Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Speaking of Science: Find something that makes you happy as moon rocks made the Apollo astronauts

Speaking of Science
Talk nerdy to us

Sample 15556 from the Apollo 15 mission at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston on March 19.

This week, I wrote a story about the Apollo lunar sample collection -- 850 pounds of moon rocks brought back over the course of six moon missions, which were humanity's first pristine samples from the surface of another world. These rocks are the unsung scientific legacy of the Apollo era; scientists are still learning from them.

They are also really, really cool -- just ask the astronauts who collected them.

The 12 men who walked on the moon were amazingly cool, calm and collected for most of their missions. But they became gleeful as kids in a candy shop when it came time to select surface samples to carry to Earth.

Here's Apollo 12 commander Pete Conrad, describing a "grapefruit-size" rock he found not far from his landing site in the Ocean of Storms: "Oh boy, is that ... I want that rock."

His comrade Alan Bean was busily documenting the shadows in craters, but Conrad couldn't stop talking about his find. "That is a dandy extra grapefruit-size-type goody," he said. "That's got to come home in the spacecraft."

Geologic treasures were sometimes enough to compel astronauts to defy strict Extra Vehicular Activity protocols. During Apollo 15, James Irwin and David Scott spotted an especially unusual stone while driving back to their lunar module.

"Oh, there's some vesicular basalt there," Scott pointed out. "Boy. Oh man!"

In the audio of the air-to-ground communications, he can be heard saying "Hey, how about? Let's just hold on one second, we've got to have..." Then he trails off.

Next thing, Irwin announces, "Okay, we're stopping."

Only later did NASA find out what the astronauts were up to: Knowing that their bosses at mission control didn't want them to stop, Scott pretended to have a problem with his seatbelt, buying just enough time to hop out of the vehicle and grab the nugget off the ground. The lumpy, dark volcanic rock they collected, pocked with Swiss cheese holes, is now known as the "seatbelt basalt."

"It was a gorgeous thing," Scott later told astronomer and historian Eric Jones. "You could not avoid picking it up. That was one that anybody would have gotten suckered into, one way or the other."

All the Apollo astronauts were trained in geology, but Harrison H. "Jack" Schmitt, the lunar module pilot for Apollo 17, was the first astronaut with a PhD in the subject. His sheer joy at studying the lunar landscape escalated into full blown ecstasy when, upon arriving at the 300-foot-wide Shorty crater, he stumbled upon something strange.

"Wait a minute," he said.

"What?" asked Gene Cernan, the mission's commander.

"There is orange soil!" Schmitt exclaimed. "It's all over! Orange!"

Schmitt had discovered streaks of glassy volcanic material made orange by oxidation -- a surprising sign that lava had shot out of the lunar surface in spectacular fountains in the relatively recent past.

"Hey, he's not going out of his wits," Cernan reassured mission control. "It really is."

Schmitt, still excited, prepared to dig a trench to take samples. "Fantastic, sports fans," he said. "You can see this in your color television, I bet you."

Cernan took so many photographs he ran out of film. Back at mission control, scientists on the ground were just as thrilled -- jumping in the air and exclaiming at the image on their screens.

In later interviews, Schmitt would call the moon a "geologist's paradise."


"Part of your jollies are gotten by trying to anticipate everything you could possibly anticipate," he said in a NASA oral history. "But then you get a new surge of adrenaline when you find there are things that you never could have anticipated. And that's discovery. That's when science really becomes exciting, those things that you didn't anticipate and they occur, and that's where scientific discoveries are made."

-- Sarah Kaplan

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