of things. Because each Monday morning there was a Pilots' Meeting (as it was called) (I guess that name comes from the days in the Service) in which the people on the various assignments would be back in Houston and report on any anomalies, any problems, anything of that kind that everybody — they thought everybody should know about. And decisions from particular — big decisions, the Office came to some kind of consensus on how we ought to proceed (if Al Shepard and Deke Slayton's decision can be called a consensus).
But still they had information, coming in from everywhere, on these various spacecraft activities. An extremely important part, I think, to the overall management of the Program. And I never met any of the senior managers that resented it in any way. Maybe some of the younger ones thought that we were in their knickers about some of these things; but still, it was important. For example, what it did was create a knowledgeable base. When the Apollo 1 fire — you could draw a Frank Borman in as chairman of the investigating committee. When we needed a new ascent engine, you could assign Charlie [Charles M.] Duke to lead the Tiger Team to get a new ascent engine for the lunar module. And so, you had people who were extremely knowledgeable about what they had to do.
I, myself, sort of assumed a hardware responsibility. My assignment was to oversee the development of the scientific experiments for Apollo; the so-called Apollo Lunar Surface Experiment Package [ALSEP]. But also in doing so, I realized that nobody in the Office was watching over the development of the descent stage of the lunar module. So, I just sort of assumed that responsibility and began to report back to the crews on how that was going. There wasn't an awful lot of engineering detail that might interest the pilots in the descent stage, even though that was the engine that was going to get them down to the surface. It was — I got interested because it was a — initially interested because it was where we were going to store everything we were going to use on the lunar surface. And so, I began to take that kind of responsibility.
And this was, I think, typical of everybody. If you saw a problem, you began to work the problem; and nobody ever resented the fact that you started to work a problem, whether it had to do with something going on in real time in a flight or whether it was something that you anticipated might be a problem later on. That whole environment, I think, sort of disappeared for a while. And particularly as we led up to the Challenger [51-L] accident. It's been my strong impression from things that have been said that having astronauts farmed out around the country, watching over hardware, really wasn't taking place in that time. And the best sign of that is that the — apparently none of the astronauts were aware of the anomalies in the solid rocket booster that had been identified by the Marshall Space Flight Center [Huntsville, Alabama] during some of the earlier pre-Challenger launches.
And in the Apollo days, somebody would have known about that. For example, Stu [Stuart A.] Roosa was, for a long time, our man with the boosters. And he would attend all the design reviews, the anomaly reviews, and things like that. And if there was a problem like that, he would have noticed it and he would have brought it back and reported it to the rest of the Office. That didn't seem to be happening in the Shuttle Program during that period of time; and I think it's very, very unfortunate.
Butler
Very unfortunate. Your work with the lunar surface experiment package and with the descent module: at what stage did you come in — at what stage were those experiments? How far had they been developed? What was the work being done on them? And then, what did you do to help bring it to the stage where they were actually used?
Schmitt
Well, when we arrived back from pilot training, the ALSEP (the Apollo Lunar Surface Science Experiment Package) development had, as I recall, just about reached a Preliminary Design Review stage. And Bill [William A.] Anders and I were assigned to go up to a Preliminary Design Review at Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the whole thing was being coordinated with — by the Bendix [Aerospace Systems Division] Company.
When we got there, we were absolutely astounded by what we found! We found that they had designed these experiments — this package — to maximize the workload for the astronaut, not to minimize it. And Bill Anders immediately introduced what he referred to then (I don't know whether he remembers it now) but I call "the Anders big red button concept" in that what he — the ideal was for the astronaut to go over and kick a big red button, and the ALSEP would deploy itself.
Well, by then it was too late. Because they had received guidance (again from astronauts) some time before that — "to give us something to do on the surface" (and these were from non-geological astronauts who apparently felt that they were going to be bored on the surface of the Moon, which is a little bit hard to believe). So, when Anders and I got up there, we had to do an awful lot of work to get this thing down to the point of where it was not going to occupy all the time that the astronauts would have on the lunar surface.
For example: They had a particular type of fastener holding this whole thing together, called a calphax fastener, that required a one-and-three-quarter turn to release; and there were 50-some of these fasteners. And the — and doing that kind of work in a suit was going to be time-consuming and would take a lot out of the muscles of the hand. And we finally got that down to a new kind of fastener — 19 new kinds of fasteners — that required only about a quarter turn to release. And just flick your wrist, and it's released. That's the best we could do. We, of course, wanted to have no fasteners, but there was a limit on what we could do.
So, we were making those kinds of inputs. And heaven only knows now how many Requests for Change we introduced from the Astronaut Office at these — this particular Preliminary Design Review. But by the time the Critical Design Review came along, things were far better control; and the best we could expect, probably. There were almost certainly some other changes that we requested (I don't remember any right now). And that — what the result was, and the dedication that we saw with the people building the ALSEP, which we saw everywhere in the entire program (hundreds — over 400,000 Americans were equally dedicated in all aspects of Apollo), the ALSEPs performed far beyond anything they had been told to design them to do. And that is a credit to the people, of course, not only at Bendix but all of the sub and sub-subcontractors who put together the individual experiments and the principal investigators, who were behind the concept of each of the experiments. And the central station communication systems and so forth.
So, I think overall, we have to be fairly pleased with the way the ALSEP came out. Even though, as a geologist, I would have rather spent the time wandering around, checking on the geological formations and rocks of the Moon.
Butler
Understandably. As you were working with the ALSEP, did you also do some work with the tools that you would be using, both to deploy the ALSEP and then geologic tools as well?
Schmitt
Well, that was a major part of this assignment that I had, is to try to keep track of all the different tools and make sure we were pulling together a suite of tools that would be useful to us on the Moon. There is another place where Eugene Shoemaker made a great contribution.
His initial thought (and one which we had had together, while I still worked at the US Geological Survey) was a concept called the surveying staff, so that we could automate not only the photography but the positions and the orientation of the cameras and everything could all be done in one staff that — and all this data would be automatically recorded. You'd have a range finder, and that would go back on the data link. And so, the astronaut would be free to do the things human beings do best, and that is observe and think about what they're seeing.
Unfortunately, that particular concept fell apart, not because NASA didn't try to do it but because they were — as I understand it, were forced into a small business set-aside contract. And whereas a company — a large company like Kodak, say, could have done this and had demonstrated they could have done these kinds of things very quickly, a small company that was given the contract just never made it. We spent about $1M (in those year dollars) and got nothing for it.
And as it became clear that wasn't going to happen, then more focus came on the tool — the small hand tools — that we could take. Of course, the rock hammer; the tongs for — reverse tongs, in a sense, for — the spring would close them on a sample and you could lift it up; a scoop to get the soil samples. Just very simple geological tools, which have worked well through several hundred years and probably will continue to work several hundred years in the future. But still, it requires a great deal of human action. And the whole idea then — as well as in the future — of putting human beings on the Moon is to minimize the number of routine tasks that they will have to do so you can maximize their contribution for what human beings uniquely do; and that is, look, manipulate in detail, and also think about what they're doing. And what they see.
But still we did the best we could. Shoemaker's and his group, I think, greatest contribution to the science of field geology was from a tool point of view was the what's called the gnomon. It was a device that we would set in each of the pictures (particularly stereo pairs) — a device that had a gimbaled vertical rod that would give us the vertical orientation of the gravity field. It was of a known length (40 cm, if I remember correctly), had a gray scale on the rod, on — it was a three-legged device. Its shadow — the shadow of that vertical rod — would give us azimuth, because we knew where the Sun was, of course, and we could always tell what that was from the shadow on the ground. And there was a color scale as well on one of the legs that can be used in order to print the color pictures more accurately.
Unfortunately, that's a problem that NASA photography (in spite of all their wonderful work) has a hard time believing, some of the colors. And you see it most in the pictures of the orange soil that we found on Apollo 17, in that there's an international red or orange on that leg of that gnomon, and they refused to print to that color. And so, the orange soil never looks as orange to you in a picture as it did to us while we were on the Moon. A recent book by Michael Light, Full Moon, has digitized that — some of that picture; and it does show (at least in one part of a panorama) — it does show the best orange for that soil that I've seen yet. But still not quite as bright as it was for us.
Butler
You know, that's interesting.
Schmitt
So, these tools — and in addition, of course, there was the camera. Now the Hasselblad camera has a long history. It was adapted for lunar surface work, but it — as I recall the story, Al Shepard bought the first Hasselblad in a shop down in Florida just before his suborbital flight. NASA was not going to supply him with a camera, which shows how every once in a while you come into little glitches of thinking. (Just like on Apollo 8, we had entirely the wrong television camera on board; and we spent a very hectic one night trying to figure out how many filters and what filters we could put in front of it to actually get a picture of the Earth. It ended up, we put all the filters in front of it to get a picture of the Earth. It was just too sensitive.)
But Al Shepard bought the first Hasselblad, and then after that Viktor Hasselblad, the owner of Hasselblad in Sweden, as I understand it, volunteered to adapt it in various ways for more easy use by the astronauts. He introduced for the first time a motorized winding system, a trigger system so that we could operate it on the surface. A number of things were done to improve the Hasselblad for surface work. Large magazines that they hadn't had before. The rissole plate that gives the little plus marks on the pictures; that was put into it for geometric control of the developed film. All of these things came as a result of Hasselblad's personal effort.
Butler
It's great. We'll take a quick break here, and we're going to change the tape out.
Schmitt
Okay.
Butler
We were talking about — you just finished talking about the cameras, and how those had been adapted, and some of the other tools. I ran across in one reference that actually during your mission, Gene Cernan used the hammer more frequently because it was more suited to his size. Was that something that was an actual situation? And how did that develop?
Schmitt
All right. There's no question that he could handle the hammer better. He had a larger hand, and the handle was never — I — we never got the design of the handle so it would universally be compatible for all the astronauts. And Gene just had a very big hand; and he could — he could grip it better and not get as fatigued using it. (I used it every once in a while.)
But on the other hand, for my purposes, the scoop — for geological purposes, I found the scope much more versatile. I could pick up rocks with it — small rocks — and I — but I could also dig trenches and do all sorts of other things with it. So, the scoop was perfectly fine for me; and it gave me something to lean on, to look down. So, I was perfectly happy with the scoop.
Butler
A wide variety of tools —
Schmitt
That's right.
Butler
— that all came in useful. As you were becoming more involved (after you had finished your initial training with the pilot training) and then were working, going through with the other class and getting some more of that initial training, and now working on the ALSEP and the tools, when did you become involved with more specifically training on Apollo itself for selecting sites or becoming involved specifically on missions?
Schmitt
During all this period after I competed pilot training, I was working in a variety of other roles. One was as a member of the Planetology Subcommittee of the Space Science Committee that NASA and the National Academy had put together, chaired by Harry Hess. The Planetology Subcommittee asked me to be a member, and the Manned Spacecraft Center approved that I should be a member. And we did a number of things. The most important thing, during that period of time, was to select the principal investigators for the sample analysis program. And strangely enough, Gene Shoemaker was the chairman of that subcommittee — of the Planetology Subcommittee. I should mention here also, he was chairman of the Astronaut Selection Committee for the National Academy of Sciences as well. And whether that had anything to do with me becoming an astronaut, we'll never know. (I think it was more objective than that. I hope it was.)
But Gene did chair that. And it was a very — it was a critical committee for the ultimate success of Apollo in that an announcement of opportunity was sent out for people to send in proposals to work on the lunar samples for whatever specific purposes they thought were important; and we had a very, very broad response to that announcement, including a response — intentionally, a response — from abroad. And Gene Shoemaker should get a lot of credit for having really created the first international science program that NASA was deeply involved in, and it had to do with the analysis of the lunar samples.
And our committee specifically selected people from countries outside the United States, and maybe even biased our quality selection towards — a little bit towards some of those countries, where we knew investigators were of very high quality. Maybe they didn't have yet the equipment that had been funded by NASA in many of the laboratories in the United States. But nevertheless, we knew they would do a good job; and so we internationalized the sample analysis program. I think it was a very important contribution that Gene and that committee made.
In addition, about that time we were also deeply involved — again the US Geological Survey, under Shoemaker's guidance, was deeply involved in analyzing the Apollo orbiter — (no, excuse me) the lunar orbiter photography, which was flown specifically to try to identify landing sites, particularly within what was called "the Apollo belt of the Moon," the equatorial belt of the Moon, that were as smooth as possible.
Now you may have heard at various times that the scientists and the engineers were at odds about where Apollo should — the first Apollo should land. That's not true. Everybody realized that the primary objective of Apollo was to land safely and return to Earth. And so — and the equator was the best place to land safely, because you could stay on a free-return trajectory back to Earth without any other burns. As you recall, with Apollo 13, they had to make a rocket burn in order to get back on to a free-return trajectory. But in the Apollo 11/Apollo 12 days, we were still trying to stay within the belt that, if you — after launching to the Moon, if you never had any more opportunity to burn a rocket, you would still come back safely to Earth. And so, that's the belt on the Moon where you could do that, near the equator.
And a number of landing sites were evaluated, in great detail, in various ways, in order to select potential sites within that belt; and they were sites roughly that were a 1-day slip apart that — based on lighting considerations. We always wanted to land with the Sun behind us, at an angle lower than the glide slope — than the slope we were on — in order to come down towards the lunar surface so you could see shadows. If your Sun's lower than that, you're going to see shadows and craters and, on the other sides, rocks. And so that, just typical of one of the constraints that we had, was to pick sites that were smooth as we could tell from that resolution and were roughly a 1-day slip, that if you couldn't launch on the first opportunity, you could slip a day and you would still have a landing site to go to. And all across the Moon.
So, we had (I can't remember now) 6- or 7-day slips that we could've taken and still landed on that first opportunity in July of 1969. That was the plan, and that's what we had available to us. That site selection process was something that I was involved in. More on the oversight basis, because there were so many people that could do the job far better than anything I could contribute! It was more on an advisory or oversight basis, and to make sure that they understood what the crew input was going to be and what the crew would be seeing as they came towards the lunar surface.
In 1968, things really started to get intense. A number of things were happening. And by the way, one of the best resources for a lot of this are George Low's archives, which are at RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) in Troy, New York. They're available to researchers, and it is a — I've just started to use them myself, and it's just fascinating the material that's in there. He's a meticulous note-taker and dictator and not political dictator but a writing dictator. And so, that's a tremendous resource —
Butler
That's good to hear.
Schmitt
— for historians. Also a more direct resource is now the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal that's on the web, that Eric Jones (Dr. Eric Jones of Los Alamos) put together. Most of the astronauts participated in editing and annotating the air-to-ground transcripts as well as the videotape transcripts. So, those are two really important historical resources.
And I hope that somehow or another that Lunar Surface Journal will be maintained on the web indefinitely. I — NASA has put a little money into it, but probably not as much as they should in order to ensure its availability over the long haul. We don't live forever. And right now, it's purely the love of Eric Jones and his crew of people from all over the world that are adding checklists and all sorts of resources to that web page.
Butler
It is an excellent web page.
Schmitt
At any rate, in 1968 a number of things were coming together. Number one: the lunar module development was behind, and the Apollo mission that was going to follow Apollo 7 was an Earth orbit test of the lunar module. Unfortunately, the lunar module wasn't getting ready for that; and in mid-year of 1968, George Low had the extraordinary insight to suggest that we take Apollo — what would become Apollo 8 (then I think it was called C Prime [C'], in the arcane vernacular of the day) — but became Apollo 8 — we would take that to the Moon.
We'd exercise everything we needed to do in order to go to the Moon, except what we needed to do if we had a lunar module along. And we'd target it to a particular lunar orbiter landing site, evaluate a landing site on the eastern — near the eastern limb of the Moon, prepare the data packages, do everything, and we'd fly it in 4 months. And that mission was conceived and flown in 4 months! It was probably the most remarkable effort that the NASA team down here ever put together. Apollo 11, landing on the Moon, was what we were hired to do. Nobody mentioned that we were going to take a single spacecraft to the Moon in 1968; and so, yeah, believe me, the level of motivation that generated was absolutely unbelievable.
Well, Frank Borman approached me, asked me if I would do the lunar orbit flight planning for their effort. And that meant that I began to interact with [Howard W.] Tindall's group, the Flight Operations Planning group that met weekly that really was the focus of all of the operational planning for a particular mission. They were looking at all the missions, but the one up was the one they were concentrating on. And that's another tremendous resource.
And I'm not sure where there is a complete collection of what were called Tindallgrams. They were his summary of each of those meetings. I have a partial collection at the University of New Mexico in the files there. Whether there would be a complete collection or not, I don't know. But somebody ought to make a very, very specific effort to get a complete collection of the FOP minutes, Tindall-grams, and to get those in some kind of form and bound. Because that is a resource that should not be lost. I can understand it's hard to put together. I hope somebody has been able to do that.
Butler
It's a good idea.
Schmitt
Yeah. Now that is another — in one place, you have an awful lot of what happened in order to put these missions together. It had a lot to do, of course, with computer programming and things like that of that time.
So, probably in about August when the Apollo 8 mission was approved and we began to work on going to the Moon with Apollo 8, I began to fly — and Frank Borman and his crew went to the Kennedy Space Center (to the Cape) in order to use their simulators, which were always a little bit more up-to-date than the simulators we had here. They just transferred most of their training operations to the Cape. And so, I flew back and forth between the Kennedy Space Center and Houston every week, probably several times, coordinating the development of this lunar surface flight plan.
At the same time, Bill Anders asked me if I would start to bring him up to speed on the features of the Moon that would be underneath their orbital path, and so he would have some better understanding of the geology and what he was going to be looking at and things like that, so he didn't sound entirely ignorant of it. So, Bill and I developed a very close working relationship in the evenings down there, actually in the saunas. We would — because Frank wasn't too sure he wanted Bill working on this, as I gathered. And so, Bill and I would go to the sauna — go into the gym and work out, and then go into the sauna and we'd work on the checklists and the things that we had to do while we were sweating away in the sauna at the crew quarters at the Cape.
