A Trip to the Moon and the Role of Iceland in Apollo


A talk by Moonwalker and Geologist Harrison Schmitt
at Reykjavík
University – July 9, 2015 at 5.00 pm.
Hosted by The Exploration Museum.

The exposure of Apollo Astronauts to the geology of Iceland contributed greatly to their experience as they prepared for lunar exploration and sampling. All the lunar landing crews benefited from examination of the varied rock assemblages found in glacial outwash channels that resemble the complexities of the lunar surface debris layer.

In his talk, Harrison Schmitt tells us about his trip to the Moon, his scientific work on the lunar surface and the role that Iceland played in the training of the Apollo astronauts.

Harrison Schmitt has the diverse experience of a geologist, pilot, astronaut, administrator, businessman, writer, and U. S. Senator. He is a honorary fellow of the Geological Society of America.

At the end of his talk, Schmitt will be presented with the first annual Leif Erikson Exploration Award, by the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, on the occasion of Schmitt’s 80th birthday this week.

Learn more about the Training of Astronauts in Iceland.

Photo: Sævar Helgi Bragason

Apollo 8: First broadcast from the Moon

The Apollo 8 mission in December 1968 was a bright spot at the end of an otherwise bleak year in American history. After riots and the assassinations of MLK and RFK, people watched in awe as the three astronauts broadcast the first live pictures from the moon. The astronauts also captured astonishing photographs which revealed the fragility and isolation of our planet. The most famous, Earthrise by Bill Anders, has become one of history’s most influential images.

Apollo 8 took three days to travel to the Moon. It orbited ten times over the course of 20 hours. The crew made two television broadcasts. At the time, these broadcasts were the most watched TV programs ever.

Borman, Lovell and Anders made the second television broadcast at 55 hours into the flight. In it, the crew would broadcast the first television pictures of the Earth.

Lunar Module Pilot Bill Anders, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Commander Frank Borman — the first humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit, the first to see Earth as a whole planet, the first to see to the Moon and then the first to directly see the far side of the Moon.
Lunar Module Pilot Bill Anders, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Commander Frank Borman — the first humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit, the first to see Earth as a whole planet, the first to see to the Moon and then the first to directly see the far side of the Moon.

Opening of Apollo Space Exhibit

Sam Watson, Deputy Chief of Mission, US Embassy in Iceland
Sam Watson, Deputy Chief of Mission,
US Embassy in Iceland

Sam Watson, Deputy Chief of Mission,
Embassy of the United States of America, Reykjavik

Thank you, Sigrún. And thank you Örlygur who conceived this exhibition.

Good afternoon everyone. Thank you for inviting me to be a part of this wonderful event that recognizes a shared moment in U.S.-Icelandic history: the experience of America´s Apollo astronauts in Iceland in the 1960s as they prepared for their historic missions.

On behalf of the United States Embassy, let me congratulate you on this exhibition. Thank you for documenting this important aspect of the Apollo mission´s history.

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced his support for the Apollo program to the U.S. Congress. He said: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”

Half a century ago President Kennedy´s bold vision fueled a spirit of American innovation and optimism that my countrymen still hold dear. The space program captured the interest and imagination of Americans and of people around the world. After President Kennedy´s announcement in 1961, the scientific community united to pursue his goal.

The fishing tools Neil Armstrong used in river Laxá

Unknown to most Icelanders, the future Apollo astronauts came here in 1965 and 1967. They studied geology and practiced collecting samples under the guidance of Icelandic and American geologists. Nine of the twelve men who set foot on the moon between 1969 and 1972 came to Iceland to train.

Who can forget the photo or the grainy video of Apollo astronauts walking on the moon? We each have our own memory of the first moon landing. I remember watching it late one summer night and being amazed.

It was truly an unbelievable event. So unbelievable that my grandmother thought the moon landing was not real, but had been a Hollywood creation. She died years later never believing that man had walked on the moon.

Beyond the achievement of landing on the moon, the Apollo program and its predecessors produced an array of scientific accomplishments. They include technologies that improved kidney dialysis and water purification systems; sensors to detect hazardous gasses; energy-saving building materials; and fire-resistant fabrics that firefighters and soldiers use.

On a personal note, my daughter was born prematurely. She is alive today because of medical advances resulting from the Apollo program. The enormous investment of that decade in science and technology, as well as in education and research, produced a great outpouring of curiosity and creativity with innumerable benefits.

The Apollo lunar missions

Today, Americans and Icelanders continue to share a spirit of innovation and cooperation. Experts from the United States and elsewhere come to Iceland to learn more about geothermal and other clean energy sources. American businesses are attracted to Iceland for its affordable and clean energy as well as its highly educated workforce.

Last year, over 400 Icelandic students studied in the U.S. Every year the joint U.S.-Iceland Fulbright Commission pays for six Icelanders to study in the U.S. and many of them pursue technical degrees. Nearly a dozen American Fulbright scholars come to Iceland every year. Many pursue research in natural history or energy.

Next month, when a U.S. airline starts direct service from New York to Keflavik, Americans and Icelanders will have one more means to visit each other’s countries. Like the Apollo astronauts who came to Iceland in the 1960s, Americans will continue to visit Iceland with a sense of awe for its inspiring, natural, and unique beauty and appreciation for its friendly and welcoming people.

Having driven from Reykjavik through southern and eastern Iceland to reach Húsavík today, I can personally attest to the beauty of this country, the hospitality of its people and the unpredictability of its weather.

Thank you again for Iceland´s assistance to the Apollo mission. Congratulations on this excellent exhibition.