The Last Man to Walk on the Moon Passes into History

R.I.P. Gene Cernan: Moon Explorer

Moon

Captain Gene Certan at a memorial for his friend and colleague Neil Armtrong in 2012.

Today’s news that astronaut Andrew Eugene “Gene” Cernan died came just as I was finishing reading the book Fallen Astronauts. It’s the story of the astronauts and cosmonauts who died from the beginning of the Space Age up until the end of the Apollo missions. Captain Cernan was involved with the authors as they researched and wrote the book and penned a lovely introduction to the work. It is a finely detailed book that I recommend to any fans of space exploration history, particularly the early days.

Captain Cernan was a hero in his own right, taking trips into space on Gemini and Apollo missions. It was on Apollo 17 that he realized the immensity of the U.S. cancelling its moon flight programs, and he spoke movingly of his being the last man to stand on the lunar surface. He later wrote a book called “The Last Man on the Moon”, which was turned into a documentary.

I met Captain Cernan a few times at conferences, and enjoyed talking with him. He always was a kind man. Very polite and willing to talk about his experiences. we once shared a limo ride to a conference, and I  remember sitting there wondering what to ask him without sounding like a space fangrrrl.  Finally, I settled on asking him how it felt to be on the Moon that first night on Apollo 17. He laughed and said that he couldn’t get to sleep; he kept looking out the window of the lander.  He mentioned how excited they both were, and that he’d never forgotten that sense of adventure.

He and Harrison Schmitt spent 22 hours on the lunar surface, collecting rocks and exploring the valley where they landed. One of his most evocative images was one of our home planet hanging blue and white above the gray lunar landscape. It spoke volumes about his perception of our home in space and the enormous steps he and others took to explore the Moon.

It’s with great sadness we salute Captain Cernan’s passing. He is among the dwindling few men who focused our attention on the early days of lunar exploration. I sincerely hope that he will not remain the “last man on the Moon” for long.

R.I.P. Dr. Vera Rubin

The Woman Who Found Dark Matter

vera rubin

Vera Rubin

As I write this, reports are spreading rapidly through the astronomy community of the death of Dr. Vera Rubin on December 25, 2016. If you don’t know who she was, or what she worked on, come sit by me and let me tell you a story about this lady.

Remembering Vera Rubin

It was at one of the first meetings of the American Astronomical Society I attended. I was a graduate student and giving a talk about outreach and amateur astronomy. I was scared to death because, hey, it was me, a lowly student giving a talk to all these exalted astronomers. A woman sat in the front row and smiled at me as I shuffled the papers on the podium. The room filled and then the session chair gave me the signal that my 10 minutes had started. I plunged into my talk.

At the end, a few people asked questions, everyone clapped politely, and the next person stepped up to the podium. I fled the room to catch my breath. The woman followed me out and asked if I’d like to get a cup of coffee. At the same moment my advisor came out and said, “Oh, I see you’ve met Vera Rubin”, and he proceeded to introduce me to her before being collared by someone else for a chat. Dr. Rubin and I went to get coffee, and for the next 30 minutes or so she asked me all about my work and what I hoped to do when I graduated. It was a wonderful experience.

Over the years we met here and there, and I learned more about her work with galaxy rotation studies and the existence of dark matter. I found it fascinating, as so many people do, and followed her research with interest. When I was asked to write a book about astronomy, one of the directions I got from the editors was to include some bios of “seminal” astronomers. Dr. Rubin was one of those I chose. In retrospect, I wish could have done a book on her work instead of simply a chapter.

In the Hall of Giants

I know that Vera Rubin didn’t work in a vacuum on dark matter — that, like Newton and every other astronomer has done — she stood on the shoulders of giants. Her work forged a new path in understanding dark matter and its affect on the universe. Now, she is a giant in her own right. Now, others will stand on her shoulders. Her insights and drive to understand the difficult “galaxy rotation problem” led directly to the theory of dark matter, and more recently to the confirming observations of its existence. It was a monumental achievement.

For her work, Dr. Rubin should have received a Nobel Prize. That didn’t happen and the Nobel physics committee should be thinking hard about why she was overlooked.  She has been honored with many other prizes and awards for her insights, and she will be long remembered for her seminal contributions to astronomy.

RIP Dr. Vera Rubin, and deepest condolences to her extended family.