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Cernan, Evans, and Schmitt
Gene Cernan, Jan Evans (widow of Ron Evans), and Harrison Schmitt at the National Air and Space Museum on March 18. (credit: J. Foust)

The Gene and Jack show

The last two men to walk on the Moon discuss the past and future

It’s been over 30 years since Eugene Cernan and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt became the eleventh and twelfth—and, to date, last—humans to set foot on the moon. One would think that, over time, public interest in their feat would have waned. Yet, several hundred people turned out at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum March 18 for the museum’s annual Werner von Braun lecture by the two former astronauts.

Attendance at the event was depressed somewhat, in part because of war and terrorism concerns in the nation’s capital on the eve of military action in Iraq. Still, the museum’s main theater was filled to about capacity, with empty seats being filled by people who otherwise would had been consigned to the overflow seating in the museum’s planetarium. (In an ironic twist, the event was held in the Lockheed Martin IMAX Theater but sponsored by Boeing.) The lecture by Cernan and Schmitt didn’t shed any new light on their mission or overall experiences, but allowed them to share their insights on both the mission and their hopes for the future.

Harrison Schmitt’s part of the lecture clearly showed his academic background in geology that dates back to his education at Caltech and Harvard (his long-windedness in both his speech and answers to subsequent questions, though, is a trait more likely related to his stint in politics.) Using a set of slides that appeared to be part of a PowerPoint presentation, Schmitt described what he called the “legacy of Apollo”: the impact the lunar landings had on everything from science to education to politics. Among other things, Schmitt credited the success of Apollo with influencing Soviet opinions about missile defense a generation later. “The leadership of the Soviet Union believed that the Strategic Defense Initiative would probably be successful” because the US succeeded at Apollo, Schmitt claimed.

The success of Apollo convinced the Soviets that the US could make SDI work as well, Schmitt claimed.

Schmitt also used the lecture to discuss some of his scientific hobbyhorses. Despite growing agreement among scientists that the Moon was formed when a Mars-sized protoplanet collided with the Earth, Schmitt said he did not believe that model was valid. The fundamental problem with that model, he said, was the lack of differentiation in the interior of the Moon, which shows no signs of ever melting. He instead argues for an “impact-assisted capture” model for the Moon, although he did not elaborate on its details. Schmitt also promoted the economic potential of the Moon, noting that one metric ton of helium-3 is worth about $4-5 billion in crude oil (never mind the fact that there are no fusion reactors yet that could use helium-3.) “The energy equivalent of one metric ton of helium-3 is extraordinary and should make any economic geologist in the crowd wet his or her lips,” he said.

Cernan took a different approach than Schmitt’s academic presentation (“You can all go home with three more semester credit hours,” he joked after taking the stage following Schmitt’s lecture.) While Schmitt talked largely about the scientific and educational legacy of Apollo, Cernan sought a more emotional approach, realizing that “half this audience wasn’t even born when we went to the Moon.” He peppered his comments with anecdotes about the humble beginnings of the human space program and how, in a few short years, human spaceflight became almost passe—at least to Cernan’s young daughter.

In relatively brief comments, he noted that Apollo “was a human endeavor of a nation of people who would just not quit” after the Apollo 1 fire. “A lesser people would have given up.” Tying the tragedy of Apollo 1 and near-tragedy of Apollo 13 to the present day, Cernan added, “It’s the same people today, some thirty-plus years later, I think that are going to rise once again and respond to the challenge of the Columbia tragedy.” The real legacy of Apollo, he said, was not what they did, but that Americans had a dream of going to the Moon, and were willing to do whatever it took, and make mistakes along the way, “to reach out further than human beings had reached out before.”

“You can let your imagination wander and pretend you’re sitting on God’s front porch looking back home. That’s what it was sort of like for me.” — Gene Cernan

Cernan and Schmitt spent a good deal of time fielding a variety of questions from the audience. They were joined by Jan Evans, the widow of Apollo 17 command module pilot Ron Evans, who had introduced the two at the beginning of the evening. They proved to be an entertaining trio, offering responses that were enlightening and often lighthearted.

While Cernan and Schmitt took different approaches to their talks, in the end they ended up converging on the same point: the Apollo produced a dramatic change in themselves and in humanity that no one realized anticipated at the time and whose repercussions persist to this day. “Sometimes I try and relate to people about what it was like to go to the Moon and what it was like to look back at the Earth,” said Cernan. “You can let your imagination wander and pretend you’re sitting on God’s front porch looking back home. That’s what it was sort of like for me.”

“We changed our evolutionary status in the universe,” said Schmitt. “We can now live on the Moon and Mars should we choose to do so. Young people alive today might conceivably be the parents of the first Martians. This is something that came because of the demonstration of what we could do and were willing to do with Apollo.”