Harrison Schmitt – First Professional Scientist on the Moon

Geologists have two rules about what to wear on a field trip:

  • Dress for comfort
  • Dress for field conditions

NASA helped geologist Harrison Schmitt dress for his history-making field trip in 1972:


Schmitt, a geologist and member of the Apollo 17 flight crew, is the first (and so far only) professional scientist to have left low-Earth orbit and to have visited the Moon.

Since that Apollo mission was the last one, and because Schmitt boarded the Lunar Module before his commander Eugene Cernan, he is also the next-to-last man on the Moon.

Harrison Schmitt, geologist

A New Mexico native, Schmitt accompanied his geologist father through prospecting fields and miners’ camps as a child. He went on to earn his bachelor’s in geology from the California Institute of Technology in 1957 and then studied eclogites, a source of titanium, in Norway at the University of Oslo on a Fulbright scholarship and while working with the US Geological Service.

Norwegian eclogite
Norwegian eclogite with a 1-Euro piece for scale

His work with the USGS also took him to eclogite deposits in Alaska, New Mexico, and Montana. He earned his doctorate at Harvard with a 1963 thesis entitled “Petrology and Structure of the Eiksundsdal Eclogite Complex, Hareidland, Sunnmore, Norway.”

That seems a long way from NASA and the Moon. Indeed, when Schmitt met Eugene Shoemaker in 1962, who was mapping the Moon with Daniel Milton, one of Schmitt’s classmates at both Cal Tech and Harvard, he didn’t think too much about it.

In 1964, however, the newly minted Dr. Schmitt remembered Shoemaker and decided to apply to the new astrogeology center Shoemaker had set up in Flagstaff, Arizona, for the USGS. Schmitt was hired and put in charge of a project to design field technique for the first men on the Moon.

The next year, NASA asked scientists to volunteer for the astronaut corps, and Schmitt’s application was accepted. He was the only geologist among the six scientist-astronauts.

As NASA puts it (links added):

Schmitt was fortunate in having a scientific specialty that was widely accepted as being important to Apollo. The other scientist-astronauts – except for [Joe] Kerwin, whose medical training could be applied to a number of space-related questions – found themselves in an environment oriented almost exclusively to operational and engineering concerns. Independent research was all but impossible; only Curt Michel – whose academic home base was Rice University, less than an hour’s drive from [NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston] – made an attempt to sustain his previous research program. Owen Garriott and Ed Gibson had to redirect their scientific interests into fields more closely related to NASA’s needs and plans.

First, Schmitt had to train as a pilot, earning both his jet wings and helicopter wings.

In Houston, he took on the job of developing the Apollo program’s Lunar Scientific Experiment Package, as well as continuing to work with Gene Shoemaker on a joint USGS/NASA lunar field geology training program for astronauts.

Cernan: "So, Jack, y'think they'll ever call the Moon landings fake? Schmitt:  No way, Gene.  Now shut up and keep driving. Image source
Cernan: So, Jack, y’think they’ll ever call the Moon landings fake?
Schmitt: No way, Gene. Now shut up and keep driving. We’re lost again.
Image source

Whenever a manned mission returned, Schmitt participated in the study of lunar samples. He also helped the astronauts complete their scientific reports.

Harrison Schmitt, astronaut

In early 1970, Schmitt became the first scientist in the corps to be selected for a flight, joining the backup flight crew for Apollo 15 as backup lunar module pilot.

The rules were that Schmitt’s crew would then become the primary crew on the third next planned mission. However, Apollo 18 was canceled in the fall of 1970.

When news came that Schmitt wasn’t going to fly, the astrogeology community quietly pressured NASA into putting Schmitt on the last flight, Apollo 17. In the summer of 1971, he replaced Joe Engel as lunar module pilot.

On December 7, 1972, Schmitt and Commander Eugene Cernan landed in the Moon’s Taurus-Littrow highlands.

While there, Schmitt says, he snapped this famous image:
blue marble

He also collected what experts call (PDF) the most interesting rock sample returned by the Apollo missions…

Troctolite 76535
Troctolite 76535

…and, with Gene Cernan, ah…did whatever this is:

Harrison Schmitt’s contributions to science

Apollo 17 returned with almost 244 pounds of lunar rocks. One of them, collected by Harrison Schmitt, was extra special.

The Moon, of course, is heavily cratered. All these impacts “shock” (PDF) the surface rock and get it all mixed up. What’s needed, and very difficult to get on the Moon, is a piece that hasn’t been through any impacts.

Harrison Schmitt’s training told him where to focus at Station Six. He collected a sample of troctolite – a magnesium- and iron-rich metamorphic rock like eclogite – that turns out to have formed when the Moon was only 300 million years old.

Troctolite 76535 has never been “shocked,” which makes it ideal for studying the Moon’s early history. It reportedly shows evidence that the Moon’s core once was molten and the Moon had a magnetic field that early in its history.

There is one other event Schmitt is (in)famous for – his fall. A potentially lethal event in that environment, I wonder if it happened because, like any scientist with an unusually fruitful field opportunity, he just got into his work too much.

This, to me, looks like a typical field geologist working hard and constantly being thwarted by his unusual environment:

That “Twinkletoes” moment may prove to be highly educational for future geologist-explorers in space. Fortunately, the space suits were ruggedly built, but it is a clear reminder not to get lost in your subject to the exclusion of everything else – not even when you know it’s the last field trip anybody’s going to take for a while.

Harrison Schmitt stayed with NASA for a while after his return from the Moon. He then went into politics and is now a consultant and occasionally teaches.

Unlike Buzz Aldrin, who believes humanity’s next step into space should be a manned mission to Mars, Schmitt argues that we should return to the Moon and use it as a stepping stone to Mars and other destinations.

Like the other Apollo astronauts and the rest of us, Dr. Schmitt now lives in the transition zone between the heady early days of Apollo and a practical era of human spaceflight that’s now under construction.

His is but one vision of what we should aim for, but like Dr. Aldrin’s, his experience and training give Harrison Schmitt’s advice on how mankind should explore the Solar System a lot of weight.


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