Crew: Scientist, veteran, rookie

(Time, December 11, 1972)

It has always been a source of great annoyance to scientists: Though the Apollo Program is one of the milestones in the history of scientific exploration, they have been precluded from participating directly in it. Now, confident of the Apollo landing techniques perfected by the military pilots on previous missions, NASA has chosen a handsome 37 year-old geologist named Harrison (Jack) Schmitt to be co-pilot of Apollo 17. If all goes well, Schmitt next week will take an historic step: he will become the first scientist from Earth to walk on another world.

Schmitt’s preparation began long before Apollo was conceived. The son of a mining geologist, he grew up in Silver City, New Mexico, and decided early in life to become a geologist himself. As a youngster he visited mining camps, explored Indian reservations and made rock-hunting forays into the lunar-like deserts of the Southwest. At Caltech he studied under Ian Campbell and other noted earth scientists, including some of the men who will be watching his every move over TV from Mission Control’s science support room.

In 1964, armed with a new doctorate in geology from Harvard, Schmitt joined the US Geological Survey at Flagstaff, Arizona. There he was assigned the job of assembling photographs taken by unmanned Ranger spacecraft into detailed lunar maps for future moon walkers. Schmitt was fascinated by the task. Recalls former NASA Geologist Gene Shoemaker: “Jack caught the space bug”. Indeed as soon as NASA began recruiting scientist-astronauts in 1965, Schmitt applied. He was accepted despite a minor physical problem: an unusual and painful elongation of the large intestine.

The decision by NASA doctors proved sound. Throughout his rigorous preparation, the geologist astronaut has maintained superb health and excelled as a trainee. He ranked second in his class of 50 at Air Force flight school, and has spent countless hours on field trips everywhere from Iceland to Hawaii teaching fellow astronauts how to spot and select geologically significant rocks. He worked closely with NASA scientists in devising scoops, shovels and other tools on the Moon. Says NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz: “If anyone deserves a flight, is Jack Schmitt”.

As a professional geologist, Schmitt will be under intense pressure to provide his colleagues with the best possible lunar specimens and descriptions of the landscape. To make sure that his performance meets his own high standards, Schmitt has been working at a furious pace. Scientists in Houston still talk about the time they took Schmitt to lunch at a local top-less restaurant, where they all engaged in the usual space-flight shoptalk. Later, when one of the group asked what he thought of the amply proportioned girl who had served him, Bachelor Schmitt was astonished. “When was she topless?”, he asked. “I didn’t even notice”.

Schmitt’s companion on the surface of the Moon will be the mission commander, Navy Captain Eugene Cernan, 38. A veteran astronaut, Cernan took a space flight of Gemini 9 and flew the Apollo 10 lunar module to within nine miles of the Moon’s surface in 1969, during the final test of the Apollo system before an actual landing. Born in Chicago’s North Side to first-generation Czechoslovak-American parents he excelled in athletics in high school but turned down college football scholarships in order to study engineering at Purdue and join the naval ROTC. Married and the father of a nine-year-old girl, he is deeply religious (Roman Catholic), a friend of Vice President Spiro Agnew (who has dined at the Cernan home) and unashamedly patriotic. “For me,” he says of the first lunar landing, “it wasn’t than man first stepped out on the Moon; it was that an American was planting the American flag for all the world to see.”

Commander Ronald Evans, 39, Apollo 17’s third crew member, is also a Navy Flyer. In fact, he and Cernan were studying together at the Navy’s postgraduate School in Monterey, California, in 1963 when Cernan learned that he had been accepted by NASA and Evans was told that he had been turned down (he made it three years later). “That night,” Evans recalls, “Gene and I went out and got totally sloshed.” Born in the Kansas wheat-belt town of St. Francis, where his father worked for a wheat-silage company, Evans was an Eagle Scout, a math whiz and an all-around athlete. After graduating from the University of Kansas, where he held an NROTC scholarship, he won his wings at Pensacola, Florida. Subsequently he flew 100 carrier missions off Indochina and became the first Viet Nam veteran in the astronaut ranks. A modhish dresser (typical garb: white slacks, maroon sports jacket, pink tie and shirt), he is married and the father of two children: a daughter, 13, and a son, 11. As pilot of the command ship America, he will remain in orbit around the Moon while Schmitt and Cernan explore the lunar surface. Unlike earlier command pilots, he will not be totally alone. In lunar orbit with him will be the participants in a medical experiment to determine the effects of cosmic rays on space travelers: five pocket mice.

harrison schmitt

Harrison Schmitt on the Moon. Photo: NASA, photo of the public domain