In Md., NASA scientists look back — and forward — on 50th anniversary of moon landing

July is “moon madness month” at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said spokeswoman Lonnie Shekhtman. That’s the case both for the center’s public-facing role and in the laboratories on the massive campus in Greenbelt, Maryland: Visitors are flocking to the center in advance of the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, on Saturday. Meanwhile, scientists are due for delivery of previously unopened Moon rocks from the six Apollo missions that reached the moon, which lasted from 1969 to 1972.

The moon landing has fallen out of the popular imagination, but at Goddard it retains a hold not only on the workers’ imaginations but on their work: Natalie Curran, a geologist born after the last moon landing, is excited about the knowledge that will come from the new rocks; meanwhile, Noah Petro, one of the scientists responsible for the orbiter circling the moon right now, is carrying on his father’s work on the first moon mission — and wants to make sure Goddard gets its share of recognition for its role in the 1969 achievement.

Both scientists spoke with WTOP about their experiences, what we learn from the moon, and why it’s important to go back.

Cream of mushroom soup?

Noah Petro, 40, is a project scientist on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which launched in 2009 on what was supposed to be a one-year mission but has been sending back information on the moon ever since.

When he says the urge to explore — whether over the next hill or on Mars — is in humans’ DNA, it’s especially in his. His father, Dennis Petro, was an engineer with a contractor who built the spacesuits for the Apollo 11 mission that was the first to land on the moon.

Noah Petro
Noah Petro in front of his office at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. (WTOP/Rick Massimo)

“I can confidently say I wouldn’t have gotten interested in space if not for him,” Noah Petro said.

The elder Petro’s specialization was to build the backpacks that helped keep the astronauts alive on the lunar surface, and that involved starting from scratch. There had been probes on the moon before, but for the most part the people who worked on the 1969 Apollo 11 mission didn’t even know what it was they didn’t know.

Noah Petro said one of his father’s favorite stories involved the question of what would happen if an astronaut were to throw up in a spacesuit. “’How do we test that? We’re not going to put someone in there and make them throw up.’ So they took a can of cream of mushroom soup and just poured it in there. Would it clog the vents? No; it worked.”

Petro said he and his father took road trips during his childhood to ballgames and NASA centers in the U.S., and Beatles historical sites in England, and those are his three big passions today. He toured Goddard as a kid, and has a picture of himself with a Saturn V rocket in his office. When he got interested in geology in high school, he combined it with his interest in space when he went to college. He’s been with NASA for 10 years.

With the help of the LRO, he can see the backpacks his father helped make, sitting where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left them a half-century ago. “All of the engineers etched their names in the pieces of structural metal” in the backpacks, he said. “To see his handiwork left behind,” and to work with the moon samples his dad helped bring back, he said, is “one of the most rewarding things I can imagine doing in any job.”

‘It came through Greenbelt’

Noah Petro said that Cape Canaveral, in Florida, and Mission Control, in Houston, get the most attention for being the main sites on Earth for the Apollo 11 mission, but the Goddard center should get its due as well, for two important reasons.

For one, he said, Goddard was — and still is — the communications hub for the NASA program. In 1969, that meant that all messages and data sent down from the moon were sent to whatever big-enough antenna was underneath Apollo at the time of the transmission, then sent to Goddard, then on to Houston.

“When Neil Armstrong says ‘That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,’ that communication goes down through, at the time Australia, Australia to Goddard, and then to Houston,” Petro said.

“Houston loves to take credit: The first word spoken on the moon was ‘Houston.’ Yeah, but it came through Greenbelt, Maryland.”

Petro was also proud to point out that NASA’s first geologist was based at Goddard: Paul Lowman, Petro said, was the one “who said ‘If we’re sending individuals into Earth orbit, they have to bring a camera. We need to learn about the Earth when they’re in space. It can’t just be about testing the spacecraft.’ So he worked with the astronauts on Earth observations.”

He managed the early Landsat program, which took pictures of the Earth from space, and worked with the early astronauts to get not just what Petro called “tourist pictures” of the Earth, but geologically and scientifically important images. “He was really the creator of the idea that [we should] use the Earth to understand the moon and the moon to understand the Earth.”