At the same time, Charlie Towns, who was chairman of the President's Science Advisory Committee (the PSAC), almost exactly the same time requested from NASA a briefing on what we were going to do on the first landing mission. Now you realize, this was all inside of a year when that landing actually took place! And actually, because of the intensity of efforts, NASA had never really sat down and worked out a total flight plan for the Apollo 11 mission. We were taking it one step at a time. And it was a perfectly legitimate request and a very important request, because with that stimulus of the President's Science Advisory Committee we went to work.
And Joe [Joseph P.] Loftus [Jr.] was given the assignment down here at Houston to coordinate the presentations, and three astronaut teams were assigned to make the presentations. I guess that was a little bit of pizzazz; but again the astronauts were deeply involved in everything that was going on. So, it wasn't an illogical thing to ask us to do, and of course, for the lunar surface — the lunar portion of the mission (lunar orbit and lunar surface), Buzz [Edwin E.] Aldrin [Jr.] and I were asked to do that. I was given the lunar surface part of the mission to pull together, and he took the rendezvous and lunar orbit part of it.
So, we went to work to develop actual flight plans and timelines; and it was the first time that was done for the lunar surface. I was working primarily with the Flight Crew Support Division people, Ray [Raymond G.] Zedekar, people like that. George Harrison (I believe) was one of the men who worked on that. And we put together a 2-EVA [extravehicular activity] timeline for the first Apollo landing on the Moon. And it included, at that time, a full ALSEP, the whole 9 yards of an ALSEP deployment, because that was in the plan. That was what — we just took what they had been assigned to the first landing on the Moon and tried to work that into a timeline for that mission.
And in the process of putting that timeline together, it became clear that the chances of us ever flying a full-up ALSEP were very small. It was over 300 lbs. We still didn't know how much margin we were going to have in fuel for landing on the Moon. It was a clear candidate to be offloaded at the last minute in order to increase, by a number of seconds, the amount of time we had of fuel.
And so, I made a proposal that we begin to look at an alternative, which would be a slimmed-down version of an ALSEP, something that would not have a radioisotopic thermoelectric generator, because that was quite heavy, but would have solar cells to power the experiments through 1-day cycles on the Moon. And I began to make phone calls around the country, asking my geological colleagues and geophysical colleagues, "If you thought you would never have more than one mission, what were the priority of experiments that you would want to have on the surface of the Moon?" And it became very clear, very soon, that everybody (geophysicists, geologists) were saying, "We need a seismometer. We need to understand as much as we possibly can about the seismic environment of the interior of the Moon. And we want a corner cube reflector."
And so, that's what we, in this presentation for PSAC — we said, "There are two alternatives now. And in recognition of the primary function is landing on the Moon, and that the ALSEP is vulnerable to being offloaded in order to save weight, we need to begin right away to design this backup science package." Well, when we started to present that here up through the chain before it went to PSAC (the first presentation was to Bob [Robert R.] Gilruth) — and I made this presentation.
And when I flashed up this sign, this view chart that indicated an alternative to the ALSEP, the — Bill [Wilmot N.] Hess, who was then Head of the Science Directorate here at the Manned Spacecraft Center, just came out of his chair. He was livid that anybody would suggest that the ALSEP might not fly. And he was gently reminded that this was always a possibly, and that NASA always thought about the alternatives, and things like that; and ultimately, that's what we had to do. We did design that little package of experiments that — what Neil [A. Armstrong] deployed was a solar cell-powered seismometer and a corner cube reflector that is still up there and still operating, still giving signals back primarily to (I guess it's) Lick Observatory near El Paso — McDonald Observatory near El Paso has been the principal beneficiary of that. But it also became apparent, during those briefings, that the probability of having two EVAs on the first mission (two external excursions on the first mission) was very, very low.
And that the further caused us to think about one more time whether one astronaut or two astronauts got out on that mission. And I had a lot of discussions about this with Deke Slayton. He was adamant (I certainly agreed with him), I think everybody was adamant that we always operate on a buddy system, that both astronauts were getting to get out of that spacecraft, and that we'd better design it so that can happen. Make sure our plans are such that they can happen. There's always going to be a contingency where one of the portable life support systems doesn't work, and that one astronaut goes down, touches the surface, gathers a sample, and comes back.
And as a matter of fact, that PSAC briefing also brought to the fore an idea just called a contingency sample. And Neil had a little bag and scoop that he would use in order — if that — if it came to that — they couldn't walk around or do anything other than get down and touch the surface — he would have something to grab a contingency sample and bring it back into the spacecraft. So, those two things going on simultaneously, the planning for Apollo 8 and the preparations for briefing the President's Science Advisory Committee really kept me humping in addition to trying to keep track of what the lunar module descent stage was doing in its development.
And at the same — and also at that time, I had — was having to try to organize a brand new training program for the Apollo missions, particularly the post-Apollo 11 missions. That had started, really, late in 1966 when I, after having thought about what was going on in the science training of the astronauts, having participated in some of the lectures, participated in — or had attended some of the lectures (not given them), participated in several of the field trips that the astronauts had been given as grouped — as a group, it seemed to me that we were really off track.
Number one, we were boring the astronauts. They were not interesting. The intent, apparently, was of the people then in charge to create — in their words, "create astronauts with Master's degrees in geology." Well, that's not what we needed. What we needed were focused, relatively narrowly trained field geologists who primarily were pilots, but people who could select — who could observe and select the widest variety of rocks, could tell us about the context in which each of those samples came from, and so forth. And since simulation training was working so well and all other aspects of our training, I went to Al Shepard with a proposal that we, number one, begin to focus our science training on an actual simulation of lunar traverses in areas on Earth where we could learn something about the kinds of problems that we would encounter on the Moon. (There are no real analogs on Earth, but we could focus on concepts and actually run short traverse exercises during this time — during the time they had for science training.)
And number two, is to go out and recruit the best teachers that we could possibly find to do this, who would not only — were very good scientists but very good teachers, and who could understand what we were trying to do and not be trying to change our emphasis, but to live within that. And in so doing, I called people like Richard Johns, who was a old teacher of mine at Caltech, one of the best field geologists that ever lived. I got a hold of Bob [Robert P.] Sharp, also a Caltech professor of mine who was the best observer of detail and what he called "belly geology" that I had ever encountered. Lee [Leon T.] Silver was invited to participate. And I called a number of lecturers, particularly people I knew, from Harvard such as Jim Thompson and Jim Hayes, Gene Simmons, and others to prepare lectures that were stripped of the vocabulary of geology and used the vocabulary of general science (of physics and chemistry) rather than the vocabulary of geology.
And so, the lecture program was reoriented much more towards what would be useful to them when they got to the Moon. And the field program, about a once-a-month training plan, was reoriented towards simulations, where the field geology was learned and geological concepts were learned, but in the context of actually performing as if you were on the Moon in everything but a pressure suit. That made all the difference in the world, I think. To Al Shepard's credit, he agreed that the Astronaut Office should take over the management of the science training. He said, "Go ahead and put it together;" and so, we did. And the first crew that we really worked with in detail was the Apollo 13 crew.
But before I get into that, I should mention that we were standing on a foundation of work already under way related to training, related to equipment, to plans, and objectives of field geology on the Moon that the US Geological Survey people (under Gene Shoemaker) had already been working on for a long time. And they were really the technical core of our training program. We always depended on them to organize the logistics of the trips, to recommend the sites that we would go to, to lay out the traverses that we would want the crew to work on (obviously in conjunction with everybody else). But they were really the hard rock core (pardon the expression) of the training program throughout the Apollo Program. They don't get nearly the credit they should. But they were. Without them, we couldn't have done it.
It began with Gene Shoemaker as a principal investigator for Apollo 11 and 12. Gordon Swann then became principal investigator for Apollo 13, 14, and then 15. And then Bill [William R.] Muehlberger from the University of Texas (but also he was employed by the USGS in this context) became the principal investigator for Apollo 16 and 17. And on top of that, we had the assistance of Lee Silver on Apollo 13 and 15. We had Dick Johns on Apollo 14. Lee also helped out a bit with Apollo 16 and 17, but Muehlberger was sort of the lead guy on all of that.
So, it — we really brought in a national program of training that, I think, resulted in what we have today. And that is a first-order understanding of the Moon as a planet; and, as a consequence, a first-order understanding of the early history of the Earth, of Mars, and the other terrestrial planets. And I'm not sure we could have gotten all of that without this reorientation of the training on top of this really fantastic sample analysis program that had been put together in about the same timeframe.
One thing that is implicit in all of this is that we were allowed to do all of this by people like George Low and Bob Gilruth and Sam Phillips and others who were the senior managers, primarily because (I think) right from the beginning almost (certainly from the late-1960s — the mid- to late-1960s) they realized they were going to be successful. They had all the confidence in the world they were going to land people on the Moon and return them safely to the Earth, [President] John [F.] Kennedy's challenge.
But once we did that, we were going to have a capability to explore the Moon. To do things far more than just that; that's what the lunar module looked like. And so, the various modification programs were put in place well before Apollo 11 that were leading us towards a Block II lunar module that could be — ultimately was used on 15, 16, and 17, to have a — some kind of mobility on the surface (for a while there was a competition between a lunar flyer and a lunar rover; the lunar rover obviously won out), and that was all done. But that was done — to the credit of Low and others — in anticipation of success on Apollo 11. It wouldn't have been ready had you not anticipated that success. So, they were as much a part of the science experiment as anybody else, because they encouraged us to go ahead and — us — I mean the scientific community — to go ahead with these kinds of plans. And indeed, put the money into the redesign of the — and upgrading of the lunar module and of the lunar roving vehicle.
Butler
Very forward thinking.
Schmitt
There's no question. And again, they don't get the credit they should, particularly from the scientific community. And that was an unfortunate aspect of Gene Shoemaker's later years. He became disillusioned, and he — I don't think he ever realized how much influence he actually had on the program and how much the NASA management (that he on occasion criticized publicly) did in order to make these science programs achievable.
Butler
You mention the support from the NASA managers to help this program go. What did the other astronauts, the pilots that had for so long not done this detailed geology work — how did they receive these changes? Were they eager to accept it?
Schmitt
As near as I could tell, they became eager. But I focused on one team, as I indicated earlier: the Apollo 13 crew, Jim [James A.] Lovell and Fred Haise, with John [W.] Young and Charlie [Charles M.] Duke as backup. And I persuaded Jim Lovell to take a chance on us. I told him, it would be fun; it'd be a nice weekend. "But let us have you for 3 days out in California with Lee Silver, and let us demonstrate this kind of training." And it was in the Orocopia Mountains of Southern California. We went out there and camped way away from everything. There was no press or anything around. And we — the people — the Caltech people put together the meals and had some staff assistants. (They didn't get paid for it. They just did it.) And we went out for 3 days and ran traverses like we talked about. And then we'd go back over them so they could see what an experienced geologist would have seen and the critique was done in near real time (as we say).
And Jim and Fred came back very enthusiastic about this, as did John and Charlie; and that enthusiasm was such that they said, "Yes, this is what we want for our training program." And once they had gotten into it, they persuaded Dave [David R.] Scott, who was going to be the Apollo 15 crew, to undertake that same kind of intensive simulation-based training. It was integrated to a lesser extent into Al Shepard's mission, Apollo 14, primarily I think just because of the nature of the people.
People are different. That mission came together a little bit late. Its focus changed somewhat, because you had to demonstrate that we'd solved the problems that had caused the near-fatal accident in the Apollo 13. So, it was more difficult to work with that crew at this level of effort. I, also, had, by that time, been assigned as a backup crewman for Apollo 15. I couldn't put as much — any, really, effort. (Once you're on a crew, you've got to focus on that crew.) And so, 14 did a wonderful job. It was an extremely important site, and they did a great job! But they didn't have the focused training that the Apollo 13 crew went into. I should mention, though, that the Apollo 12 crew, in spite of the fact that they had to be prepared to duplicate the Apollo 11 mission, and then once Apollo 11 landed with somewhat uncertain accuracy at their landing site, they had to get into the business of pinpoint landing at a Surveyor site, which was a very important effort by NASA and not just a "gee whiz" demonstration that we can do it, but it meant that we were going to open up a whole bunch of more complex areas for science landings later on (science-oriented landings). And so, in spite of all that, Pete [Charles] Conrad [Jr.] and Al [Alan L.] Bean worked very hard at their geology, primarily run by the US Geology — USGS astronaut — (excuse me) the would-be astronauts, the USGS geologists. Gordon Swann was leading that effort for Gene Shoemaker and just did a wonderful job. He deserves, again, a lot of credit for not only that effort of getting the — Conrad and his crew up to speed in geology, but increasing the acceptability of that kind of intense science training as part and parcel of an Apollo cycle. Swann also (as a little sidebar) — he was the one that I introduced to Gene Kranz; and Gordon brought to Kranz the concept of a science support room that we had worked on even back when I was still at the US Geological Survey. We had thought about how would a group of scientists interact with a whole bunch of engineers in support of a particular mission in real time. And he had followed up on that, with some other of the people there (Ed [Edward] Wolfe and Bob [Robert] Sutton and others) at the — at USGS in Flagstaff; and they were able to give Kranz a demonstration as well as a full-up briefing on what a science support room could do to enhance a mission.
And Kranz bought it (to his credit). And they began to work out, "How do you put together that kind of support and science that we knew we had in all other spacecraft systems and operations?" So, that was an introduction that I'm very proud of that really ended up contributing a great deal to what we were able to do. And if nothing else, it contributed to the enthusiasm of the scientist to work inside Apollo rather than outside.
Butler
That was a role that sort of evolved for you, it seems, that you were an interaction between the scientists and NASA and the astronauts particularly, but also engineers and Mission Control. Did that just kind of evolve as you went along or — ?
Schmitt
Well, it evolved as we went along. But I think it was probably a primary reason that the National Academy (some people, Harry Hess and others of the National Academy) kept pushing NASA to bring scientist-astronauts into the program. So, even though we — it was our responsibility to make it happen, and we never talked to them about it, that's what we tried to do.
And, of course, Owen Garriott and Ed Gibson and Joe Kerwin did the same thing for the Skylab in the Earth orbit flight. They brought their science (solar astronomy in particular, but also biomedicine) into — and their colleagues, and they acted as an interface during that period of the early spaceflight days.
And so, yes, I think that's really the role we played. And we passed it on to the next team of scientist-astronauts that came in after we did and became ultimately payload specialists, mission specialists, in the Shuttle Program.
Butler
You talked earlier about how you worked with Apollo 8 and — even in the sauna, to work on some of the orbital geology work for Bill Anders. How then for example, Apollo 10, looking forward to Apollo 11, how did you work with those astronauts? Or what role did that play?
Schmitt
Well, when John Young, who was on Apollo 10 as Bill Anders' role (the command module pilot) — well, actually, no, that's not true. Erase that.
Butler
Okay.
Schmitt
Gene Cernan was the lunar module pilot, which was Bill Anders' role. But John Young decided that he wanted to learn — wanted the same kind of briefing that Bill Anders got about features on the Moon, since Apollo 10 now was going to go around the Moon with the lunar module and Apollo 9 had proven it out in Earth orbit as a follow-on to Apollo 8. So, we finally got back on schedule, even though the lunar module was a little bit late, with Apollo 9. And so, Apollo 10 was going to go around the Moon. And the initial request that I had from John was to provide him with that kind of briefing.
So, I was flying back and forth. But I was starting to run out of time. I was limited in what to do. So, I invited Jim [James W.] Head [III], who's now at Brown University but was then working with Bellcomm in Washington (one of the contractors to NASA Headquarters), and Farouk El-Baz, who was a geologist also working at Bellcomm. I asked them if they would begin to transition and come down and help give these orbital science briefings to the crews — the command module pilots that were going to be flying around the Moon and see if we could gain some significant science from those kinds of observations. And they were quite enthusiastic to do that, and they began to fill that role gradually. (We overlapped a bit, and then gradually I just turned it over to them and let them do it.) Because they got along well with the crews and nobody seemed to have a particular problem with that.
There were others that came in. Again, the US Geological Survey played a major role with people like Hal [Harold] Masursky and Don Wilhelms, who were really the gurus in orbital geology anyway. (They knew far more than anybody else.) And so, they not only had materials but they had knowledge that we brought them into a lot of briefings for the command module pilots and the backup command module pilots.
But with Apollo 10, of course, every crew was always looking for a hook to make their mission stand out a little bit more than the last one. Number one, Tom [Thomas P.] Stafford, who was commander of Apollo 10, decided he didn't want to go to the Moon with a camera like we had on Apollo 8, which was the old RCA Vidicon camera that was initially designed in order to get the first step on the Moon. It's the same camera — it was the same camera in the command module that we eventually had on Apollo 11, looking down at the ladder and the front landing pad so that one — that there would be a video recording of Neil Armstrong's first step on the Moon.
Well, it was a very low light level camera. It had to look in the shadow because Neil's first step would be in shadow on the Moon. So, they had designed a very low light level camera — what's called a Vidicon — and had not ever thought about that you might want to use it to look back at the Earth. And with Apollo 8, we had this problem of the Earth being too bright for that camera. It just bloomed in the picture. And as a side point: as soon as that happened, well, I gathered a bunch of people over in the optics lab and we went to work simulating the brightness of the Earth and had that camera and tried to figure out how we were going to reduce that light level with what we had on board.
We had a number of filters. Strangely enough, I don't even remember why the filters were on board — the camera filters were on board. But we just ended up taping every filter we had together with gray duct tape (it holds the world together) and when we finally got a recognizable picture of the Earth, it was because Bill Anders was holding that taped-together set of filters in front of the Vidicon. And we finally treated the world to a black-and-white picture of the Earth!
