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Big Rocks, Big Science

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Video Credit: NASA/Spacecraft Films/ALSJ

April 23, 1972 – Plum Crater, The Moon:

Charlie Duke (lunar module pilot): (Pointing) This one right here?

Anthony England (CapCom): That’s it.

John Young (commander): That’s a football-sized rock!

Duke: It’s a “Great Scott” size.

Young: Are you sure you want a rock that big, Houston?

England: Yeah, let’s go ahead and get it.

Young: That’s twenty pounds of rock right there!

Duke: Okay. It’s got some BIG clasts in it, John.

Young: It sure has.

Duke: Agh! (struggling) If I fall into Plum Crater getting this rock, Muehlberger has had it!

This is the story of a big rock. Several big rocks, really.

It’s no surprise that man has been eternally curious about rocks. We find them everywhere we look on Earth, because, well, they are Earth. Compared to the lifespan of a human being, a rock seems almost eternal. In the eyes of man they represent something near permanence. We rarely encounter that, and we’re fascinated by it.

Of course, rocks do undergo changes. They may be shaped by pressure or they may be transformed by heat. We even live on an enormous rock, although geologists surely cringe at the comparison. Rocks are carved by rivers, birthed by volcanoes. They are our beaches and our mountains. They fascinate us, as do the many rocks that are floating through space along with our own, and the rocks that orbit those rocks. It’s rocks all the way down. So we must study them, because that is what we do with things that fascinate us. At least geologists do. Be thankful for the geologists.

Last month, a legendary geologist succumbed to the impermanence of the human form. Bill Muehlberger was a professor of geology at the University of Texas for more than half a century, and a family friend of ours for much of that. But in the eyes of countless students and scientists, I’m afraid he represents a fading era. It was an era when scientists led our country into the future, when they were cowboys with white hats on. It was an era of Big Science, when scientists did big things, and a nation had the will to support them.

As a researcher of mineral forms, Bill didn’t carve out a revolutionary field of science like Watson and Crick did with the double helix. No grand theories of everything, no Darwinesque treatises. But he knew more about the movement of the Earth’s crust – plate tectonics – than all but a few of his peers. One of his career highlights was an ambitious project to fully map the geology of North America, and the 15-year labor produced a map that’s probably hanging in every geology department in the U.S.

But why be satisfied with just Earth when space is full of rocks? Dr. Muehlberger certainly wasn’t.

He was tall and muscular well into his eighties, appearing to be every bit the college football player and Marine he was in his younger years. My father-in-law, a former student of his, relayed a story about a time that brawn manifested itself in a UT-Austin lecture hall. After frantically sketching the epic battle occurring between two tectonic plates, a perspiring Bill wanted to demonstrate how the plates could be literally flipped over upside-down. So he grabbed the entire chalkboard in his hands and threw it over on its head, complete with accompanying dust-quake.

Bill Muehlberger (right) and John Powers (center) examine the largest rock ever returned from the moon, dubbed “Big Muley,” at the Lunar Receiving Laboratory in Houston. Photo: NASA.

One day in 1964, while a professor at UT-Austin, Bill found a message on his desk saying that NASA had phoned. NASA was still a young agency tasked with fulfilling JFK’s call to develop a manned moon mission. They asked Bill to take a class of astronauts from Houston to West Texas because they needed a crash-course in geology. He accepted, and began almost-monthly treks through the Big Bend region with Mercury and Apollo candidates. This scientist kept step through the terrain of the Texas desert with some of the brightest and most competitive men our country has ever produced.

He not only taught them how to appreciate the nuances of geologic forms and how to read terrain with the eyes of a scientist. He also wasn’t afraid to play cowboy with these former test pilots. According to one anecdote, as Alan Shepard lit a cigar from the passenger seat of Bill’s car one day after a hike, he suggested that they’d better beat a fellow Mercury astronaut to Marathon, TX. You know, “Or else.” Everything was a contest to these guys. Bill put the pedal down with a smirk, and I’d like to think they won that race. A 2009 Austin American-Statesman profile reminded me of another legendary snapshot I saw when I had the pleasure of visiting his office years ago: A photo of the geologist, backed by the barren Permian Basin and pointing at something interesting (geologists love pointing at interesting stuff). Behind him stood Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. These were Big Men.

