Apollo 17, 40 Years Ago, Remembered

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Only 12 humans have ever walked on the surface of the Moon; only one of them, Harrison Schmitt, was a scientist, and he came to Sun 'n Fun this week. Schmitt, a geologist, is appearing at several events to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 17 mission. In a news conference on Wednesday morning, he brought to life his long-ago experience. His ship was blasted into space on Dec. 7, 1972, by the last of the Saturn V rockets, he said. At about 34,000 miles from Earth, he snapped the famous photo showing the whole planet, which is still the most-requested shot from NASA. Then he and Eugene Cernan landed on the Moon, where they spent 75 hours.

"Twenty-two hours of that was outside the lunar module," he said. "We landed in a mountain valley, deeper than the Grand Canyon and just five miles wide." It was a fascinating experience, he said, to spend time on the lunar surface. "The sky was absolutely black, yet the landscape was brightly lit by the sun," he said. "I never got fully used to that." The combination of the strange light, the scarcity of landmarks, and the lack of an atmosphere made it tricky to judge distances. The geological samples he collected are still being analyzed, decades later, as new technologies make it possible to discover new features. One researcher found evidence of water in a Moon sample, using advanced techniques, and some of the work has led to new theories about the origin of the Moon. Schmitt recently wrote a book, "Return to the Moon," in which he argues that it would be economically feasible to send astronauts to the Moon to mine an element called Helium-3 that could be transported to Earth to produce energy. Schmitt had much more to say about his flight training in preparation for the mission and his ideas about how we should continue to explore the Moon, in a podcast interview with AVweb's Mary Grady; click here to listen.