It has been 11 years since Rusty Schweickart blasted into orbit in Apollo 9 and took a 46-minute walk in space.

Now he drives around California's capital in a state-owned Pinto.

They may seem like two radically different forms of transportation but, according to Schweickart, Gov. Edward G. (Jerry) Brown Jr.'s new chairman of the state energy commission, one led logically to the other.

He was reminiscing about the flight recently, recalling how the film jammed in a camera being operated by a crew member in the Apollo capsule, and how for a glorious five of those 46 minutes, Schweickart was able to forget NASA's schedule and list of things to do while floating out there, and just think.

"I had about five minutes to just look at the Earth and think about what I was doing how I got there and what it meant," he said.

"The thing that really came through to me is what an incredibly beautiful planet this is, and the responsibility we have to one another to protect the planet and the atmosphere."

"it occurred to me that I was really just a representative of everybody else down below."

The first idea, coupled with the second, led naturally to his new job. "I'm trying to convert that responsibility I felt up there into action here on the ground," he said.

The job as chairman -- Schweickart was named a commission member last July and chairman in August, at a salary of $46,896 -- puts him in the middle of a number of controversial issues.

The commission's function, briefly, is to approve sites for power plants, draw up estimates of future energy use, encourage alternative energy sources and foster conservation.

The commission, established in 1974, has been sharply criticized by utility company officials and legislators who believe it is biased against big energy companies and is weighed down by unnecessary bureaucracy. (The commission initially had a budget of less than $2 million and a staff of 18; now it operates on $31 million in state and federal funds and has a staff of 540.)

Some of the criticism has been so severe that legislative attempts to restructure or abolish the commission have become an almost annual occurrence.

A bill to abolish and divide its responsibility among three new agencies has passed the state Senate.

Proponents are optimistic about its prospects in the Assembly, but admit it faces nearly certain veto by Brown.

Little of this anti-commission sentiment has rubbed off on Schweickart -- his nomination to the chairmanship was approved easily.

Schweickart is circumspect when asked about his relationship with the legislature. His answer is that it is too soon to tell.

There are signs that a Schweickartled commission may have better luck in dealing with both that body and the powerful energy industry lobby.

There is a feeling among some here that, in the words of one long-time energy commission observer, Schweickart is "fair, more open, and generally better" than his predecessor, Richard Maullin, who went on to manage Brown's unsuccessful presidential campaign.

Schweickart worries about the national mood and the lack of urgency on the part of most Americans to deal with the energy problem. And he is concerned about the public perception of Brown and, perhaps, himself, as somewhat flaky advocates of space colonization.

Schweickart took a leave from NASA in 1977 to serve as Brown's assistant for science and technology. He had been working on programs to transfer NASA technology to nonspace-oriented industry. The job was loaded with bureaucratic frustration, Schweickart said, and he was making little progress.

Then he and Brown met and had an informal colloquium in the governor's office. Before he met the astronaut, Brown knew little about space. Schweickart knew it all.

For Russell L. Schweickart, 44 is not your basic Mercury program military test-pilot-type astronaut. He was a member of the third group of astronauts selected by NASA and, unlike the earlier pilots, has a strong science background.

He has graduate and undergraduate degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Before joining NASA, he worked as a research scientist at MIT's astronomy laboratory.

At the University of California at Davis, Schweickart was discussing alternative forms of energy and the long-term oil shortage when somebody asked about the use of energy for space vehicles. He was off and running.

"Space use will more than compensate for the fuel expended to get up there. We'll harness solar power from space platforms, and locating industries up in space will be a very real possibility in the future, and maybe ultimately the salvation of the surface here.

"I can anticipate fairly large manufacturing activities in space where you can easily make large structures very light weight and collect thermal energy through reflection or convert it to electricity. I can envision pharmaceuticals, special crystals and semiconductors being manufactured in space by the mid-1990s.

"I think many of us sense that it's clearly in the cards . . . and part of the activity I'm involved in is ensuring that we act responsibly in the interim on the Earth so that the opportunity is there for our children and grandchildren."

How does Schweickart's and Brown's optimism about space settlement fit in with their go-slow attitude toward large-scale development of conventional and nuclear power plants in California?

"I don't think there is a contradiction," Schweickart said. "Because something, like nuclear power, happens to be highly technological doesn't mean that I, as a technical person, have to support it. And I don't oppose nuclear power per se. I'm concerned that we clean the emmissions of coal plants so that we don't cause havoc to the environment."

Then there are broader questions that brother Schweickart -- society's inability to grapple with the energy crisis, the growing national malaise resulting from that failure and events in Iran.

"I miss the old days of the space program when we had a real mission. . . . It's hard for people now to remember the sense of loss of national prestige and the near-panic we went through as a nation when the Russians put up the first satellite, the first manned satellite, the satellite to orbit the moon," he said.

"President Kennedy's challenge to go to the moon was a technological challenge that was exactly what we needed and people supported it . . . I wish we had another moon to capitalize on, another real national goal. . . .

"NASA could solve the space challenge, but with energy we're all involved -- I've got to buy a smaller, more gas-efficient car; you've got to remember to turn off the lights, and our neighbors have to insulate their homes. . . .

"The magnitude of the energy challenge is easily as great as the space challenge, and the national security risk is probably greater, but there's no social agreement on the direction to take."

But Schweickart is doing his bit. He heats his house here partially with a wood-burning stove, has no air conditioning, rides a bicycle to work (a 5-mile round trip) when he can, and does not pilot jets anymore. Instead, Jerry Brown's favorite astronaut gets his thrills from a state Pinto.