Now Tom didn't want to go through that. (I don't blame him.) And he asked if there was any way to find a color television camera that would be able to be adjusted, so you could get a good picture of the Earth as well as pictures of the crew inside and things like that. Well, the loser in the competition for the first camera on the Moon had been a Westinghouse color wheel camera, and when I began to investigate this, I found this out. And so, it had already had some design consideration for spaceflight. And we eventually were able to persuade the engineering side of NASA and the — most importantly George Low, who ran the CCB [Configuration Control Board] for the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office at that time (as Director of that Office), that we ought to fly a good camera; and this color wheel Westinghouse camera was really outstanding camera.
And because we got it onboard of Apollo 10, it eventually became the lunar surface camera for the Apollo 15, 16, and 17 missions. I can't remember exactly when it first flew. I think it — I don't think we had it — no, we did not have it on Apollo 14. It was 15 the first time it flew on the surface, but it flew on Apollo 10 to give us some good pictures. And there are some good tapes of the crew and of the Earth from Apollo 10 and that kind of thing. Also, Apollo 10 was originally going to be targeted to the same landing point (even though it wasn't going to land) — but to go through all the motions of targeting, it was going to be targeted to the Apollo 8 landing site — what we called the Apollo 8 landing site (even though it never landed). And it occurred to me that we had already seen that. That the crew had gone within 60 miles of the surface (60 nautical miles of the surface). They looked at it. They had some good photography of it. They felt very confident that, from that distance at least, it looked like it was good terrain to land in.
And it occurred to me, "Why don't we get the same amount of confidence for two more landing sites?" Namely, "Why don't we target for the — next a lunar orbiter landing site to the west, and then if we — since Apollo 10 was going to be a longer orbit mission, we would have a chance to see and look at a third site." So, that meant for Apollo 11, we potentially would have three sites already looked at by the crews, in which we had significant confidence, and had already gone through targeting activities here at — in the old Mission Planning and Analysis group (MPAD) that would, I think, increase everybody's confidence in the — in flying at least Apollo 11.
Well, that was a little more difficult to persuade people on because it entailed a 1-day slip in the Apollo 10 launch date to go to the next landing site. And they already had — they just had to make some slight revisions of all the planning documents (the data package, as they called it) in order to go to the Apollo 8 site. (That was all pretty well taken care of.) And if — here's Jack Schmitt coming along, saying, "Let's go one more site downstream," and that meant all that work had to be redone.
But we put together our arguments. A whole bunch of advantages. Number one, you'd be a little bit farther west, and therefore you had more time for updates to the lunar module after the spacecraft came around the Moon and you had acquisition of signal (AOS) again. We had all the advantages again of Apollo 11 having two sites to go to. Or three sites, actually. A whole bunch of things. And and we started briefing this up through the system.
And we finally got to Chris [Christopher C.] Kraft [Jr.] with this briefing. And he was obviously skeptical. (He was then Head of Flight Control Directorate.) And we made this presentation. And one of the last things we had on our list was that instead of landing before sunrise in the South Pacific on recovery day, you would land just after it — sunrise with a daylight landing. And when I said that, Jerry [Jerome B.] Hammack (who was recovery officer at the time) said, "All of that and a daylight landing, too?" And that sold it really to Chris.
Now we hadn't sold it to anybody else. But Chris became an ally and began to — (I think, probably internally) to talk about it some. And we finally, though, late one night (and in those days, everything happened late at night; it seemed to be significant) — it must've been 9:00 when George Low called Tom and me over to his office, and Sam Phillips was there and — in order to talk about this one last time. And George was not too enthusiastic about the whole thing. But we gave him the briefing on why we thought we ought to slip one day, and he thanked us and we left.
Tom and I left Building 1, saying, you know, "That's it," you know, "George — he's not very interested in this. Let's go off and worry about other things." And the next morning (I believe it was the next morning), well, Tom called me in said, "Well, George bought it." And what I think may have happened is Sam Phillips bought it; and Sam and George talked about it, but I have no inside knowledge. I think that somehow that evening, it happened. And it meant launching — slipping from the 17th of May to the 18th of May for the launch of Apollo 10.
And by doing that then, it became absolutely clear that Apollo 11 was not going to redo this again for a different landing site, and so they used the Apollo 10 data package. And that's what determined us going to Tranquility — what became Tranquility Base on Apollo 11 was that little song-and-dance about slipping the launch day of Apollo 10 one day.
Butler
Now that's something interesting that I don't think many people are aware of. It's very interesting, all the intricacies of the planning that you all did.
Schmitt
But it's illustrative of the way Apollo worked. And if somebody had a good idea and you could convince a few other people you had a good idea, you could work it up through the system and eventually somebody would listen to you. It was never stopped. There were really no barriers to good ideas. And it worked in the planning stages, and it worked in real time during a mission. If a problem developed during a mission and somebody had a good idea on how to solve that problem, you had as much chance of getting that idea pushed forward as anybody else.
And it — so much of Apollo's success depended on that. And I think the reason was, it was a very young Agency. One of the biggest flaws in an otherwise very (I think) credible movie, and that's Apollo 13, was the representation of the ages of the young men and women who were in Mission Control during that — dealing with that problem that occurred on Apollo 13.
The movie would lead you to think they were in their forties, their late thirties, early forties. In reality, they were in their twenties. They just came out of engineering school. They had just been hired from Rensselaer and Tulane [University, New Orleans, Louisiana] and LSU [Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, Louisiana] and VPI [Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University, Blacksburg, Virginia] and places like that to work, you know, for Chris Kraft. And it was true of the whole organization. They were people in their twenties who really believed that they were doing the most important thing they were ever going to do with their lives. And it wasn't to beat — initially, it may have been to beat the Russians to the Moon. But that was — everybody knew that race was over in '65 (probably) with the successful launches of the Saturn V launch vehicle. Even the Russian émigrés will tell you that, that they basically, even though they tried to launch the N-1 rocket later and it blew up, they really had pretty much given up (in their own minds) when we successfully launched the Saturn V.
And we sort of sensed that over here. And that everybody believed (450,000 Americans believed) that this was something we ought to do. We ought to go to the Moon. Ought to return safely. It's important to whatever. Some of them patriotism; some of them humankind. Whatever it might have been, it was the most important thing they could do in their lives at that time. And that's why they worked those 16-hour days and 8-day weeks. That's why you didn't do it for $20M — $20B. You did it because these people believed it ought to happen.
And that kind of environment is just something that we see too seldom. Too often it has to be war. In this case it isn't war. It was competition, but it certainly was not war. And those people were the reason that you could get almost anything done. There was never a paucity of ideas. Imagination was rampant, and most of it very good imagination on how to solve problems. And a group of people could get around a table, work together, and in a noncompetitive — it seemed noncompetitive, at least at the time — and the sum of the output of that table was far greater than just the individual parts that were there.
It was really an exciting time to be involved. And that's why Apollo 13 was saved. That's why Apollo 11 landed at the time it did. It's really why any of the in-flight emergencies were dealt with successfully, is because people could get together and figure out how to solve the problem.
Butler
A very motivated and dedicated group of people.
Schmitt
It was — it was really a remarkable time.
Butler
As a remarkable time, you mentioned Apollo 11; and now we're coming up on the 30th anniversary. What was your involvement (if at all) with planning for that mission? And then, where were you when they did land on the Moon?
SCHMITT: Well, I was very closely involved with the crew because — on the science training and the descent stage activities. Also, I just gradually got into the role of being a de facto mission scientist to act as liaison with the principal investigators. The crew just didn't have time to see them, other than in very formal sessions — training sessions — which really did not amount to a lot. It just gave the principal investigator a little bit of access to the crew, because they had other things that had to be done besides learning the experiments were. And so, actually a month before launch (I think it was about a month before launch), Deke Slayton formally designated me as a mission scientist so that I had a little more clout (I guess). I don't know why he did it. It was unnecessary, because I was doing that anyway. So, I was with the crew at the Cape most of the time when — and helping them in their various lunar surface simulations that they did; helping to plan the actual timeline, which began with the PSAC briefings and then it matured into what actually they were going to do. We had a lot of interaction in trying to fight off the people that wanted to get rid of the portable life support systems and just have Neil go down to the surface on an umbilical and grab a sample and come home. I mean, there were a lot of these kind of things. And nobody believed that we were going to be that desperate for weight and that desperate for time that we needed to go to those lengths. And, indeed, obviously we didn't.
I have lots of recollections about being with the crew at breakfast or dinner down there and various things. Neil was quoted as saying and it was, I think, an accurate quote, is that he felt that he only had a finite number of heartbeats and he wasn't going to waste any of them on exercise. That was, I think, in a Life magazine article. And I'm pretty sure I heard say Neil say that in person. And so, one — but Buzz Aldrin was just the opposite. (Buzz is a very much an exercise freak, if you will.)
And one time at about two weeks before launch, Neil came into breakfast with a handgrip — a rubber handgrip — and he just sat down at the table and was gripping this. And Buzz Aldrin was sitting on the table just getting redder and redder because here it was two weeks before launch and Neil knew exactly what he was doing, you know. He was just teasing Buzz by gripping this.
The thing, though, that most people don't realize is that in training in pressure suits, you get an awful lot of exercise. It's very, very difficult to go through training for a mission and not get in pretty fantastic shape for the kinds of things that you have to do in a pressure suit. So, Neil hadn't really skimped on anything. But he was just giving Buzz a hard time.
Butler
I think it's good that everyone was able to keep their spirits and their sense of humor, it sounds like.
Schmitt
Well, I'm not sure Buzz kept his on that occasion. But most of the time he did.
Butler
And where were you when they actually landed on the Moon?
Schmitt
I was back in the Mission Control Center. I was helping out at the Capcom [capsule communicator] console. I was not Capcom, but I was helping out there.
Butler
It must've been quite a time to see the goal actually achieved for the first time.
Schmitt
It was. But, you know, we all — I think everybody — I was very close to Mission Control. One of the places I found you could learn — you could do a little simulation training before I was ever assigned to a mission and you could learn an awful lot about spacecraft systems, was to go over to Mission Control and work with the various console teams because they were the ones that developed the so-called schematics of each of the spacecraft systems. And I learned an awful lot from studying those and working with those people.
So, I had a real good relationship with the Mission Control folks. We went out to the Singing Wheel together often — and — the late Singing Wheel, I guess we have to refer to it since it's burned down — for barbecue and shuffleboard. And it was a good crew. I really enjoyed my time with them. The — Sy [Seymour A.] Liebergot and the — Steve [Stephen G.] Bales and the booster guy whose name I — . I feel bad but I can't remember all their names now.
But we spent a lot of time together. I learned a lot from them. And I think, with the AOS (the Acquisition of Signal) on Apollo 8, was probably for that group and for me and a few other people the highlight of the Apollo Program. We hadn't planned to do that. We'd gone around the Moon and we were bringing these guys safely home. And the place just erupted when we got that first signal from the Apollo 8 crew, "Headed back home." And that didn't happen again.
Apollo 10? Same thing. Ho-hum. You know, the viewing room was almost empty (as I recall) for the AOS on Apollo 10. It was just the way we were. You know, we'd done that. Now let's go on to the next thing.
And certainly, the landing — the successful landing of Apollo 11, particularly with the suspense that came with that landing and the problems with the executive overload in the computer because it was monitoring the rendezvous radar signals it didn't need to monitor. And Steve Bales' call on that to say, "Oh, you're go for that," and then finally Neil had a chance to look outside. And he was headed towards a bunch of boulders, so they overflew West Crater in order to find a good landing point. All of that was terribly exciting. And, you know, it was certainly what we had signed on to do.
But I — an awful lot of people would go back and I think they'd say, "What was the mission? Apollo 8 was The Mission. It's the one we didn't expect to do and the one we did remarkably well."
Butler
We found that a lot of people do agree with that, which is interesting. And Apollo 8 did achieve Kennedy's goal of getting to the Moon.
Schmitt
Yeah. But, you know, obviously we were not about to give up on landing. But it just was the emotions of Apollo 8 I think were very, very different than — it was a much more professional matter of fact for Apollo 11 than it was for Apollo 8.
Butler
As you began to move on through the (now) — the landing missions with Apollo 11 and Apollo 12, when did you begin to get a chance to actually look at the samples that were being brought back? And — .
Schmitt
Well, I was working on the Apollo 11 samples immediately upon their — getting them back. I, indeed, participated a great deal and authored the first paper in the lunar science conference — the Apollo 11 science — (what did they call it?) the Apollo 11 Science Conference Volume that was published in 1970. The first paper, I and Gary Lofgren and a few others — Gene Simmons authored as an introduction to that volume, and included a section where I summarized the work that I had done on the lunar samples. It was — what we call hand specimen analysis. But still, I think was — it certainly would have been helpful to me in thinking about these rocks through the years.
So, I started working on them right away. And I stayed pretty current on the samples as they came back.
Butler
Did they meet your expectations?
Schmitt
All I had as expectations: that they'd be exciting, and they certainly were! They — all the — not only just visually and some of the things we saw in them were very, very unusual — relative to terrestrial rocks.
One of the first things that catches your eye, there's no evidence at all of any water activity; and there isn't any water in these rocks. So, that absence of water or signs of water catches your eye right away. And because of that, there are mineral assemblages that are very, very clearly identified just in hand specimen, and — which you'd normally have trouble doing here on Earth with the volcanic rocks. So, it was exciting to be able to sit and work on the actual rocks that you had dedicated a small part of your life to.
Butler
As the other missions progressed and as you did begin your training for backup mission for Apollo 15 and continued to look at these samples as they came in, what were some of the differences between the different sites? I know, obviously, there were several; but in general.
Schmitt
Most of the differences come out in the chemistry of the rocks, and that of course took a good while — a few months to come out because the samples had to be distributed to the investigators and they had to do their work. And then the results would be reported on. But each site is distinctive.
For example, the Apollo 11 rocks are very high in titanium, and so you see a lot of the mineral ilmenite in them. And you see it in hand specimen in the vesicles — the holes in the rocks — and things like that. Where Apollo 12, you did not see as much. It was very little — there was relatively low titanium, but there we had a better chance to look at what's called differentiation of flows in that these were olivine-rich lavas. And the olivine, as it crystallized out, sank to the bottom of the flows; and this determined the kind of rocks that Pete Conrad and Al Bean picked up around the various craters that they looked at. So, they're quite distinctive there. The Apollo 14 site was on an ejecta blanket. It wasn't on a volcanic rock at all; it was on an ejecta blanket from the Imbrium Basin. And we knew we were going to see a lot of the rocks composed of fragments of other rocks which we called breccias, and we did. And the sample suite there is very, very distinctive from what we had seen. And even though we saw those — saw breccias again as a dominant rock type in Apollo 16, they were a very different kind of breccia, one which has resulted from the long-term gardening of the lunar Highlands at the Apollo 16 site, where the Apollo 14 rocks were primarily those ejected from one basin.
Apollo 15 got us back into the basalts again, but low-titanium basalts. And although we didn't fully recognize it and its significance, the crew also picked up some unusual volcanic glass (in that case, green glass in contrast to the orange glass that we found in abundance at the Apollo 17 site). Also, Apollo 15 was the first time we saw big chunks of crystalline rocks, coarsely crystalline rocks such as rocks composed primarily of feldspar (calcium feldspar, called anorthosites), that we had suspected we might see there and elsewhere, but we had not really been able to collect large fragments of it.
Again at Apollo 17, we saw these kind of rocks in abundance in the breccias or fragmental rocks that we sampled there. Apollo 17 had got us also back into high-titanium rocks, so ilmenite was again a very dominant mineral phase. The orange soil, though, is really what attracted most of the scientific attention, initially at least, to the Apollo 17 site, although we found that there's a lot of other things of interest there as well.
Butler
It shows that the Moon is a very diverse place.
Schmitt
It is diverse. Not nearly as diverse as the Earth. The absence of water and water-driven processes on the Moon reduce that diversity significantly. But still in its own way, it's not only very different than the Earth but it has a diversity as a result of that. A diversity we don't see here on Earth, because that part of Earth history has been obscured or destroyed. I mean just — Earth history beyond 3 billion years ago is very difficult for us to look at here on Earth. In fact, Earth history beyond half a billion years ago is somewhat difficult to look at. You have to go to very special places. On the Moon, we just start looking at history at 3 billion years and go back from there. So, it's a pitted and dusty window into our own past. No question about that.
Butler
Absolutely. As you began training on the backup crew for Apollo 15, you mentioned that now you got pretty involved in that aspect of things and so less so in some of the other areas that you had been in before. How did your role kind of evolve, and what did you begin to focus on specifically?
Schmitt
Al Shepard called me into the office in January of 1970 and said that, "We're going to assign you to a backup crew and you'd better start stealing simulator time." I didn't say, "I already have been," but — because that's what everybody did and he knew it. So, he gave me sort of a formal permission, if you will, to work myself into the simulator training schedules. Which I did, of course, and very rapidly dropped off everything else I was doing. Because once you're on a mission, everything else you do needs to be focused entirely on the mission. That doesn't mean I didn't work on the science, work on the experiments — but they were the ones we were going to fly with on Apollo 15. So, I became purely an integrated part of that crew rather than trying to deal with Apollo 16 and any future missions that might come along.
Dick [Richard F.] Gordon [Jr.] and Vance [D.] Brand were my crewmates. Dick was the commander. Vance was a command module pilot. On the backup crew we, of course, were backing up Dave Scott, Al [Alfred M.] Worden, and — and Jim [James B.] Irwin on that Apollo mission. Now I think also, though, because Dick and I are competitive people (when we're teamed together or not), as most of the astronauts are — I think we were able to push the prime crew pretty hard on their science training as well as — I probably pushed them pretty hard on their simulator training as well.