Later, during the last two manned moon missions (Apollo 16 and 17), Bill led the geology team for NASA at Mission Control. These were the missions most devoted to studying the composition and age of the Moon, and though many Americans had by then tired of the novelty of putting people on our lunar satellite, he jumped at the opportunity. The last four men to walk on the moon weren’t allowed onboard their capsules until they graduated from Dr. Muehlberger’s Big Bend College of Geology. That’s where they learned to catalog an extraterrestrial landscape with only a radio, a camera and their curiosity as their guide.

As he monitored Charlie Duke on an Apollo 16 spacewalk, Bill noticed a football-sized sparkling anorthosite on a video monitor in Mission Control. He asked Charlie to pick it up if he could. For safety reasons, the astronauts weren’t supposed to collect anything larger than their fist, and Duke made it clear who should be blamed if he fell into Plum Crater while trying to collect it. Today it stands as the largest rock ever taken from the Moon. The approximately 26-pound sparkling breccia goes by two names: “Lunar sample 61016” and “Big Muley”. The latter is for the man on the ground that wanted to see it so badly. The lunar module was barely able to take off with Big Muley onboard, but it eventually made it back to Earth and the rock resides in Houston, locked in a case at Johnson Space Center.

In fact, today much of our space program is sitting locked away in the storage closets, archive halls, disassembly plants and museums of America. NASA’s astronauts are either in line for uncertain trips to the International Space Station or have only their past trips to space to qualify them for the title. As a nation, we seem to be more interested in NASA’s budget than in their missions. It took the end of the shuttle program for most people to remember that we were still sending human beings into space, perhaps the most significant technological feat in mankind’s history – on or off of this planet.

Where there was once primarily our manned space program, NASA’s priorities now include climate research, deep-space astronomy, and unmanned exploration of extra-planetary bodies of every kind. These expanded missions are signs of progress and growth that should make us proud, and rightfully so. Missions like the James Webb Telescope are riddled with budgetary uncertainty and cast a shadow on the proud agency, but there are multiple scientific successes for every hiccup on the books. Notably, where NASA’s rocket jockeys were once the only group of humans able to travel to space, private spaceflight investment has expanded that opportunity to anyone willing to pay the price of admission. This is truly forward progress on the field of Big Science.

However, I worry that what we lack today are leaders of Big Science, those cowboys with white hats on like the legends of the early space program. We’re swell with scientists these days, don’t get me wrong. There’s more intellectual capital on campuses across America today than there ever was in the days of Mercury and Apollo missions. We continue to lead the world into space, although many more nations have entered the fray.

What we’re missing today is the child who looks up at Neil Armstrong’s picture with eyes the size of dinner plates, and says “Yes, that’s what I want to be.” And where there’s a Neil, a Buzz, a Shepard or a Ride . . . there’s also a Bill Muehlberger. These were the scientists doing larger-than-life science, discovering larger-than-Earth discoveries. Bill would never admit to being anything more than a guy with a rock hammer and some hiking boots who was lucky enough to teach some neat people what he knew. There were many other fine geologists who worked for NASA over the years (including Apollo 17 astronaut and former U.S. Senator Harrison Schmitt), and I’m confident they were all equally humble. And maybe he’s right. Maybe we make them larger than life.

Those who make history are rarely aware that they are doing so at the time. But in hindsight, the contributions of 20th century American science were enormous, and many legends have been created among its practitioners. Are we missing that today? I fear there is truth in Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg’s recent words lamenting that perhaps America had exhausted its capacity to support Big Science.

We know we are losing some of our best and brightest minds to Wall Street instead of laboratories. Our society rejects science almost as if it were the Yankees walking into Fenway Park. Women and minorities? We’re losing them like change between the couch cushions. I don’t mean to be cynical, but I think it’s because they could use some bigger rocks to chase after.

To those out there doing Big Science today, it’s time to put the white hat on. American scientists are still the best in the world. But we are failing to connect with the American people from the classroom to the newsroom to the halls of Congress. We are failing to inspire Americans to embrace science, big and small, while enemies of science take our place.

They’d shrug off the comparison, but Bill was part of a Golden Age of American scientific leadership that we are in danger of never seeing again. We could write tributes to dozens of them, until there are no more to write about. While their ranks might be dwindling, if we take the time to remember how much they mean to us as a nation, perhaps we’ll find inspiration to be more like them.

We need to be more like them.

Joe Hanson About the Author: Joe Hanson is a molecular biologist and Ph.D. student from Austin, TX. He is passionate about bridging the gap between working scientists and the people who are affected by their research. He publishes It’s Okay to Be Smart, a top science Tumblr, and is on Twitter at @jtotheizzoe. Follow on Twitter @jtotheizzoe.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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