The last man on the Moon: “Going back to the Moon is the fastest way to get to Mars”

40 years since the last manned mission to the Moon, Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt explains why it is imperative that we return to the lunar surface.


One of Schmitt's notable finds was orange soil of volcanic origin on the Moon.

Born 3 July 1935 in New Mexico, USA, Harrison Hagan “Jack” Schmitt joined NASA in June 1965. He was on the backup crew for Apollo 15 before flying on Apollo 17. On 11 December 1972 he landed on the lunar surface alongside Commander Eugene A. Cernan and, being the second to leave the Lunar Module, he was the 12th and last man to date to step onto the Moon. Here, he speaks to All About Space about his time on the lunar surface and his views on space exploration today.

AAS: Was it surreal being on the Moon?
HS: It was never surreal. It was realistic, for me anyway, but it may not have been for others. I can’t speak for them. But you know, we were well prepared, the training was extensive, we certainly knew our jobs and what we had to do. The plans were quite good but with a lot of flexibility depending on what we discovered.

AAS: What was it like, as a geologist, to be on the lunar surface?
HS: I found it exhilarating intellectually and it really was a remarkable place to practice my [geology] profession, and a very beautiful place for anybody to be. We were in a valley deeper than the Grand Canyon in Colorado in the US, with mountains on either side of us rising 6,000 to 7,000 feet high above the valley floor. Probably the two most unusual things of course, though, were that first you have the Earth in one position in the south-western sky, and second the sky was black rather than blue. Those are two things you have to get used to. Looking up at the Earth in a black sky.

AAS: Did you enjoy your time on the Moon?
HS: We tried to have fun but we weren’t wasting time. It was expensive time to waste!

"Houston, we have a flat tyre."

All About Space: Did you think there would be such a gap to the next person when you became the last person to set foot on the Moon in 1972?
Harrison Schmitt: Well, we certainly knew there was going to be a gap. I have to admit to being surprised that various administrations and congresses in the United States have not realised the continuing geopolitical importance of being at least a competitive if not a dominant space-faring nation.

AAS: Were you sad to see the subsequent Moon missions after Apollo 17 – Apollo 18, 19 and 20 – scrapped?
HS: I’m not sure I’d call it sad, but it was certainly disappointing. When you go back and study really how all of that came to pass, the decisions were actually being made in 1969 to not purchase any more Saturn Vs and then after the success of Apollo 11 and 12 the Nixon administration began to cut back on the budgets for further exploration and we were actually very lucky to get the go-ahead for the last three lunar missions. They were on the chopping block as well.

AAS: If you had the chance, would you have liked to go to Mars after Apollo 17?
HS: Yes, I don’t know any of the astronauts at that time that wouldn’t have loved to have had that continue out of the Apollo program, and it could have happened. Saturn V was certainly capable of creating what was necessary for a Mars mission.

Schmitt's crewmates were Ronald Evans (standing right) and Eugene Cernan (seated).

AAS: So why should we return to the Moon?
HS: I think going back to the Moon is the fastest way to get to Mars.

AAS: Is a return to the Moon, private or otherwise, really feasible?
HS: There’s really only one resource that would support a private investor-based activity, at least only one that we know about, and that’s Helium-3. The only major business case, something comparable to communications satellites, which is so far the only successful space based private initiative, would be the extraction of Helium-3 on the Moon and its use here on Earth in fusion power reactors.

AAS: Do you think it’s possible that we could build a lunar base by the 2030s?
HS: There’s no question in my mind that 20 years would be more than sufficient for a private investor-owned company to begin the settlement of the Moon and the extraction of its energy resources. Helium-3 is the only thing we’ve identified as yet that would be economically feasible to bring back to Earth and utilise here. However other things like oxygen, hydrogen and water can be used in space by the ISS, missions to Mars, and so forth.

AAS: Are NASA’s priorities still right today?
HS: They’re still doing some important and interesting things with various programs, but as far as deep space human exploration is concerned there is no US policy at this time. It’s pretty clear that China has a long-term goal of being dominant in space.

AAS: Would you be disappointed if China beats the US back to the Moon?
HS: I would be very disappointed if the US decides to abandon deep space human exploration, as we have at least since 1972. That is important, not only for the US, but for humanity in terms of the geopolitical importance of deep space relative to the defence of freedom on this planet, the psychological defence of freedom on Earth.

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