Because you don't do much cross training. You do a little. At least — every once in a while (very rarely) — but every once in a while, Dave Scott and I would fly a simulation; because there's always a possibility that one or the other's going to fly rather than the prime crew. So Dick Gordon and Jim Irwin were doing some cross training, but not very much. That was very rare. The probability of a backup crew ever flying was pretty low, in spite of the experience of Jack Swigert replacing Ken [Thomas K.] Mattingly [II] on Apollo 13. We pushed them as hard as we could in the simulations and everything. And Dick Gordon and I became a pretty good spacecraft crew, too. Dick would never let me try to land it from the right side; but other than that, we worked together very closely and I think probably flew those simulators as well as the prime crew. (Of course, that's what any astronaut will tell you.)
Butler
From a somewhat of a social aspect, did interactions between the crews — both the prime and backup — were those at a pretty good level?
Schmitt
On Apollo 15 and 17, my two experiences? Yeah, I think so. We didn't see an awful lot of our backup crew on Apollo 17, because they knew that they were just sort of filling a square unless something really serious happened. But still, when they were around, we did a lot of socializing with the support team. We tried to with contractor teams and stuff like that.
The astronauts were generally pretty good at socializing with people who were important to the success of the various missions. It was very important to do. Both formally, we had formal competitive baseball games and barbecue activities and things like that; and informally, we would golf and do things. I did a lot. And as I indicated before, I did particularly a lot with the Flight Control Division people.
Butler
At this point, did you do even more with the Control people?
Schmitt
Yes, we did. At least, as a team. As a crew, we did. We did a lot more. We had more formal interactions with them. Our formal — informal interactions. Because everything has to be scheduled. You just — when you're training for a mission, it's hard to just, you know, break off and say, "Okay, let's go do something else tonight." I mean — "or this afternoon." That, you pretty well have to work those into a formal schedule.
Butler
You mentioned the contractors. Did your role with them — did you have a big role with them over the course of your career? And did that change as you became involved on the missions?
Schmitt
Before being assigned to any mission, the astronauts dealt primarily with contractors, because they were the vast majority of the — 90% of the people who were involved in Apollo were contractor personnel. And so, one reason why we traveled so much and got so many hours in T-38s on cross-country flights was that we were flying to the various contractors around the country.
And it changed with time. In the very early days, of course, an awful lot of travel was to — in the early days of Apollo was to Los Angeles and the [North American] Rockwell facilities there and to Grumman [Aircraft Engineering Corp.] Bethpage [New York] for the Grumman facilities that were there. I went into Michigan quite a bit because of the ALSEP. And there were occasionally other particular things that we would do around the country. In the early — even earlier days, Gemini and Mercury, of course, an awful lot of travel went into St. Louis where those spacecraft were being built by McDonnell Douglas.
As you began to focus on a particular mission then that contractor interaction became more with those people who were supporting the actual training, supporting the testing of your spacecraft and your rockets and things like that. People who were stationed formally at the Kennedy Space Center, for example, would be the ones we would see more than we would see people at the plants. We didn't — I didn't normally go to the plants. I don't remember actually going to plants at all while I was in a formal training cycle.
But we did see an awful lot of them. And your scheduled training briefing, say, on the landing radar or rendezvous radar or something like that would involve the contractor that had built it and people from that contractor, who specifically were assigned to a training exercise or a training effort — either lecture or a demonstration.
Butler
We talked earlier about the landing site selection; and you then talked about some of the differences, geologically, in the sites from Apollo. Did those differences, as you were going on with the missions, as the results were coming in, and as you were training for the next ones — did that — how much did that affect the selection of landing sites for the later missions? Or had those been pinned down pretty well earlier?
Schmitt
We had a fairly large set of potential candidates for landing sites for each mission; and as the results from a completed mission began to be known, it would bias interest in the sites one way or the other. Particularly as we got near the last couple of missions — it became apparent that they were going to be the last couple of missions — the competition among ideas for what landing sites should be selected became more and more intense. And for example, Apollo 17 involved a number of different possible candidates, and the Taurus-Littrow Valley was not one of them initially because everybody had assumed that we couldn't land in there — it was too narrow — and that the landing error ellipse was too large to permit a 3- sigma error ellipse was too large to permit us to go in there.
Fortunately, I think, a number of people (particularly some of the Bellcomm folks back — Jim Head and others back in Washington) didn't give up on it. And they were able to persuade, through various calculations and operational initiatives of — new initiatives on how you track spacecraft and stuff like that, they were able to persuade the Flight Control Division, which was the important player down here, that we could indeed get that error ellipse down to a size that would fit in the Valley of Taurus-Littrow. And so, ultimately everybody agreed, "Yeah, we can go do that."
Part of it had to do with coming up with a set of procedures that will allow us to get a better update of the lunar module's state vector on the partial orbit just before we ignited the descent engine to go into the valley. That was a very important part of being able to reduce the size of that error. So, once that agreement came along, it didn't take very long for the consensus to say, "Yeah, Taurus-Littrow is probably the best place to go because of the variety of geologic structures that we know will be there and the apparent range of ages of processes that we would be able to sample while we're there." And then, on top of all that, unknown to everybody, it's just a magnificent place to be! It's a beautiful site.
But Alphonsus was considered a candidate. There was some site, which I don't really remember much about that was — I think it was called "southwest of Crisium" that had been proposed. (Someday I have to go back and find out what that was. I just don't remember that much about it.) Copernicus was a candidate to go into the floor. Copernicus. Tycho to some degree was — the rim of Tycho was considered a candidate. And most of these had been considered for other missions.
After Apollo 13, as a little sidelight, I had the thought that once we had verified our systems again with Apollo 14 and gone to the site — the so-called Fra Mauro site that had been planned for 13, which was a very important site on the ejecta blanket of the Imbrium — I began to talk up a plan that would take us to those places on the Moon that almost everybody had always wanted to go throughout history, independent — or had always attracted great interest, even before there ever was an Apollo Program.
And one was Tycho, the Crater Tycho; another were the polar regions where there's permanently shadowed areas; another would be the west rim of the Moon, which would mean a big basin and young basin — relatively young basin, Orientale; and then the final mission, if — at that time we thought we had four missions left after 14 (through 18), we'd go to the far side of the Moon. And I had a lot of fun with that in trying to develop the arguments and work — and, again, work them up through the system and see if anybody was interested in a different kind of a program.
It turned out that very few people were. And so, that idea disappeared. Of course, we lost Apollo 18. That was cancelled, it turns out, at about that same time (as I understand George Low's archives). But when Apollo 17 came along, I once again surfaced the possibility that we might land on the far side of the Moon with communications satellites placed in what's called a pseudo libration point about (if I remember correctly) 30,000 km behind the Moon. We had two satellites on the shelf (I think they were Tyros satellite buses, as a matter of fact) that TRW [Thompson-Ramo-Wooldridge] had that could be placed back there; and we got the cost figures from TRW and others. But again, Chris Kraft finally stopped me in the hall and said, "Let's don't talk about going to the far side of the Moon on the last mission." So, I stopped talking about it! I thought it was a pretty good idea, though, myself.
Butler
We'll take a break here…
Talking about some of the landing sites — and you were talking about the possibility of a mission to the far side of the Moon — are these areas that, hopefully for future missions — that will be considered? The polar regions and Tycho?
Schmitt
I think they will be of interest over the next century. But I don't see that we're going to get back to the Moon for any scientific purposes until the infrastructure for going into deep space has been redeveloped for some other reason and, with respect to the Moon, probably a commercial reason; namely, access to its resources. Once you have the developed the infrastructure — capitalized, if you will, the infrastructure — on the backs of some crass, profit-making enterprise, then you can start to do all sorts of things. You've lowered the cost of access to space by a major factor because of these other ongoing activities.
And so, science can piggyback on that back to the Moon just paying whatever a launch cost would be by that time. And I think, in order to make these other commercial enterprises successful (if we're talking about the Moon), you're going to talk about a cost of putting a payload on a trajectory to the Moon that would be in the range of $1000 to $2000 a kilogram (in today's dollars), and that's very low. That compares to a cost of about $70,000 per kilogram for Apollo. Say, a marginal cost of another mission at the end of Apollo would have been about that cost. And that's fully capitalized. That includes interest on debt if you had to borrow the money, which the government does but never pays interest on (it doesn't seem to).
And so, it is only in that way that I think science is going to go back to the Moon.
But I think it's the best way that it's going to get back there. Whether it's to continue the exploration of the Moon or establish a astronomical base or some other purpose, many of which have been suggested by others.
Butler
Well, hopefully, we'll see some progress toward that at some point in the future.
Schmitt
Well, it's going to be difficult. It's going to take somebody with a business plan that can compete, at least on the surface, with other uses of capital. It's going to take investors. The government, I don't think, is going to be a player other than a regulator and a treaty enforcer.
The government's always a player, and unfortunately, in our lives, and — but it won't — I don't think it'll be providing at least the initial funding. Now it may buy the rides to the Moon in order to establish a scientific base or something like that. The government may sponsor that, and I suspect it would; but I don't see it initiating it. There's just too many — going to be too many other demands on the budget in the foreseeable future — with retirement security and health security and almost certainly increasing national defense requirements.
So, I think those of us who are interested in going back into deep space have to concentrate on finding a commercial reason to do it; and I don't really know of one that's better or even feasible, other than the idea of bringing fusion fuel — namely, helium 3 — back from the Moon for use here on Earth in electrical power plants.
Butler
What were — while you bring it up, let's talk a little bit about helium 3 and the possibilities there and your work in that area.
Schmitt
Well, helium 3 is a product of the solar wind that is embedded in the surface materials of the Moon. And over 4 billion years and turnover in the regolith or the debris layer that covers the Moon, it has been mixed in; and there is a certain constant steady-state concentration of helium 3 — particularly in areas that are rich in titanium. It turns out that the mineral ilmenite, an iron titanium oxide, has a crystal structure that retains helium and helium 3 better than do other minerals. So, we've been trying to investigate what that is at the University of Wisconsin, where I now do teaching and some research. But we don't have a final answer. We've been able to duplicate some of the results with experimental bombardment of ilmenite, but we still don't have a good answer of how it's actually being retained.
But the empirical evidence is quite clear. It is retained in higher concentrations in the high-titanium regolith of the Moon. Apollo — the Tranquility Mare — Mare Tranquillitatis, the border regions of Mare Serenitatis in particular. Helium 3 can be extracted very easily from the regolith. It's embedded and retained. But if you heat the regolith to 700°/800°C, the helium as well as hydrogen, which is the dominant solar wind component in the regolith, are released; and these can be then fractionally cooled, particularly at night when you have a very, very clear, cold sink to deep space. (You can actually do it during the day, as long as you can reflect into that cold sink of 4 K [Kelvin] — that's pretty cold — which is deep space.) And ultimately, you would separate the helium from the hydrogen, and then the helium 3 from the helium 4, which is the normal hydrogen, using a process already known and used here on Earth to do the very same thing, and bring liquid helium 3 back to Earth in relatively small amounts.
Because it's so valuable — its energy equivalent value today, relative to coal, would be about $3B a metric ton! And so you only need about 60 to 100 kg to operate a large power plant (that's a — say a gigawatt power plant — a thousand megawatt power plant) for a year. So, there's a — helium 3's chucky jam full of — as Dick Johns used to say, "chucky jam full" of energy. And it's extremely valuable. So, at $3B a metric ton with a long-term potential marketplace of about $90B (just in the United States alone) — that's long term, you wouldn't do that very fast — you can see why there's some of us feel that there's a economic potential. Unfortunately, it's very difficult in most circumstances (there are a few imagined circumstances where this may not be true) — but in most circumstances, you can't tie up investor capital for 10 years without a return. And that — it'll take you about 10 years to, you know, from start to get back to the Moon with your first shipment of helium 3 back to Earth, and your first power plant operating and ready to use it. So, that makes it difficult to imagine right now how you're going to attract investors without some kind of near-term bridge business that is consistent with your long-term aims but begins to bring investors in that can, indeed, realize some return on the near-term business.
And in the case of this particular initiative, that near-term business is probably using very low levels of fusion to produce medical isotopes at very low cost at the site where they're going to be used. And this is particularly valuable for positron emission isotopes, which have very short half-lives and a need to be produced basically where they're going to be used. (It's hard to produce a positron-emitting isotope more than 4 hours away from where it needs to be used and have anything left by the time you get ready to use it.) So, the near-term business will probably be somehow based on medical isotope production using low levels of fusion power of various kinds rather than an actual sustained power plant. But that's one way in which you develop a bridging business. Now there are a lot of people talking about different other kinds as we sit here today, talking about different other kinds of commercial businesses in space. Most of them require that the infrastructure already exists for it ever to be profit-making or requires the government to be a customer or a partner or, indeed, a development partner. And again, I don't think any of those are really feasible in this day and age. It's going to take something more like a large-scale operation, more like helium 3, in order to build that infrastructure and also produce a return on investment.
Butler
Sound like some very interesting possibilities for the future.
Schmitt
Well, it is. And it's important, because we're going to double our population within the next 50 years on Earth. That means in itself, just to maintain the status quo, a doubling in our use of energy. If you expect to — for the aspirations of the developing world to be met at all in that period of time — rather than just staying at extremely low levels of energy use and, therefore, very low levels of development — you're going to have to increase the energy use by even more. You won't even get to where we are today in this country if you quadruple their energy use! So, you've got a big step forward to take if there is such a thing as global climate change (and there will be, geologically speaking; whether it's warming or cooling, I don't think we know) in the long run, but that — either one will take more energy to mitigate the adverse consequences.
So, you're looking — as the primary issue, I think — technical issue of the 21st century is energy supply. Are we going to use our ace in the hole continuously, and that's fossil fuels? There's plenty of fossil fuels. The price will go up, but there's plenty as I said, but I'm not sure you want to do that. Not only is it uncertain what its effect might be on climate over that period of time, but it is probably so valuable as a chemical for the future generations that you don't want to burn it. And so, helium 3 starts to look to me like to have a very, very strong philosophical as well as a economic reason to be considered. But all of this is going to be done in a competitive world. And if we're going to — if we hope to have helium 3 power on Earth for all of these good reasons — environmentally benign, a high-efficiency substitute for fossil fuels, and so forth — then I think it's going to have to be done in a pure business environment, and we're going to have to consider fossil fuels and fission nuclear power and solar power and others as our competitors, and show that we can provide a better product, at a better price, with less consequence. And I think we can do that, but a lot of us have a lot of work to do before that happens.
Butler
And it certainly is a different world from the Apollo days in that, like you mentioned — that take's business motivation to give — .
Schmitt
Yeah. The window for government or taxpayer-funded initiative back to the Moon probably was open in the 1970s for a little while. Clearly, we were not looking in that direction. But it was probably open. But I think it's pretty well closed now. I just don't see — even though I think it's only going to take $10B to $15B to get us back to the Moon, to give the initial capital cost, I think that's beyond what we could expect the Congress to appropriate or a President to sign in this day and age with all the other demands on the budget. Discretionary monies are decreasing, not increasing in spite of all the talk of big surpluses and things like that.
Butler
Going back, when — again to site selection times. In one of the references I came across — in fact it might have been Wilhelm's Rocky Moon — it mentioned that some consideration was given to not selecting sites that might be potential for Soviet probe return missions. Were you aware of any of that? Or was that a big factor that you knew of?
Schmitt
I am not aware of that ever being a significant factor when I finally got involved at any point. I'm sure it probably was discussed among the scientists, but I don't remember it ever coming up. It doesn't mean it didn't. I just don't remember it ever coming up.
Butler
Okay.
Schmitt
The Soviet probes provided such a small sample and no contextual information such as the Apollo crews provided that you could go to a place where a Luna mission may have returned a sample and I don't think you would duplicate very much at all by having a full-fledged mission there. So, I think calmer heads, cooler heads probably prevailed and said, "That's a non-issue." But I don't know that. I'm just guessing.
Butler
A well-informed guess sounds like, thank you. Going into — as you trained for Apollo 15 as the backup, but during — at some point during that training the decision was made not to have the Apollo 18, 19, and 20 missions. At what point did you learn of that? And what did you then think of the possibilities of you actually flying on a mission? SCHMITT: Well, it turns out, having just gone through some of George Low's archival material at Rensselaer, that on one hand the Apollo 19 and 20 missions had been lost a long time ago. In fact, if I remember correctly, early in 1970 it was clear to them, to inside of management, that there was not going to be a 19 or 20. And 18 was also very much in jeopardy and was lost much earlier than I thought originally.
I thought that 18 had really been — and maybe it just officially was cancelled by NASA in the middle of the Apollo 15 training mission. That's when we heard about it. But if I interpret George Low's notes correctly, the Apollo 18 had been lost long before that. And that 17 was already known, within NASA management, as the last mission to the Moon. Now, we didn't know that. But — at least I didn't. And I don't know anybody on our crews that knew it. And we assumed that Dick Gordon and Vance Brand and Jack Schmitt had a real shot at being the crew of Apollo 18 until we heard it had been cancelled in the middle of the Apollo 15 training. But in fact, I think we were living in a fool's paradise with respect to that assumption in that, that mission had disappeared long before that in the budgetary fights that NASA was having with the Office of Management and Budget.
Butler
Quite a — that's interesting.
Schmitt
In fact, one of George's set of notes describes a December 31st/January 1st set of meetings with the — (I think it was) Frank Saar, who was then Director of the Office of Management and Budget, in which Apollo 17 had been cancelled in the proposal that had come back — the final budget that had come back from the Office of Management and Budget; and George and company were able to get it restored but at the cost of having it slip beyond the 1972 elections. The clear statement being that, if it were — that the White House did not want to have a possibility of a accident in space before the 1972 elections. So, we launched in December of 1972 rather than earlier because of that particular desire by the White House. And I understand that! I've been there! I didn't spend a few years in politics not to understand those kind of considerations. Whether you like them or not or agree with them or not, I think that that's, you know — it's foolish to kowtow to that kind of baser instincts in politics. That's something else. But that's — I'm sure that's true. I'm sure that's how that happened.
