Paying tribute to the late Ross Taylor, the ANU professor who forever changed our understanding of the moon.

Apollo 11’s 1969 moon landing was an out of this world event that stopped the planet. With Neil Armstrong’s famous first step and footprint in the dust, humanity had finally reached another world. It opened the potential for us all to reach for the stars.

However, at the heart of this story is a less assuming but just as important character – the late Emeritus Professor Stuart “Ross” Taylor; a geochemist who, while not as famous as those Apollo 11 astronauts, played just as an important part in our understanding of our closest heavenly neighbour.

Emeritus Professor Ross Taylor. Photo: Lannon Harley/ANU

Ross was the first person to analyse rocks from the moon brought back by Apollo 11 – chosen for the job especially by NASA. He also has a long and storied history with ANU. He was the pioneer of lunar science – helping debunk the myth that the moon landing was a hoax in the process. He put ANU earth sciences on the map. 

NASA chose him for good reason. Ross was a brilliant geochemist and planetary scientist. He was world-renowned for his work using spectrochemical analysis – a way of determining what makes up materials based on the light emitted from them.

While he was visiting Houston for a conference, NASA learnt he was in town. They moved quickly, convincing him to stay and build a lab to analyse potential lunar samples. They were getting ready to launch the new lab as JFK’s race to the moon turned rapidly from dream to reality. The lab he built was based on the one he had established at ANU. Apparently, Ross was the only one who knew how to work the machines NASA had bought. 

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their famous first lunar steps on 20 July 1969. The rocks splashed down with them off the coast of Hawaii on 24 July. Four days later they were in Ross’ hands.

Analysing those first samples was a Herculean task. It involved sifting through more than 100,000 lines of spectral patterns. Ross received the first samples at 11.45am on 28 July. In three hours, he was ready to pronounce to a media scrum and the waiting world just what was in those rocks. It wasn’t cheese and the rest is history

Ross went on to analyse lunar rock samples for NASA for another two decades, also examining materials brought back by the Apollo 12 mission. The job – so important and incredibly complex – never phased him. Speaking to The Canberra Times on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing he said analysing the first samples was a “two out of 10” in terms of tension.

So seminal was Ross’ work that in 2019 NASA gifted him a flag specifically flown to the moon and back to mark his amazing contribution to the Apollo 11 mission as well as our fundamental understanding of space and our solar system ever since.

Sadly, Ross’ incredible story came to an end earlier this month. He passed away on Sunday 23 May. He was 95. He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Noël, who he met at Oxford, his daughters Judith, Susanna and Helen, grandson Angelo and son-in-law Michael.

Ross was a giant of Australian science – not only helping us better understand the moon but also the formation of our solar system. Ross’ work was also instrumental in our understanding of how Earth’s continental crust formed. He was a world-recognised expert in geochemistry. His work is published in over 240 papers and in nine books. He was a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, was made a companion of the Order of Australia in 2008, and won a bagful of medals and awards from a number of learned societies.

He even has an asteroid named after him – 5670 Rosstaylor. He is forever circling us.

Ross was also incredibly humble. His former students and colleagues remember him fondly as being democratic and inclusive – always taking the time to get their views and insights on the work he and they were undertaking.

Like his celebrated scientific career, Ross’ personal life was varied and rich. He was born in Ashburton, New Zealand in 1925. He graduated from the then University of New Zealand, and then moved to the US to complete his PhD at Indiana University. He soon took up a role at Oxford, before joining ANU and then heading off to NASA. Ross remained a professorial fellow in the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences for the remainder of his career. 

ANU and NASA were lucky to count Ross among their ranks. Australia, the US and the world have greatly advanced from his incredible scientific contributions. He leaves a remarkable legacy, and we are in his debt.

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