CofC geology professor Cassandra Runyon might not be an astronaut, but she has some serious NASA bonafides.

Affiliated with NASA since she did an internship at Johnson Space Center in Houston in 1987 and a subsequent postdoctoral fellowship there, she is currently the director of South Carolina’s NASA Space Grant Consortium, which is comprised of 13 higher-education institutions that encourage participation in NASA-related research and exploration activities. Two years ago for the total solar eclipse of the sun, she co-designed a NASA-funded tactile book so visually impaired people could feel the surface of the moon. With the 50th anniversary of the moon landing of Apollo 11 occurring on Saturday, July 20, 2019, The College Today caught up with Runyon to get her thoughts on the historic event.

An Apollo 11 crew member on the surface of the moon in 1969.

An Apollo 11 crew member on the surface of the moon in 1969.

Tell us a little bit about how you first became interested in the first moon landing and how it influenced you.

I was camping with my mom, dad and my brother in Belgium when the first moon landing occurred. We didn’t have a TV, so we listened to the scratchy broadcast on a radio. By the descriptions of all of the broadcasters, we had to envision the surface ourselves and imagine what was actually going on. And, of course, my curiosity was not satisfied at that time, so once I returned back to the States and learned more, I knew that’s exactly what I wanted to try to do – be an astronaut and go to the moon.

You didn’t become an astronaut but perhaps the next best thing – a planetary geologist.

That’s correct, and through my training as a grad student doing a postdoc, I got to work at Johnson Space Center side-by-side with a lot of the astronauts and study the lunar rocks to figure out how the surface of the moon formed and how it’s been evolving over time. The Apollo 11 astronauts brought back about 43 pounds of lunar rocks, and now there are about 850 pounds there. Most of them are in storage for future use. They are national treasures, and this gives us a chance to be able to continue studying them as technology advances.

The astronauts were really just glorified geologists in many ways, weren’t they?

There was only one official geologist, Jack Schmitt, who flew on [NASA lunar missions] Apollo 17 [in 1972]. The others were mostly test pilots or Air Force pilots who got a lot of training in the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico so that they could learn to identify rocks and describe the rocks and their prominence, and how they were located. They took pictures of them so that we knew exactly what their orientation was on the lunar surface before they picked them up and sealed them away because weathering is a big thing. We wanted to know what the top was versus the bottom and what the interface was between the surface and the rock itself.

Geology professor Cassandra Runyon.

Geology professor Cassandra Runyon.

What did we learn from those rocks?

The moon is more similar to the Earth than we first thought, and the results from studying the rocks helped feed into the models for the early Earth-moon formation. We also learned a lot about space weathering. Solar winds implant photons that help to break down the rock samples, the mineral structure itself. They kind of pit it because there’s no weather or atmosphere on the moon, so they really give us a good insight into the early Earth when it first formed before we had an atmosphere and running water.

Does the 50th anniversary of the first landing bring back any memories of that camping trip with your parents in Belgium?

Yes, definitely. Since my parents and my brother are all now gone, it’s just like happy memories thinking about us camping there and talking about what we were hearing and describing to each other what we thought the lunar surface was like. I’ve got some good friends that work at Arizona State University in image processing and they’ve actually got really high resolution cameras in orbit around the moon right now, so they’re able to take that old Apollo footage and add to it some of their more recent high-resolution images so that we’re really seeing a good clear picture of the lunar surface. The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, or LROC, is still in orbit around the moon.

Was Apollo 11 really worth it from a science point of view or was it more political, i.e., beating the Soviet Union there?

It started off as a technology feat to beat the Russians in the Cold War. Science was kind of added in last, but once we started learning more and more about the lunar surface, then science became a driver for some of the landing sites. But simple human curiosity was also a factor. We all want to explore and keep on going.

We also developed a fair amount of technology out of it, didn’t we?

The cell phones we’re talking on right now, data characterization, data storage, material science. Heck, even the Dustbuster came out of it. They had to find some way to manage the lunar dust after walking on the surface and coming back into the command module.

Who knew the Dustbuster came out of it? Any other technology?

Computing advances were a big thing. We’ve gone from giant rooms full of processors to these little microchips now, as well as lighter alloys, fuel cells and batteries. There are thousands of spin offs, including those memory-foam mattresses. They were originally designed for the seats so they could be more cushioned.

Should we go back to the moon?

Definitely. There’s so much more to learn. We only visited six different sites about the size from Houston to Arkansas. If all we did was visited that area here on Earth, we wouldn’t know anything about the oceans or the Rockies. Who knows what we could find? We can learn so much from the moon than traveling six months to Mars. Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to do that, too, but not at the expense of exploring more of our closest neighbor.