If NASA wants to get to Mars, the fastest way to get there is by returning to the moon -- according to the last man to walk on the lunar surface.
“The moon is going to be an extraordinary resource for future generations as they go deeper into space and as they begin to settle the moon and eventually Mars,” said Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, the Apollo 17 lunar module pilot.
Apollo 17, the final mission to send men to the moon, launched on Dec. 7, 1972, carrying Schmitt, command module pilot Ronald Evans and Commander Gene Cernan. Schmitt was the 12th and final man on the moon; Cernan was 11th and last to depart the planet’s surface.
Schmitt visited the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL Tuesday evening to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 17 moon landing, Dec. 11, 1972.
'The moon’s resources include a light isotope of helium that is an ideal fuel for fusion power reactors here on Earth.'
- Apollo 17 lunar module pilot Harrison “Jack” Schmitt
Speaking to FoxNews.com, Schmitt said he believes the moon holds many of the answers we need to safely travel to other planets such as Mars.
“There are many aspects of the Mars mission that need the moon and the Earth’s upper atmosphere as places to train, and to simulate and test the equipment that’s going to be needed on Mars,” he said.
The former astronaut -- a geologist and now an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin -- believes the moon could also help lead to the development of a fusion rocket capable of accelerating and decelerating in space on a continuous basis. Such a vehicle would be ideal for deep space journeys.
“The moon’s resources include a light isotope of helium that is an ideal fuel for fusion power reactors here on Earth, as well as for interplanetary spacecraft,” Schmitt said.
But even with rockets capable of reaching the Martian planet, research is needed before man can actually land on its surface.
“Right now all we know is that the Martian atmosphere is just enough to cause a lot of problems and not enough to be of much help. Those kind of issues have to be addressed and learned,” he told FoxNews.com.
Apart from space travel, Schmitt believes the moon can also help us understand the origins of our own planet. But for any of this to be possible, a younger generation needs to be educated, prepared and inspired to carry out the future of space exploration.
“Young people provide the patriotism, the imagination, the stamina and the courage that you just have to have when you undertake these kinds of efforts,” he said.
“The education system in this country is fundamentally broken, and until we focus on that it’s not just space that’s going to suffer,” Schmitt told FoxNews.com. “It’s almost every national endeavor that you can imagine is going to suffer.”
Much of the responsibility for inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers lies with politicians in Washington, Schmitt believes. And the failure of the space program’s continual expansion since his trip to the moon 40 years ago also lies with those leaders.
“The main thing that’s missing right now is leadership in Washington that will activate the interest of the national media and therefore the interest of the American people and the taxpayer, because eventually for these kinds of...space initiatives the American taxpayer has to be part of the picture…unless they understand and feel that the national political leadership is on the right track, well that’s very difficult to see these types of programs go forward.”
Garrett Tenney is a correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC). He joined FNC in April 2013 and is based in the Chicago bureau.