“I worry that the role of Goddard is forgotten,” Petro said.

‘A lazy astronaut’

Natalie Curran lays out a tray of rocks in Goddard’s Mid-Atlantic Noble Gas Research Lab and says, “in a nutshell, this is kind of the history of the solar system.”

Space rocks
A collection of space rocks and moon rocks that NASA scientist Natalie Curran calls “kind of the history of the solar system.” (WTOP/Rick Massimo)

The NASA geologist analyzes samples of moon rock, as well as meteorites and other space rocks, at NASA Goddard, and said that the delivery of new samples later this summer will be “like a new Apollo mission” for her.

The original moon missions may have faded from public memory, but the technology used on Earth to analyze the samples they brought back has advanced in leaps and bounds over the past half-century.

The computers used on the 1969 Apollo 11 Moon mission didn’t have the combined power of a smartphone, she said, and, for example, it wasn’t until 2008 that the presence of water on the moon was determined by analyzing moon rock that had been brought back by the Apollo missions decades before (and later confirmed by the LRO).

Curran and her colleagues examine the rocks to find out about the moon, which teaches them about the Earth. Because the moon is the closest planet to Earth, the bombardment both planets endured from meteors billions of years ago is similar. But on Earth, weather, erosion and movement of the tectonic plates have wiped out most of that history; on the moon, it’s all still there.

“And this kind of information has ramifications for [the question of] when did life start of Earth,” Curran said.

Curran grew up in the U.K., and humans had left the moon for the last time well before she was born. But space travel has always fascinated her. “Every time I look at an Apollo movie, or a video of a moon landing, I get goose bumps,” she said. As a kid, she wanted to be an astronaut. “That obviously didn’t happen, so now I’m kind of like a lazy astronaut: The rocks come to me.”

Natalie Curran
“I’m kind of like a lazy astronaut” — Natalie Curran, in the Mid-Atlantic Noble Gas Research Lab at NASA Goddard. (WTOP/Rick Massimo)

Going back

Petro is also part of the Artemis program, which NASA unveiled in May and seeks to return humans to the moon surface in 2024. And while you could take a been-there, done-that attitude toward the moon, he said there’s a lot of value to the mission.

For one thing, previous missions have, so to speak, barely scratched the surface of the moon: Humans have only spent about 80 hours on the moon, in six locations, and as Petro said, no one would claim to be an expert on Washington, D.C., with such limited experience. And while rovers and orbiters have been valuable, humans can bring back many more rocks from many different places. Soviet rovers on the Moon, Petro pointed out, collected about the same amount of rock in weeks as NASA astronauts gathered in days.

But Petro is also proud to cite the human element. Artemis will put the first woman on the moon, and have a more diverse crew than NASA had in 1972. And putting humans on the moon rather than rovers and probes “becomes more inspirational.”

“There’s a cool factor … but there’s also the fact that that person is normal, just like you and me. They were able to navigate their career to do something really amazing. To me, that’s very inspiring.”

Noah Petro keeps this button on his ID necklace at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. (WTOP/Rick Massimo)

