Lunar lessons

Almost 33 years after he stepped off the surface of the moon, astronaut and geologist Harrison Schmitt isn't surprised that kids, some with parents who weren't even alive then, want to hear all about it.

Including stuff like how you go to the bathroom in space and why, in film clips from the moon, Schmitt always seems to be falling down.

Those were among the questions the former U.S. senator from New Mexico fielded from fourth- and fifth-graders at Wiley and Thomas Paine schools in Urbana during a visit to Wiley Thursday.

If you yelled on the moon, would anybody hear it? Is it possible to build a building there? What's the most important thing he learned as a geologist from the trip? How did his family feel about him going?

Schmitt, who does a lot of presentations at schools, said he got the same rapt attention out of high school students – no easy audience – speaking in Albuquerque recently.

"Kids are interested in space," he said after the talk, sponsored by the Illinois State Geological Survey and local developer Peter Fox as part of the survey's centennial celebration. "It's fun. It's exciting."

In fact, when Schmitt asked his audience who would like to go to the moon, just about all 140 or so of the students raised their hands.

"We ought to be able to put together a crew out of this bunch," Schmitt told them.

It could happen. President Bush has called for a return to the moon on the way to a manned mission to Mars.

While he and the other Apollo-era astronauts were "accidents" who happened to be in the right place at the right time, Schmitt said, students today have a chance to decide early that they want careers in the space program and to prepare, by doing well in school and studying science and math, among other things.

He's all for going back to the moon and to Mars, calling space exploration part of the country's legacy and NASA's real mission. If we don't go, others will, Schmitt added. He also noted the technological benefits from space travel and the possibility of useful resources on the moon and elsewhere.

"I think Americans love to explore," he said. "They love what comes from space. They realize that it's an important part of our heritage."

Schmitt also talked to the geological survey staff and gave a public presentation at the University of Illinois Wednesday night. He spoke to UI students in geology, engineering and other science and technology fields this morning.

Wiley student Nathan Olvey, 10, was the one who wanted to know whether you could hear somebody yell on the moon. Turns out the answer is no, because there is no air to carry the sound.

Mara Dolan, 9, also a Wiley student, asked how Schmitt's family felt about the trip. Excited when he got picked to go to the moon, he said, which was a change from when he first volunteered to be an astronaut.

"I'm not sure they were too happy about that," Schmitt said.

He sees no problem putting a building on the moon, although it might need to be built underground, or covered in moon soil, to shield it from high radiation levels.

The only geologist ever to visit the moon, he learned a lot about what the Earth may have been like before its atmosphere formed.

As for all that falling down, Schmitt said it took some doing to get used to the moon's low gravity and the bulky suit and backpack he wore. The good thing is that you weigh about a sixth of what you do on Earth, making the landings gentle and popping back up easy, he said.

And going to the bathroom? "Very carefully" was Schmitt's first response to the question of how they accomplished that necessary task. Then he gave a detailed, albeit G-rated, explanation of the system of tubes and bags involved.

"Number one," as Schmitt put it, even has a side benefit. When you send the liquid out a tube into space the myriad droplets that result freeze instantly and catch the light of the sun, creating a rather dazzling light show.

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