Harrison Schmitt’s Apollo-17 spacesuit is preserved, covered in moon dust, as a particularly human example of space exploration.
The last time anyone walked on the moon it was 1972. On 12 December, Harrison ‘Jack’ Schmitt and Gene Cernan went exploring up and down its craters while Ronald Evans stayed behind, manning Apollo-17’s main craft (tough luck… but at least he had an alright view). The three astronauts aren’t the only ones to have lingering memories of their travels in space and good retirement plans. Harrison Schmitt’s spacesuit is carefully preserved by the US National Air and Space Museum, purposefully still covered in moon dust.
Sending Schmitt out on the walk was momentous. He was the first astronaut with a science background on the moon. The others had risen to lunar heights through the air force, but Schmitt was foremost a trained geologist. This is one reason that his suit has been kept in its dirty state. The dust has been studied over the years as new technologies and geological theories develop. The other reason is that Schmitt’s suit is covered in an exceptional amount of moon dust because he fell over – a LOT. In fact, this video from Schmitt and Cernan’s transport buggy captures him falling over on the moon’s surface. You might miss it though, because what’s far more remarkable about the video is that it captures something incredibly human. Schmitt is seen bounding across the moon’s surface, singing. Cernan joins in as he skips along.
So how (back on Earth) do you go about preserving moon dust? The suit is kept at 18˚C on a bunk-bed (Oldfield, 2013). It has recently been moved to the National Air and Space Museums storage facility in Virginia but, rather pleasingly, lived for a time in an American facility in Suitland with around 280 other suits. Around the time it was moved, Schmitt’s suit underwent a series of x-rays that produced some incredible images.
They show off the bellows-style arm design that allowed the astronauts to move without the help of gravity. The suit was designed with painstaking detail to protect the astronauts without confining them to metal boxes. The gloves alone went through six complete redesigns. Today’s spacesuit and gravity experiments are far more rigorous. The Reduced Gravity Office even runs zero-gravity research projects in space-like conditions, simulated by flying up and down extraordinarily fast in a jet plane (Roach, 2011).
“…most of the Moon was in Earth shine, not illuminated by the Sun. I can remember being very impressed by how much light the Earth cast on the Moon. You could see features very clearly in this blue light of Earth, really quite spectacular.”
If you found Schmitt’s suit interesting, these books will let you explore things so weird and wonderful that they’re out of this planet:
Molly Oldfield, The Secret Museum (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2013).
Mary Roach, Packing for Mars: the curious science of life in space (Oxford: Oneworld, 2011).
You can also read the complete oral history with Harrison Schmitt here: https://www.jsc.nasa.gov/history/oral_histories/SchmittHH/SchmittHH_3-16-00.htm