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Harrison “Jack” Schmitt

From Fjords to Lunar Valleys: A Fulbright Astronaut Reaches New Heights

Dr. Harrison “Jack” Schmitt
Astronaut
1957 Fulbright U.S. Student to Norway

Dr. Harrison “Jack”  Schmitt.

Most Fulbrighters travel internationally to study, research, and promote international understanding; however, a select few go beyond international borders. Dr. Harrison Schmitt was the first scientist on a U.S. spaceflight, and is one of only 12 people to set foot on the moon.

As part of the Apollo 17 crew, Dr. Schmitt landed in the Moon’s Valley of Taurus-Littrow on December 11, 1972, and collected more than 240 pounds of lunar rock samples to bring back to Earth. His unique career as an astronaut, geologist, and U.S. senator was built upon the cornerstone of his Fulbright experience.

Jack Schmitt was a Fulbright U.S. Student to Norway, studying geology at the University of Oslo for the 1957-1958 academic year. While in Norway, Dr. Schmitt heard news of Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite launched into space. In his own words, “Even this naïve Fulbright student from a ‘small mining town in the West’ could not miss the profound impact Sputnik was having on my student friends from around the world. I also could not help but conclude that Sputnik and the space age it heralded would have a profound effect on human history. Thus, the philosophical seed of interest in spaceflight was planted in my mind.”Dr. Schmitt’s work in Norway made a lasting impact on his career, serving as the foundation of his Ph.D. dissertation at Harvard University. In 1965, shortly after receiving his doctorate, he was recruited by NASA to join the first group of scientists who would train to become astronauts. Following his selection, Dr. Schmitt spent his first year in the Air Force learning to become a jet pilot. He then worked at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Center in Flagstaff, Arizona, developing geological field techniques that would be used by the Apollo crews. After several years of flight training and instructing mission crews on lunar science and the development of lunar surface exploration hardware and procedures, Dr. Schmitt participated in the final Apollo mission to the Moon. In addition to the research the crew conducted and the rock samples that were extracted as part of NASA’s last manned mission to the Moon, the Apollo 17 astronauts are credited with capturing one of the most famous images of Earth from space, referred to as “The Blue Marble.”

“The Blue Marble,” the Apollo 17 mission’s famous image of Earth.

As a firsthand witness to history, Dr. Schmitt reflects on the experience: “The Apollo explorations of space and the Moon, which we have watched and lived on, were man’s first halting, but clearly personal, look at his universe. Our unique character among the living species of nature is carried forward in many ways. One outward reflection of this character is that we have had the audacity to try to understand our place in this universe and in its future.” 

Dr. Harrison Schmitt on the Moon’s Valley of Taurus-Littrow in 1972.

Shortly after he returned from the Moon, Dr. Schmitt served as an international representative of NASA and returned to Norway, presenting a 3.8-billion-year-old moon rock to the people of Norway. During his visit, Dr. Schmitt spoke of his Fulbright experience in Norway, crediting it as a “turning point” in his life that inspired his “path to the moon.”

Following his NASA career, Dr. Schmitt represented his home state of New Mexico as a U.S. Senator from 1977 to 1983. Dr. Schmitt served as the first natural scientist in the United States Senate since Thomas Jefferson served as Vice-President. He continued his career in public service as a speaker and specialist for the U.S. Department of State and as a member of the NASA Advisory Council. In recognition of this service, in 2003 the U.S. Department of State established the Harrison H. Schmitt Leadership Award, for U.S. Fulbright alumni who have served their country in the military and demonstrated leadership and dedication to public service, learning, and mutual understanding.

Dr. Schmitt’s legacy in the field of geology, space exploration, and public service makes him an exemplary representative of the positive impact of the Fulbright Program. He reflects on his Fulbright experience by noting that, “The Fulbright Program is many things to many fortunate people. For me, the Fulbright experience clearly shaped the broad framework of my life.”