Fiat Small Steps and Giant Leaps

This weekend marked the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong taking “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Once on the lunar surface, he and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin planted our nation’s flag on the Sea of Tranquility. As one contemporaneous and notable news report eloquently put it “the moon, long the symbol of the impossible and the inaccessible, was now within humanity’s reach, the first port of call in this new age of spacefaring.”

Among the many tasks of astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin was the collection of lunar soil taken from the surface to assist scientists in determining, among other things, the moon’s origin and history. Once the samples were brought back to earth, scientists were surprised to discover  they contained many small fragments  of glass. That bit of news caught the attention of David Pye ’59, ’68 Ph.D., then a new faculty member in Alfred University’s glass science program, and moved him to reach out to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

As David recalls, he and several Alfred University colleagues (Harrie Stevens ’65, Charles Greene, Van Derck Frechette, Wayne Brownell,  Herbert Kay, and Daniel Rase ’50, ’51 MS) persuaded NASA to send a packet of Apollo 12 lunar  soil to our campus for analysis.

According to David, the team was provided only with a few grams  from which they extracted a few – mostly spherical  particles  of glass – a fraction of millimeters in size. The team then carried out experiments to determine the rate at which these  samples cooled from their original liquid state, i.e, their thermal history. By heating these particles and measuring density changes after cooling to room temperature, they expected to learn whether lunar glass was formed by rapid cooling from volcanic activity or some other process. Their findings indicated that the glass had been formed mostly through meteoroid impact. The research project led to professors Greene, Stevens, and Pye presenting their findings the following year at the 2nd Lunar Science Conference held in Houston, Texas.

The investigation of the lunar glass led to a landmark conference on Natural Glasses held at our University in 1983 that brought together a diverse group of planetary scientists from around the globe. During  the team’s initial work, Alfred University recruited Bill LaCourse  and at a later date additional glass faculty including  Jim Shelby, Arun Varshneya and Alexis Clare joined Alfred. They then went on to win a national competition to establish a National Science Foundation Industry-University Center for Glass Research on our campus; convened conferences on glass research around the world; founded an international journal on glass science and engineering, The Glass Researcher and, most significantly, launched what is still the only doctoral program in glass science in the United States. To date, our glass science doctoral program has produced nearly three dozen graduates who are now employed in industry, higher education, and government.

Here at Alfred University we regularly see our students, faculty, staff, and alumni doing things that are “Outside of Ordinary.” However, the small steps our glass researchers initially took in the lab with respect to the Apollo 12 moon rocks and then the giant leaps beyond have been truly out of this world and extraordinary.

Fiat small steps and giant leaps!

P.S. Less well known, but certainly important for ruling out some other theories posited historically about the moon’s composition, our researchers also found no traces of asiago, gruyere, or and/or stilton in the lunar soil samples that they analyzed.