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SEEING THROUGH AN ASTRONAUT'S EYES

August 16, 1995



When my 12-year-old son and I saw the movie ''Apollo 13,'' I told him a true story, about how his apparently ordinary mother once had a personal acquaintance with the last man on the moon.

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Back in the early 1980s, I was a radio news reporter in Albuquerque, and the astronaut, having left NASA, was a United States senator from New Mexico. This situation put me in frequent contact with him, which usually involved my sticking a microphone in his face and asking questions.

All through his answers, I kept thinking: My gosh, just look at him. He walked on the moon. He was the last one there. He saw impossibly rare and startling things, but now here he is, spilling words into my hand.

One day, I was sent out to cover a presidential visit. This didn't happen very often in Albuquerque, and never to me. We local media types were corralled onto a bandstand about five feet above the airport's Tarmac while national press and VIPs roamed free at ground level. That's where the senator was: The last man on the moon was schmoozing. After all, the president had come to bolster GOP re-election campaigns, including, as I recall, the senator's.

''Hello, Senator Schmitt,'' I called down to him from my perch. ''It's a big day, I guess.''

''It certainly is,'' he smiled, happy as can be.

Harrison ''Jack'' Schmitt was the first scientist to become an astronaut. A geologist, he was part of the three-man Apollo 17 mission in December 1972 - the last moon landing. He hip-hopped across gray powder at a place called Taurus-Littrow, scooping, digging, and hauling back more than 240 pounds of moon.

Ten years later, he worked crowds, not rocks, glad-handing for votes on a hot, dusty runway. I thought I could still see the missileman in him, though. He was like his spaceship: compact and tightly wired. His lapels lay flat across a tidy chest, and despite the rising heat, he stood cracker dry.

Jack was a handsome man, dark with especially nice teeth. His eyes were a combination of intensity and distance. They took you in and moved on. Under their gaze, one could feel at once uplifted and drab, like common stone.

He paced to the tarmac waiting for the president, then pointed to the sky. ''There it is,'' he said, and Air Force One appeared out of the flat, blue air.

It landed, taxied, and pulled to a stop parallel to us. I was about to broadcast live, but the plane was too far away for me to pick President Reagan out of the crowd.

''Senator,'' I called out. ''I can't see from here. When he comes out, let me know, will ya?'' He smiled and nodded up to me. He could see fine.

In my headphones, I heard the anchor toss it to me: ''And for that report we go live to the Albuquerque International Airport....''

My cue. I was on the air with no president in sight. ''Air Force One has indeed landed, touching down just moments ago to enthusiastic applause. President Reagan has not yet emerged, although we expect his presence any time now....'' I stalled. I talked about Air Force One, about the dignitaries, including the senator who glanced up at me and shook his head - no president yet. I talked about the national press, now at their swarming peak.

Then, as I described our mounting excitement, the senator spotted Reagan and tried to signal me. But I was occupied on the air, squinting at the plane. He stretched up to the only thing within his