Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Lost Moon Rocks, Dr. Gast and His Wonderful Wayback Machine

For many people, 1967 was the “Summer of Love.” For me, a high school sophomore, it was the summer of the Moon. Even though most people who considered flying in space at that time were living in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco, a small number were actually doing it from Cape Canaveral. When the US screamed Telstar into orbit to compete with Russia’s Sputnik, my imagination was captured and I became infatuated with Space.

Alan Shepard, John Glenn and Walter Schirra, all daring astronauts of the Mercury team, were still my heroes when I moved from a small town in Pennsylvania to Hillsdale, New Jersey, a bedroom suburb of New York City. That move introduced me to the urban-planning invention of the 1950s, the cul-du-sac. Mine had nine homes on it and housed an eclectic collection of personalities and exotic backgrounds: a former New York Yankee first baseman, Moose Skowron, a Norwegian ski jumper, a man working on NASA’s satellite tracking systems in Spain, an international importer, a professional jazz guitarist who had played with the big bands of the 1940s, his wife, a professional commercial jingles singer most known for her rendition of the “Winston Tastes Good” [like a cigarette should] song, and the late Dr. Paul Gast, a professor of geology at Columbia University. Dr. Gast would turn out to have the most influence on my future. As we moved in, Moose moved out and, within a couple of weeks, the good doctor moved in.

My older brother, Phil, and I babysat for Dr. Gast’s three small children. When bottle-washing jobs turned up at the laboratory that he supervised, we were both offered summer jobs.  Surrounded by international scientists, I was in heaven working at the Lamont Geological Observatory on the Palisades in New York, a key research facility of the Earth Institute of Columbia University. That summer, one of their quests was to prepare a contamination-free lab to handle the moon samples, assuming that men actually walked on the moon’s surface. By 1967, the space race gap had narrowed between Russia (then the USSR) and the United States.  NASA was preparing for moon rocks even though the astronauts had not yet attempted their first space walk or a rendezvous either in earth orbit or lunar orbit, very necessary techniques they would have to master before attempting to land on the moon.

Although the scientists at Lamont were preparing for the unknown, basically, the objects would be just rocks. The technique Dr. Gast developed for dating rocks, particularly extraterrestrial ones, was to use a gigantic, Peabody-Sherman “wayback” type of machine. Technically it was a rubidium-strontium uranium-lead radiometer but to me, it was “the wayback.”

The machine filled a sizable room. A beam of electrons was shot at a metal filament to measure the isotope ratio of these elements extracted from the samples. Since radioactive isotopes have known rates of decay, this data could determine the age of the rocks. Back then, the common form of dating anything was Carbon-14. For moon rocks, the rubidium-strontium uranium-lead method was the “gold” standard. * My job was to make the tiny metal band filaments. I had to keep up with all the filaments that Dr. Gast burned through, melting samples with a light beam way before Darth Vader and Luke dueled with light sabers.

Dr. Gast's lab room minus the wayback, 48 years later.
The wayback stood where the cartons line the wall. 

Dr. Gast was a cranial, soft-spoken man but he was absent-minded like a professor. Most days he ate the sandwiches his wife packed as soon as he got to the lab because he frequently forgot about lunch. When it rained, it was a nightmare for me because Lamont Observatory was actually a campus with outlying buildings of seismology, oceanography, a library, a cafeteria, a machine shop and a core samples storage warehouse spread out over 170 acres of treed, hilly terrain. On a busy day, Dr. Gast might visit all of the buildings and leave umbrellas, raincoats and probably a sample or two along the way. It became a scavenger hunt for me to retrieve them, usually in the pouring rain.
One morning I was shocked to find him standing in the midst of hundreds of metal and glass parts with the wayback machine nowhere to be seen. That pile of parts was the wayback. He explained how he took it apart once a year to clean and since he designed and built it there was no manual. Not to worry, the plans were all in his head. A week later I was leaving for the lab in the morning and my brother and I spotted Dr. Gast in his driveway with his head under his car’s hood. We asked him what was wrong and he said that he had no idea why his car wouldn’t start. But the man was brilliant; his brilliance just didn’t apply to internal combustion machines.

At that time, Americans had as much of an idea of what we would find on the moon as Dr. Gast had about what was under his car’s hood. NASA was worried about a lot of unknowns. The moon’s surface could be 50 feet of accumulated rock dust and the lunar excursion module might sink out of sight on landing. There was also one side of the moon that always faced away from earth. In 1967, the lunar orbital flights would confirm that the dark side is made up of the same material as the side that we see all the time. No secret Russian space stations, no little alien men, and no green cheese. When you’re a high school teenager you have no idea if adults are kidding or just plain stupid. They were not all kidding about expecting green cheese to be there. The lunar orbiter passed around the dark side of the moon and destroyed a lot of myths. The reality was just more rocks.

