NASA didn’t give its Apollo astronauts too much free time during missions. Crews had to go through multi-stage checklists before any manoeuvre and had experiments to run during the three day transits to and from the Moon. Everything, down to meal times and sleep periods, was scheduled. But as Apollo 17’s Lunar Module Pilot Jack Schmitt found out, you can’t schedule poetic inspiration. Even when you’re on the Moon.
Schmitt joined NASA’s astronaut corps in June 1965 as one of six scientist-astronauts. A former U.S. Geological Survey astrogeologist, he was among those that trained moonwalkers to recognize the right kinds of rocks worth bringing home from the Moon. And while he stands out among Apollo-era astronauts as the only scientist to fly a lunar mission, he almost didn’t make it. Schmitt entered the flight rotation as the backup LMP on Apollo 15, which secured him a spot for the prime crew of Apollo 18. Then 18 was cancelled in 1970. But NASA opted to give the scientist a crack at the Moon. The agency was by then planning its “J” missions that ostensibly had science at the core. Schmitt replaced Joe Engle on the prime crew of Apollo 17 and landed at Taurus-Littrow with Commander Gene Cernan on December 11, 1972.
Cernan and Schmitt spent three days on the Moon, the longest of any Apollo mission. And they spent the longest time exploring the surface as well, a little of 22 hours during which time they collected more than 243 pounds of lunar samples. Schmitt’s keen geologist eye also famously discovered orange soil. Analysis on Earth revealed the orange material to be tiny spheres of coloured glass, typical of volcanic material release from a surface vent.
But Schmitt’s made other noteworthy contributions to Apollo 17. While on the Moon, he discovered he was a bit of a poet.
Late in the evening of December 14, 1972 (Houston time), Schmitt and Cernan woke up from their last sleep period on the Moon. After their landing, launch, and wake-up capcom Charles Gordon Fullerton – whom they alternatively called Gordo or Gordie – sung them awake, Schmitt did a little artistic performance of his own.
“Hey, Gordie,” Schmitt called to Houston. “In the tradition of Apollo 8, I’ve got paraphrase of a familiar poem for you.” And he read over the radio:
Well, it’s The week before Christmas and all through the LM, not a commander was stirring, not even Cernan. The samples were stowed in their places with care, in hopes that with you, they soon will be there. And Cernan – Gene in his hammock and I in my cap, had just settled our brains for a long – short lunar nap. But out on the – up on comm loop there rose such a scatter, I sprang from my hammock, to see what was the matter. The Sun on the breast of the surface below gave the luster of objects, as if in snow. And what to my wandering eyes should appear, but a miniature Rover and eight tiny reindeer. And a little old driver so lively and quick, I knew in a moment, it must be St. Nick. I heard him exclaim as he – over the hills he did speed. Merry Christmas to all and to all – to you all Godspeed.
“Gordo,” said Cernan when Schmitt had finished, “that was the first time I heard that and I got to say – I got to say that is beautiful.”
“I agree,” replied Fullerton, then asked, “Did the LMP get any sleep or did he spend all night composing that?” He and Cernan did, after all, have a busy day ahead of them, including a rendezvous with Ron Evans in the Command Module and the beginning of their journey home. It wasn’t the best day to be tired.
Schmitt assured his commander and capcom that he had managed his usual 6 hours despite what he called his poetic inclinations. “People always said we ought to have a poet in space,” he added.
To which Cernan replied, “I don’t think we’ve made it yet.”