Sunday Times 19.04.09

Last man on moon to visit Malta next week

by Gordon Caruana Dingli

Harrison Schmitt on the moon in 1972, collecting lunar specimens. Photo: NASA

Harrison Schmitt, the only scientist and one of the last of 12 men to step on the moon, will visit Malta next week and give two public talks at the University of Malta, Msida.

Schmitt was the lunar module pilot of Apollo 17, the last and most successful mission of the United States' National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) Apollo space programme.

His first talk, appropriately titled 'A scientist on the moon - Apollo 17' will take place on Wednesday from 6.30 to 7.30 p.m. at the University's Erin Serracino Inglott hall. It is open to the public.

He will also talk about space exploration and exploitation at the University's Mathematics and Physics building, room 401, on Thursday from 6.30 to 7.30 p.m. This second talk is more suited to academics and science students aged over 16, although members of the public with a science background are also welcome.

Attendance to both talks is free. People wishing to attend are requested to e-mail physics.sci@um.edu.mt, indicating the talk they are interested in, and are asked to be seated at least 15 minutes before the scheduled start.

The talks are being hosted by the University's Department of Physics in collaboration with the International Year of Astronomy 2009 Malta committee and the US Embassy.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of when man first walked on the moon. On July 20, 1969, the lunar module 'Eagle' landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong and Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin first walked on and explored the moon's surface. But there was a lot more to the Apollo programme than this mission.

Apollo was a massive programme costing $24 billion and employing 400,000 people, equivalent to Malta's population. Initially, the US flew the small Mercury and Gemini spacecraft in earth orbit to test equipment and try out procedures.

The first Apollo flew in October 1968, and in December, Apollo 8 flew to the moon. Apollos 9 and 10 were further test flights to evaluate the hardware before the first landing.

Subsequent to Apollo 11 there were further flights to the moon, each one increasing in complexity and duration, except for the problematic Apollo 13, on which there was an explosion.

The Apollo 17 rocket lifted off on December 7, 1972. On that day, as the astronauts were travelling to the moon, Schmitt reportedly took a photo of the earth that has become one of the most famous and widely distributed photos in existence, although Nasa officially credits the image to the entire Apollo 17 crew.

It is one of the few photos to show a fully illuminated earth, as the sun was behind the astronauts when the photo was taken at a distance of about 29,000 kilometres. To the astronauts, the earth had the appearance of a glass marble, and hence the famous photo came to be known as the Big Blue Marble.

On December 11, the Apollo 17 lunar module landed on the moon in the valley of Taurus-Littrow. On each of the preceding Apollo missions there had been incremental improvements and rovers (lunar vehicles) were being taken to the moon to increase the area that could be explored.

The Apollo 17 astronauts stayed on the moon for three days and actually walked the surface for about 22 hours, a lot longer than the two and a half hours of Apollo 11. Using a rover, Schmitt and another astronaut, Commander Gene Cernan, travelled some 30 km, exploring the whole valley in which they had landed. They conducted observations, hammered chips of rocks and collected a total of 110 kg of moon rocks which they brought back to earth.

As Schmitt returned to the Apollo lunar module before Cernan, he is, to date, second to the last person to have set foot on the moon's surface.

After the completion of Apollo 17, Schmitt played an active role in documenting the Apollo geologic results and also took on the task of organising Nasa's energy programme office.

Born in 1935, Schmitt is a geologist by training, is a keen advocate of manned exploration of space and specifically, the commercial exploitation of the moon's resources to be used to generate energy by fusion.

In 1975, Schmitt fulfilled a long-standing personal committment by entering politics. Elected in 1976, he served a six-year term in the US Senate beginning in 1977. Senator Schmitt worked as a member of the Senate's commerce, banking, appropriations, intelligence, and ethics committees.

In his last two years in the Senate, Schmitt was chairman of the Commerce sub-committee on Science, Technology, and Space, and of the Appropriations sub-committee on Labour, Health and Human Services, and Education.

Schmitt became chairman of Nasa's advisory council in November 2005, and served until October 2008. He led the council's deliberations on issues related to aeronautics, audit and finance, biomedicine, exploration, including human flight systems development, human capital, science, and space operations.

He also consults, speaks, and writes on policy issues of the future, the science of the moon and planets, history of space flight and geology, space exploration, space law, and the American Southwest.

He presently is chair emeritus of The Annapolis Centre, which deals with risk assessment, and is adjunct professor of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teaching 'Resources from Space'.

Schmitt became a consultant to the Fusion Technology Institute at the University of Wisconsin in 1986, advising on the economic geology of lunar resources and the engineering, operational, and financial aspects of returning to the moon.

In 1997, Schmitt co-founded and became chairman of Interlune-Intermars Initiative, Inc., which promotes the private sector's acquisition of lunar resources and Helium-3 fusion power and clinical use of medical isotopes produced by fusion-related processes.

In 2006, he wrote Return to the Moon that describes a private enterprise approach to providing lunar helium-3 fusion energy resources for use on earth.

For further information, visit the website: http://iya2009malta.page.tl/Astronaut-Geologist-Harrison-Schmitt%2C-Apollo-17-Lunar-Module-Pilot.htm .

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