Sunday Times Harrison Schmitt 10.05.09

Man on the moon

"It's very unfortunate that somebody felt they had to have that particular piece of the moon that belonged to the people of Malta" - Harrison Schmitt.

Harrison Schmitt was the last man to visit the moon. He speaks to Patrick Cooke and Veronica Stivala about his landmark mission, alternative energy, alien life and Malta's stolen moon rock.

"Patterns sped by too fast - the South Atlantic and its washboard of stratus clouds, the burning savannahs of Africa's interior, Madagascar, the towering thunderheads of the Indian Ocean, cloud and shadow fingers of sunset, lightning flashes in the South Pacific darkness, city glows through winter clouds covering North America, and then the grids of lights of Florida once again."

This is not the opening to a sci-fi novel, but Harrison Schmitt's poetic account of his trip to the moon.

Mr Schmitt and Gene Cernan's Apollo 17 mission on December 7, 1972, made them the last men to walk the moon. Since then, Mr Schmitt has been a businessman, US Senator and chairman of Nasa's prestigious advisory council.

Although he walked on the moon nearly 40 years ago, making him the first geologist to do so, his memories of the trip are crystal clear. Such an experience is not easily forgotten and he discusses his adventure frequently. On his five-day visit to Malta, he spoke about it at least four times a day.

"I found the whole mission was an extraordinary experience for me, a highlight in itself, each day had its own remarkable high point," he says.

Despite his rare experience (only 12 men have walked on the moon), Mr Schmitt is remarkably down to earth.

"I don't think it (the trip) changed my perspective," he reflects, "it's part of any experience that makes you mature as a consequence of it. It gave me an opportunity to speak to many people around the world about my experiences, and that's something that would have not happened had I not been part of the Apollo programme."

Mr Schmitt, 74, looks far younger than his age. Dressed to the nines in a smart suit, he is eloquent and concise, possibly because he's told the story so many times before. His gaze is penetrating and he captivates his listener as he speaks of his historic journey.

Although Apollo 17 took the astronauts to the great unknown, Mr Schmitt was never afraid. Naturally, a great deal of scientific preparation went into minimising the risks and this gave the astronaut the confidence to be fearless.

Having trained for 15 months, he wasn't even apprehensive during the countdown. "If you were going to be scared you shouldn't have volunteered," he says bluntly.

"The main thing you're thinking about is ensuring nothing intervenes at (the countdown) to keep you from going into space. Everyone who has gone into space, including those who have died there, have done so believing this was exactly where they wanted to be at the time they were there. When you leave home to drive to the newspaper office, you're making the decision that that is where you want to go at the time. It's the same with astronauts."

Once on the earth's natural satellite, Mr Schmitt was "excited and stimulated", although he was prevented from jumping up and down with exhilaration too wildly by the confines of his spacesuit, and he had to carefully ration his energy.

"You had to discipline yourself to just keep a steady pace in order to maintain some strength in those muscles." Interestingly, despite the physical demands and contrary to the after-effects of exercise on earth, after resting, the next morning (so to speak) the astronauts would wake up feeling no pain in their muscles.

"That is probably because your cardiovascular system is much more efficient in 1/6 gravity than it is here on earth," he explains.

Mr Schmitt is disappointed, however, that spacesuits have not changed much since his trip. "We really need major new developments in spacesuits. We should be working towards suits that allow you to use your hands as if you didn't have a suit on."

The reason man last went to the moon such a long time ago, is, according to Mr Schmitt, connected to the Cold War. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy wanted to prove to the Soviet Union that going to the moon was a demonstration of what free men and women could do when faced with a challenge.

When the administration changed, Richard Nixon had a new agenda and scrapped the Apollo mission to develop the new shuttle, a mistake in Mr Schmitt's opinion.

Despite all that was accomplished by the Apollo missions, there are some who question the wisdom of spending so much money on space travel when there are so many existing problems on earth. Mr Schmitt thinks they are missing the point.

"Space is a major contributor to the solution of these problems", he says, citing the new technologies that have been developed in medicine, materials, energy conversion and computers, as well as weather forecasts, climate monitoring, remote sensing, land forms, and the GPS system.

"There is a broad application of space to the problems that all human beings face on earth. To say that we should stop all that, that we should never have done it, that we should put the money to use somewhere else on Earth, is very naive."

Although he knew there would be changes to the space programme after Apollo 17, he never expected it would take so long before man returned to the moon.

"It is unfortunate that we did not maintain the capability to go to the moon and undertake many other kinds of activities, one of which was to be much closer to realising the energy potential the moon has to serve us here on earth with extraordinary clean energy sources."

In his book Return to the Moon, Mr Schmitt envisions spacecraft returning small quantities of helium-3 from mined and processed lunar soil to Earth for generating energy. In the long term, he believes this could be a viable and clean alternative to fossil fuels.

"From the time investors become interested, to the time 15 or 20 years later, it could start to be used to replace other types of power systems as they age or need to be replaced. But we wouldn't all of a sudden replace every power plant on earth with helium-3 fusion power plants. It's a process that would have to be very gradual because there is so much invested in the existing infrastructure."

He is very confident that his idea satisfies the terms of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which 99 nations are state parties to, including the US, Russia and China. This treaty states that the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit, and in the interests, of all countries.

"One of the ways to satisfy the Outer Space Treaty's mandate that the activities in space be for the benefit of humankind is that these power plants become available and are marketed to the rest of the world."

The 1979 Moon Treaty intended to establish a regime for the use of the moon and other celestial bodies, but it was only ratified by 13 countries, none of which is a major space-faring nation. Mr Schmitt agrees with the US decision not to ratify it.