What if those rocks were some weird form of radioactive matter, like a kryptonite for Earthlings? Or maybe those rocks were able to carry some disease that had wiped out a lunar population and atmosphere billions of years ago. When the first astronauts who walked on the moon surface returned to earth they were quarantined for several days. Just in case, Dr. Gast was setting up a white room in the geochemistry building for studying the rocks. It had an airlock with positive pressure (air blows out when you open the door instead of being sucked in, along with dust particles). The room also had a sticky doormat that took any residue off the special white slippers they wore, and everything in the room was white. I got in there a few times that summer and if I had put down a blank piece of white paper anywhere, I swore it would have become invisible. 
The entrance to the Geophysics building as it appears today.

Several times during that summer I was asked to collect the dusty filter from the white room’s air vent system and the dust was melted down onto a filament for the wayback machine. A light beam blast later, it would be analyzed to see how clean they could make the room. Special preparations were made for these once-in-a-lifetime rocks. For scientists, and especially geologists, this was their Super Bowl. With mortars and pestles, they were poised and could not wait to get their hands on these rocks so they could weigh, crush, examine them under a microscope or blast them with light beams from the wayback machine. Dr. Gast even had a say in developing the bags and tools the astronauts would carry to collect these nuggets.

Watching these scientists working happily each day at the lab, I realized that I might never have this much fun in my lifetime again. I wanted to be a scientist so much that I ignored all my low trig scores and hung in for three semesters in college as a physics engineering major until I read the handwriting written on the blackboard wall, mostly in undecipherable Greek letters and equations, and switched my major.

The door to the Moon sample room, today.

One day, Dr. Gast called me into his Spartan office and gave me a special errand. I was to go to the Oceanography building and make high quality copies of several 8” x 10” black and white glossy photographs. I was to keep them in the manila envelope until I got there, copy them, and put them immediately back in the envelope and show no one. He handed me an envelope and I was off. When I got to the copy machine nobody was around. Good, no questions. I had been sent to make copies several times before so my presence in the building was not unusual. I took the photos out and one look and I was stunned. The first shot was the earth rise taken from the moon, depicted in dazzling brilliance, clearly captured as the lunar orbiter emerged from the dark side of the moon.  The rest of the photos were crater close-ups. I was to learn years later that Dr. Gast was determining where the oldest rocks were likely to be and that would determine where to try the first landing.

Being a teenager, I made a separate copy for myself, folded them and stuffed them in my jeans pocket. The next day those two pictures were on the front page of the New York Times.

Forty-three years later, I still love space and astronomy. The moon still has a special fascination for me. Buzz Aldrin will look up at the moon and wistfully remind himself that the peak of his personal career was forty-one years ago when he walked on that distant surface. I will look at that same moon and remember when I pilfered those pictures, worked in the moon sample room and welded filaments for Dr. Gast’s wayback machine.

A more recent reminder was a newspaper report that many of the moon rocks presented as good will gifts to each US state and 135 foreign countries have been misplaced. These samples, so rare and important at the time, have now been lost. Apparently, they have become almost like forgotten items in a governmental garage sale. The last count tallied 94 countries and nearly 18 states missing theirs. Some are suspected of having been sold on the black market for up to half a million dollars.

A determined effort is being made by some University of Phoenix grad students to locate the missing rocks and from time to time there will be reports of a shard found here and there. I am saddened when I consider that such an effort was made back in 1967 to make sure these rocks were collected, quarantined and studied and now these rocks are missing. I wonder how something of such rare value can be tossed aside like those cheap rock collections sold at tourist traps or in museum gift shops.

The astronauts of Apollo 17 who personally carried those gift samples to us governors and the heads of foreign governments don’t remember presenting every one of them. Understandably, their mission became a blur in the redundant presentations spread out over a three-month goodwill tour but I would like to think if an astronaut had pressed one of those samples into my hand that I’d remember it for the rest of my life.

People generally assume that certain historical objects must be owned by the US government but over the years many objects have found their way into private collections. Malcolm Forbes displayed many historical objects from his private collection in a small museum in his magazine’s headquarters on 5th Avenue near 12th Street in Manhattan. For instance, Forbes has one of the four signed copies of the Japanese surrender, signed on the deck of the USS Missouri at the end of World War II. Forbes also has Abraham Lincoln’s stove pipe hat and opera glasses from the night of his assassination. Thrown in for dramatic effect was the sleeve that the doctors cut off Lincoln’s coat when they were trying to find the source of his wounds. In the basement of Ford’s theatre in Washington, other objects are displayed from that historic night, among them, the frock coat Lincoln wore, minus the left arm coat sleeve. Strange objects find their way into private collections.

