Spaceflight Insider

Harrison Schmitt talks SLS during MSFC visit

Harrison Schmitt on the Moon during Apollo 17. Photo Credit: NASA

Harrison Schmitt on the Moon during Apollo 17. (Click to enlarge) Photo Credit: NASA

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, the 12th person to set foot on the Moon, was in Huntsville on Thursday, Oct. 27, to speak at the 28th Annual Wernher von Braun Memorial Dinner at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center (USSRC). The Celebration was held in conjunction with the 9th Annual Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium, at the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), and SpaceFlight Insider (SFI) had the opportunity to briefly speak with Schmitt at a UAH media event organized by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC).

 Todd May, MSFC Director (left), and Harrison Schmitt (right), view the new SLS core stage liquid hydrogen tank test stand at MSFC. Photo Credit: NASA

May, MSFC Director (left), and Harrison Schmitt (right) view the new SLS core stage liquid hydrogen tank test stand at MSFC. Photo Credit: NASA

Prior to the media event, Schmitt toured the MSFC facilities, accompanied by center director Todd May, and received an update on NASA’s development, testing, and production of the Space Launch System (SLS) – the agency’s new super-heavy-lift launch vehicle.

Schmitt has long been critical of the decision by the Johnson and Nixon administrations to shut down the production of the agency’s prior super-heavy-lift vehicle – the Saturn V – which transported Schmitt and his colleagues to the Moon.

Schmitt has argued that the continued production of the Saturn V, along with an upgraded version (a notional Saturn VI), would have allowed for the continued, uninterrupted exploration of deep space.

SpaceFlight Insider asked Schmitt his opinion on the perceived capabilities of the Saturn V / Saturn VI, as compared with the SLS:

“I think the current program is really the program that can, at the very least, get us started. And I think it can do more than that. There’s no question about it.

“The reason I have written about a Saturn VI concept, that builds on the very robust technology we had during Apollo, is that it, when you look at a long-term production contract, you look at the economics, that a private investment group would be looking at, that would’ve made a lot of sense, at the time. It still can happen.

“The group here is developing a very robust rocket system, as near as I can see. Obviously, using some existing technologies and that, an investor group, I think can look at that and see if they want to go to the Moon, for its resources, to add to the production contracts that will be in place to build the SLS and its derivatives.

Harrison Schmitt speaks to media at UAH. Photo Credit: Scott Johnson / SpaceFlight Insider

Schmitt speaks to media at UAH. Photo Credit: Scott Johnson / SpaceFlight Insider

“It was a question of what is the paradigm that you’re trying to set up. And, for my writing, some years ago, ten years ago now, I set up the paradigm is what would it take for private investors in order to look at a, potentially, return on their investment with the kind of booster system that had already been proven by, namely, the Saturn V concept. But that is, certainly, is not the only way in which it can be done.”

SFI also asked Schmitt if he had any specific recollection of visits to MSFC during the Apollo program – in the 1960s / early 1970s:

“Well, I think, my first visit to Marshall was, probably, on a familiarization tour when Group 4 and 5 – Group 4 being the scientist-astronauts; Group 5 astronauts being the next, a group of pilots. We trained together, because the scientists had to go to pilot training – I had to learn to fly in T-38’s and helicopters.

“But, once we were all together, we came down here on a familiarization trip, and I met Wernher von Braun, and his people at the time.

“But, I do also remember being extraordinarily impressed, as I was today, with the scale of the operation here. It’s just unbelievable what human beings are putting together, and put together then, for the Saturn V, in order to make all of that work.

“It was clearly the enabling technology, as I said before, for the Apollo program, and the SLS, and its derivatives. And will be the enabling technology, for, hopefully, not only a return to the Moon, but also for, ultimately, putting Americans on Mars.”

Lastly, Schmitt has previously mentioned his work on a new book – “a belated diary of the Apollo 17 mission.” SFI inquired as to the status of the book:

“I’ve been working on another book for a long time. It, basically, is an attempt to take the Apollo 17 transcripts, extensively annotate them, so that they’re understandable – what was going on, what is a verb 37, and stuff like that – why did we do it and when we did it. And then, also, to integrate the science that’s come out of the samples we collected 44 years ago. That’s a massive undertaking. And whether it ever gets completed, or not, I don’t know, but it’s been a labor of love for me and it’s also produced a number of scientific papers, in doing that, which I’m still very active in the research community.”

During the Apollo 17 mission, in December 1972, Schmitt, the Lunar Module Pilot (LMP), along with Commander (CDR) Gene Cernan and Command Module Pilot (CMP) Ron Evans, conducted a 12-day flight that began with the only night launch of a Saturn V. Lifting off from Kennedy Space Center’s (KSC) Launch Complex 39A, Cernan and Schmitt spent 75 hours (including over 22 EVA hours) on the surface of the Moon.

After the close of the Apollo program, NASA followed up with Space Shuttle, which placed crews in low-Earth orbit for 30 years.

Following the end of the Shuttle program, NASA has transitioned from an orbital crewed flight program to one using SLS – focused on deep space, including a “Journey to Mars“. MSFC is one of the agency’s key SLS development and testing sites.

The first flight of SLS, Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), is scheduled for late 2018. The EM-1 first / core stage, alone, will measure 212 feet (64.6 meters) in height and 27.6 feet (8.4 meters) in diameter, and the total height of the vehicle should be 322 feet (98.1 meters), just over 40 feet (12.2 meters) less than the Saturn V upon which Schmitt flew.

EM-1 will launch (unmanned) from KSC’s Launch Complex 39B on its journey around the Moon. The flight will mark the first time the SLS and Orion – the agency’s new crew-rated capsule – have flown together in their intended configuration. Orion has previously flown (uncrewed) once before, in December 2014, on Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1) atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta IV Heavy.



Scott earned both a Bachelor's Degree in public administration, and a law degree, from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He currently practices law in the Birmingham suburb of Homewood. Scott first remembers visiting Marshall Space Flight Center in 1978 to get an up-close look at the first orbiter, Enterprise, which had been transported to Huntsville for dynamic testing. More recently, in 2006, he participated in an effort at the United States Space and Rocket Center (USSRC) to restore the long-neglected Skylab 1-G Trainer. This led to a volunteer position, with the USSRC curator, where he worked for several years maintaining exhibits and archival material, including flown space hardware. Scott attended the STS - 110, 116 and 135 shuttle launches, along with Ares I-X, Atlas V MSL and Delta IV NROL-15 launches. More recently, he covered the Atlas V SBIRS GEO-2 and MAVEN launches, along with the Antares ORB-1, SpaceX CRS-3, and Orion EFT-1 launches.

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