The last flight of Apollo became a landmark mission for several reasons. Not only was it the last flight astronauts made to the Moon, it was the most significant in the area of science. The discoveries made by the astronauts aboard Apollo 17 gave scientists a better understanding of the Moon. Perhaps the reason for that was that the Lunar Module Pilot of Apollo 17 was a scientist. He was the first scientist to receive an appointment on board an Apollo space flight. That man's name is Harrison Hagan Schmitt.
Former astronaut Harrison Schmitt was born on July 3, 1935 in Santa Rita, New Mexico. He later moved and grew up in the nearby town of Silver City. Graduating with a BS from Caltech in 1957, Schmitt spent a year studying geology at the University of Oslo in Norway. Armed with a Ph.D. in Geology from Harvard University in 1964, Harrison Schmitt worked at the United States Geological Survey's Astrogeology Center at Flagstaff. The group perfected geological field procedures later used by the Apollo space flight crews.
Then, in June of 1965, NASA selected Schmitt as a member of the first group of scientist-astronauts in the Apollo program. One of the things that he did after being selected by NASA was to train fellow astronauts to be geologic observers while in orbit during future Apollo lunar missions. Schmitt also instructed astronauts to become proficient as geologic field workers while on the surface of the Moon.
Upon the return of the initial Apollo space flights, Schmitt probed and assessed the lunar rock and soil samples collected by the Apollo astronauts. He also directed the crew in scientific aspects of their mission summaries. As he was the only geologist in the group that made up the astronaut corps, it was fitting that he become part of the crew of an Apollo space flight. In August of 1971, NASA announced the names for the Apollo 17 flight. Astronaut Eugene Cernan, USN, was Mission Commander, Ronald Evans, USN, the Command Module Pilot, and Dr. Harrison Schmitt was the Lunar Module Pilot for the last of the lunar landing missions.
At thirty-three minutes past the hour of midnight, on December 7, 1972, the first ever nighttime launch of an American space flight took place. A Saturn V rocket boosted the Apollo 17 spacecraft into orbit. The launch rocket's third stage restarted, propelling the Apollo spacecraft into its lunar course. The Apollo 17 crew, with the first scientist aboard, was headed for the Moon.
When nearing the Moon's vicinity, the spacecraft maneuvered into lunar orbit. Cernan and Schmitt entered the Lunar Excursion Module, or LEM, named Challenger, and detached from the Command Module, or CM. Ronald Evans remained in the CM, named America, in lunar orbit. The astronauts in the LEM fired a rocket to decrease the speed of the their descent. Challenger landed in the magnificent mountain-ringed valley on the edge of the Sea of Serenity on the Moon's surface.
While on the lunar surface, Cernan and Schmitt performed three extravehicular activities (EVAs) totaling twenty-two hours and four minutes. The two astronauts traveled in the Lunar Rover Vehicle a distance of 30.5 km. They also gathered and brought back two hundred and forty-three pounds of material from the lunar surface.
Cernan and Schmitt observed boulders on the lower hillsides that had rolled down from the uppermost part of the mountains. In addition, a landslide from the side of one of the mountains had drifted into the valley. The crew of Apollo 17 also noticed small, dark craters that appeared to be volcanic, and from the middle of the valley floor, they could see groups of large craters.
Cernan and Schmitt collected lava samples which helped geologists to understand how the huge craters were erupted from impacts. Scientists also gained knowledge of how the mountains on the lunar surface had been elevated.
From lunar orbit, Schmitt had mapped out the regions around the borders of the Sea of Serenity, and while on the Moon's surface, discovered orange and black soil at one of the mountain regions. These discoveries paved the way for scientists to characterize the filling stage of the Ôseas' in the evolution of the lunar surface. The Apollo 17 crew remained on the surface of the Moon for seventy-five hours.
Cernan and Schmitt climbed back into Challenger for the last time, and prepared for liftoff. Challenger docked with America, and headed for home on its trans-Earth trajectory. As they traveled back to Earth, Command Module Pilot Evans performed a trans-Earth EVA that lasted one hour and six minutes.
The Apollo 17 spacecraft splashed down on December 19, 1972. It was the last time that astronauts would return from a lunar landing mission. After the flight of Apollo 17, Harrison Schmitt was active in documenting the geologic results of the Apollo flights. He also organized NASA's Energy Program Office.
In August of 1975, Harrison Schmitt resigned from NASA and sought election as a United States Senator representing New Mexico. Schmitt served one term, becoming the top Republican member of the Science, Technology, and Space Subcommittee. Since then, he has been busy as the consultant in business, geology, space, and public policy.
The world will forever remember former astronaut Neil Armstrong as the first of twelve astronauts who landed on and explored the surface of the Moon, our closest neighbor. These twelve brave men were the only human beings to witness firsthand the surface of another celestial body in the universe.
Dr. Harrison Schmitt was the first scientist-astronaut to participate in a manned space flight to the Moon. As we approach the twenty-first century, we will remember him also as one of the last men to walk on the surface of the Moon in this millennium. Alternatively, as Schmitt himself has reiterated, "one of the most recent human beings to set foot on lunar soil."
If humans do return one day to the Moon, or perhaps travel to Mars, they will go with the knowledge gained from the work of their predecessors; men like Harrison Schmitt. He was one of the first to work towards a goal set by the pioneers of this country hundreds of years ago. Dr. Schmitt is a pioneer, a pioneer of space.