Now how they finally decided that Apollo — that I was going to be on Apollo 17 is another story. And again, in looking at those archives, it looks to me like that decision at least had been made at Headquarters long before it was finally agreed to here at the Johnson Space Center. But unfortunately, the one person that probably knows all of that is gone; that's Deke Slayton.
Butler
And that is very unfortunate. He would have a lot to share with us, I'm sure.
Schmitt
Well, I'm not sure he'd share it.
Butler
That's true.
Schmitt
You know, Deke was very — he kept those cards very close to his chest. He never — I don't know — he and Al probably shared confidence (Al Shepard), but I'm not sure that they would — that those were things that they felt anybody really needed to know. We certainly didn't know how crews were selected. At least I didn't. And I don't know anybody that did! And the value of that was that it meant everybody pretty much assumed that politics was not going to be the way they were decided. You just had to do the best job you could; and if you did it well, you'd probably get a flight. If you didn't, you may lose a flight. And the people — and there were enough examples of that going one way or the other that made you a believer.
Butler
Whatever it takes to have a good, strong group of people working toward something they all really want to do. There was some pressure to have you fly on a mission. Were you aware of it to a great extent while you were working on Apollo 15 and then following that, to actually have you put on Apollo 17?
Schmitt
Oh, yes. I was aware of various press and informal activities, trying to convince NASA that I should fly on on a mission, either 18 or, when that wasn't available, then 17. But it was not something that affected what we were doing on Apollo 15. It was just something we were aware of; and we — Dick Gordon and Vance Brand and I knew that we were sort of in competition with Gene Cernan's crew for Apollo 17 once 18 had been cancelled. But we did not — the only thing we could do is keep doing the best job we could in order to be in a position to compete.
And there were the options were obvious. You could substitute — you — since Cernan's crew was in line for Apollo 17, and by the way, there was no — there were precedents for breaking that (what appeared to be a) tradition. In fact, Al Shepard is a classic example of where, you know, he stepped in, — got Apollo 14 once he was cleared of his Ménière's disease problem. And he had not been backup crew for any preceding mission. So, there was — it was clear that you couldn't be absolutely certain you were going to get the mission that you would feel that you would cycle to.
That was one option, was just that we would immediately go into training for Apollo 17 after Apollo 15, but as a coherent crew. The other was that I would replace Joe [H.] Engle on the Apollo 17 — on the Apollo 14 backup crew, which became the Apollo — would — would become the Apollo 17 prime crew. And that's indeed what happened. But there were still a number of ways in which that might have happened.
Butler
As a backup crewmember, what was your role during the actual mission time? Once they actually launched and were on their way?
Schmitt
The backup crew was primarily in support of Capcom so that — because we should know best how the crew trained and what — because we trained as they trained. Dave Scott — or the prime crew sets the training philosophy, the training cycle, and obviously, we trained for the same mission, the same parameters, and everything. And so, we would know that best on whether the crew would be familiar with a particular procedure or not, with a particular part of the mission, how well they — how much time they'd spent on it or something like that. Because we just duplicated what they did.
That's what backup was all about. And we might spend a little more time because we were — at least I felt I needed more time, always, in the simulators to train. I never let up on that. And so, I might have put more hours in. But the whole purpose of what we were doing was to — in the mission, during the actual mission, was to support — to continue to support the prime crew by advising the Capcom and the flight director on what the crew knew and when they knew it.
Butler
As Apollo 15 came to a close, that mission, at what point did you actually realize — were you notified that you would — one of those conditions that you had mentioned earlier — the possibilities — that you would actually fly Apollo 17 and replace Joe Engle? And it must've been with some mixed feelings that you heard about it and realized that you would have this chance.
Schmitt
Well, I didn't have any mixed feelings at all. We were competing for a slot. And, you know, it's like running a race. And you're happy to win. Not everybody — only one person can win. And I felt very, very fortunate. I understood how Joe would feel, and — I hope I understood. But I wasn't about to give up the position because he might have felt disappointed. It I guess must have been — now see, when did Apollo 15 fly? It was July — was that July of '71?
Butler
I believe so. I didn't write that date down, but that sounds about right.
Schmitt
Well, anyway, I believe it was August then. It was that month after the flight that — I don't remember exactly what I was doing during that month (probably just sitting around, waiting for the phone to ring); but that I was at home in my apartment over here in the Nassau Bay area. And some people came by and some phone calls started coming in saying that the news media were announcing that I had been selected as the lunar module pilot for Apollo 17, replacing Joe Engle. And on Gene Cernan's crew.
And I, of course, said, "I have no knowledge of this," because I didn't. And I had not heard from either Al Shepard or Deke Slayton. But that — and a couple of people, Jim Head being one, came by the apartment in order to announce this fact. And I even got a call from my sister in Tucson, Arizona, saying that she had heard it. But it wasn't until a little bit after that, that evening, that Deke Slayton called and asked me if I was willing to — or wanted to have that position. And I, of course, said, "Yes." And then we had a couple of drinks.
Butler
Were you — what thoughts went through your mind at the time?
Schmitt
Oh, I don't know that they were anything very profound. It was just something you had worked for and trained for; and I had already, some years before, made the decision that if I wasn't assigned to a crew (and I didn't think the probability was very high at that time) that I thought that, like everybody else in Apollo, it was well worth dedicating that part of my life to it without any question. And so, in a sense, getting assigned to a mission was frosting on the cake. I had already done more in a fantastic effort than I had ever expected to have a chance to do. And having a chance to actually now fly a mission was something that was far more than I had originally expected. Always hoped for, but never expected.
Butler
Were you able to settle in pretty easily with the crew and into the training for the mission?
Schmitt
Well, I thought things settled in pretty fast. I guess we'll have to ask Gene Cernan — because we can't ask Ron [Ronald E.] Evans, unfortunately. But ask Gene. And I have not had a chance to read his book, so I don't know what he said about it. But Gene and I are both pretty headstrong people. But I think we began, like all the crews — you know, all the astronauts are headstrong and individualistic. But once assigned to a crew, I know of no good example of where someone acted unprofessionally and didn't begin to work as a crew and make every effort to see that the team gelled and that you were able to do things together.
And I think Gene and I were able to do that. I hope very soon he realized I knew the spacecraft. I could fly, and I could do the simulations as well as, maybe, anybody. (The possible exception being Fred Haise. Fred probably knew more about the lunar module than anybody alive or ever will.) But I spent an awful lot of time at it. And Gene obviously had a lot of experience in other flights; and he brought that to the crew. So, we, I think, began to get along pretty well; and he seemed to be willing to work very hard at the science side of it, because that's obviously what we were going there for, and did an outstanding job.
Butler
Was the training for Apollo 17 different to any great extent than for Apollo 15? Other than the site that you were training for?
Schmitt
Oh, it was very close. The equipment was pretty much the same. Some differences in the science payload, but nothing major. The science was quite different because of the difference in the site. But still, the planning concepts and the flight concepts all were pretty much the same. So, in that regard, it was very familiar territory to go through.
Butler
As you were getting ready for the mission and you'd actually been assigned, but yet it was also the last mission, were there was some discussion about people would emphasize that this is the last mission. And did that affect what you were doing at all in your training or your planning ahead for the mission?
Schmitt
The only thing I think it may have — the only thing it may have affected was the words that Gene Cernan and to a lesser degree myself thought about saying on the Moon. But you can't help but be aware that it was the final visit for some time. Nobody that I know of expected it to be a quarter of a century or more. But nevertheless, we knew that that was all; the way it was going to be for a while. And that affected maybe the more philosophical thoughts you had once you were there and once you left; but I don't recall it affecting the tenor of the training in any way.
The training is something that has a life of its own, and you live within that life, and make sure that it gets done. The one thing that you don't want to do is have a aborted launch on a launch pad and have to recycle and come back a month later and go through another month of simulator training. You're ready to go when you're ready to go. And I think everybody felt that way.
Butler
Did anything in the training for either 15 or 17 — did anything surprise you? Anything that wasn't what you had expected it to be?
Schmitt
One thing that comes to mind immediately was the value of the helicopter training, which was always a bit under fire and Deke Slayton always supported it and — as he did the T-38 training. There were people in Congress and in NASA Headquarters who thought that was a waste of money and it would unnecessarily expose the astronauts to the risk of accidents. And Deke's answer always was that, "These airplanes and helicopters are our only dynamic simulators" that, you know, in the simulators that we use for spacecraft, if you make a mistake you reset and tried again. You don't do that in an airplane or a helicopter. You have to get out of that situation yourself.
And so, these flying airplanes and helicopters kept us intellectually and professionally honest about the kind of work we were in. And I really felt that was an excellent argument, a very persuasive one to me. Plus one he didn't make, and that had to do (at least in my experience with flying helicopters) — is the more I was flying helicopters, the better I performed in certain really strange off — what we call off-nominal, off-normal spacecraft maneuvering situations; such as, what they call lunar orbit insertion aborts (LOI aborts), where you end up having to burn every engine you have with a weird configurations of joined spacecraft, the lunar module joined to the command module, and in some of those your — the commander and the lunar module pilot are both using all four controls in order to keep the spacecraft firing through the center of gravity of the combined vehicle. And it is not an easy task.
It has tremendous hand/eye coordination as you look at the various gauges and work your hands in different directions. And that's exactly what you have to do flying an H-13 helicopter without any governing control of any kind, is: you use your hands and eyes and your feet (in the case of the helicopter) in order to maintain that control. And I found the more I flew a helicopter, the better I performed in those particular kinds of simulations. BUTLER: That's an interesting connection.
Schmitt
It's a minor technical point, but it's certainly one that, to me, helped justify flying the helicopter. Now fortunately, we never had to fly those kind of aborts in real life. But still, that's part of the training and it's part of what builds the confidence (not only your confidence but the confidence of — in flight control team) that we can actually do this. And confidence is very important in these kinds of endeavors.
Butler
Well, and it paid off well on Apollo 13 at least, that, even though it was different —
Schmitt
It did. And, no, that's exactly the kind of maneuvers that they were doing in order to get back on to a free-return trajectory. They were having to burn the lunar module engine with an offset center of gravity, one which the computer didn't know about, particularly if you didn't have time to bring up the computer and you were having to fly it hands-on. So, yes, it made a lot of difference for Fred and Jim as well.
By the way, when Apollo 13 happened, I was down here stealing simulator time. I knew that — not down here; I was at the Cape (lost track of where I am today). Because I knew as soon as the crew launched everybody would be back here and there'd be free simulators. And so, I stayed at the Cape after the launch and was working out in those simulators all day; and when the accident happened, the simulator team and I just transitioned into trying to work out some of the procedures we anticipated they would need, such as being able to rough align the platform and use something other than the normal guidance system in order to fire the engines, and things like that.
And we were working on that. And then as the checklists were developed here for particular procedures, they would ship them down to us and we would run the procedures, because we had the more up-to-date simulators. And so, my contribution to Apollo 13 was down at the Cape in verifying procedures and helping to develop ones, particularly the ones where they used the Earth as a guide to burning back on a safe trajectory.
Butler
All that extra simulator time that you were trying to get in paid off.
Schmitt
Oh, yeah. Yeah. It really did.
Butler
It must've — that was a — certainly a very intense time and luckily it did.
Schmitt
It was. And it was the, you know, classic example of how a whole bunch of problems cascade to create a problem, and then how a whole bunch of solutions cascade in order to work your way out of it.
And the crew certainly deserves all the credit in the world for their stamina and their abilities in actually implementing procedures under extremely adverse conditions. But of course, the heroes were the people down here. Not just Mission Control but all the engineers and the contractors and everybody that was working together around those tables, trying to — as each crisis developed, not only solving that crisis but trying to anticipate, "How do we solve the next one we're going to hit?" Because we knew what most of them were. Probably the best example of that is the one which almost nobody ever dramatizes in any of the discussions that we've had recently about Apollo 13. And that is the, "How do we charge the ascent batteries?" Because when all of this happened to the command module, not only did you drain and lose the fuel cells but you drained the batteries necessary for power to control the spacecraft during reentry. And there were a team of fellows working — a small team — working to try to figure out how — "Is there any way we can charge those batteries?" Because initially, nobody knew how to do it!
And if you couldn't do it, all of this other stuff was just make work; I mean, it was work you would do, but because you're always anticipating somebody's going to figure out how to charge those batteries, and so let's get these earlier problems solved. Now, well, indeed, a couple of fellows who knew the schematics and the systems of the lunar module and the command module extremely well did figure out a way.
There's only one power — there was only one power line between the command module and the lunar module. It was a sensor line. Very, very low current. In my side of the command module (the right side of the command module), I could monitor the temperature on a — on one ascent battery — ascent or descent battery? Probably a descent battery — in the lunar module. And that was a line that came over; and every time you docked, you connected these sensor lines. The command module pilot would do that when he went up and took the docking probe out and we stored that away. Then the sensor lines would be connected.
Well, these guys — these two guys figured out that — and we need to find out who they are. It's a little research project for somebody. Tell you who would know, and that's any of those Mission Control guys who are still around would know who these fellows are. Gene Kranz would probably know them, too. Anyway, they figured out a path by which they could take — they could reverse that — take that current coming through that sensor line and run it through the battery chargers, the inverters, and trickle charge those ascent batteries. And for hours during that drifting flight back to Earth, that's what was happening, is they were trickle charging — very low current, so it took a long time — but they were trickle charging those ascent batteries until they were up at a level where they could actually reenter.
Butler
That's very interesting. And something that hasn't been covered.
Schmitt
No, you don't hear about that. And those fellows are as much heroes as anybody else. We need to find out who they are.
Butler
Absolutely.
VOICE OFF CAMERA
We need to stop tape.
Schmitt
Okay. All right.

[End of Interview]

[End of Interview]


[edit] Part 2: March 16, 2000

[edit] Oral History 2 Transcript: Harrison H. "Jack" Schmitt interviewed by Carol Butler

Houston, Texas – 16 March 2000[2]

Butler
Today is March 16, 2000. This oral history with Harrison Schmitt, also known as Jack Schmitt, is being conducted at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, for the JSC Oral History Project. Carol Butler is the interviewer. Thank you for joining us again today.
Schmitt
Great to be back.
Butler
Wonderful to have you back. Previously we had talked about some of your early experiences at NASA and leading up to your mission, your Apollo 17 mission. We talked about your work on a backup crew for Apollo 15, and then the training that you had both for Apollo 15 and Apollo 17. So I thought today maybe we could pick up with leading up to your Apollo 17 mission, and if maybe you could tell us a little bit about what was going on at that time and what some of your impressions were, some of your thoughts, and the aura of NASA as a whole at that time as the Apollo Program was coming to a close, but yet you were still having your mission and the science, the important science, that was going to be done on that.
Schmitt
There was really two facets, I think, broad atmospheric facets to Apollo 17. One was that everybody had maintained and was maintaining this high level of motivation and dedication to success for the Apollo mission, even though we all knew, and had known for some time, that this was the last of the Apollo missions to the Moon. But still you never saw, or at least I do not recall being aware of any relaxation in the working-level dedication to success. That attitude remained that this was the important thing they were doing with their lives, and they were going to make sure that anything that they could do to guarantee success would be done. We saw that all the way through the fifteen months of training.
It was reflected, I think, in the fact that when our mission actually flew, there were by far, probably an order of magnitude or two, fewer component failures, system failures. Everything just worked beautifully from a hardware and a software point of view, which wouldn't have happened had people been letting down anywhere along the line in the tests and checkout and working of the hardware. We replaced a lot of stuff during tests. For example, our lunar module [LM], we used to jokingly refer to it as the LM 9 module, because LM 9 was a lunar module that had been configured for the Block I or H missions, such as Neil [A.] Armstrong flew. It was superseded by a J mission, or Block II lunar module, the first one of which flew on Apollo 15.
But we took the landing radar off of it and replaced it. It was being cannibalized to make sure that our spacecraft had everything working at the time of launch. But still there was general atmosphere on the one hand of continued clear Apollo dedication. There just was no diminution of that at all that I could ever detect.
On the other hand, it was clear NASA, as an agency, was looking to something else, that although we had the attention of the Flight Control Division, Gene [Eugene F.] Kranz's group, and we had the attention of the Flight Crew Support Division and the Apollo Spacecraft Program Office, Jim [James A.] McDivitt now running it, having replaced George [M.] Low, all of that, as far as I could see, everybody was doing exactly what we needed to have done and everybody needed to have done to make Apollo 17 a success. On the other hand, NASA engineers and administration were focused on the space shuttle. They were already looking at that as the next major challenge, and so I suspect that at that level we certainly did not have the level of attention. It didn't seem to make any difference, other than the fact that Apollo 18, 19 and 20 had already been cancelled, in part, I think, due to a lack of interest by NASA, more so, though, due to a lack of media interest, which was translated into a lack of political interest in the country.
But, still, 17 never suffered, that I could tell, from any of that. The training cycle went well. The checkouts went well and, of course, the launch and mission were just superb.
Butler
Absolutely they were. As time for the launch came up, what were some of your thoughts at the time? Were you just focused on the mission, or did you ever stop to reflect what you were about to actually embark on?
Schmitt
Training for an Apollo mission, and I suspect it's not too much different for current space shuttle missions, once you're in the queue and you're actually training, that is a highly focused task. In fact, one of the things that is, I think, symptomatic of that, at least from my perspective, is that my memory of day-to-day events and hour-to-hour events is very poor. I have a general recollection of the major flow and things that we did, but you ask me what did we do on a particular day or week or month, I can't recall it unless I see documents that, at least in outline form, give me that information and then I start to be able to retrieve it.
