11/08/2011 10:36 am ET | Updated Jan 08, 2012

"Thinking Our Way To The Moon"

Events of November 3, 2011

I guess it was sort of like déjà vu all over again -- just over a week after meeting astronaut Nicholas Patrick, I got another e-mail from Ryan Kobrick about an event in MIT's Aeronautical/Astronautical Engineering department. But, if anything, I was even more excited than before, because the astronaut scheduled to be at this event was David Scott, commander of the Apollo 15 mission. Hundreds of people have been to space (and I've been lucky enough to meet a few), but so far, only twelve have walked on the moon, and Mr. Scott was one of them!

People sometimes think it's weird when I say Apollo 15 is my favorite Apollo mission. Unquestionably, Apollo 8, the first time humans traveled beyond low-Earth orbit, and Apollo 11, the first landing of humans on another world, were milestones not just in aerospace history but in world history. But out of the six locations on the moon's surface visited by human beings, the Apollo 15 landing site in the Apennine Mountains is, in my eyes, the most beautiful. While the previous Apollo 11, 12 and 14 missions (I would hope you all know what happened to Apollo 13...) had landed on relatively flat terrain near the moon's equator, Apollo 15 landed in the moon's Apennine Mountains, near the edge of Hadley Rille, a canyon over a thousand feet deep. If I had the choice of visiting only one spot on the moon, I know I'd go to Hadley Rille.

I managed to get to the conference room about ten minutes early and find a seat. The first speaker was Dr. James Head, a geologist from Brown University who had trained Mr. Scott and several other astronauts in the gathering and analysis of moon rocks. (Dr. Head is quite the explorer himself, having done field research in Antarctica, on the ocean floor, and at active volcanoes!) He first joined the space program after responding to a NASA ad in a scientific catalogue that read "Our job is to think our way to the moon and back."

The focus of Dr. Head's presentation was "Science and Engineering Synergism," which sounds complicated, but really just means how engineers design vehicles and equipment to meet the needs of scientists. Science, as Dr. Head explained, is the exploration of the unknown, but engineering is needed to build the tools that make that exploration possible. In Dr. Head's case, geologists wanted to collect rock samples from the moon to learn about its history, so engineers had to design tools that would allow the astronauts to pick up samples in their thick spacesuits.

Mr. Scott was able to tell us how those innovations had actually played out on the moon's surface. While he and his colleague James Irwin had been able to explore farther than any previous mission because of their moon rover, he did have a few recommendations for the engineers in the audience about things that would have improved the mission.

First of all, the lunar module had been a little tight to live and work inside of for three days, so Mr. Scott said more room would have been nice! Second, the moon dust from their suits had gotten into the wiring of the module and caused problems, so protecting the instrumentation from dust was also important. And third, he thought that moving around on the moon and collecting the samples would have been easier with spacesuits and gloves that were more flexible. (Luckily, Ryan's boss, Dava Newman, is working on exactly that!)

After the presentation, I got to talk with Mr. Scott! At first, I was a little awed and kind of shy about introducing myself, but Professor Jeffrey Hoffman stepped in and told him that "Zoe takes pictures with every astronaut who comes to MIT." (Including, of course, Professor Hoffman himself.) Mr. Scott was happy to take a picture with me and give me my hug. (Which, for those of you counting, brings the list to 13.)

Since his colleague Mr. Irwin is sadly deceased, Mr. Scott is the only living person to have stood at Hadley Rille. I asked him if being surrounded by such overpowering natural features heightened the sense of being the only people on the entire moon. He said that they were too focused on the mission to think about being alone, but that the view was indeed stunning.

"People ask me what it was like. I tell them, if you're a skier and you go up to the top of a high mountain in the bright sun on a clear day when you can see for miles, imagine if it was ten times clearer and you could see ten times farther." (Because the moon has no atmosphere.)

Then I asked him if he ever dreamed about being back on the moon after he came home. He told me that he hadn't. I suppose when your real memories are that fantastic, no dream can compete!

I had a copy of Andrew Chaikin's book Mission Control, This is Apollo that I asked Dr. Head to sign.

"Oh no, you don't want my autograph, you want Dave's." He protested.

"Now, why wouldn't I want your autograph? You worked on Apollo all the same!" I said.

"I'll sign it if Dave does." He said.

So, very nervously, I asked Mr. Scott if he would sign my book. I didn't want to annoy him, and I know not all astronauts sign autographs. He turned out to be totally fine with it, and wrote "To Zoe: Dave Scott, Apollo 15." Dr. Head, true to his promise, then took the pen and wrote "To Zoe: See you on the moon! -James A. Head."