Harrison Hagan Schmitt certainly inherited a deep and enduring love of geology from his father, but it was defined by the rich mining history and intriguingly rugged character of the area in which he grew up. Santa Rita, where he was born on 3 July 1935, was a New Mexico mining town located fifteen miles east of Silver City. It no longer exists. Once covered by vast oceans where limestone, shale and sandstone rocks piled up into a thick, sedimentary layer over millions of years, and then changed by igneous intrusions, Santa Rita has been consumed by the very industry for which it was created, falling victim to open pit mining and a huge expanse known as the Chino Pit. It was here, tucked against rolling mountain foothills, that the techniques of bulk tonnage copper mining were first developed in the southwest, and where burrowing, digging, loading, hauling, milling and smelting have been ongoing activities for centuries, beginning with prehistoric Indians. Mining then, as today, fed the needs of many societies.
His father, Harrison Ashley Schmitt, was born in Mankato, Minnesota in 1896, and grew up in an area famous for the Farr/St. Clair Fissure, which created one of the largest areas of natural hot springs in the world. He served with distinction in the Marine Corps during World War One and according to his son, this is when his father first became interested in geology. Post-war, he worked as chief geologist for the New Jersey Zinc Mining Company in Mexico and in the United States. He gained his doctorate in geology from the University of Minnesota in 1926 after thesis work in Mexico.
On 19 October 1929, Harrison Schmitt married Ethel Malissa Hagan in Nashville, Tennessee. Ethel, one of nine children, was a pretty young teacher and amateur botanist he had first met in Silver City, New Mexico. According to Schmitt the younger, his mother came from ''Giles County, Pulaski Post Office, Tennessee, where she grew up on a farm, became a teacher, took a Master's degree from Peabody College (now part of Vanderbilt), and moved to Silver City in 1928.'' During this
period, she was attached to the Education Department of New Mexico State's Teachers' College, working mostly with college students who were planning careers in teaching. Following their wedding, the couple made their first home in Hanover, where the New Mexico offices of the mining company were based, and later worked together in El Paso, where Harrison started up his own geology consulting business. He quickly became an internationally recognised leader in the evaluation of ore deposits. During the hard times of the Great Depression, he would often write scientific articles for mining magazines.
April 1932 proved a happy time for the couple when their first child, a daughter named Alexandra (who became known as Sandra), was born. A year later, the couple decided to quit their El Paso office and moved back to the mining camp house they had left two years before in Hanover.
In 1936, after their son Harrison was born in Santa Rita, the family moved to the Silver Heights area of Silver City, at that time little more than a college and cow town that also served the local mining camps. It may have been a small, seemingly insignificant town, but it boasted a rich and colourful history replete with infamous wild-west characters such as Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch. For a time, it was even home to the notorious outlaw, Billy the Kid. It was here that another daughter, named Paula, was born to Harrison and Ethel. Sadly, she died from pneumonia in January 1939 aged just fifteen months, but the following year another daughter named Armena came into their lives, and the young family was complete.
In 1943, the Schmitts finally moved into a beautiful homestead on Cottage San Road in Silver City, nestled in the foothills of the spectacular Pinos Altos mountain ranges, on the edge of a forest leading up to the Continental Divide. As Schmitt recalled, "I could wander in the hills anytime I felt like it and I enjoyed doing that. My parents encouraged reading and knowing things about the world around you, even though we were living on the outskirts of a very small town.''11 His parents would maintain their consultancy business at this house until his father died in 1966, and his mother Ethel would remain in Silver City until her own death in 1999, aged 95.
In 1949, following his elementary education at Silver City public schools, Schmitt attended Western High School (now Silver High) and would spend many happy summer breaks working alongside his father as a field assistant. On these protracted trips, they would be actively engaged in mineral exploration across New Mexico and Arizona. At other times, his father's work for the US Defense Minerals Production Agency meant he was seldom home, taking him abroad on long trips to such countries as Peru and Yugoslavia, so young Harrison treasured those precious times he and his father spent living and working together in the great outdoors. When asked if anyone in particular provided inspiration or guidance to him at this time, his response came quickly. "Both my parents had profound influences on me in very different ways.''
Following his graduation from Western High in 1953, Schmitt undertook further studies at the California Institute of Technology, receiving his Bachelor of Science degree in geology in 1957. As the winner of a Fulbright fellowship, Schmitt then travelled to Norway, where he studied geology at the University of Oslo during 1957. While he was in Norway, Russia launched the first Sputnik satellite, and Schmitt credits this event with not only capturing his imagination, but also as the occasion on which he first became interested in space exploration as a human activity.
The next step in his scholastic career took him to Harvard University, where he received his Doctorate in 1964. When asked if he could recall anyone who gave him specific guidance or inspiration at this time, he responded, "No ... I followed my instincts, but I did have many outstanding CalTech and Harvard professors.'' Along his scholastic way, he picked up a Society of Kennecott Fellows scholarship in geology (1958-59), a Harvard Fellowship (1959-60), a Harvard Travelling Fellowship (1960), a Parker Travelling Fellowship (1961-62), and a National Science Foundation Post-Doctoral Fellowship from the Department of Geological Sciences at Harvard (1963-64).
From 1955 to 1961, while studying for his advanced degrees, Schmitt had also spent productive time with the Norwegian Geological Survey back in western Norway. Then followed work for the US Geological Survey at sites of interest in his old stomping grounds in New Mexico and Montana, and for the US Steel Corporation in south-eastern Alaska. As a teaching fellow at Harvard in 1961, he had even assisted in teaching a course in ore deposits.
After his time at Harvard, and now clutching his brand-new PhD, Schmitt (or "Jack" as he was commonly known) was eagerly recruited by the renowned planetary scientist and geologist Eugene Shoemaker and joined the US Geological Survey's (USGS) Astrogeology Center, located at Flagstaff, Arizona. It was a definite turning point in his life, as he recalls: ''Gene Shoemaker was then putting together a team of scientists to work on space-related problems, and specifically how the astronauts should explore the Moon when they successfully landed there.''
Was this article helpful?