Sampling Space: Roald Fryxell and NASA’s Apollo Program

On July 16, 1969, just after half past nine in the morning, a Saturn V rocket was launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It was powering the Apollo 11 mission, destined for the moon.

It was a heady time for the American space program. The space race against the Soviet Union was raging, and Apollo 11 had the goal of putting the first men on the moon. When the lunar module Eagle landed four days later, on July 20, Americans heaved a collective sigh of relief. There was jubilation when astronaut Neil Armstrong announced, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Eagle had touched down on smooth, relatively level terrain, known as the Sea of Tranquility. Even more exciting was Armstrong’s first step out of the spacecraft, onto the moon. He remarked, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” and quickly noted that the surface was “fine and powdery.” That was news to scientists back on earth. One of those scientists was Roald Fryxell.

Fryxell was born February 18, 1934, in Moline, Illinois. He completed his undergraduate degree in geology at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, in 1956. He went on to do graduate studies at Washington State University and received a Ph.D. degree in geology from the University of Idaho in 1971.

Roald Fryxell, 1967. 
Box 49, Roald Fryxell papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Fryxell’s expertise was geochronology – the branch of geology focused on dating rock formations and geological events. He was part of NASA’s Preliminary Examination Team (PET) that was tasked with studying core samples of the moon.

While the astronauts were out of the Eagle and on the lunar surface only a little more than 2 hours, they spent part of that time using a drive-tube core sampler designed by Fryxell. With it, they collected samples three quarters of an inch in diameter and about one foot in length. When the astronauts returned to earth on July 24, Fryxell and the PET team were waiting in NASA’s Lunar Receiving Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The Apollo 11 mission had collected some 50 pounds of lunar soil and rock samples.

The collection of lunar samples represented a unique scientific resource. The samples had to be carefully maintained to prevent deterioration of the material. Specially built apparatus were constructed to house the moon soil and rocks. They included enclosed chambers with nitrogen piped in to ensure that specimens weren’t degraded or contaminated by exposure to air.

NASA scientists examining a lunar sample returned by the Apollo missions.
Box 44, Roald Fryxell papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The analyses Fryxell and the PET team conducted were groundbreaking. Fryxell described the lunar drive tube core samples as “potentially the most informative samples brought to earth during the Apollo Program.” The cores shed light on the history of the moon, as well as the earth and sun. They provided evidence of the moon’s bombardment by meteors and of the flux of cosmic rays and small particles related to solar winds.

Handling the crumbly core material was tricky. Fryxell worked long hours under difficult conditions. In some cases, he patiently took each core sample apart, grain by grain. It was awkward, challenging work, made more difficult by the need to work within a nitrogen-filled glove box. In other cases, it was important to retain the stratified core layers undisturbed. Fryxell developed new techniques for treating the samples in order to retain their structural integrity. He paid close attention to the subtle layering in the samples. Layers indicated changes in the moon’s surface over time. And core sample material from the deepest part of the lunar drive tube core also provided the tantalizing prospect of offering signs of water or lunar organisms.

Apollo 14 lunar core sample, April 10, 1972. 
Box 44, Roald Fryxell papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Fryxell and the NASA team discovered that some of the lunar samples were surprisingly colorful. The photograph shown below is of a thin section of an Apollo 11 lunar sample collected at the Sea of Tranquility landing site by astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, Jr. The sample shows glass and crystals of feldspar, pyroxene and olivine as they appear under polarized light.

Image of a lunar sample used as the back cover of a program for a “Seminar on Space Exploration” at Augustana College, February 10, 1972.
Box 52, Roald Fryxell papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

After working with the Apollo 11 team, Fryxell was invited back for continued research on lunar samples. He was part of the NASA team for Apollo 12 and Apollo 14 through Apollo 17. (Apollo 13 never landed on the moon, so no samples were collected – a spacecraft malfunction led to a flyby.) Each mission brought even more lunar material to study. The Apollo 17 mission returned with core samples drilled down ten feet into the moon’s surface and nearly 250 pounds of lunar rock and soil.

Astronaut Harrison H. Schmitt using a lunar rake to collect rocks and rock chip samples during the Apollo 17 mission, December 11, 1972.
Box 43, Roald Fryxell papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Fryxell’s involvement with the Apollo program gave him a new perspective about life on Earth. While he might not have called himself an environmentalist, he warned, “We are dependent for our survival on successful adaptation to the environment. Unlike our Native American predecessors, we are very near to destroying that environment; we must learn to curb our mismanagement of it. The flights of Apollo have shown us that we have no place else to duplicate it.”

Photograph of the moon taken by the crew of Apollo 16.
Box 49, Roald Fryxell papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Beyond his work with NASA, Fryxell was also a professor of geochronology in the Department of Anthropology at Washington State University. He is remembered for his infectious enthusiasm, a natural teaching ability and his cross disciplinary expertise.

Sadly, Roald Fryxell’s life was cut short. He was killed in a car accident in 1974. In memorializing his life, he was described as “a soft-spoken, unpretentious man … a scientist who easily reduced technical jargon to layman’s terms.” His name lives on in various university scholarships established in his memory and in outer space – the moon now has a crater named Fryxell.

More details on the life and work of Roald Fryxell and the Apollo space program can be found at the American Heritage Center in the Roald Fryxell papers.

Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.


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