When Apollo 11 landed on the moon, Emeritus Professor Ross Taylor was surprised to find his ANU experience led him to the opportunity of a lifetime.
As the world watched the telecast of Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon in 1969, one ANU scientist was watching the screen particularly closely.
“I knew I was going to be handling that dust soon, and I was hoping I’d get some clues on what to expect,” says geochemist Professor Ross Taylor.
As US President John F Kennedy’s promise to land a man on the moon looked like it was going to come true, NASA hurriedly scrambled together a team of scientists to analyse what the astronauts would bring back.
“No one had the remotest idea of what to expect. You had to be ready for absolutely anything,” Taylor – who is now Emeritus Professor at the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences – says.
Taylor had not been in the initial group assembled in the US at Houston but, when he visited the NASA labs after a conference, it became clear he knew a lot more about the equipment than any of the team.
It was almost identical to the lab he had set up eight years previously at ANU.
To his surprise, the NASA Scientific Director at Houston asked him to stay to run the lab and carry out the first spectrographic analysis of moon rock.
Despite having a half-built house in Canberra, this was an offer Taylor could not refuse.
His wife Noël, who had a science background, happily agreed to continue with the building, while he set about preparing for the unexpected.
“With emission spectroscopy you can put a tiny amount of material into the flame and quickly identify any of 70 different elements from the spectral lines they produce. But those 70 elements could produce 100,000 possible lines,” he says.
At 11.45am on 28 July, Taylor received the first samples. By 4pm, he delivered preliminary results to a press conference – significantly faster than the usual scientific process and with much more at stake.
The high-speed analysis had not been without hiccups. Taylor almost missed one of the most significant traits of the moon’s chemistry, its significantly lower sodium levels than Earth.
The moon is also rich in chromium, which has a spectral line that almost perfectly disguised the low sodium result.
Only moments before the press conference Taylor realised the mistake and corrected it.
“It would have ruined my reputation,” he says.
More detailed analysis followed during the next few weeks in the unusual environs of a high-security building sealed off to protect the world from possible toxic chemicals or extraterrestrials.
“There were elaborate quarantine procedures set up to avoid horrendous science fiction scenarios,” Taylor said.
Among armed guards, Taylor worked on samples in sealed boxes, with clumsy gloves, sometimes wearing a gas mask when the spill alarm warned of a possible quarantine break.
He often worked from 7am until 3am to deliver results to daily 4pm press conferences.
“But no one realised that the moon dust was so dry that it would stick to everything,” he recalls.
“It was all over the astronaut’s suits and throughout the capsule. It’s lucky it wasn’t dangerous because as soon as they opened the lunar module it had contaminated the Pacific Ocean.”
The launchpad for Taylor’s success was the environment created at ANU by the University’s founding fathers.
“I came here in 1961 under [Professor John Conrad] Jaeger and you had tenure automatically and enough money to buy state of the art equipment. That helped enormously.
“There was an air of excitement about the place. Everyone you met at ANU was here doing something exciting.”
Despite his successes Taylor remained firmly democratic. Former PhD student Scott McLennan, currently on the Mars Rover Team, recalls his first chat with his prospective supervisor in 1977, by long distance telephone.
Taylor took the time to ask the Masters student his opinion of a new spectrometer he was considering buying.
“Even before we met, Ross treated me as a colleague and as someone whose opinion he sought and respected, rather than just as a student or someone that was to work for him,” McLennan says.
Taylor’s involvement with the moon was not his only contribution to science. Apart from many academic awards, he was elected as a Foreign Associate of the US National Academy of Sciences in 1994 and he was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2008.
Forty years on from Apollo, at nearly 90, Taylor hasn’t changed his mind.
“You’re just as likely to make headway with a post-doc as with someone with many years of experience. You need an open system with criticism flowing both ways,” he says
“The worst thing you can have is a bunch of old guys dictating what goes on.”
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