Moonstruck: How the 'Giant Leap for Mankind' 40 Years Ago Inspired a Mount Holyoke Astronomer

Thursday, July 16, 2009 - 2:45pm

The following story was published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette on July 15, 2009.

By Suzanne Wilson

On July 20, 1969, when two American astronauts set foot on the moon for the first time, Darby Dyar was an 11-year-old girl living with her family in Indianapolis, Indiana. Though science had yet to pique her curiosity--that wouldn't happen until college--she remembers the televised drama well.

"I watched every single minute of those broadcasts," she said, proud of the fact that her father, John Dyar, an engineer, had worked on the propulsion systems for the lunar lander.

Like millions of others around the world, she remembers watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin take those first steps. She remembers Armstrong's words, as he took that "giant leap for mankind." She remembers somehow knowing, she said, even if she couldn't articulate it yet, that something huge had happened, that "mankind would never be the same again."

Forty years later, Dyar, 51, is an engaging, dynamic presence who seems to have lost none of her fascination with the moon. She's now chair of the astronomy department at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley. The linoleum-tiled hallway leading to the suite where her office is located is inlaid with large, colorful images of the planets in our solar system. As she talked in her office one recent morning, she held a moon globe in her hands. And on the wall above her desk hung a quilt, made for her by a student's mother, that is filled with stitched-together images of the sun, planets and stars.

This fall, through the Five Colleges Astronomy Department, Dyar will offer students a chance to take a course solely about the moon, covering such topics as lunar exploration and the impact of other celestial bodies on the moon. She is also one of the scientists around the country recently tapped by NASA to be part of its Lunar Science Institutes, dedicated to moon research. Dyar, who currently holds nearly $900,000 in NASA grants, will be working with colleagues at other colleges and universities on LSI projects.

At Mount Holyoke, she has also taught courses about Mars, and is currently involved in a project that has given students there the chance to help develop an instrument NASA plans to send to the red planet to determine the chemical makeup of rocks there.

Lessons learned

With the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing approaching on July 20, and with a recently launched unmanned mission orbiting the moon right now, Dyar said she welcomes the renewed interest in our nearest neighbor. "I'm really excited that people are interested in the moon again," she said.

Her research has involved studying lunar samples to further understand how planets form; to help determine whether water in any form might exist on the moon; and to detail the moon's composition and interior structure.

The samples Dyar uses were brought back to Earth by Apollo astronauts on six missions, between 1969 and 1972. They delivered a total of 2,200 samples, or 842 pounds of lunar material--gathered with rakes and tongs, according to NASA.

"It's actually a lot less than people realize," said Dyar. "People think they brought back dump trucks full, but it wasn't that way at all." When the returning Apollo astronauts stepped onto the aircraft carriers whose helicopters had plucked their space capsules from the ocean, they were often photographed carrying what looked like small Igloo coolers. Those contained the lunar samples, Dyar said. Much less well known, she added, is the fact that unmanned probes, sent by the Soviet Union, also gathered lunar materials–totaling about three-quarters of a pound–and brought them to Earth.

The U.S.-owned samples are kept under tight security at the Johnson Space Center in Texas, according to Dyar. Getting permission to study them involves a fairly lengthy application process–she jokes with her students that giving away one's firstborn is often required. And then you get pieces that are "about the size of a pea," she said. The application must also include arrangements for keeping the samples under lock and key and keeping their exact storage location secret.

In the years since the Apollo missions, the technology used to examine the lunar materials has greatly improved, said Dyar, allowing her to study minute traces of the samples in great detail. As property of the federal government, the samples are loaned to researchers on a temporary basis. When she is finished with the ones she has, Dyar sends them back to Texas.

Spread out on a table in their little plastic bags, each of Dyar's samples is numbered and labeled with the specific mission it came from. Truth be told, there is nothing terribly interesting, at least to the untrained eye, about the appearance of the tiny pieces of crust and rock. But they have helped Dyar play a role in unraveling mysteries such as the nature of the minerals found on the moon and whether there's water there. Though it had long been assumed that the moon was "bone dry," she said, data examined by scientists in recent years have suggested otherwise.

