Thursday, November 19th, 2009
I’m back from the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) meeting in Houston, which ran from Monday through Wednesday this week. There was plenty of talk about LCROSS, which one member of the LCROSS science team calls “the little mission that did,” and also lots of discussion about the future of lunar exploration. The big theme of the meeting was sustainability: How do we go back to the moon in such a way that we can keep on going there indefinitely? Many, though not all, of the participants interpreted that question to mean: How can we make the moon economically viable? Of course, the LCROSS mission has a great deal to say about that.
Of course, the talk I looked forward to the most was by Tony Colaprete, the principal investigator for LCROSS. He gave only a few more scraps of information beyond what was reported in the news conference last Friday, but nevertheless I felt that the scraps fit together into an interesting story, which I wrote for the New Scientist website. You can find it here. I concentrated on the discovery of other volatiles besides water, because that was clearly what most interested the people I talked with.
I had to do a little soul-searching, because I go a little farther in the article than Colaprete would go in saying where the water and volatiles probably came from. But isn’t that my job as a journalist? If the experts are pretty sure about piece A, and they are pretty sure about piece B, and if there is only one way that piece A and piece B fit together and everybody knows it, shouldn’t I tell the public about that? Or do I have to wait until, ta-dah!, they hold a press conference and say they are ready to draw conclusion C?
Anyway, there were lots of other interesting and fun things at the meeting. For my blog I will concentrate on personal impressions rather than scientific news.
First, one thing I really loved about this meeting was how much joking and camaraderie there was. I don’t know whether it’s because it is a small enough community that everybody knows each other, or because certain people who are leaders in the community set the tone with their irreverence, or whether it’s just because everyone was in high spirits over the LRO and LCROSS results (and let’s not forget the Chandrayaan-1 results before that). Or maybe it’s just because geologists and planetary scientists are by nature goofy people.
Anyway, the big running joke at the meeting was Larry Taylor’s shorts. After the LCROSS press conference, he was quoted by the New York Times saying that he would have to “eat his shorts.” He was one of the scientists during the Apollo days who came to the conclusion — with good cause, I might add — that the moon rocks were “bone dry” and did not have a scrap of water. He told me that his grandfather used to say that he would “eat his shorts” if he were proved wrong, and so Larry told the newspaper reporter that he would have to eat his shorts now that water had been found in abundance. He had no expectation that this quote would be featured prominently in the Publication of Record. But then he got about 50 e-mails the next day asking if he would have a side of fries with the shorts, and what else he wanted to eat along with them. At the meeting several speakers ribbed him about this, and he finally said that he would eat them if they were served with a bottle of Guinness. Well, with unbelievable alacrity, a four-pack of Guinness beer materialized at the front of the lecture hall! I’m afraid I am not sure whether he eventually made good on his promise (I rather doubt it), but it shows how much fun people had at this meeting.
One of my favorite moments from the meeting was listening to a conversation between Wendell Mendell, another scientist who has been around since the glory days of NASA in the early 1970s, and Igor Mitrofanov, who is sort of his Russian equivalent. They swapped stories about the beginning of the Space Age. Mitrofanov described how when Sergei Korolev wanted to launch the first Russian satellite, he went to the Academy of Sciences, who of course loaded it down with more and more things that they wanted the satellite to do. It looked as if it would take forever, and Korolev was worried that the Americans would launch a satellite first. So he went to Khrushchev, the leader of the Soviet Union, and asked if he could launch a satellite that would just go beep beep beep. Khrushchev said sure, and Sputnik was born. Khruschchev didn’t think much of it, but when Sputnik flew in October 1957 and he saw how panicked the Americans were, he called Korolev back into his office and said, “I want another satellite by November!” (The over-complicated Academy of Sciences satellite did finally get launched, Mitrofanov said, but it was their third satellite.)
Mendell said that President Eisenhower was actually glad to have the Russians launch the first satellite … until he saw the furor that it caused. He wanted to be able to fly satellites over Russia to take spy pictures, because the U-2 airplanes that were doing this job were at risk of being shot down. If the Russians launched the first satellite, they couldn’t very well complain when the Americans launched one of their own. Nice plan, until everyone in the U.S. got hysterical about Sputnik, and the U.S.’s first attempt at a satellite launch blew up.
I guess these stories are probably pretty well known, at least the U.S. side, but I loved the idea of these two scientists, once separated by an Iron Curtain, being able to talk and laugh about these things.
More meeting thoughts and recollections in my next post …