July 11, 2002
Within 15 years people could be mining the moon for a safe and clean nuclear fuel that could phase out fossil-burning power stations, the last man to step onto the lunar surface said yesterday.
Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, who with Gene Cernan made the final moon landing aboard Apollo 17 in December 1972, also predicted lunar tourists could eventually follow.
In Sydney yesterday the geologist and only scientist among the 12 Apollo moonwalkers predicted the next lunar explorers would be funded by international investors rather than taxpayers.
Their goal would be an isotope called helium-3, rare on Earth but found in abundance on the moon. It could be used to develop a clean, safe and limitless fuel for nuclear fusion power stations. Unlike atom-splitting fission technology, fusion - the source of the sun's energy - generates power by squeezing atoms together.
"If we are going to see a continued rise in the population of the Earth to 10 or 12 billion people by 2050 and if we also expect to see an improvement in people's standard of living, it's going to take a factor of eight increase in our energy supply."
Helium-3 could provide much of that energy.
"A business scenario can be put together that could have us back on the moon within 10 to 15 years," said Dr Schmitt, putting the cost at about $A 20 billion.
He conceded the 1967 international Outer Space Treaty "does prohibit the claiming and the exercising of sovereignty over any lunar territory.
However, it does permit the use of its resources".
Lunar miners could be required to make their quarry available to all nations "for the benefit of humankind", with part of the profits being used to help all countries switch from fossil to fusion fuel.
Dr Schmitt described Apollo 17's landing site, the Taurus-Littrow valley, as perfect for tourism.
"It's a valley deeper than the Grand Canyon. The mountains on either side rise 2100 metres above the valley floor and are brilliantly illuminated by a sun brighter than any Australian sun. The hardest thing to get used to is a brilliant sun in a black sky.
"The steep mountains would inevitably attract thrill seekers. Someone, some day is going to try to ski them with some teflon coated skis."
Unlike other moonwalkers - all test pilots - he had not been affected by seeing the Earth hanging in the lunar sky. He was more interested in moon rocks.
While on the moon, Cernan told him to take time to admire the Earth. "I said to Gene, 'Look, when you have seen one Earth, you have seen them all'."
Yesterday Dr Schmitt addressed the Australian Institute of Physics biennial congress. This weekend he will attend the 2002 Australian Mars Exploration Conference, also in Sydney.