In 1994, according to an article titled "Lunar Fireworks" by Greg Redfern in the June 2009 issue of Sky and Telescope magazine, data from the moon's surface offered radar evidence of the presence of ice in the craters of the moon's south pole; a later mission detected hydrogen, possibly in deposits of ice, at both poles. The presence of water, even though it's likely buried deep below the surface and would not be found in an immediately usable state, would raise the possibility that the moon could support human life, Dyar said.

The Apollo missions that provided the lunar samples added a great deal to scientists' knowledge of both the moon and the Earth, she said. Much more is known, for instance, about how and when the two bodies were formed. Thanks to information gleaned from the lunar rocks, scientists now believe the moon was formed from the impact of a glancing blow delivered by a small, planet-like object that hit the Earth about 4.5 billion years ago, she said.

Women in science

Dyar's fascination with the moon might never have come about had it not been for an undergraduate science requirement at Wellesley College. An art history major, she enrolled in a geology class, fully expecting to hate it, she said, and out walked Meg Thompson. She was that rarity–a woman, an accomplished scientist and a great teacher–and it was in that class, said Dyer, that she discovered she loved science. She enjoyed thinking like a scientist, asking questions and solving problems. Dyar went on to land a summer job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, where she later earned her doctorate. It was at MIT, she said, that she first came face to face with lunar samples. "I just thought, how cool is that?"

For the record, Dyar was never interested in coming face to face with lunar rocks by standing on the lunar surface itself. "For one thing, I have terrible eyesight," she said, a deal breaker for would-be astronauts–and once she became a mother, Dyar said, she had no interest in putting her safety at risk. Her husband, Peter Crowley, is a professor of geology at Amherst College; the couple has two children, ages 11 and 13.

During her graduate school days, Dyar was one of only a few women studying at MIT. Though the picture has improved since then, she said, she still believes that many young women assume, as she herself once did, that science isn't for them. In her classes at Mount Holyoke, she said, there are always a few students who tell her they're surprised to find that they like science, and that they might have chosen a science major if they'd made that discovery earlier. Encouraging more women to do just that remains one of Dyar's passions, she said.

What next?

Sometimes in class, Dyar plays a tape of the 1961 speech in which President John F. Kennedy set the goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth "before this decade is out." Kennedy's soaring rhetoric "still gives me goosebumps," she said. "It was a very special time in American history."

Her reference to that "special time" and the nation's look back at that first lunar landing prompts the question–What now?

NASA has traditionally justified space exploration by saying it expands our knowledge of the universe and how we got here, and leads to scientific breakthroughs that help us here on Earth. But with the U.S. facing federal deficits stretching as far as the eye can see and a crowded national agenda that includes two wars and a looming battle over universal health care, what's the point in going back to the moon?

"It's a tough question," said Dyar. "There's no life on the moon, we already know that. There's no resource on the moon that we don't have on Earth, so there's no economic reason to go."

But go back we must, say the politicians, at least some of them.

In 2004, Dyar pointed out, former President George W. Bush said he wanted U.S. astronauts to return to the moon by 2020, establish a permanent base there, and use it to head next to Mars. But the country's current economic straits will make it hard to justify pursuing those lofty goals, said Dyar, at least until the economy rebounds. Moreover, she said, scientists such as herself stand to gain more from sending unmanned probes to the lunar surface than from the far more expensive manned missions. "You could send 20 robots to 20 locations on the moon," she said, "and it would be cheaper than sending one person to one location."

But there's an "on-the-other-hand" point to be made, Dyar added, which is that sending astronauts into space helps spark interest–a crucial interest, in her view–in science, especially among young people.

"It's one of the things I see again and again in my classes," she said. "It's the look in my students' eyes when I talk about these missions. So to me, it's all about education."

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