I found that the same when I was in the United States Senate, things were happening in such a compressed schedule that the short-term memory is good when you need it, but it doesn't get seated in the same parts of the brain as long-term memory, as other things do. It takes something else, the Congressional Record in that case, or our committee records, or our training schedules and things like that, to bring back some of the events of that time. Now, in a general sense, we spent about three weeks out of every month in intense spacecraft-related training. In the first six months or so, we were here at JSC [Johnson Space Center, Houston, Texas] training in the simulators here, but we very quickly moved down to the Kennedy [Space] Center [Cape Canaveral, Florida] for simulations and flew back and forth every week for that, because their computers, one, were generally kept at a higher state of accuracy in terms of configuration. That was always the case. They were the first ones to be upgraded or to be fixed if something needed to be changed.
Secondly, again, there were other things happening here. There were other distractions. The space shuttle work, the meetings, the people were being distracted by that kind of effort. It may have been even that they were starting to break down the computers here, or to reconfigure the simulators so they could begin to work on space shuttle simulations. I'd have to go back and see whether it was a combination of events that took us down to the Kennedy Space Center for most of our spacecraft training. But we ran most of the simulations, I remember, were with mission control here and we were down at the center. So all of that and hardware reviews and classroom training on particular components that we might want to have refreshers on, I kept cycling through some refresher courses on the lunar module systems and things like that, and the command module [CM] systems. That was basically my job, was to be a systems engineer in both spacecraft. So I spent a fair amount of time with the contractors who had built the hardware and the training people from those contractors.
Now, the other week, though, each month, was, for the most part, dedicated to science training, and that was pretty much true of the last three missions. Most people, I don't think, realized that we put that much time into the actual work on the flight plan for the lunar surface operations, the experiment training, the planning of exactly how each traverse would be conducted, where we would stop, things like that. Early in our training cycle, as I recall, we did not have our site selected. It was selected after we were selected, so we were somewhat involved, at least I was, in that site selection process, at least in making sure that from a science point of view we were picking a site that could use the talents that we had on board, and that made sense in the broad spectrum of what we knew about the Moon at that point, or thought we knew about the Moon at that point.
Secondly, though, I also wanted to be sure that we weren't doing anything that was operationally off the wall. For a while it wasn't clear in the minds of the MPAD, Mission Planning and Analysis Division, that we could even land in the valley of Taurus-Littrow. So there were several months of back and forth, of iteration, of landing techniques and tracking techniques, and things like that to see if they could narrow what was called the three sigma error ellipse down to a point where it would fit in the valley. The first run-through by MPAD was it wouldn't fit, and we had some statistical chance of running into a mountain rather than actually landing.
But gradually, with a lot of help from some folks in the Bellcomm [Incorporated] group at [NASA] Headquarters in Washington, [DC], a lot of give and take between that group and MPAD, they finally figured out some tracking techniques that allowed us to bring that down. The primary thing was being able to insert into our computer new information about our position and speed in space, the state vector, into the lunar module computer after we came around the Moon, just prior to actually going into powered descent. So there was a little gap of time, and it was very tight, because we were landing farther east on the Moon than anybody had ever landed before.
So they had to work out how do we get that new information on your state vector into the lunar module's guidance system during that very short interval of time, and we worked out those procedures. We had to do certain things in the spacecraft, the ground had to be ready to do certain things. Ron [Ronald E.] Evans had to get his tracking data done on the orbit just prior to that, so that could be fed into this new calculation of a state vector. All of that then began to shrink that error ellipse until it actually started to fit in the valley. Just another tribute to the remarkable inventiveness of these young men and women of Apollo, and that they developed these extraordinary precise navigation techniques for deep space.
In reality, this error ellipse was a ludicrous construction, because in every mission except for the first one, Apollo 11, as soon as the spacecraft pitched over, then the information we had, the commander had on his window, when you take it out of the computer, told you exactly where we were going to land. It was always essentially where we had trained to land within a few tens of meters of that point on the Moon. And that is just absolutely remarkable that at those distances, with all of the unknowns that to be made into knowns, that that kind of navigation was possible. It still fascinates me, and it's hard to believe.
It happened to us, we pitched over, and I called out the numbers from the computer, and Gene [Eugene A. Cernan] said, "It's right where we planned to land," or words to that effect. And it worked on every mission except 11. As you remember, Apollo 12, one of the major objectives was land next to the Surveyor spacecraft. That's what developed these so-called pinpoint landing techniques, which served us very well until we got to Apollo 17, and then we had to make them even more refined in order to get that error ellipse, that artificial construct down to a size where the managers would approve the mission.
Butler
Good example of how all the experience and all the training all has to build one on the next to make each mission more successful than the last. As launch day came up, and now moving into your mission, how —
Schmitt
Let me interrupt.
Butler
Yes, absolutely.
Schmitt
There were certain other things that were involved in that fifteen-month period.
Butler
Certainly.
Schmitt
One of the things that I had believed in from the very beginning, my first contact with Gene Kranz and the flight control people, as well as our own flight crew support groups, that the more contact that these groups could have with each other and with the astronauts, the crew and the backup crew, the better the whole atmosphere was for success. Gene agreed with that, and so we did a lot of socializing with our various types of support people. We had softball games with them. We went out for barbecue and beer when we were at the Cape [Cape Canaveral, Florida]. When we were back here, we had evenings with the flight controllers. Sometimes when the flight controllers were having a gathering, I would always try to show up. I think I was probably the only astronaut that showed up regularly at these social events down at the old Hoffbrau House in Dickinson [Texas] and places like that, and the Singing Wheel when it was still around.
I don't know, you never know how important that was to keep everybody's enthusiasm and interest in a mission up. Well, it was fun, for one thing, and, secondly, I think it had a very good effect on the attitude that we all had when we worked together. Unlike some of the earlier missions that you may have read about, Apollo 7 in particular, there was never any tension between the astronaut crew, the flight controllers, and the flight crew support group, other than the natural tension of having a problem to solve, and people having initially different ideas on how to solve it, and then working out what is the best way to actually find that solution. So that was, I think, a very important part of our training during that time.
Of course, we had the physical, there was a sequence of flight physicals that we took as we got closer and closer to launch. There were not many physiological investigations that were going to be done on our mission.
I remember one was, the only one that occurs to me right now was that Ron Evans was going to wear an experimental pressure suit for entry when we came back to Earth to see if that in any way affected the performance during entry and things like that. That's probably looking forward to the space shuttle time to do that, because we all had learned how to go through entry just by tensing our muscles. Even though we held 4 Gs for a long time, or several minutes, it did not seem to affect performance in any significant way. Most of it was being done automatically, anyway, so we didn't have to worry about it.
So the training cycle was intense. It seemed long. The one thing at the end of it is that you certainly don't want to recycle for another month. That was the first thought we had on the launch pad when we did, in fact, have a delay, was that, well, let's hope that we don't have to go through this for another month. You're ready. It's geared, it was geared through experience and maybe through attitude to reach the peak, your peak performance level, just about the time you were ready to launch. To have to go then cycle back down and come back up for another month later would have been a different thing. You would have gotten into it and done it and then never noticed the difference, but still at the immediate point of being ready to launch, you're ready to launch, there's no question about that.
Butler
You had full confidence in yourselves, your training, the people that were to back you up, because you did have that relationship with them.
Schmitt
I think that's probably the most important part of the training, was the development of mutual confidence.
Butler
Absolutely. It's one of the things we've found with this project, that a lot of people talk about is that need for that relationship and to have that comfort, have that confidence, that trust in each other. It makes it all easier in the long run.
Schmitt
It wasn't always there in the early days, as reading Gene Kranz's book and just from things that I knew happened in all the programs up into the early Apollo, that level of confidence wasn't always there. There was maybe a lack of recognition about how important the interactions were, but that sort of came a little bit late to the program. But almost all of Apollo benefited from it. I think certainly with Apollo 8, when I first got deeply involved, the interaction between crew and flight controllers and flight crew support was growing very, very fast and, I think, producing very good results.
Butler
Hopefully that's something that will continue through modern programs.
Schmitt
I have no idea. I don't know how it's done today. [Laughter]
Butler
It seems they have a pretty good relationship, but unfortunately I don't know very well either. We'll have to look into that. You mentioned getting to the launch and that there were delays, a few things that were going wrong. Also this was the first night launch of the Apollo Program, so things were a little bit different in that aspect.
Schmitt
The main thing that started first relative to a night launch was that we had to begin to adjust our sleep cycle and basically turn it by twelve hours. We did that over a period of about two weeks. We'd just go to bed an hour, I can't remember whether it was earlier, earlier, I guess, and get up an hour earlier every day for two weeks until we were on the flight plan schedule. Everybody had to do it. It wasn't just us, it was the simulators, everybody was operating on a different schedule to be prepared for what the flight plan was going to require, and that was a night launch. So we had breakfast, I guess, mid-afternoon of launch day, or something like that. It was those kind of things that happened.
I do remember that when we were suiting up and getting ready to go out to the launch pad, that Ron Evans had his last cigarette just before he put on his helmet. We kept after him all during the flight that he had to take advantage of this now, he's going to have two weeks' cold turkey and he shouldn't pick it up again. He resisted for about two more weeks after we got back, but, unfortunately, he started to smoke again after that time.
Once we got down to the — going out of the suit room and, of course, all the technicians and all the support people were in the hall wishing us well as we got on the elevator. When you see the movies of it, it looks like we were having a good time and that's what I remember that we were having. Of course, we couldn't talk to anybody. We had the helmets on, we were breathing, we were pre-breathing pure oxygen, and so that went all the way down in the elevator, out into the van. And Al [Alan B.] Shepard [Jr.] was waiting for us to escort us out to the van. Charlie [Charles L.] Buckley was there, too, the former head of security at Kennedy Space Center. I pretended that I was trying to get back off the bus, I remember, and you'll see that in the film. Suddenly my head will appear back in the doorway and Charlie sort of pushes me back in. So it was a little joke that he and I had on each other.
But after that, it was pretty uneventful. You don't have a good view of the launch pad going out there. I had gone out the night before to see the rocket illuminated by the searchlights. That is sort of a tradition that I inherited from Bill [William A.] Anders. He took me out for Apollo 8 the night before launch, and it's really an amazing sight, that Saturn V illuminated. Of course, at that point we could get ourselves in very close just because of who we were, and so you had a view that very, very few people, other than the pad technicians, ever got of the Saturn V.
Everything went really just as one would have planned it, as we went out the elevator and out on the catwalk and met the white room crew. Guenter Wendt was waiting for us, as he waited for everybody. They strapped us in and closed it off, and we then went into the final countdown and got to thirty seconds, and everything had come alive beneath us. The gimbals were moving and the rocket, you could feel it. You're lying there on your back, you could feel the engines moving down a football field below you or more, as it prepared for ignition.
Then right at thirty seconds, Skip [Clarence] Chauvin, who was handling the launch director role on that mission, came over the line and said that we have a hold. I think Gene was more concerned than the rest of us, because he didn't know whether the — none of us knew, but he, I think, was most worried about whether everything in the spacecraft and in the rocket knew we were in a hold. But we went through that thirty-second period and it was quiet for a few minutes, and Chauvin came back on the line and said, "We have a problem with the launch computer. It's not a major problem. We're going to fix it and when we have it fixed, we'll recycle — " I think it was eight minutes for a planned hold and then go through it again.
That is exactly what happened. At that point I felt very comfortable. I'd worked with Skip in many chamber tests and things like that, so we knew him very well, and the sound of his voice, it didn't sound like anything that wasn't going to be fixed. So I fell asleep. Anytime you put fans humming or a little bit of vibration, things like that, I can go to sleep. There's no problem. So I got an hour or so dozing sleep while we were waiting for that problem to be fixed.
What it turned out to be was that somewhere in the deep dark past of computer programming, a programmer had told the final sequencing checks that the computer was going to do — to look to see if a signal to pressurize a booster oxygen tank had been sent. Not whether it had been received and acted upon, but had the signal been sent. Well, when they went through that particular point where that signal was supposed to have been sent and the tank pressurized, the signal didn't get sent. There was some problem in the computer, didn't send the signal, but the person in the launch control center saw that that didn't happen and just pressed a button and pressurized the tank.
So everything was fine, but the computer didn't know it. So when they went through the final sequence, the computer saw that that signal hadn't been sent, and it said "Hold." So the computer just shut everything down. That's what you want them to do, it's just that it was programmed wrong. Garbage in, garbage out. So what they did, they actually went into the launch computers, tracked down that point and hard-wired around that particular sensor so that the next time the computer went through, it would believe that the signal had been sent. Sure enough, it believed it, and off we went. We were two hours and forty minutes late, but, nevertheless, we were on our way.
Butler
That must have been certainly exciting, your first mission on the Saturn V.
Schmitt
Yes. I don't think it makes much difference whether it was first or second or third, but I think everybody felt, whoever rode a Saturn V was tremendously stimulated by the experience. It's a very heavy vibration. Very slow acceleration at first, but heavy, heavy vibration as the five F-1 engines in the first stage, the S-IC, are fighting each other to some degree. You build up, over two minutes and forty-five seconds, about 4 Gs' acceleration. At that point everything shuts down. You drop off the first stage and then you ignite the second stage, the S-II, and you're back on your way, but only at one and a half Gs. So there's a big change, it's from 4 Gs to a minus one and a half, as the whole stack unloads, to a plus one and a half, as you go on on the second stage. And that all happens in just slightly over a second. So that is probably the most dynamically exciting point in the mission, certainly in the launch part of it.
From then on it's pretty straightforward. You get into orbit, what, in about ten minutes using all three stages, the third stage being the restartable. After two orbits of the Earth and checking everything out, you restart that and accelerate to 25,000 miles an hour and you're on your way.
We didn't have an awful lot of time in Earth orbit to look out the window, but we got a few nice photographs at 90 nautical miles. That's pretty close compared to the space shuttle. But still I can remember not only taking pictures, but really being fascinated, as everybody is, by the rapidly changing views of the Earth. Our actual acceleration out of Earth orbit started in the dark and actually went through a sunrise, which we had a good chance to see as we went through that sunrise. That was spectacular, to be accelerating at those rates, about a G and a half, and then see this sunrise out the windows. It was really something to see.
Butler
It must have been quite fascinating. On your voyage out to the Moon, you took on a little bit of a role of a meteorologist and were calling back to the Earth talking about some of the different cloud formations and such that you were seeing. How did your particular interest in that come about and had you done a lot of preparation beforehand that you wanted to talk about that?
Schmitt
My father was an amateur meteorologist and he excited my interest when I was a boy in Silver City, New Mexico, or near Silver City. We would try to develop various predicative techniques for whether we were going to have storms or not down in that area. In those days, there was not much meteorological information coming out of Mexico, and so the weather forecasters were not too good at figuring out when we were going to have storms. But we gradually figured out what wind directions and barometer changes and what part of the solar cycle you might be in that would enable us to predict.
So I had this significant interest in weather, which I still have today, and so as I approached the launch, I started talking with the Air Force meteorologist at the air base that supported the launches down in Florida. The name is obviously escaping me now.
Butler
Patrick [Air Force Base]?
Schmitt
Patrick. At Patrick. They got interested in this, and so just as I suited up, one of my friends with that group brought in the latest satellite pictures that covered the Earth, that gave me the whole southern hemisphere of the Earth. So I had those in my pocket as we went out to the launch pad.
I had planned, and we had talked about it, that in my spare time on the three and a half days to the Moon I would try to build on those, what those satellites pictures showed, primitive as they were, and try to experiment with how well could I forecast the weather, because the Earth in what we called a lunar reference trajectory, we would see the Earth turn every twenty-four hours beneath us. So you could see what the weather pattern was, try to predict the trend for the next day, and then see how well you did the next day.
Of course, we were getting farther and farther away and the Earth was changing from full to about two-thirds. But we had a 10-power binocular on board, so you could look out the window and see it. So all of that several inches of transcript was me exercising that little experiment, because there really wasn't much else to do, except try to get a little exercise and eat and check out systems. But it certainly was not a full day's work any one day.
Butler
Gave you a little something interesting on the side.
Schmitt
Interestingly enough, somebody just recently has contacted me and they want to put together a journal of that particular phase of the mission, which is not in the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal [website] that Eric [M.] Jones put together. So I think we're going to see a Web-based version of that transcript. I can't believe it's going to be of any great interest to anybody, but we'll see. [Laughter]
Butler
I think it'll be interesting, certainly from a historical perspective and maybe for meteorologists that are studying and up and coming.
Schmitt
I don't know. They've got so much better information now than they did in those days. But it was an experiment to see what human beings could see.
Butler
Certainly able to see a variety of things, it sounds like. When was your first view of the Moon, then?
Schmitt
We didn't have much of a view of the Moon, because we were landing so far east, and we wanted to land at sunrise, it meant that the terminator was way east. So as we approached the Moon, about all we saw, and you had to go over and it was really something that you only saw out of Gene's window. I can't remember exactly why, but we had to get him out of his seat in order to see it. All you could see is just a little arc, just a real thin illuminated part of the Moon out that window. So effectively all we saw was a dark looming shape that was blocking the star field, and then, of course, at the LOS point, loss of signal point, it would cut across the Earth, but it would be a silhouette of the Moon that was crossing the Earth and not any illuminated Moon.
The first real illumination of the Moon we saw was from the far side, as we had our spacecraft sunrise actually flying over a lunar sunset. We were in what's called a retrograde orbit, that is, we'd come around the front of the Moon, ahead of it, and to go into orbit, so that we actually were going in a direction opposite of the slow rotation of the Moon itself on its axis. The Moon rotates once on its axis every twenty-eight days and we were going the opposite direction.
The reason for that, of course, was to have the sun at our backs as we landed at sunrise on the near side. Of course, most kids can figure that out. I'm not sure I can figure it out anymore. [Laughter]
Butler
As you were going along, coming to the Moon, approaching the landing point, again, here were you pretty much focused on the mission, on doing what needed to be done, or did you stop and think at this point at all that here you were a geologist, about to be the first geologist to land on another celestial body?