Forbes had another room in his museum dedicated to objects, which once had importance at the time of their presentation that now, had been rendered so meaningless that many could not even be identified with their presenter or receiver. Bronzed paddles, Tiffany silver replicas of buildings, mounted antler hooves with ambiguous inscriptions, all have since lost their meaning having probably resided in the darkness of a closet, forgotten for decades. Apparently, many of these moon rocks have met the same fate or found their way into private collections. Illegally, too, since they were presented to official government representatives.

At the time, these rocks must have been extraordinarily cherished. That astronaut who walked on the moon just gave me a piece of a rock he found there. I am amazed and blown away with the opportunity that I have to be in this place and time to personally receive this piece of history. I will remember this moment forever. As an impressionable teenager, the “space race” enthralled me, impressing on me that I was living in an extraordinary time. Somehow we lost that sense of awe from the 60s, swept away in the high tide of information, technology and myth busting.

Admittedly, these “Goodwill Rocks” are tiny, the size of a pinhead, but unlike Forbes’ trinkets, these grams from another world are mounted on a plaque that carries a narrative of the presentation and a small replica of the recipients’ flag.  The rock is in a plastic bubble next to the date of the presentation. I admit that all these years later, as a people we have become blasé about technology because it’s an integral part of our daily lives. Today, the work of all those vacuum tubes in Dr. Gast’s wayback could be easily done by a hand-held calculator. I’ve learned that the typical graphing calculator used today in most high schools could duplicate all of the electronic functions in the Apollo command module.

Things were so different then. I clearly remember riding across the Lamont campus on a brilliant morning that summer in an open jeep from World War II driven by Jack Diamond, another rock-studying scientist, when the Doors’ “Light My Fire” came on the radio. He grinned, and said, “Those are very suggestive lyrics.” It was a very different time. A time and rocks forever lost.

Landmark events indelibly mark our memories and we recall years later where we were when the impression was made. I was in seventh grade when our principal, tears streaming down her face, burst into our classroom and stunned us with the news that President Kennedy had been shot. Six years later, by the time Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins had been strapped into their Apollo command module that Friday in July, 1969, I had probably finished tossing the last items in the family station wagon for the trip to a Maine beach house for the week. There were a number of parallels.

My brother met his future wife in college as a sophomore and his fiancé's parents had a charming but Spartan cottage on a small peninsula on the southern coast of Maine near Kennebunkport, called Biddeford Pool. The oceanfront structure was separated from the surf by about 100 yards of tall, waving dune grass and walking that deserted, pristine shore line was both therapeutic and cathartic. I was either too young or had too few issues to take full advantage of the cathartic properties but a walk for a mile or two in either direction while only meeting a handful of people allowed plenty of time for thinking.

I remember working at my summer job in the golf course club house and seeing the Apollo rocket lift off and then the boss barking at us to get back to work. While the astronauts were starting their 60 orbits and 240,000-mile journey to the moon, I was working my last day before going home, sleeping, and putting the finishing touches on the vacation packing.

To get to Maine was a process of deciding what to take without overloading the family Chevy; all five of us and our stuff had to fit, allowing for our comfort over an 8-hour drive. We were traveling into the unknown; we had never before stayed in a tiny Maine beach house.

The journey was smooth but cramped and we were delighted by the sight of the cute red cottage and the chance to stretch our legs, the drive made longer by the excitement of anticipation. The entrance door opened into the tiniest of foyers and immediately into the galley kitchen with a counter open to a small dining room that transitioned into a Lilliputian living room, a fireplace anchoring the far end. On one side of the knotty pine-paneled room was a large window that displayed the ocean and dunes as a neatly detailed picture. On the small table, just to the side of the window, a tiny black and white television set with rabbit ear antennae stared back at us. I didn't recall ever seeing TV sets that small but we were on vacation in Maine so network programming wasn't the foremost thing on our minds.

Sparse technology in either the kitchen or the bathroom would be more of a problem. I recall being relieved because I knew that this rustic retreat at least had something to view the lunar landing, not sure what exactly that viewing would be.

At some point, that Maine television was finally turned on and after seeing the reassuring TV spokesman, Walter Cronkite, at his table explaining things with a collection of plastic models, we settled back for what we thought would be an exciting evening of watching men finally walk on the moon.

Nobody had told us until Walter confided that we would not "see" the landing and that once the craft touched down, the astronauts would sleep for six hours before actually getting out and walking around. We thought that this would be just like Flash Gordon. The rocket touches down, they turn off the engine, open the door, scramble down the ladder, and with space guns pointing in several directions, they take a look around.

What we really got was different by huge measures. On the screen was this gray drawing of nothing, really, sometimes a vague shot of the Lunar Excursion Module (LM) with its spidery legs and other times dotted flight lines showing where they came from. These shadowy drawings were presented with a soundtrack of the radio transmissions from Houston to the LM, now descending to the lunar surface from 60 nautical miles above. For all we knew, these crude clever artworks were probably gray on color TV sets and why in the world do you use nautical miles in space?

