An Apollo Astronaut’s Moondust Memories

(Photo: NASA)

When Harrison “Jack” Schmitt and his fellow Apollo 17 astronauts left the moon in 1972 – the last humans to walk on another world – they complained of runny noses, sneezing and watery eyes. It was the same extraterrestrial hay fever previous Apollo astronauts had reported after inhaling microscopic moon dust when they took off their spacesuits back in the lunar module.

The brief exposures didn’t cause them any significant harm, but 45 years later, as NASA works toward returning Americans to the moon or other planetary bodies, scientists are trying to determine what the effects of longer visits might be.

Biomedical researchers at Stony Brook University are exploring that question as part of the RIS4E project.  But for his part, Schmitt, now 82, thinks it would also help to find a way to keep space dust out of astronauts’ air passages to begin with.

“Well, it would probably be useful information,” he said of research looking at how human tissue reacts when it comes in contact with material similar to lunar dust. “But the problem of keeping dust out of your lungs is an engineering problem. It is always going to be there.”

Jack Schmitt in the field with the RIS4E team. Next to him is fellow astronaut Butch Wilmore. (Photo: Elizabeth Bass)
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Schmitt, a geologist by training, was NASA’s first scientist-astronaut to fly into space, and in December 1972 he became the last person to step onto the moon.  He is one of the 12 people in history, and the only scientist, ever to visit another world.

Schmitt, who became a U.S. senator from New Mexico after leaving NASA, visited the RIS4E team on its recent research trip to Kilbourne Hole. The volcanic crater in southern New Mexico is where Schmitt trained for his geological tasks on Apollo 17 nearly half a century ago. He hadn’t been back since.

Looking out over Kilbourne and recalling his mission to the moon, Schmitt said that he and the Apollo astronauts who preceded him found that the best way to keep dust out of their bodies and minimize the effects was to remove their spacesuits outside the habitat area of their lunar modules.

Lunar dust is exposed to ultraviolet radiation and solar winds in a world without oxygen. Scientists don’t know the effects of these differences with Earth’s environment, but Schmitt isn’t worried.

“I have been there four times and there’s no long-term effects as far as I know,” he said, referring to his four moonwalks with his Apollo 17 crewmate, Eugene Cernan. “I certainly wouldn’t not go to the moon because we didn’t finish our physiological research.”