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Apollo's Legacy
Harrison H. Schmitt


Benchmarks: Looking back on Apollo


The July 20, 1969, landing of Apollo 11 in Mare Tranquillitatis on the Moon was the culmination of the great American effort called Project Apollo. It is safe to say that this event will be remembered in history as long as history is faithfully recorded. As was intended by President John F. Kennedy, Apollo’s success contributed in profound ways to the successful conclusion of the Cold War by creating a belief in the minds of the leadership of the former Soviet Union that President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative could be successful as well.

Apollo also gave us a new foundation of knowledge to improve life on Earth. At the same time, the missions demonstrated that humans have the intellect and the will to go into space and stay there permanently. As a consequence, today’s young people will live on the Moon and Mars and will
help their home planet survive itself, just as Americans of an earlier era helped former homelands in Europe and Asia. All in all, we have had an unprecedented and continuing return on the 1960s investment in a race to the Moon. Both Americans and Russians can be proud of the eventual results of their competition.

Thirty years ago this month, geologist and astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt studied lunar geology from an ideal spot: on the Moon. Photo from NASA online photo library.

In a speech to Congress on May 25, 1961, President Kennedy challenged Americans to make a commitment toward “achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to Earth.” His challenge stimulated a remarkable convergence of many truly American characteristics.

It can be argued that Americans do great things for humanity and themselves when five societal conditions come together: a sufficient base of technology to serve as a foundation for the effort, a reservoir of young professionals and skilled workers to draw upon, a pervasive environment of national unease about the way things are, a catalytic event that begins to focus attention on a potential goal worth the nation’s effort, and an articulate and trusted leader. A coincidence of these conditions was present at our beginnings as a nation. It also has been apparent during our major wars and can be discerned in the Lewis and Clark expedition and the construction of the Panama Canal.

In meeting the 1960s goal of landing Americans on the Moon, the technology base existed as a consequence of the need to defend the country from the threat represented by the former Soviet Union. The flow of young engineers out of our colleges and universities was steadily increasing. National unease existed because of the persistence of the Cold War with no end in sight. The catalytic event was the continued sequence of firsts in space accomplished by the Soviets, particularly the first space flight by a human, Yuri Gagarin, just six weeks before Kennedy’s speech to Congress. That speech reflected the final ingredient, which was Kennedy’s ability to connect with the American people in his challenge that we go to the Moon. It should be noted, however, that much of the conceptual and political heavy lifting necessary to give policy makers the confidence that a lunar landing effort could be successful had been undertaken in the last few years of the Eisenhower administration.

The ultimate political demise of the Apollo Program in the early 1970s did not prevent the achievement of one of the program’s major, initially unanticipated goals — gaining a first-order scientific understanding of the Moon and its relationships to the terrestrial planets. This achievement became another of the primary historical legacies of the post-World War II generation. Apollo had evolved quickly and radically toward increased scientific emphasis after Neil Armstrong first stepped on the Moon. The shift in emphasis from international politics to science occurred smoothly and rapidly thanks to the foresight of a few senior NASA managers such as George M. Low, Apollo Spacecraft program manager; and General Samuel Phillips, director of the Apollo Program.

In addition to these and other senior NASA managers, much credit must go to the U.S. Geological Survey’s principal investigators for Apollo field geology: Eugene M. Shoemaker, Gordon A. Swann and William R. Muehlberger (also of the University of Texas), and other world-renowned earth scientists who helped prepare the pilot astronauts for lunar exploration. These were special people, who doubled as both remarkable researchers and outstanding teachers, and were given increased access to mission planning, mission operations and astronaut training. Additional participants who answered my pleas for help in enhancing the training of the Apollo 13 and subsequent mission crews included Richard H. Jahns (Stanford University), Robert P. Sharp and Leon T. Silver (California Institute of Technology), James B. Thompson and James Hays (Harvard University), and Gene Simmons and William Brace (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

With the foreknowledge that Apollo 17 would be the last of the Apollo series, selection of its landing site became a contentious issue among lunar scientists and between lunar scientists and operational planners. Eventually, however, the scientists all became increasingly interested in an unnamed, 2,300-meter-deep, 50-kilometer-long valley that was radial to the 740-kilometer-wide circular basin Serenitatis and that cut through the Taurus Mountain ring near the crater Littrow.

