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ASK OCE — November 3, 2006 — Vol. 1, Issue 15


Since humans are planning to explore the moon again, it makes sense to find out what the last man to walk its surface thinks the future might hold. Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt has a lot of ideas about this, and he spells them out clearly in Return to the Moon.

As the title of his book suggests, Schmitt is a strong proponent of further lunar exploration. Currently chair of the NASA Advisory Council, he acknowledges that the benefits of the Vision for Space Exploration hinge first and foremost on political support over the long term. “If sustained by Congress and future Presidents, American leadership of this expansion of the ecological reach of our species will be accompanied by the transfer of human freedom, first to the Moon, then to Mars, and, ultimately, beyond,” he writes.

He recognizes that, in the absence of the Cold War race to the moon with the Soviet Union, the United States needs another imperative to maintain its space exploration effort. A Ph.D. geologist, Schmitt says the “financial, environmental, and national security carrot” this time is access to lunar helium-3 fusion power. “Returning to the Moon for its helium-3 fusion resource constitutes the most predictable and potentially the most successful approach to rejuvenating humankind’s migration into deep space,” he concludes. He devotes two chapters to an analysis of lunar helium-3 economics, and asserts that the development of this resource is best suited for private industry. “A private lunar resource-oriented enterprise will take a different technical path back to the Moon than the one designed by NASA, and this dichotomy will be best for all concerned,” he writes in the introduction.

Schmitt believes it is critical to learn from the management practices of the Apollo program, which he places in a historical context alongside earlier successful exploration initiatives such as Lewis and Clark’s expedition and Roald Amundsen’s trek to the South Pole:

“Apollo demonstrated that management constitutes the most critical component of a human Return to the Moon and eventually of humans going to Mars. An understandable tendency exists in government and the media to concentrate on advancement of technology; however, management and leadership of the creation, integration, and operation of that technology is demonstrably even more important. The history of terrestrial exploration and pioneering illustrates this truism equally well.”

Using Apollo as his model, he spells out six conditions he believes are essential to achieve “great engineering goals”:

  • An achievable goal based on an adequate base of technology.
  • A potential for tough, competent, and disciplined management.
  • A sufficient reservoir of young engineers and engineering managers to implement program plans.
  • An environment of national unease.
  • A catalytic event or a suddenly obvious threat that stirs public emotions.
  • An articulate and trusted national leader.

In the case of Apollo, the national unease came from the perception that Soviet Union was surpassing the United States technologically. The catalytic event triggering a reaction to this unease, of course, was the Sputnik launch.

Schmitt acknowledges that critics deem a return to the moon “an unrealistic, misguided, and selfish effort,” and counters that their objections are the best case for increased private investment. His model for the future of space exploration, which includes public and private initiatives, is visionary and provocative. Above all, though, he sees a return to the moon as an imperative step in the history of humankind. “Apollo bent our evolutionary path to the future,” he concludes.

Read the Space Review review of Return to the Moon.


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