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In this July 16, 1969 photo made available by NASA, the 363-feet Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 11 crew, launches from Pad A, Launch Complex 39, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (NASA via AP) (AP)
In this July 20, 1969 image made from television, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong steps onto the surface of the moon. Millions on Earth who gathered around the TV and radio heard Armstrong say this: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” But after returning from space, he immediately insisted that he had been misquoted. He said there was a lost word in his famous one-liner from the moon: “That’s one small step for ‘a’ man.” It’s just that people just didn’t hear it.” (NASA via AP) (AP)
This July 1969 photo from NASA shows Flight Activities Officer Spencer Gardner, first row fourth from right, with members of the Apollo 11 White Team, handling descent and landing, in the Mission Operation Control Room in Houston, shortly after the mission. Barely 26, Gardner was one of the youngest flight controllers on duty when the Eagle settled onto the Sea of Tranquility with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on July 20, 1969. (AP)
In this July 16, 1969 photo provided by NASA, JoAnn Morgan watches from the launch firing room during the launch of Apollo 11 in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Morgan, who worked on the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, went on to become the Kennedy Space Center’s first female senior executive. She retired in 2003. (NASA via AP) (AP)
Neil Armstrong, Edwin Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins
In this July 27, 1969, photo, Apollo 11 crew members, from left, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins sit inside a quarantine van in Houston. (AP Photo) (AP/Anonymous)
In this July 21, 1969 photo made available by NASA, the Apollo 11 Lunar Module ascent stage, carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, approaches the Command and Service Modules for docking in lunar orbit. Astronaut Michael Collins remained with the CSM in lunar orbit while the other two crewmen explored the moon’s surface. In the background the Earth rises above the lunar horizon. (Michael Collins/NASA via AP) (AP/Michael Collins)
In this July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA, astronaut Buzz Aldrin Jr. stands next to the Passive Seismic Experiment device on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. (Neil Armstrong/NASA via AP) (AP/Neil Armstrong)
In this July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA, the Apollo 11 Lunar Module undocks from the Command Module on its way to the surface of the moon. (Michael Collins/NASA via AP) (AP/Michael Collins)
In this July 21, 1969 photo made available by NASA, astronaut Neil Armstrong, Apollo 11 commander, sits inside the Lunar Module after he and Buzz Aldrin completed their extravehicular activity on the surface of the moon. (Buzz Aldrin/NASA via AP) (AP/Buzz Aldrin)
In this July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA, astronaut Buzz Aldrin Jr. descends a ladder from the Lunar Module during the Apollo 11 mission. (Neil Armstrong/NASA via AP) (AP/Neil Armstrong)
AP/Neil Armstrong
In this July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA, astronaut Buzz Aldrin Jr. poses for a photograph beside the U.S. flag on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. Aldrin and fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong were the first men to walk on the lunar surface with temperatures ranging from 243 degrees above to 279 degrees below zero. Astronaut Michael Collins flew the command module. (Neil Armstrong/NASA via AP) (AP/Neil Armstrong)
This July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA shows Buzz Aldrin’s boot and bootprint during a test of the lunar soil during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity. (Buzz Aldrin/NASA via AP) (AP/Buzz Aldrin)
In this July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, walks on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity. (Neil Armstrong/NASA via AP) (AP/Neil Armstrong)
In this July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin works on a solar wind experiment device on the surface of the moon. (Neil Armstrong/NASA via AP) (AP/Neil Armstrong)
In this July 16, 1969 file photo, people watch the Apollo 11 Saturn V rocket launch on multiple TV’s at a Sears department store in White Plains, N.Y. (AP Photo/Ron Frehm, File) (AP/Ron Frehm)
In this July 20, 1969 image made from television, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, right, trudges across the surface of the moon leaving behind footprints. The U.S. flag, planted on the surface by the astronauts, can be seen between Armstrong and the lunar module. Edwin E. Aldrin is seen closer to the craft. The men reported the surface of the moon was like soft sand and they left footprints several inches deep wherever they walked. (NASA via AP) (AP)
This July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA shows Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin in the Lunar Module cabin during the translunar coast. (Neil Armstrong/NASA via AP) (AP)