The results of the exploration of this valley 30 years ago by Gene Cernan and me, as well as that of five other lunar sites by 10 other astronauts, continue to stoke the fires of debate about the origin and evolution of the Moon and the terrestrial planets. Those results also have provided a new option — fusion power fueled by lunar helium-3 — for meeting the energy needs of this century and future centuries.

Because of American accomplishments in the last half of the 20th century, the curve of human evolution has been bent. The psychological, technological and survival bonds holding humans to Earth have been broken. This new evolutionary status in the universe now permits us to live on the Moon and Mars. Generations now alive can determine if humankind will take advantage of this new status. They will determine whether or not we will begin the settlement of the solar system and provide for a new birth of freedom on and beyond Earth.


In addition to being the last astronaut and only scientist to walk on the Moon, Schmitt is a former U.S. Senator from New Mexico. He is currently an aerospace and business consultant and an adjunct professor of engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and resides in Albuquerque.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in this section by the authors are their own and not necessarily those of AGI, its staff or its member societies.

30 years ago in Geotimes

November 1972

Apollo 17: Exploration at Taurus-Littrow

The Apollo 17 Lunar Module is scheduled to land Dec. 11 in the Taurus-Littrow region of the Moon for the last mission in the Apollo series. The site is in the Highlands that form the eastern mountainous rim of Mare Serenitatis, one of the Moon’s largest multi-ringed basins. The bulk of these highlands is believed to consist of brecciated lunar crustal material uplifted at the time of formation of the Serenitatis basin, although ejecta from younger large basins such as Imbrium and mantling volcanic materials may also be present.

Major objectives of the mission are to investigate and sample 1) highlands, which should provide samples of some of the oldest rocks to be collected on the Moon, 2) basin-filling materials, exposed in the walls of some of the larger craters near the landing point, and 3) dark mantle — possibly of volcanic origin — that may be one of the youngest units on the Moon’s surface.

The landing point (20o09’50.5”N; 30o44’58.3”E) is in a steep-walled, flat-floored valley that is more than 2 kilometers deep. The valley is interpreted as a graben formed in highlands materials during the Serenitatis event. A subsequently deposited basin-filling unit is thought to have largely buried and leveled an initially irregular surface of the graben. A presumably very young and fine-grained, dark mantling deposit, possibly pyroclastic, veneers much of the uplands area and blankets the valley floor.

The geology of this area is the most complex of the Apollo landing sites. Fortunately, Apollo 15 panoramic and metric-camera [orbital] photography enables us to study the site at a level of detail not possible in earlier missions. Using an analytical stereoplotter, we obtained resolution of about 2 meters, as compared with 15 or 20 meters for pre-mission photography for Apollos 15 and 16. …

Extravehicular activity (preliminary plans). A total of 75 hours is to be spent on the lunar surface, including three 7-hour EVAs (extravehicular activities). EVA-1 will be largely occupied in setting up the lunar roving vehicle (LRV), Apollo lunar surface experiments package (ALSEP), surface electrical properties (SEP) antenna, and other experiments, with about 2 hours available for a traverse. ...

On EVA 1 traverse, the astronauts will investigate the subfloor and local dark mantle units. EVA 2 is to be devoted mainly to the South Massif and its avalanche deposit. The principal goals of EVA 3 are sampling of the North Massif and sculptured hills. Subfloor samples will be obtained from several large craters in the plains. The dark mantle may be derived from a large number of local sources. … Additional samples will be collected between stations by the LRV sampler, a long-handled tool designed for collecting soil or small rocks from the rover.

Three experiments in traverse geophysics are planned in order to complement the geological studies of the subfloor and dark mantle. In the SEP experiment, a receiver mounted on the LRV will continuously record electromagnetic data transmitted from the SEP antenna during the EVA 2 and 3 traverses. Eight explosive charges for the seismic-profiling experiment will be deployed on the plains during the traverses and detonated after the crew has left the Moon. Seismic waves from the explosions will be detected by a geophone array at the ALSEP site. A gravity measurement will be made at each traverse station and at the LM and ALSEP sites.

By Edward W. Wolfe, Val L. Freeman and William Muehlberger (principal investigator), of the U.S. Geological Survey, Flagstaff, Ariz.; James W. Head of Bell Telephone Laboratories, Washington, D.C.; and Harrison H. Schmitt (of the Apollo 17 crew) and John R. Sevier, both of the Manned Spacecraft Center, Houston.

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