Crews for the Last Missions

In the weeks following Apollo 11, when scientists and others found fault with many aspects of the program, NASA was frequently castigated for its failure to assign a scientist to a moon mission at the earliest possible date. When crews were named for Apollo 13 and 14 in August 1969, the absence of a scientist-astronaut on either crew was pointedly noticed by the press.63 Scientists, eager to have a scientist assigned to a crew, argued that one pilot in the lunar module was enough: the second person was largely a bystander during the landing anyway. But Deke Slayton, director of flight crew operations at MSC and the person responsible for selecting crews, was adamant. At this point only one landing had been made, and it had required almost instinctive action by the pilot in the last seconds before touchdown. Slayton was not yet willing to entrust that responsibility to a less experienced astronaut. Besides, he had to be prepared for the worst case. "Both guys have to be able to fly it. . . . It would sure be a crime to have one guy as a passenger and the commander break a leg and then you lose two guys instead of one, plus the vehicle."64 Slayton had nothing but good things to say about the scientist-astronauts and admitted that one of them, geologist Harrison H. ("Jack") Schmitt, might be about ready for a flight, but he was not going to be rushed.65 By the end of the year, however, "reliable sources" were saying that Schmitt would be named to the backup crew for Apollo 15.66

On March 26, 1970, two weeks before Apollo 14 was launched, Slayton announced the names of the crewmen selected for Apollo 15. As he had done twice before, Slayton picked a backup crew from a prior mission*: commander David R. Scott, command module pilot Alfred M. Worden, and lunar module pilot James B. Irwin, all Air Force officers. As backup crew he named Richard F. Gordon, who had piloted the command module on Apollo 12, commander; Vance D. Brand, command module pilot; and Jack Schmitt, lunar module pilot.67 Three scientist-astronauts made up the support crew: astronomers Karl G. Henize and Robert A. Parker and physicist Joseph P. Allen IV. Schmitt's assignment signaled MSC's intention to send a scientist to the moon before Apollo was finished: in the normal course of events he could expect to draw the assignment as lunar module pilot on Apollo 18, which at the time was the next-to-last mission on the schedule.

As the only geologist among the scientist-astronauts, Schmitt was the logical choice to be the first scientist assigned to a lunar landing mission. Logic aside, he had developed his flying skills assiduously and taken care to make himself useful around the astronaut office. Having participated in the geology training since joining the program, he had been instrumental in reorienting the course to suit the rather specialized purposes of lunar exploration, bringing in outside experts who emphasized the larger picture rather than the minute details of field geology that could easily get in the way of astronauts interpreting what they could see. He had spent many hours with the crews of Apollo 11, 12, 13, and 14, helping them sharpen their observational and sampling skills. He had also made an effort to get acquainted with the people in flight operations, learning as much as he could about their problems and capabilities and helping to coordinate science with flight operations.68 As the one scientist-astronaut whose professional specialty was particularly suited to the objectives of Apollo, Schmitt was able to satisfy his need to stay current in his profession while carrying out the duties demanded of an astronaut. That, plus his general determination to do whatever seemed likely to get him a crew assignment, kept him from getting on the wrong side of Slayton and the test pilots.

Yet Schmitt's reservation on a moon-bound lunar module was by no means confirmed. One mission already had been dropped, and additional cuts were a strong possibility when Schmitt was named to a backup crew; when Apollo 15 and 19 were canceled in September 1970, it appeared that the backups for Apollo 14 - Gene Cernan, Ron Evans, and Joe Engle, named in August 1969 - would be the prime crew of Apollo 17 and thus the last people to explore the moon.

* While it could not always be followed, Slayton's policy was to keep crews together. He normally assigned backup crewmen to prime crews for the third mission following their backup assignment, as was the case for Apollo 7 and Apollo 9. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin of Apollo 11 had both been on the backup crew for Apollo 8; Mike Collins, initially on the prime crew for Apollo 8, had to drop out when he developed a medical problem that required surgery. He returned to active status and six months later was assigned to Apollo 11.

63. NASA Release 69-115, Aug. 7, 1969; Thomas O'Toole, "Veteran Astronauts Lovell, Shepard to Lead '70 Moon Flights," Washington Post, Aug. 7, 1969; "Before We Start to Mars," ibid., Aug. 8, 1969.

64. Paul Recer (Associated Press), "They Feud Over Moon Flights," The Miami Herald, Aug. 18, 1969.

65. B. J. Richey, "Lunar Landing Teams Are Unlikely To Include Scientists Until 1971," St. Louis Globe Democrat, Aug. 18, 1969.

66. Richard Witkin, "Scientist Expected to Be Picked for Moon Trip," New York Times, Dec. 12, 1969.

67. NASA Release 70-46, "Apollo 15 Crew Selected," Mar. 26, 1970.

68. Harrison H. Schmitt interview, May 30, 1984.

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