Before Harrison Schmitt explored the moon in 1972, he explored the outdoors with his pack and troop in Silver City, N.M.
“That beginning experience was extremely important to me,” he says. “It developed social skills, working with people your own age, and it helped in outdoor life — adding greatly to the skills learned from my parents. Our pack spent a lot of time with overnight trips; it was very enlightening.”
Although he was in Scouting for a short time, finishing as a Second Class Scout, the life skills the Apollo 17 astronaut learned prepared him for more than the mission to the Taurus-Littrow lunar valley. It equipped him with a thirst for knowledge and the confidence to tackle new challenges, both of which he encourages Scouts to cultivate.
Near the end of his time in Scouting, Schmitt began regularly accompanying his father, a geologist, on his work projects. He studied minerals, visited mining sites and learned about surveying. Then, his reading and high school studies led him to want to be a physicist. While he received a solid primary education, pursuing other edifying opportunities — like Scouting, working with his dad, and serving as junior class president and student council president — helped shape his future.
“The path really began in Silver City, N.M.,” he says. “Part of that was with the Scouts. I think every one of those experiences was part of that critical path that ended up putting me walking on the moon.”
Entering the California Institute of Technology, he felt convinced he was destined to become a great physicist. Then, he met his fellow classmates, who were more brilliant, he says. It was a sudden lesson in humility, but more important, a reminder that if he wanted to achieve a goal, he needed to put in the work.
“I think that’s one of the things that the Scouting program does: It illustrates — directly or indirectly — the value of work,” Schmitt says. “If you’re going to get a merit badge in any field, you’ve got to work at it.”
He graduated from Caltech, spent a year studying in Norway as a Fulbright Fellow, and then earned a Ph.D. in geology from Harvard. After reviewing Schmitt’s scores on the civil service exam, geologist and planetary scientist Eugene Shoemaker asked if he wanted to work on lunar projects, such as mapping the moon using telescopes, at U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Ariz.
“The most important thing I’ve learned is to not be reluctant to take on new opportunities,” he says. “You need to prepare yourself to take advantage of new opportunities as they present themselves.”
An incredible new opportunity came shortly after he started working in Arizona.
In 1965, NASA was seeking scientists for its space missions. Previously, aircraft piloting experience played a major factor in selecting astronauts, but NASA waived that requirement in favor of pilot training as the agency invested more in recruiting scientists for space travel.
Schmitt applied for the program and was selected along with five others from a field of more than 1,400 applicants. Although he didn’t have any piloting experience, he’d still have to learn through the training program of the United States Air Force.
“In less than a year, from never even thinking of flying jet aircraft, to flying jet aircraft,” he says. “Part of the ability to do that comes from having a broad spectrum of experiences, both physically and intellectually.”
He was later assigned to fly on Apollo 17, NASA’s final mission to the moon. In addition to piloting the two Apollo spacecraft, he was tasked with basic exploration, as well as recording and collecting samples. He found many that we’re still learning from today.
After his time with NASA, Schmitt served a term in the U.S. Senate and serves as a consultant in numerous fields.
Schmitt, now 86, authors a website where he logs data recorded during his mission and three days on the moon. The continued study into the samples and photographs taken nearly five decades ago still reveal discoveries about the history of our solar system, he says.
“It’s a gift that keeps on giving,” Schmitt says. “Collecting lunar samples is not just about the moon. It’s about the sun, it’s about the Earth, and it’s about the future resources that might be available to us from the lunar surface.”
With the emergence of commercial ventures into space, Schmitt is encouraged by the renewed interest.
“We’re in a major worldwide competition for the hearts and minds of people,” Schmitt says. “NASA is one of the major agencies that we have that stimulate that kind of interest in America. The fact that NASA and the commercial sector are working together is very important.”
Though he didn’t participate in the program, he points to the BSA’s Exploring program, which today is tailored to providing young people an introduction to a host of many careers.
“I think the Exploring Scout program is so important,” he says. “It gives people a chance to take that next step.”
Even if a Scout’s career doesn’t launch into lofty positions, their education can foster a lifelong profession or hobby. For Schmitt, that’s communication. Today, he enjoys studying the ways indigenous people communicated with each other.
“That all goes back to trying to learn how to do semaphore,” he says.
Check out Scout Life
In December’s issue of Scout Life magazine, Schmitt shares tips for continuing one’s education in a story about Scout camps at the Cosmosphere, a space museum in Hutchinson, Kan. Schmitt has talked to Scouts there, sharing stories from his time at NASA. During those talks, he encourages Scouts to not sit idly but to engage and ask questions.
“To not be active is a detriment to your future,” he says. “We should be encouraging as many young people as we can to stay intellectually and physically active.”
You can read about the Cosmosphere’s camps in the latest issue of Scout Life. To subscribe, click here.