Former astronaut Harrison Schmitt, one of the last men to walk on the moon, has nothing good to say about President Barack Obama’s plan to all but ground the Constellation program, which calls for a return to the moon by 2020 and human landings on Mars by the middle of the century.
“I’m afraid what the president and his administration want is for the United States to no longer be preeminent in space flight,” Schmitt, an honorary fellow in the UW-Madison College of Engineering, says in a phone interview from Albuquerque, N.M., where he lives. “And that has very, very serious consequences.”
Schmitt, a geologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard and the only person without a military background to ever walk on the moon, will be in Madison on Monday to make his case for continuing human space exploration. Schmitt, who taught several graduate-level seminars at UW-Madison from 1996 to 2004, will speak at 6:45 p.m. in room 1610 of Engineering Hall, 1415 Engineering Drive. The free talk is open to the public and sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and its UW-Madison chapter.
Speaking at the Kennedy Space Center on Thursday, Obama explained his decision, made earlier this year, to scrap the Constellation program. Obama insisted he still is “100 percent committed to the future of NASA,” but believes a new approach to human spaceflight is needed. Part of Obama’s vision includes a larger role for private industry.
For many who viewed the grainy black-and-white television image of Neil Armstrong making his “giant leap for mankind,” it hardly seems possible that more than 40 years have passed since a person first stepped foot on the moon. What’s even harder to believe, says Schmitt, is that no one has returned since he and Gene Cernan left the lunar soil in December 1972 as part of the Apollo 17 mission, and there are no plans for the U.S. to go back.
“Frankly, it’s disheartening to me that there’s going to be at least a 50-year gap between trips to deep space for America,” says Schmitt, who claims to be the person who took the iconic “Blue Marble” photo, which features a brilliant shot of Earth hanging in the black void of space.
In 2004, former President George W. Bush called on NASA to retire the space shuttle and return humans to the moon and beyond with the unveiling of the Constellation program. The idea was to eventually set up a moon base, which would allow astronauts to practice living on another planet before someday shooting for Mars. But the Bush administration and Congress never added the necessary funding to NASA’s budget for such an endeavor to stay on schedule.
When Obama unveiled his proposed budget for fiscal year 2011 on Feb. 1, essentially shelving Constellation and the space shuttle’s successor, the Ares 1 rocket, it disheartened many.
“There’s disappointment because there were a lot of people who devoted their careers to getting us back to human space exploration, and that now looks like it’s gone by the board,” says Gerald Kulcinski, a UW-Madison associate dean of research in the College of Engineering who has worked with Schmitt since the mid-1980s.
Schmitt, who stayed on at NASA after the moon landings before serving as a Republican senator from New Mexico from 1977 to 1982, says there are two motives behind the president’s moves.
“The secondary motive is to make sure that we’ve canceled everything George Bush wanted to do, whether it’s the right thing to do or not,” says Schmitt, who served as chair in 2005-08 of the NASA Advisory Council, which oversees plans for America’s future in space. “The other thing is the Obama administration, including the president, is made up of people who do not really like what America has been. And our prowess in space is part of what America has been. And I think they would just as soon see us take a second- or third-rate status in that.”
Schmitt, who turns 75 this summer, says Obama may not want to see the United States succeed because the “president never grew up as an American; he grew up in Indonesia for the most part. His whole formative years were outside of America. I also think he has a very strong feeling, and he makes it quite evident, that he does not like what America has done in the past.” (Obama actually spent just four years in his youth living in Indonesia, from ages 6 to 10.)
The former astronaut’s connections to UW-Madison date to the mid-1980s, when researchers at the university were searching for possible sources of fusion fuel and stumbled across literature in the Lunar and Planetary Institute, which noted there were significant quantities of the isotope Helium-3 on the moon. This potentially potent nuclear fusion fuel, which can only be found in extremely low quantities on Earth, is non-polluting and has almost no radioactive byproducts. Scientists have stated one space shuttle full of Helium-3 could supply the energy needs of the United States for a year.
Kulcinski, who previously was a researcher in UW-Madison’s nuclear engineering department, started working with Schmitt in 1986, and the two eventually developed a graduate-level course called “Resources in Space,” which Schmitt termed a “broad revue of space science and energy engineering.” Schmitt, who specializes in economic geology, which includes the study of ore deposits, and Kulcinski taught the course six times between 1996 and 2004.
Much of the subject matter in that course ended up in Schmitt’s 2006 book, “Return to the Moon: Exploration, Enterprise, and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space,” which examined the economic benefits of returning to the moon and exploiting the potential of Helium-3.
But U.S. astronauts never got back to the moon, and now Kulcinski says the Chinese may have the best chance of making the trip to harvest Helium-3. “Unfortunately, we may be sitting on the sidelines while they accomplish this,” he says.
Many believe NASA’s glory days of Apollo can never be recaptured, mainly because there is no Cold War with the Soviet Union to drive the country to action. But Schmitt doesn’t see it that way.
“The Cold War II opponent on this planet right now is China, and the United States -- if it wishes to continue to protect liberty and the Constitution and other rights that we have -- must not only be competitive, but preeminent in space flight,” he says. “I am very much of the mind that America can’t afford to be second-best in space. It’s the new ocean. It would be as if the United States decided in the last 200 years or so not to have a Navy. The oceans were where the competition between nations existed, and now that competition has moved into space. We should not be afraid of it. We should embrace it.”
As for Schmitt’s past, he says he could talk about his trip to the moon for eight hours a day, seven days per week. The Apollo 17 voyage was the 11th manned space mission in the Apollo program and marked the sixth and last lunar landing mission. It was launched in the early morning hours of Dec. 7, 1972, and ended Dec. 19. Schmitt says there is no highlight that stands out in his mind.
“The trip was 13 days, and every day had its high points,” he says. “It was just a magnificent opportunity for me, personally, but it was also an opportunity to be at the tip of a sphere that was held by 450,000 other Americans. People don’t realize how directly involved so many Americans were in the Apollo program. Astronauts just happened to be at the right place at the right time to be at the front, but we couldn’t have done it by ourselves, that’s for sure.”