Schmitt
Well, we had a little time during the first few orbits before we actually unhooked the lunar module and prepared to go down on the surface. A lot of it was checking out the spacecraft. Of course, for forty-five minutes out of every two-hour orbit you couldn't talk to the Earth. So we were a little bit more on our own then, unless the flight plan had some things that we had to get done prior to acquisition of signal, namely AOS, on the other side of the Moon. So I had some time to look out the window, take a few photographs.
Then on the near side, of course, most of the Moon was in Earth shine, not illuminated by the Sun. I can remember being very impressed by how much light the Earth cast on the Moon. You could see features very clearly in this blue light of Earth, and really quite spectacular.
At one point I was looking down at the surface, it would have been way west of Copernicus, and probably even getting close to the big basin called Orientale, and I saw a little tiny pinprick of light on the surface. It was almost certainly a meteor hitting the surface of the Moon and they will give off a little bit of visible light. So I had to chance to see what was effectively a shooting star hit the Moon.
The reason it still gets my attention is that when we were flying over Miami, [Florida] — I may have told you this last time. When we were flying over Miami, looking down on the lights of Miami from 90 nautical miles, Miami was about the only place in the United States that was clear of clouds. It was on our first orbit, I was looking down on Miami and a shooting star went underneath us. [Laughter] Sign of the times.
Butler
That kind of gives you goose bumps. We're going to go ahead and pause here.
[Pause]
...the lunar module landed in Taurus-Littrow with no problems. In fact, most of your mission up to this point had really been relatively free of problems, other than the launch delay. As you landed on the Moon and came out and embarked on your first EVA [extravehicular activity], if you could tell us a little bit about that and what was going on and what you were thinking at the time, just basically what you were doing.
Schmitt
Maybe it might be worth going into the actual landing, because that sort of leads up to everything else.
Butler
Absolutely.
Schmitt
That process, of course, started as we came around on our last orbit and had AOS and the ground introduced the new updated state vector so that we would presumably land where we wanted to land exactly on the Moon. Once we initiated powered descent, the lunar module, as most people, I hope, know, was actually pointed backwards a bit. We were looking up into the sky; we weren't looking at the Moon. And that was to get the thrust vector of the descent engine directly along our trajectory and slow us down most efficiently. But at about 8,000 feet above the surface, once we had landing radar locked in, and that was an important part of it, part of my job was to operate the landing radar and make sure that we indeed did have that information going into the computer, and then to take some of that information and put it into our abort guidance computer, so we had even better information in that, too. It was not as sophisticated, but still could do an awful lot of things. At 8,000 feet we did pitch over, so Gene then could see where we were headed, the landing site, and things really start to happen pretty quickly there. About that time I start giving him information relative to his altitude and the rate of descent and any other velocities left to right that he might need in order to take over the vehicle if he had to do that. All of this is automatic at this point.
I had one look out the window right after we pitched over. I looked out and was looking right at the side of the valley. It was, of course, quite a spectacular glance, but my job was to be making sure that Gene had the information that he needed or we thought he might need, in order to safely land the vehicle, and so I didn't look out much. I took one more glance when he called "dust," and that meant that we were probably 100 feet above the surface, approximately, and saw that streaming dust away from the spacecraft. But for most of that time I was looking inside. You train to try to do your job and you're happy if you actually do it that way.
But I had other things that I had to monitor besides the computer, but the main task was to give him information off the main computer, because he was looking out the window and actually flying the spacecraft. As I recall, he took over at about 500 feet and we had one little brief period where he got his descent rate up a little bit higher than he should have, and if you ever listen to the tapes, you can sort of hear the emphasis in my voice change a bit to get him to slow that down. After the mission, some of the people from mission control told me privately, said, "We knew what you were doing." [Laughter]
Butler
I'm sure they had enough background and experience on their own to —
Schmitt
Some people always kidded me about ever wanting to go to the Moon with a Navy pilot, because they tend to land hard.
Butler
All that practice on aircraft carriers, I guess they have to.
Schmitt
That's right, they do. Statistically they wore out a lot more tires out at Ellington [Air Force Base, Houston, Texas] in the T-38 than the Air Force pilots did.
Butler
That's interesting.
Schmitt
They never forgot how to land an airplane, that's for sure.
Butler
The landing did all go smoothly.
Schmitt
Yes, everything went well, and we had planned — there had been some discussion, I think, in the flight planning period, about getting out of the suits, getting a rest period in and then going out on the surface. As we worked that through, we decided that we'd put that extra rest period at the end, after the third excursion, because you're just so keyed up, you want to go outside. There's no point in trying to sleep before an excursion or an EVA, the first EVA on the Moon. So once we were cleared to stay, had a go for a stay on the Moon, then we immediately got into the preparation for going out on our first excursion.
Those procedures and all of that is well documented on the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal page in the Web. I hope that you're downloading that in some way, or something like that for the archives.
Butler
Absolutely. Excellent resource.
Schmitt
Yes. Because Eric debriefed most of us, and it's documented for every mission, not just one.
But, of course, the commander gets out first, that's the way the door's configured and positions are configured. I strongly suspect Neil Armstrong made sure that that designed back before my time. Once he's out for a while, then the lunar module pilot has to move over, shut the hatch, not totally, but move the hatch, and get over into the commander's place, and open the hatch again, and then slide out again. So I was the second to get out, a little while after Gene did, and head down the ladder.
The first thing I remember is that when I stepped down from the ladder my — I think it was my left foot first, it got on the side of a rock with these little beads of glass on it, and slipped. I can remember hanging onto the ladder while my foot was slipping off to the side. But those first steps on the Moon were in the shadow, because that's the way we had landed, the sun was behind us. Fact is, I would say the first half hour, forty-five minutes of all of that was, you were still in a very familiar place, even though you were walking and had the moon soil beneath you, you were working with the lunar module, something you had worked with before, and many, many times, and was like being in the same familiar scene. You didn't really have a chance to look around you very much. At least I didn't.
It wasn't until the flight plan called for me to go some seventy-five meters away from the lunar module in three different points around it and take a panorama at those three points to document the site before we had really screwed it up, that's the first time I had a chance to see this magnificent valley that we were in, a valley deeper than the Grand Canyon, 7,000 feet, six to 7,000-foot mountains on either side, 35 miles long, and about four miles wide where we had landed. The slopes of the valley walls were brilliantly illuminated by this little sun, by that time probably a 10-degree sun, something like that. The sun itself was brighter than any sun that I had ever seen, of course, in New Mexico or anywhere else, in a desert-like landscape.
But most hard, I think, to get used to was a black sky, an absolutely black sky. The biggest problem I think photographers have in printing pictures from space is actually finding a way to print black, absolute black. Certainly slides that you show will have a little bit of blue in that background, and you're just never going to get the contrast that we had visually on the Moon, because the sky was black.
Then hanging over the southwestern wall of the valley was the Earth, at this point about a two-thirds Earth, in terms of its phase. The whole scene was really spectacular. It's one of those things that you —
Schmitt
...have a chance to go see yourself.
Butler
Hopefully some day most people will have a chance.
You called it a geologist's paradise when you were first looking around and embarking on this first EVA. What was it that struck you so much about it?
Schmitt
I think being there was the first thing that was important, because I already knew in the general terms the kinds of different things that we could expect to work on. It was the most highly varied site of any of the Apollo sites. It was specifically picked to be that. We had three-dimensions to look at with the mountains, to sample. You had the Mare basalts in the floor and the highlands in the mountain walls. We also had this apparent young volcanic material that had been seen on the photographs and wasn't immediate obvious, but ultimately we found in the form of the orange soil at Shorty crater.
But as soon as you had a chance to look around, you could tell, everything we expected to find there, and more, was going to be available to us, and that's what geologists like. And they really like to have the unexpected. I mean, it's one thing, part of your jollies are gotten by trying to anticipate everything you could possibly anticipate, but then you get a new surge of adrenaline when you find there are things that you never could have anticipated. And that's discovery. That's when science really becomes exciting, those things that you didn't anticipate and they occur, and that's where scientific discoveries are made. That's the extension of your anticipation.
Butler
You certainly did have some of those discoveries on your mission, as well as some of the things that had been planned and that you expected to find. You mentioned the orange soil that had been a bit of a surprise.
Schmitt
Yes. It would be hard to pick a different set of stations. You could, and it would have been probably equally as exciting, but the ones we picked were very, very good. We found the oldest rock that's been sampled on the Moon at the base of the South Massif. We found the orange soil, which is really stirring the things up this day and age, because it makes it very difficult to explain how the Moon might have formed by a giant impact of a Mars-sized asteroid on the Earth. The consensus of the scientists is still trying to make that giant impact work, but I frankly don't think it's going to work over the long haul. I think we're going to have to have a different theory than that. The orange soil is right in the middle of that debate.
Then the big boulder we worked at at Station 6 was at the base of the North Massif, was the first time that anybody had had a chance to see a large exposure of the kinds of materials that are produced by one of these huge basin-forming impacts on the Moon, impacts that happened about fifty times on the Moon and almost certainly happened three or four times that number on the Earth during the same period. It also was a period in which life was trying to get started on the Earth, but didn't get started, as far as we know, until that period of impact, big-basin forming, was over, about 3.8 billion years ago.
So we were looking at an awful lot of information, not only about the origin of the Moon, but that was relevant to a better understanding of the evolution of the Earth, the origin of the Earth and its evolution, particularly in that period of time when life was trying to get started here.
So Apollo had really two major benefits to humankind. One is, it demonstrated that free men and women, when faced with a challenge, can meet that challenge and succeed in a political and technological race that had a lot to do with the preservation of freedom on this planet. Secondly, something that was recognized by George Low and Bob [Robert R.] Gilruth and Gene Kranz and Chris [Christopher C.] Kraft and Sam [General Samuel C.] Phillips at Headquarters, even years, several years before Apollo 11, we had the capability and they allowed us to use that capability to understand the Moon to a first order scientifically. And that is contributing in many, many ways to a better understanding of the Earth, and one never knows all the things that are going to come from that.
One of the things we didn't know was going to come from that until fifteen years after we had collected the samples, was that on the Moon, particularly Apollo 17 and Apollo 11 sites, we have an energy resource that should be examined very, very carefully as a future alternative for fossil fuels. That is a potential return from the expenditure of the taxpayers' money that nobody could have anticipated, but it is in the same class of those unanticipated returns that came from Lewis and Clark exploring the Louisiana Purchase and really has always come from any type of human exploration that we've undertaken.
Butler
It shows the value of that exploration and the possibilities. There's so much out there that still remains to be discovered. I believe you had mentioned in a previous interview that there's so little of the Moon that actually was explored during these Apollo missions, that there's so much still that we can do there and learn.
Schmitt
Well, it's interesting that since the Apollo missions we've had two major unmanned mapping missions, automated mapping missions. The Clementine Project run by the Department of Defense to test out some of their sensors, but which provided a tremendous amount of scientific data, and the Prospector, Lunar Prospector mission, which just flew in the last couple years, which is added to that immensely, as well. At this point as these data are massaged and analyzed, we're getting very close to having just about everything we need to do the kind of planning necessary if we decided we want to go back and tap these energy resources.
Now, I don't think the government's ever going to do that. I think it's going to be a private-sector initiative, but, nevertheless, whoever does it, there is now a tremendous database that we can use to do that kind of planning. Whether we need to fly additional automated missions before that happens is still an open question, partly going to be determined by investors and how much confidence they need to have before they put their money, all their money, into such a venture. But, still, beginning with Apollo and what we call the ground truth that it provides, and then these other mapping missions that have occurred, the combination of all three really has put us in an enviable position relative to understanding what potential the Moon may have for our future.
Butler
Looking at your missions, or your EVAs, as you mentioned in the Apollo Lunar Surface Journal, there's a lot of details and explanation about what you were doing specifically at the time, but comparing your lunar EVAs with field geology on the Earth, and obviously there's differences for the spacesuits and the tools and such, but were your procedures very different, or did you take a similar approach as you would on the Earth?
Schmitt
Conceptually, the approach and exploration as field geology exploration doesn't change very much. You're trying to integrate your eyes and your hands and your mind, the database that exists in your mind, to rapidly as possible, and particularly on the Moon as rapidly as possible because you can't go back, get as much pertinent information about the origin and evolution of geologic features as you possibly can. That's a challenge here on Earth. It is particularly a challenge on the Moon because of this constraint of time. Dick [Richard F.] Gordon [Jr.] was the first one to use the expression for me, and he said, "You know, Jack, when you get into space you'll find time is relentless," and it is. You never can run the clock back. There are field areas on Earth, including my major field area in Norway, that you generally would not go back to, or can't go back to, but clearly you cannot go back to the Moon to gather more information, so you have to do the best you can at the time.
Now, on the one hand, we were served by a much more intensive planning process for that field geology exploration of the valley of Taurus-Littrow and the other Apollo sites than we normally would ever have here on Earth. Field geologists, normally they sort of pick their area, they gather their aerial photographs, then they go out in the field, and then they start, they pick a place to start and they start to expand from there, and they sort of plan as they go along.
With Apollo, we planned the heck out of this thing right from the very beginning, the traverses and where's the most likely place to gather good information and things like that. So that was a net advantage. That really raised your efficiency of exploration to take advantage of the time available.
The primary disadvantage that almost overwhelmed everything else was the inefficiency of using the spacesuit. Even though the Apollo suit clearly was adequate for the Apollo Program, because we got an awful lot done using that suit, the efficiency by which you could operate, and particularly the efficiency by which you could manipulate things with your hands, couldn't have been much more than 10 percent of what you would do normally here on Earth.
The biggest challenge that we will have, whether public or private sector goes back to the Moon or goes to Mars, is to improve the efficiency of that suit. Unfortunately, to my knowledge to date, there hasn't been nearly the emphasis on that aspect of human activities in space that there should be. You take the human brain, the human eyes, and the human hands into space. That's the only justification you have for having human beings in space. It's a massive justification, but that's what you want to use, and all three have distinct benefits in productivity and in gathering new information and infusing data over any automated system. Unfortunately, we have discarded one of those, and that is the hands. The Space Station suit, the Space Shuttle suit, is not much better than Apollo. If you were operating at 3.5 psi [pounds per square inch] or 3.7 psi, it might be a little bit better, but you're not, you're operating at 8 psi and so you've lost most of that advantage. I'm sure there have been some improvements, but still we have not reached the point we have to reach in order to work indefinitely an EVA in space. So that engineering challenge is still out there.
But the biggest problem is that the gloves are balloons and they're made to fit. We had them custom-made to fit our own hands. Today, I guess, the space shuttle suits, there's one size fits several. Whatever it is, to pick something up, you have to squeeze against that pressure, 3.7 psi, in our case 8 psi and in the case of the shuttle. That squeezing against that pressure causes these forearm muscles to fatigue very rapidly. Just imagine squeezing a tennis ball continuously for eight hours or ten hours, and that's what you're talking about. Well, boys will be boys and they work too fast when they start out, they get too much adrenalin, and they wear themselves out early. So you get down to a very low rate of efficiency so you can keep doing things.
The other part of the glove that was a problem is that no matter how closely you cut your fingernails, every time you reach for something or moved in that glove, you would tend to scrape your nail against the bladder of the suit, the rubber bladder. I even wore liners, nylon liners, to reduce that, but still you would do that, and you'd gradually lift the nail off the quick. That is painful to some degree while you're working, but particularly gets painful later after you've gotten out of the suit and you then prepare for the next day. Now, both of those things are things that are there, yes, that's discomfort, it's sore, you wish it wasn't there, but it sort of fades into the background because of the stimulus of everything else that's going on. But, still, from an efficiency of a hard engineering efficiency point of view, we've got to do better with the gloves. We've got to have mechanical assists. We've got to do something using new chip technology and micro mechanical systems to get those gloves so that when you start to move, they move, and that you use some energy from some other source besides your muscles.
Now, the nice thing, though, about working very hard in space is that the next day you have no sore muscles. The efficiency of the cardiovascular system in cleaning out the toxins, the lactic acid and other things that are produced, metabolic products that are produced in the muscles, is so great that there's no muscle damage. There's fatigue, but not damage. The next day it's as if you never did anything. You just start all over, and hopefully you've learned a lesson and you don't move quite as fast.
Butler
Interesting. Well, hopefully like you said, well, for a return to the Moon it'll be probably be longer duration.
Schmitt
Well, we're going to have a very different approach, I think, at least the private sector will. We will not only concentrate on improving the efficiency of the hands and the gloves and the arms, but we'll want to reduce the weight probably by half, and anything we can do to decrease the energy expenditure and the fatigue that people have working, because efficiency is the name of the game when you're trying to do these kinds of things. The same would apply to Mars.
So I'd have that go about four times the mobility, at least four times the mobility, and half the weight. Now, one way you can improve that, the weight, reduce the weight, is carry less consumables and learn to use consumables that you have in some other vehicle, like a lunar rover. Anytime you're on the rover, you hook into those consumables and live off of those, and then when you get off, you live off of what's in your backpack. We, of course, just had the consumables in our backpack.
Butler
That's certainly a critical step that needs to be developed for the next —
Schmitt
One of many. One of many.
Butler
One of many. One thing, talking about suits, it seems that you and Gene Cernan were possibly more confident in your suits, maybe having seen the earlier missions. It seems like you might have been a little more energetic than some of the other astronauts and maybe even a little more physical. Was that based on a confidence in the suit and knowing that —
Schmitt
Clearly the confidence was there, but I don't think it had too much to do with the other missions. It had to do with just a long experience in using the suits, dealing with them, of knowing the people that made them, how they were made. Again, the motivation level that people had who made anything for Apollo, I felt certainly that I could do almost anything I could physically do and everything would be all right. I mean, I never even thought about it.
