Space Exploration is a Growing Field for Geologists

If you want to talk about the contribution of geosciences to the space program through the decades and those of geologists specifically, it’s good to know Harrison “Jack” Schmitt.

He was the first geologist up there.

Schmitt’s tenure at NASA was groundbreaking, for he was, in fact, the first trained geologist selected by NASA. Previously, the agency hired only test pilots. In hiring Schmitt, the agency and the Apollo program had someone who could explain to astronauts who got to the moon about the ground beneath their feet.

(Schmitt occupied the lunar module pilot seat on Apollo 17, the last Apollo mission. He was the second-to-last person to set foot on the moon’s surface. Eugene Cernan was the last.)

Mutual Benefit

The partnership between the geosciences and NASA in the early days of Apollo, Schmitt said, was fluid, indirect and beneficial to both.

“The main connection would have been indirect, as our work was not done purely out of government and academia,” he said, and by this he meant that many of scientists who worked for Apollo also consulted for industry at various times.

It wasn’t, however, just the personnel.

“Some of the instruments flown,” he said, alluding to “passive and active seismometers and magnetometers,” to name a few, had industry technology in their backgrounds.

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If you want to talk about the contribution of geosciences to the space program through the decades and those of geologists specifically, it’s good to know Harrison “Jack” Schmitt.

He was the first geologist up there.

Schmitt’s tenure at NASA was groundbreaking, for he was, in fact, the first trained geologist selected by NASA. Previously, the agency hired only test pilots. In hiring Schmitt, the agency and the Apollo program had someone who could explain to astronauts who got to the moon about the ground beneath their feet.

(Schmitt occupied the lunar module pilot seat on Apollo 17, the last Apollo mission. He was the second-to-last person to set foot on the moon’s surface. Eugene Cernan was the last.)

Mutual Benefit

The partnership between the geosciences and NASA in the early days of Apollo, Schmitt said, was fluid, indirect and beneficial to both.

“The main connection would have been indirect, as our work was not done purely out of government and academia,” he said, and by this he meant that many of scientists who worked for Apollo also consulted for industry at various times.

It wasn’t, however, just the personnel.

“Some of the instruments flown,” he said, alluding to “passive and active seismometers and magnetometers,” to name a few, had industry technology in their backgrounds.

“I personally had significant industry awareness due to my past education and experience and was deeply involved in training and operational development of experiments.”

Astrogeology’s Many Facets

So what has happened since? What is happening now?

The work, as the cliché reminds us, goes on. And the distance between public and private enterprises is closing – by design.

“Over the last 12 months, there have been important developments in the commercial space industry, both for Mars in the long term and for the moon in the near-term,” said Clive R. Neal, a professor in Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences at the University of Notre Dame.

“The Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) has a commercial advisory board (CAB) that has grown dramatically since its inception in 2015. Through the CAB, we can see first hand the growth of the commercial lunar sector.”

Neal said this work provided a permanent regulatory framework for public-private commercial lunar missions, something NASA, he said, should consider (spoiler alert: it is). For NASA, he maintains, such partnerships will result in shared risks and mitigated budgetary concerns. For the commercial sector, the potential is limitless.

“Obviously, interest in the moon by the commercial sector means they think they can make money,” said Neal.

To that end, there was a “Back to the Moon” workshop in June that, according to Neal, was a game-changer.

“Also unveiled at this meeting and over the summer were the capabilities for companies such as Astrobotic and Moon Express to not only land payloads on the lunar surface but also architectures to return samples from the moon. Once these capabilities are proven, a lunar sample return campaign will become possible, which is important for both science and exploration (i.e., “in situ resource utilization,” or ISRU). In addition to Astrobotic and Moon Express, the United Launch Alliance has announced its Cislunar 1000 Vision, whereby a refueling architecture is established in cislunar space and supplied using lunar resources. Blue Origin and SpaceX also announced rocket development that would enable large payloads to be delivered to the lunar surface to establish infrastructure for ISRU and develop a moon base.”

The opportunities for growth, then, between geology and space exploration are not only planned for the future, they’re here now.

“Our division at the Johnson Space Center employs a wide variety of geologists,” said Cynthia Evans, the chief of the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) Division, adding that there are “many roles for geoscientists at NASA.”

Specifically, ARES performs the physical science research at Johnson Space Center (JSC) and serves as the JSC focus for support to the HQ Science Mission Directorate, performing research in earth, planetary and space sciences, and has the curatorial responsibility for all NASA-held extraterrestrial samples. ARES scientists and engineers also provide support to the human and robotic spaceflight programs with expertise in orbital debris modeling, analysis of micrometeoroid/orbital debris risks to spacecraft, image analysis and earth observations.

Evans explained that the work is multifaceted and involves managing the astromaterials curation laboratories (including the samples from the Apollo missions, meteorites collected in Antarctica, cosmic dust collected from high altitude aircraft, comet samples, interstellar stream particles, asteroid samples and solar particles that were collected on various sample return missions). This aspect, she said, “preserves, protects and allocates those samples for researchers around the world.”

In addition, ARES’ scientists, including its many geologists, conduct fundamental research on those samples, including daily operations and research using instruments on robotic missions like the Curiosity rover on Mars and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.

And for that, obviously, you must have people, like Schmitt, who have expertise in these areas.

“We have scientists participating in future sample return missions from carbon-rich asteroids, with interests in exploring comets, icy worlds, polar regions of the moon, to name a few destinations,” said Evans.

Manned Missions

The geologists at ARES are also working on and supporting experiments on human missions (the International Space Station), including Earth observations, and other remote sensing payloads mounted on the ISS platform.

“Some of our geologists,” Evans clarified, “are funded to investigate tools and operations using analog environments on Earth to better prepare for future human missions to planetary surfaces. And, we also train the astronaut corps in basic Earth observations from the ISS, introduce them to geologic field methods, and provide an overview of NASA’s planetary missions.”

As for the scientists themselves, Evans said, “Most of our geologists have Ph.D.s in geology or planetary sciences, many are geochemists with extensive experience with analytical instruments and remote sensing, as well as field work. We have had many technical exchanges with the petroleum industry on technology developments (such as) analytics like using instruments like micro xCT, image processing algorithms, contamination control for organic species, understanding the microbiology and potential sources of contamination in our laboratories.”

“Some of our staff members have experience in the oil industry. We are investing more in understanding carbon in the solar system, and have organic geochemists and geomicrobiologists on our staff,” she added.

Future Opportunities

For their parts, Neal and Evans are ready.

Neal said, “Prospecting is the next logical step in further developing the lunar economy, and if sufficient reserves are discovered, they will enable a sustainable human Mars exploration program through the involvement of the growing lunar commercial sector.”

“The future looks good,” echoed Evans, who added, “At the moment, we have about 200 people here and I’d say 150 of them are geologists, some having worked here for 40 years.

The agency hires an additional 5-10 per year. Additionally, as NASA will partner with private sector companies, which are interested in collaborating on future planetary missions, there will be ample and additional opportunities in the years to come.

“The demand is growing for geoscientists,” said Evans.

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