"That treaty would be a major mistake if it ever effectively came into force, because it would prevent clear-cut management of a programme to access these resources for the world. If that treaty was ratified you would never see these resources available to people on earth. It requires an international management organisation, and they just don't work well. They tend to be inefficient, and they tend to not get the job done."

He is convinced his idea would not damage the moon environmentally and is incredulous at the suggestion that there may be ethical concerns about exploiting extra-terrestrial resources.

"Human beings have an ethical duty to support themselves and provide an improved standard of living throughout the world. This is just one way this can be done."

Nations have gone to war over energy resources on Earth. Is there potential for conflict over the energy resources on the moon?

"Human beings have a propensity to conflict over almost everything. Sure, there is a possibility of conflict developing in space over the resources," he says; however, he is confident that the Outer Space Treaty will help to prevent such conflicts.

Although Mr Schmitt is dedicated to the idea of developing a new source of 'clean' energy, he is certainly not attached to the idea that fossil fuels are a major cause of global warming and he flatly rejects the global consensus that has developed on this issue.

"Consensus is very dangerous. Consensus means there is an absence of definitive fact and everyone has agreed that we will go in one direction. The observational facts are just the opposite of that consensus."

He argues passionately that the Earth is warming as part of its natural cycle and is adamant that the computer models used to analyse climate change are inadequate because the climate is too complex to be modelled. To this end, he believes any attempt to counter climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions is futile.

"If you try to regulate carbon dioxide, all you're trying to do is regulate nature and you're going to fail. It's worse than a waste of time and money; it's a waste of liberty. To do the kind of regulation and taxation that people are talking about, you're going to reduce the liberty of human beings on this planet. In addition, you're not going to be successful - nature will find a way of doing what it is going to do, and we're not yet strong enough and probably never will be strong enough as a species to alter nature."

Mr Schmitt didn't get to the moon by doubting himself and he is happy to challenge the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007 report, compiled by 600 scientists from 40 countries, which concluded that an increase in greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity is a very likely cause of global warming.

"The IPCC are a bunch of government bureaucrats. They want the power to tax and regulate our liberties. So you have to be very careful - if you're sceptical about me you have to be really sceptical about them, because they have their own agenda."

But despite serving as a Republican Senator from 1976 to 1982, he would not comment on Democratic President Barack Obama's attempts to build a 'green economy' in the US.

"His decisions will be his decisions; I'm just giving you my opinion."

Back to celestial issues then - would Mr Schmitt return to the moon today?

"I'd love to go back, I really would. My wife insists she would be able to go back with me, which is fine. She ought to have the same experience. But I think a younger generation are going to take care of that. I don't expect to go back."

As times change, so do the aspirations of youth. But Schmitt insists that today's youngsters still harbour dreams of space travel.

"There are plenty of young men and women out there who have the kind of exploration ambition that we had in our generation... And you need them, the average age of people in mission control during the Apollo 13 incident was 26. Until you get those young people in you don't have the motivation, the imagination, the stamina and the courage that you really need to make these programmes go."

The younger generation may have lots to look forward to: it has been said man will be able to live on the moon by 2024. This is certainly technically feasible, Mr Schmitt says.

"We're just going to have to wait and see whether either nations or private commercial activities can come together to make it happen quickly," he explains.

Mr Schmitt believes it is entirely reasonable that the first settlement could be well on its way to being established by 2024, or certainly 2030, if investors decide to proceed with the ideas he lays out in his book.

For people born this year, Mr Schmitt thinks that technological developments in their lifetime will mean that humans will not only be living permanently on the moon, but the process of living permanently on Mars will have begun.

"They could certainly be the parents of the first Martians."

Would anyone actually want to live on the moon permanently?

"It's the nature of human beings - human beings have been migrating across the Earth since their beginning and we've sort of reached a limit now. We can't migrate off the Earth until we go the moon."

Governments are certainly planning for a return to the moon. George W. Bush announced in 2004 that the US intends to return by 2020, but China also has an active space programme and announced in 2007 that it plans to land a man on the moon within 15 years. Mr Schmitt initially seems unconcerned when asked about the prospect of a new space race.

"I think there has been a space race for many years; it just changes nationalities after a while."

But is he concerned about China's outer space ambitions?

"It's not clear exactly what China wants to do, their programme is very secret they are not co-operating with the rest of the world. They certainly don't let other nationals examine what they are doing as the US does. I think the Chinese very clearly want to be a dominant economic power and a military power in the world. They have indicated by their actions that they want to be a dominant space power as well."

Mr Schmitt is well aware that the piece of moon rock collected during his mission and donated to Malta was stolen in 2004. The local inquiry into this has subsided.

"It's very unfortunate that somebody felt they had to have that particular piece of the moon that belonged to the people of Malta," the astronaut says.

Perhaps we can get another one?

"There are plenty," he replies. "There are a lot of Apollo samples still being used for scientific investigations."

There are also ways of getting another rock, albeit if plenty of money is in tow...

Mr Schmitt dismisses conspiracy theorists who think the US never landed men on the moon, but he is not so dismissive of the possibility of alien life.

"It's highly probable," he says. "The universe is very large and the number of possibilities of that is almost infinite, so the chances are high that there is life."

However, out of the infinite number of stars in outer space, the probability that other life-forms would pick our star to communicate with is highly improbable. Pity.

Would he welcome an encounter with alien life?

"I think it would be very exciting," he says. "Hopefully both sides would be able to communicate. That is one of the things that I think makes it unlikely that any alien life forms have visited the earth, because if they could do that, then they would be excellent communicators and we wouldn't be having this type of conversation."

Harrison Schmitt was invited to Malta by the International Year of Astronomy 2009 committee with the collaboration of the Physics department and the US embassy.

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