February 22, 2013

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Another Passing of the Apollo Era

Dave McKay - left images by Jeff Warner from The Moon Wiki, and right image from NASA

Most lunar observers don't hear much about professional lunar scientists. Important lunar scientists (captured in Polaroid snapshots) who visited Jeff Warner's NASA Johnson Space Center office in the 1970s and 80s are largely unknown to the public. But these are the people who derived new understanding from samples, images and other data from the space program. On Wednesday one of the leading lunar scientists of the Apollo era and for a generation afterwards died. Grad student Dave McKay was in the audience at Rice University in 1962 when John Kennedy gave his famous speech, We choose to go to the Moon ... not because it is easy, but because it is hard. Seven years later Dave and the recently passed John Dietrich took the Apollo 11 astronauts on their last geology training field trip before they went to the Moon. And during the Apollo 11 moonwalk Dave was the only scientist in mission control. Once the Apollo 11 samples came to Houston Dave began investigating them, becoming a world expert on lunar fine particles and soils. These microscopic particles told us about the history of weathering of the lunar surface. Dave did become publically famous for his 1996 paper with Everett Gibson and Kathie Thomas-Keptra proposing that a Mars meteorite contained evidence for life on Mars. Excitement and controversy over that topic contributed to the founding of NASA's Astrobiology Institute and in a way to the Curiosity rover that even today drills martian rocks searching for evidence of water and life. During his 47 year career at Johnson Space Center Dave was always a gentle, civil person, with a welcoming smile and helpful manner. I remember with joy the black eyed peas parties when he and Mary Fae opened up their Japanese style home to welcome in each new year. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya I learned of a tribal belief that when a person on Earth died a leaf from a lunar tree fell to the ground. As I observe the Moon, Dave's leaf will be one more I think of.

Chuck Wood

Related Links
Dave's LinkedIn page

Yesterday's LPOD: Unlikely?

Tomorrow's LPOD: Railway Tracks


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