On December 5, 1972, as hundreds of thousands gathered around Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, an unnamed young man sat alone in his red Vega reading Eudora Welty’s “First Love.” A New York Times reporter asked him whether the event about to take place was an important one. “Well,” he said, “I’m a nihilist, so I don’t think anything’s very important.” Even so, the reporter noted, the man had traveled 700 miles and was prepared to wait for days to witness the launch of Apollo 17, the final mission of the Apollo program.
This outpouring of public support was nearly unprecedented in the realm of science. With the expansion of television and radio broadcasts, audiences at home felt as close to the research as those crowded around the space center. Among the spectators was MIT geologist and professor Gene Simmons, a pioneer of scientific outreach who was responsible—at least in part—for fostering this widespread interest.
Following the resignation of the director of science and applications at the Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston—and amid worries that the Apollo program had emphasized development of space transportation over scientific exploration—NASA named Simmons chief scientist of the MSC in 1969. During his two years at NASA—and beyond—he created a series of NASA guidebooks that outlined the final three Apollo missions and were intended to accompany real-time television broadcasts.
“I wrote these guidebooks to help the public follow what was happening on the moon,” Simmons, now a professor emeritus in his late 80s, recalls. “The idea was to get more people involved in following the missions.” He was personally invested in Apollo 17, since the rocket was transporting one of his own experiments aimed at measuring the electrical properties of the moon’s surface.
That mission’s handbook, “On the Moon with Apollo 17,” provided a detailed synopsis of the daily agenda, the intended experiments, and the fundamentals of orbital science. Black-and-white photos from past missions and hand-drawn diagrams of the scientific equipment accompanied his text.
Although Apollo 17 was mankind’s sixth venture to the moon, it was the first to include a civilian scientist—geologist Harrison (Jack) Schmitt. Given the novelty of having a geologist onboard, Simmons’s book highlighted the rocky terrain of the landing site and the copious samples to be collected, noting that the moon’s several-billion-year history is preserved in the lunar rocks, discernible by shape, distribution, and location. The mission was expected to be highly productive, since the landing site was thought to contain both the oldest and youngest lunar material ever examined.
On December 11, after a four-day journey, Schmitt and Captain Eugene Cernan broke away from the command ship in their lunar module. They touched down in a narrow valley, using a lunar roving vehicle to travel two miles and glean samples of the relatively young, dark surface material known as mantle. The next day, they explored a much older mountain ridge, which contained mysterious orange soil. Their last outing took them to a steep mountain wall in the north, where they found specimens far older than those obtained during the first two moon trips.
As Simmons noted in his guidebook, the stiff spacesuits prevented the astronauts from bending over, so they used specialized collecting tools, including a glorified bag on a stick, to reach the ground from their rover, documenting each observation with cameras. He also recounted what analyses of these samples would be likely to reveal about the moon—including its age, its origin, and how its history and geology compared with Earth’s.
The outreach efforts of 1972 may appear rudimentary by today’s standards. But Simmons says the Government Printing Office sold nearly 200,000 copies of his guidebook for a dollar apiece. All that he packed into 112 printed pages is now online.
On December 19, Apollo 17 sped back to Earth at 25,000 miles per hour, carrying the last three men to visit the moon and 249 pounds of lunar samples. Back at Mission Control in Houston, where Simmons had been monitoring the journey, the flight controllers celebrated the successful splashdown by abandoning their consoles and lighting cigars. As that day’s New York Times chronicled, “They had been a part of history, and they knew it, and knew that their years of effort were now in the hands of history.” As for Simmons, he helped make science a part of that history.