Today I found myself in the presence of two astronauts – Butch Wilmore, who lived for about six months in space, and Harrison (Jack) Schmitt, the only scientist to have walked on the moon.  And I also got a glimpse into the way astronauts think.

Butch is an active astronaut – at 54, he’s in the flight queue, which means he has a chance at another trip.   He is an official member of the RIS4E team for this trip.  He’s taking simulated spacewalks in a New Mexico volcanic crater and offering practical and plain-spoken suggestions in a Tennessee twang.

Astronauts Harrison “Jack” Schmitt and Butch Wilmore stand at a field site in Kilbourne Hole. (Photo: Elizabeth Bass)

Jack, was a visitor, a revered guest, for the day. As a geologist-astronaut, he had trained in this crater, Kilbourne Hole, some 45 years ago. Today was his first time back.  (He left NASA in 1975 to run successfully, for the US Senate.) At 81, affable and smiling, he came carrying a backpack and his old geologist’s hammer and spent hours in 100-degree sun checking out the type of advanced geochemical instruments that future moon-walkers may carry.

Jack was told that one handheld instrument, called LIBS, takes 30 seconds to work, while a complementary instrument, XRF, takes a minute.  Could they be combined, he asked.  And with those time lengths, the astronaut should be able to set it and do something else, rather than hold the thing for a minute. (He thinks of moon time as costing a million dollars a minute, he said.)

A few days earlier, Butch had made similar comments about the need to do two things at once.  Butch had been talking about making sure crew members could work simultaneously, rather than one after the other.  “We’re both talking about efficiency,” Butch said.  

The astronauts also raised the question of which data astronauts need to get from their instruments immediately, and how much they (or someone else) can get minutes, or hours, or days later.  That’s a key question the RIS4E researchers are grappling with.  That’s also an issue of efficiency.

Jack and Butch were kin in other way, too.  Both were gracious through endless photos and questions, and helpful without being asked.  On an earlier day, when the heat ambushed one of our students, Butch carried her water bottle and lent her his walking poles.  And yesterday, back at the hotel, when a geologist said that her 9-year-son would have loved to meet Jack Schmitt, the Apollo 17 astronaut lit up and headed back out to his car to get the boy a memento.