Former Moon Astronaut and Senator: U.S. Should Settle Moon and Mars

By Terence P. Jeffrey | May 26, 2011 | 10:44 AM EDT

Apollo 17 astronaut Jack Schmitt standing on the moon with the American flag next to him and the Earth over his head, December 1972. (NASA photo)

( - Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, a former U.S. senator who as a crew member of Apollo 17 was the last human being to step foot on the moon, says that the U.S. government should phase out NASA and create a new agency focused on exploring deep space and establishing American settlements on the moon and ultimately Mars.

“I think it is time to start over,” Schmitt told while discussing the U.S. space program in an “Online With Terry Jeffrey” interview.

It was 50 years ago yesterday that President John F. Kennedy spoke to a joint session of Congress and called for the United States to send men to the moon and bring them back before the decade of the 1960s was over. Schmitt believes it is time to renew that vision of U.S. leadership in space, but that NASA is not the federal agency to do it.

“I think the various parts of NASA can be distributed in agencies that already exist, but that if you want the country to be dominant in deep-space exploration I think we are going to need a new agency for a number of reasons,” said Schmitt. “One is that we need to focus the national deep-space exploration effort in a single organization without a lot of other budgetary and managerial distractions. I propose the National Space Exploration Administration.

“That organization, hopefully, would be allowed by Congress to hire the best possible managers that we can find in the country as well as to hire the young engineers and scientists who are absolutely essential to the success of these complex types of programs,” said Schmitt.

Schmitt, who holds a doctorate in Geology from Harvard, was accepted into NASA’s Scientist-Astronaut program in 1965. In 1972, he served on the three-man crew of Apollo 17, the last U.S. mission to the moon. On Dec. 12 of that year, he and fellow astronaut Eugene Cernan landed in the lunar module in the moon’s Valley of Taurus-Littrow.

Cernan exited the module first followed by Schmitt, making Schmitt the last human being to set foot on the moon.

Schmitt, a Republican, was elected to the U.S. Senate from New Mexico in 1976 and served one term. He later became chairman of the NASA Advisory Council.

He now believes America’s political leadership, and particularly the Obama administration, has lost sight of the importance of the United States leading the world in space exploration. Schmitt believes that reinvigorating the U.S. manned space program would not only yield practical benefits but lift up the hope that America’s unique vision of liberty—as opposed to other political visions--will be carried with the human race to places such as the moon and Mars.

When asked whether he believes that a sense of patriotism and the idea that America should be first has been drained out of the space program, Schmitt said: “Well, it certainly has been drained out of the national leadership, particularly the Obama administration. I don’t think it has drained out of the American people. Space is still very exciting to them. I think the vast majority recognize that the United States represents liberty and freedom on this planet and if it is not competitive in space, well then, liberty and freedom are in further jeopardy than they are for other reasons.”

“The NSEA [National Space Exploration Administration] would be given the charter to explore deep space, which includes the moon, to settle the moon, and ultimately potentially to settle Mars, and to help the private sector utilize the resources, the energy resources in particular, that we find on the moon,” said Schmitt.

“Its primary focus--almost single-minded focus--should be on building the space launch vehicles, the spacecraft, and the operational capability to work at the moon, distances of the moon, and ultimately to Mars and beyond,” he said.

Schmitt says that in the long-term the moon “would be another location for the forces of freedom to, I think, grow and prosper.”

In the nearer term he believes that the U.S. could retrieve Helium-3 from the moon, an isotope that is abundant on the lunar surface and that Schmitt says is an ideal fuel for nuclear fusion reactors that could create electricity without creating radioactive spent fuel.

“More immediately such a [lunar] settlement would be able to supply the Earth with very important clean energy in the form of a light isotope of Helium called Helium-3,” said Schmitt. “That is a literally ideal fuel for nuclear fusion reactors.”

Schmitt has published a book--“Return to the Moon: Exploration, Enterprise, and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space”—in which he discusses how Helium-3 from the moon could be used for clean energy production on Earth.