               The transmission went exactly like this:

CC:       That's affirmative.

LMP:     Like - AGS to PGNS align.  Over.

CC:       Say again?

LMP:     Like an AGS to PGNS align.  Over
CC:       Roger. We're standing by for it.

LMP:   ...quantity...

CC:     Eagle, Houston. You are STAY for T2.  Over.

CC:     Correction, you're  -  -

LMP:   Roger.  STAY for T2. We thank you.

CC:     Roger, Sir.

CC:     Tranquility Base, Houston. We recommend you exit P12.  Over.

CDR:  Hey, Houston, that may have seemed like a very long final phase. The AUTO targeting was taking us right into a football-field size - football-field sized crater, with a large number of big boulders and rocks for about... one or two crater diameters around it, and it required a ... in P66 and flying manually over the rock field to find a reasonably good area.

CC:     Roger. We copy. It was beautiful from here, Tranquility. Over.

LMP:   We'll get to the details of what's around here, but it looks like a collection of just about every variety of shape, angularity, granularity, about every variety of rock you could find. The colors  -  Well, it varies pretty much depending on how you're looking relative to the zero-phase point. There doesn't appear to be too much of a general color at all. However, it looks as though some of the rocks and boulders, of which there are quite a few in the near area, it looks as though they're going to have some interesting colors to them.  Over.

CC:     Roger.  Copy.  Sounds good to us, Tranquility. We'll let you press on through the simulated countdown, and we'll talk to you later.  Over.

CDR:  Roger.

           The techno-geek speech was exciting. We were listening to conversations that we had no idea what was being said and, in that moment, wrapped up in probably the most dramatic exploration experience since Columbus clanked ashore wearing equipment as heavy as these astronauts. This was about as exhilarating as it could get. In comparison, none of the networks were there on San Salvador Island in the Caribbean to interview Columbus and he had no ability to twitter anyone so we'll be left guessing as to what really happened.

That touchdown was stunning and exciting, a lot like few other moments that just we supposed couldn't be happening, similar to beating the Russian hockey team in 1980 with Al Michaels screaming into the microphone.

Back on the moon, our guys assured us that there were no little green men and no evidence of any green cheese anywhere; we were staring out at what was called "magnificent desolation" and the endless expanses of gray, with dots of distant craters and boulders was fascinating, especially to all those viewers who thought a trip to a Maine beach was a big deal. This was heady stuff. The next day 60 percent of the world news coverage concerned the landing.

The first day, we were treated to cartoon pictures and plastic models juggled by Cronkite, a bit like Andy playing with Woody and Buzz Lightyear and we were entranced. The promise of more than that type of viewing brought us back the next day when the astronauts would actually leave the vehicle on the first ever, Extra Vehicular Activity- EVA. They took hours to get dressed, longer than your high school prom date, but Armstrong eventually made it down the ladder to plant his paw print and we were riveted, watching all this unfold.

The first descriptions satisfied years of pent-up curiosity and at about the 28th gray rock being described probably 30 percent of that world audience went back to the killing and famines and whatever the particular horror the day was and rest of us continued be frozen in front of the tube.
I imagined that people were sitting in front of their sets like it was fourth down and inches, yelling at the coach to go for it; just pick up the damn rocks. What if something weird like a solar flare up or that monster-in-the-sand's fin could be seen? They would have had to scramble back up the ladder, get back in the LM, blast off and get out of there with having anything to bring back.

That weekend, I walked the extremely wide expanses of the beach, trying to wrap my mind around what had just happened, looking for different shades of sea glass and shells, occasionally popping them into a pocket, eventually discarding the first pretty ones for even more pretty ones. I had some ideas in back of my head what I would do with  them when I got back to New Jersey but they were rather vague plans, easily discarded a day after returning from vacation, when my attention was recaptured by the daily routine of working and living day to day.  Eventually those highly- regarded-at-the-time objects would be located in a forgotten part of the rock garden. Where those shells were forty years later, I couldn't tell you. That was another parallel I had with Neil and Buzz. 

*Strontium determination made by the mass spectrometric isotope dilution method” – a more technical reference to the special method developed by Dr. Gast describing the technique of identifying isotopes.

Note: Dr. Gast later ascended into NASA heaven in Houston as he assumed leadership of the geo-science management of the Manned Spacecraft Center in preparation for the Apollo Mission as chief scientist of the Apollo Lunar Science Staff.

The Forbes Museum on 5th and 13th Street has been downsized since 2010. It was full of amazing items. For some reason, they chose to take some of the most fascinating items out of the museum, as of this post in May, 2015.

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