It was one of those things that I think both of us just went about our business assuming that the suits were as good as we had experienced before and that there was no reason to think otherwise. Indeed, we went through pressure checks before each excursion and after each excursion to make sure there were no leaks or anything like that. The suits were almost as tight at the end as they were at the beginning, so we never had any evidence that we should be worried.
We were both reasonably active and athletic people at that time, and we had a lot of training in the suits, and we got our experience very fast while we were on the Moon, and we just took advantage of that and were able to do a lot of different things. I think anybody could have done them, it's just that we did have the indirect experience of, one, seeing what other people had done; two, having a very full and exciting mission; and three, knowing we were the last mission, so let's get as much done as we can. [Laughter]
Butler
Throughout your whole mission, particularly the time on the surface and your EVAs, was there any one moment that stood out the most for you, or stands out after all these years?
Schmitt
I don't think so. There's the mission as a whole which stands out. Every day had its high point. I won't deny that. But to make a relative judgment on those is really very, very, very difficult to do, and I really don't try to do that. Probably the least interesting part of the mission were the two days headed back, the first two days headed back to Earth, although Ron Evans did an EVA, which certainly was a highlight of the first day. The second day was a drag. The Earth was, all you could see was a crescent Earth. There really wasn't much to look at. There was a bit of a letdown after having had such exciting days preceding it on the Moon. We had one or two experiments to do. There just really wasn't — that next to last day was not much to write home about.
Butler
Understandable.
Schmitt
But then the last day, of course, you're preparing for entry and the adrenalin is starting to come back, and that's sort of the pièce de résistance, actually getting back into the atmosphere and coming home. By then you knew there was no choice, you were coming home one way or the other, and so let's do it right.
Butler
It did all go right and go well, then you were able to have the opportunity then to study more in-depth the samples that you had brought back.
Schmitt
With only one or two exceptions, I think our crew was, if you go back, if somebody went back and looked at the record and really wanted to do an analysis, I think our crew was more wedded to following checklists than other crews. I don't know what that was. Maybe it was because I'd spent so much time mission after mission helping to develop them. We trained to them, and most of the problems that other crews had, not most, but some of the problems other crews had was when they sort of deviated from checklists.
Gene, of course, had had a bad experience related to that on Apollo 10. It's not quite clear that the crew still will — what actually happened, but it does appear like it might have been a checklist problem.
After us, the ASTP, Apollo-Soyuz [Test Project], yes, ASTP mission had a problem with checklists on reentry. But our mission, other than one time, Gene, I think it was on that next to last day when they just — Gene just started playing with the computer, I think absentmindedly and started firing thrusters, which got everybody all excited. He just accidentally hit, I guess, got a command in that started the thrusters firing, and that's the only one I remember where we didn't really — somebody didn't really follow the checklist.
Butler
Maybe that was to keep things from getting too boring. [Laughter]
Schmitt
I don't think so. He seemed as startled as anybody else. [Laughter]
Butler
Oops. [Laughter] After you had left the lunar surface, but before you came back to Earth, President [Richard M.] Nixon had a message broadcast up to you that was a bit of a letdown, I think, for many people, of saying that this was probably going to be the last mission to the Moon in the century. I know that must have, at the time, that must have been very frustrating, and, of course, knowing, you did know that you were the last one for a while. But now that we are coming up on the end of it, did you ever really expect that it would be this long before we would go back to the Moon?
Schmitt
I don't think very many people who were really active in the program, even with the cancellation of Apollos 18, 19 and 20, thought it would be over twenty-five years before we go to the Moon again or go into deep space again. That was naivete, I think. None of us were deeply enough embroiled in the politics of the media and other things in Washington [DC] to have, I think, a really educated opinion on it. But that was our feeling. I mean, it'd be ridiculous to have done all of this and then not do something else. It just seemed illogical, I think, to those of us who were involved. It still does today, as a matter of fact, but, nevertheless, that was the feeling.
I think what bothered me most, and I think, as far as I know, that Nixon statement bothered me more than it did anyone else, it was an unnecessary statement to make, whether true or not, whether his insights were greater than anybody else's, or whoever wrote that speech, insights were greater, or that message greater than anybody else's, I think is beside the point. It was an unnecessary thing to say to the young people of the country. That's what bothered me instantaneously at the time. I thought it was a stupid thing to say. There were plenty of other things he could have said. He also could have read it himself instead of having Jim [James C.] Fletcher [NASA Headquarters Administrator] read it. I just really did not think that was appropriate.
I have mixed feelings, like I think a lot of people do, historians and otherwise, about Richard Nixon, but that's just one little thing that I think disappointed me. He did some other things that I think were quite remarkable, and some other things that were quite disappointing. But you can say that about a lot of Presidents.
Butler
A lot of Presidents, a lot of people in general. You mentioned, for the young people, that this statement was not very inspiring for them. What would you say for them today, having been so long since we've been to the Moon, and not a lot of hope in the immediate future for a return, what would you say to get them inspired, to get involved in science and engineering, and exploring and stretching those boundaries?
Schmitt
I don't think you can reach the young people unless you reach the teachers. The teachers have to realize that the teaching of history, and not just the history of the Apollo Program, but history in general is a very, very critical part of young people knowing what kind of opportunities have faced their ancestors and their parents, and how their ancestors and parents reacted to those opportunities. It gives a background and experience that they can't get any other way, the student cannot get any other way.
Now, I find that a lot of science and math teachers feel that way, and when I go to meetings of the International Science Teachers Association and things like that, they understand that space is not only an important part of history and of science, but it is a great teaching tool. But they are really a very small minority in the teaching profession, and they don't have access to all students, because we don't really give our young people from grade school on up a very liberal arts, in the classic sense, or eclectic education. We leave an awful lot of stuff out for an awful lot of students.
The worst, I think, is probably they're not advised how important a working knowledge of mathematics will be to the options that they may want to have in the future. If you don't have a working knowledge of mathematics, there's an extraordinarily large number of career options that you can never even consider, and this is not brought home to students, male or female, at a very young age. Math should be considered a language and taught like a language so that it's part of the vocabulary of every young person who's at all capable of having some knowledge of that language. If it were taught that way, well, then it could become part of their career options. But today the vast majority of young people do not have a chance to go to work in the most exciting and rapidly advancing fields in our society, because mathematics is so critical to it, and they don't have that skill.
Butler
That is very unfortunate, because it is something we use every day.
Schmitt
I think if parents had more of a choice in where their kids got their education, then we would see more emphasis on that, because I think parents may understand that better than teachers at what those career options are and what they missed in their life because they did not have a good fundamental education in math, science, history, language, and so forth. So I think that's very important is to find out ways in which parents can exercise more of a choice. Some won't, but many more will, that if they have that opportunity than do today, where most public school systems the parents do not have a choice of what kind of education their children are receiving.
Somewhere in this whole mess we have to make teaching as a career as respected and as valuable from a salary point of view, as any other career in our society, because it is. It is the most valuable career in our society and should be paid accordingly. But when you're not attracting the best and the brightest to the teaching profession, and the teachers themselves at times do not inspire confidence that they should be paid at those kind of levels, well, then it's a very difficult political nut to crack.
So it's a number of chickens and a number of eggs that have to come together here, and it's not going to be easy. But I have great confidence there are paths into the future that not only vastly improve our education system, but vastly improve teaching as a profession. We just have to be willing to start to search for those and reach out and get them. Space can play a very important part in this whole part, because kids are excited about it. They like it. They are interested in it. I've seen English taught with a space theme, and there's no reason why you can't teach almost anything with a space theme.
Butler
Applies to pretty much every subject.
We'll go ahead and pause again. [Pause]
After your mission, did you spend a lot of time reviewing your samples that had come back, a lot of time studying those, or did you begin to move into other areas right away?
Schmitt
After the return to Earth, and after we did about six months of public relations work, I spent part of the next two years, in addition to everything else I was doing, about a week a month at Caltech [California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California] as what was called a Fairchild Scholar. I was one of the first of the Fairchild Scholars, an endowment given by the Fairchild family that provided for Caltech to bring in visiting scholars. And I used that time to try to bring together the science of the Apollo 17 mission. I published a couple of papers and things like that, so that was sort of the base that I established.
But then I had already begun during that time to move towards a career that I had thought about many, many years before, and that was politics. I started that by going to NASA Headquarters at the request of George Low and Jim Fletcher to set up and run NASA's energy research and development programs, which I ran for about almost two years before I then decided the time was right to go into politics and run for the Senate in New Mexico.
Once I got into the Senate and got into politics, there's about a seven-year hiatus in doing anything of any significance relative to Apollo science. Since 1983, though, when I left the Senate, I've gotten increasingly back into that. Again, I'm in the business of publishing papers related to Apollo science and Apollo 17, writing articles and chapters to books and things like that.
Butler
You mentioned going to NASA Headquarters and working with the Office of Energy there. Can you tell us a little bit about what that involved and how that progressed over the couple of years you were with it?
Schmitt
In 1973, all the government agencies were beginning to try to scramble to look like they were doing something in energy, because, as you recall, we had the Arab oil embargo in that year and it was the time of gasoline lines and high prices that people forget they've already seen. During that year, one of the other things I did was give a couple talks at some of my geological associations about the pending energy crisis before it arrived. I wasn't alone; there were others in my profession who could see the handwriting on the wall that our dependency on foreign resources was growing at such a rate that ultimately we would be held hostage to that.
With those talks, and I'm sure some private conversations with George Low, NASA decided that they would try to put something together to apply the research and development background that had been developed for Apollo and Skylab to the energy crisis, particularly to conservation and efficiency and production of energy. George asked if I would come up and work through how an office like that might be organized and what we might work on, what resources might be available to do it, and I said, "Sure, I'll do that."
So in early 1974, I went up to Headquarters and started putting that together, and once they agreed, yes, let's do this, then they asked me to run it, which I did for about a year and a half before I then decided it was time to go into politics. In that year and a half, we had learned, though, that NASA was not going to be major player, primarily because OMB [Office of Management and Budget] would not let NASA, one, staff to spend resources that we might gather for this. We had to use the existing manpower within NASA to do it. We couldn't add an increment of manpower. They wouldn't give us slots for energy work, new slots.
Secondly, it was very difficult to get other agencies to give up any of their power in their areas and ask NASA to undertake developing technology for them. It's just interagency rivalries and things like that made it a very difficult job. We had a five-million-dollar appropriation for NASA's own energy work, which is the basic appropriation, but we had tens of millions of dollars that we were able to get in from other agencies. At one time, at the peak of my activity there, we had, I think, something like 700 people in the agency working on energy projects. For an agency of 30 or 40,000, 30,000, maybe at that time, that's not very many, but it was quite a bit of work going on.
But eventually that all died off. It just became very, very difficult to sustain with budget cutbacks in general, personnel cutbacks and things like that, when OMB would not let you actually dedicate slots to energy work.
Butler
You had mentioned that one of the reasons you moved into this position was an interest in becoming involved in politics. How did you become interested in that area, having come from a scientific background?
Schmitt
When I was at Harvard [University, Cambridge, Massachusetts] working on my Ph.D. in geology, I became acquainted with a number of students in other fields, government and the liberal arts in general, and we just had a little group that met together a lot. I began to, at that time, get concerned about the kind of philosophy that those young men and women seemed to be leaving Harvard with, relative to the role of government in our lives. There's a tendency of Harvard to teach that more government is better. My legacy from my parents and upbringing, I'm sure, as well as hopefully some intellect, was that it wasn't necessarily a good thing. Some things government should do and some things it shouldn't do.
So I got an interest in politics at that time and actually had begun to think that if once I had had some kind of a successful career in the earth sciences, teaching or working for the government or for industry, that I felt like I should seriously consider going into politics. That consideration never really had a chance to be undertaken until after Apollo 17, and then I began to think a lot more about it.
Butler
How did your experiences at NASA benefit you in the Senate?
Schmitt
I think it benefited me mostly in the campaigning. Any experience broadens your outlook, I hope, and adds to your overall base from which you can then do other things. But for the campaign I had already spent a lot of time with the public as an astronaut, so that was helpful. I could get invitations to speak about space, where I could not get them to speak about politics in my campaign in New Mexico, and so that made me competitive with the incumbent, who could get invitations to talk about politics, since he was already a senator. So it helped there.
Also, the planning of the campaign, I think, was assisted by the kind of planning that we had to do to put together the space missions and things like that. I'd learned a lot about how do you integrate different components of a plan into an overall strategic plan. All of that, I think, helped a great deal.
In the Senate, Barry [M.] Goldwater made it possible for me to be chairman, ranking Republican and then chairman of the Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee of the Commerce Committee. After the Republicans took control, a series of circumstances made it possible for me to chair the Human Resources and Labor and Education Subcommittee of Appropriations [Committee]. Particularly in the science and technology committee, my background fit pretty well with what we were trying to do. I had also, in the appropriations subcommittee, I had responsibility for the Senate's appropriations for the National Institutes of Health [NIH]. So there was a lot of scientific activity there.
I happened to be in that role when the first hints of something that later was called AIDS [Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome] started to appear in Los Angeles [California]. Just as an example, was able to recognize that, that that was something unusual, and then to go to the Centers for Disease Control part of the NIH and start to force them to think about what they were going to do in reaction to this unusual set of diseases in young men.
So those kind of things, I think a scientific background can really help you in those things. Unfortunately, no scientist really wants to run for political office, and so very few ever go into politics. I tried for six years to get more to, but it just didn't happen.
Butler
You mentioned one of the reasons that you had become interested in politics was from Harvard and from working with different colleagues there, different students in other areas. Were you able, as you were in the Senate, to put into place some of the things that you had been thinking about those years leading up to it?
Schmitt
I was not very productive in the Senate, and I don't think the Senate's a very productive place. All I can claim to have done that might be of interest would be to be clairvoyant about some issues, about a lot of issues, that later on became critical, and even today have become more important than they seemed to be to people in the past. I tried to stimulate other people's thinking while I was there, and whether I did or not is something that only somebody else can write about.
Butler
You're certainly well documented of your career in the Senate. A lot of the government archives and archives at the University of New Mexico that will show us a lot of what you were involved with there.
After you left the Senate, after you were out of the Senate, you then began to get back into geology, and as you mentioned, doing more work with the Apollo 17, and have continued doing that to this day. Throughout that process, has there been anything that's come across as a new discovery to you or surprising? We talked a little bit about the helium- 3, both today and in the previous interview, or any other areas that you see now as areas to expand into and explore?
Schmitt
The question of developing energy resources on the Moon for use here on Earth is the one that stands out, and the one which I work on still, and seeing if we can find a way to do that. In the pure science side of things, the continued examination of the orange soil and other samples from other missions has, I think, called into serious question, whether anybody else believes me or not, but I think it calls into serious question the prevailing theory about the origin of the Moon and the giant impact theory, so called.
There are other things that are beginning to develop as a result of that continuing study, that I think, I hope, are started to shake the tree a little bit in the lunar science community. It'd gotten a little bit complacent, and there seemed to be a bandwagon effect for various consensus to develop. Consensus, consensi? I'm not sure what the plural is. I'm just trying to be a little bit of a maverick these days and force people to reexamine the basic principles that underpin some of these ideas and see if they're really valid. So I've had a lot of fun with that. It's not a full-time job, it's more of a hobby, but I spend maybe a quarter of my time working on those kind of things, a quarter of my time dealing with corporate boards of directors, a quarter of my time trying to put together business plans for energy and related matters, and another quarter teaching, I guess, at the University of Wisconsin [Madison, Wisconsin]. And I'm sure there's several other quarters of my time that I'm doing something else.
Butler
Keeps your time plenty full and plenty interesting, I'm sure.
Schmitt
It really does.
Butler
Looking back over your career, primarily with NASA and the space program, although possibly some of it pertains to today, what would you consider as your biggest challenge?
Schmitt
The biggest challenge is being prepared to take part, take advantage of your opportunities. That's what education is all about, it's making decisions inadvertently or advertently that will expand your educational base and your experience base to where you can then have the maximum number of opportunities in the future.
One of those will usually stand out as one that you really would like to do, whether it's going into geology, as I did initially, or volunteering for the space program, or going into the Senate, or getting involved in business. All of these depend on having enough background and experience to be able to present yourself as a credible candidate for being involved in those various things. So education is the key, and you never can stop. You must keep trying to broaden that base of experience so the next opportunity is one that you can take advantage of.
It's a little bit an extension of what Deke [Donald K.] Slayton used to talk about relative to flying airplanes, T-38s, or helicopters. His principal reason was that he wanted people to have to get out of trouble themselves, if they got into trouble, and not be able to reset a simulator. But he said that many times, but also, the more different aircraft that you fly, the quicker and better you're going to fly the next one. I think that applies to life in general. The more things that you try to do, the better you can do the next thing that you try to do. That's what experience is all about, judgment and wisdom, hopefully.
Butler
Absolutely. With that in mind, is there anything you consider your most significant accomplishment?
Schmitt
No, I hope it hasn't come yet. [Laughter] I've still got some things that I hope will happen and we'll see whether they happen or not. I would like to think that any really significant accomplishments that I might make are ahead of me.
Butler
Well, it certainly sounds like you're involved in many areas where there's a lot of room for significant accomplishments to be happening.
Schmitt
Probably too many.
Butler
Too many is better than too few. I'd like to thank you. We're about at the end of our time today. I thank you very much for your participation in this project and for sharing your experiences with us.
Schmitt
Happy to do it, and if we need to do some more to clean that up, we'll work out next time I'm in town.
Butler
Great. Thank you.

[End of Interview]



  1. Johnson Space Center Oral History Project, Oral History Transcript: Harrison H. Schmitt 14 July 1999, NASA JSC History Collection, 14 July 1999
  2. Johnson Space Center Oral History Project, Oral History Transcript: Harrison H. Schmitt 16 March 2000, NASA JSC History Collection, 16 March 2000
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