This July 1969 photo provided by NASA shows launch controllers in the firing room at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida during the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. In the third row from foreground at center is JoAnn Morgan, the first female launch controller. “I was there. I wasn’t going anywhere. I had a real passion for it,” Morgan said in a July 2019 interview. “Finally, 99 percent of them accepted that ‘JoAnn’s here and we’re stuck with her.’ ” (NASA via AP) (AP)
Andy Aldrin
In this July 20, 1969 file photo, Andy Aldrin, 10, sits on a pile of cordwood in the backyard of his home in Houston while other members of his family listen to the reports of the progress of the Apollo II lunar module carrying his father, Col. Buzz Aldrin and fellow astronaut Neil Armstrong to a landing on the moon. (AP Photo) (AP/Anonymous)
This July 16, 1969 photo made available by NASA shows the Earth as the Apollo 11 mission heads to the moon. (NASA via AP) (AP)
This July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA shows crater Daedalus and Daedalus B, center left, during the Apollo 11 mission to reach the surface of the moon. (NASA via AP) (AP)
In this July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin works on a solar wind experiment device on the surface of the moon. (Neil Armstrong/NASA via AP) (AP/Neil Armstrong)
In this July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA, flight controllers work in the Mission Operations Control Room in the Mission Control Center during the Apollo 11 lunar extravehicular activity. The television monitor shows astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon. (NASA via AP) (AP)
This March 30, 1969 photo made available by NASA shows the crew of the Apollo 11, from left, Neil Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, module pilot; Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, lunar module pilot. Apollo 11 was the first manned mission to the surface of the moon. (NASA via AP) (AP)
In this July 21, 1969 file photo, U.S. Air Force Sgt. Michael Chivaris, Clinton, Mass.; Army Spec. 4 Andrew Hutchins, Middlebury, Vt.; Air Force Sgt. John Whalin, Indianapolis, Ind.; and Army Spec. 4 Lloyd Newton, Roseburg, Ore., read a newspaper headlining the Apollo 11 moon landing, in downtown Saigon, Vietnam. (AP Photo/Hugh Van Es) (AP/HUGH VAN ES)
In this July 24, 1969 photo from the U.S. Navy, Navy UDT swimmer Clancy Hatleberg prepares to jump from a helicopter into the water next to the Apollo 11 capsule after it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, to assist the astronauts into the raft at right. (Milt Putnam/U.S. Navy via AP) (AP/Milt Putnam)
This July 20, 1969 photo made available by NASA shows pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin in the Apollo 11 Lunar Module. (Neil Armstrong/NASA via AP) (AP/Neil Armstrong)
In this July 24, 1969 photo made available by NASA, flight controllers at the Mission Operations Control Room in the Mission Control Center at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, celebrate the successful conclusion of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. (NASA via AP) (AP)
In this July 24, 1969 photo from the U.S. Navy, Navy UDT swimmer Clancy Hatleberg prepares to jump from a helicopter into the water next to the Apollo 11 capsule after it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, to assist the astronauts into the raft at right. (Milt Putnam/U.S. Navy via AP) (AP/Milt Putnam)
AP: 735abd50-637d-4e3e-81b1-7c44d4190125
In this July 20, 1969 file photo provided by NASA shows Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, the first men to land on the moon, plant the U.S. flag on the lunar surface. Armstrong commanded the Apollo 11 spacecraft that landed on the moon July 20, 1969. He radioed back to Earth the historic news of “one giant leap for mankind.” Armstrong and fellow astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin spent nearly three hours walking on the moon, collecting samples, conducting experiments and taking photographs. (AP Photo/NASA) (AP)
In this July 24, 1969 photo, the Apollo 11 command module lands in the Pacific Ocean and the crew waits to be picked up by U.S. Navy personnel after an eight day mission to the moon. The Apollo 11 command module, which traveled more than 950,000 miles to take Americans to the moon and back in 1969, is going on a road trip, leaving the Smithsonian for the first time in more than four decades. (AP Photo, File)
Watchf Associated Press Domestic News At Sea APHS57005 PRESIDENT NIXON - APOLLO 11 ASTRONAUTS
In this July 24, 1969 photo, President Richard Nixon gives an “OK” sign as he greets Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin in a quarantine van aboard the USS Hornet after splashdown and recovery in the Pacific Ocean. (AP Photo) (AP)
Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong
In this Aug. 13, 1969 photo, people line 42nd Street in New York to cheer Apollo 11 astronauts, in lead car from left, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins and Neil Armstrong, traveling east on 42nd street, toward the United Nations. (AP Photo/File) (AP)
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Neil Armstrong, Edwin Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins
AP/Neil Armstrong
Andy Aldrin
AP: 735abd50-637d-4e3e-81b1-7c44d4190125
Watchf Associated Press Domestic News At Sea APHS57005 PRESIDENT NIXON - APOLLO 11 ASTRONAUTS
Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong

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