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Mon Aug 17 19:48:58 PDT 2020

Volume XXVII, Issue 50


Table of Contents

1. Brian O’Brien: From the Earth to the Moon


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Brian O’Brien: From the Earth to the Moon

From: Rick Chappell, Jim Burch, Patricia Reiff and Jackie Reasoner (rick.chappell at vanderbilt.edu)

Dr. Brian J. O’Brien, a space scientist whose career spanned the entire history of space exploration, died in Australia on August 7, 2020 at the age of 86.  His space instruments were carried on spacecraft ranging from the original Explorer missions to the lunar landings and his scientific contributions covered a period of more than 60 years.

Brian was born in Australia and had the natural curiosity, motivation, creativity, perseverance and determination that underpin the personalities of those who choose to become scientists and to understand the world and the universe around them.  Brian’s early scientific adventures began below the surface of the Earth where he began to explore underground caves in Australia.  His curiosity led him to uncharted caves.  As a 19 year old explorer, he once became lost in a cave alone and had scratched out his will on the rock wall beside him before being found more than 3 days later.  His determination in this early exploring was an annealing experience that established his life of exploring to understand places that humankind had never been before.

Brian graduated in Physics from the University of Sydney in 1954 and received his PhD in Physics there in 1957.  The dawning of the space program in the late 1950’s captured his curiosity and he and his wife, Avril, moved to the University of Iowa to work with Professor James Van Allen on the early Explorer satellites as an Assistant then Associate Professor.  This experience honed his skills in spacecraft technology and his interests moved to lower energy particles shifting from the MeV energies of the early Geiger counters on the Explorers to the KeV energies of the precipitating particles that caused the aurora.

The growth of interest in space exploration led to the creation of the Space Science department at Rice University and Brian became a Professor in the new department beginning in 1963.  His expertise in instruments and satellites led to multiple missions ranging from the Twins sounding rockets from Fort Churchill to the Aurora 1 satellite.  These missions involved his new graduate students, Jim Burch, Larry Westerlund, Rick Chappell, David Reasoner and later with David, Patricia Reiff in designing and building instruments to study the Earth’s space environment.  Brian also brought Stephen Mende, Bob Eather and Bernt Maehlum to join the group at Rice.  Brian’s creativity, motivation and persistence were passed on to his students for whom he was an outstanding teacher and mentor.  He had a great sense of humor and cared about all of his students and colleagues who became his personal friends.

With President Kennedy’s commitment of the nation to sending astronauts to the moon, Brian broadened his space interests to exploring the more distant reaches of the Earth’s magnetosphere in the geotail by pursuing the possibility of placing particle instruments on the surface of the moon on the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package, ALSEP, mission.  His success in this pursuit is illustrated by an occurrence leading up to the selection.  NASA planned a pre-proposal conference at the Manned Spacecraft Center to solicit ideas for the scientific payload.  Multiple scientists gathered in the room to talk about their ideas and concepts for the ALSEP package showing charts and sketches.  When it became Brian’s turn to speak, he reached down into his briefcase at his feet and pulled out an ion/electron instrument that had already flown successfully on his sounding rockets and Aurora 1 satellite and said, “I’d like to fly this to the moon!”  It was selected by NASA and flew on 3 missions to the moon.

As the plans and technology were developing in the ’60’s for the Apollo missions, a concern was raised by Professor Tommy Gold at Cornell about the dust on the surface of the moon and whether it was so deep that the landing spacecraft would sink into the surface.  There was evidence on both sides of the issue.  In talking with Buzz Aldrin, Brian became interested in trying to measure the amount of the pervasive dust because it could affect the operation of the instruments on the lunar surface and might compromise the safe operation of many of the technical systems including the astronaut’s equipment and the interior of the lunar lander and from it to the Command Module with which the lander would later dock after the landing.  The ALSEP package had already been accepted and was being built.  On a plane flight home after one of the ALSEP investigator meetings, Brian had an idea about how to easily measure the amount of floating dust that could be created by the astronauts activities and by the launch of the upper portion of the Lunar Excursion Module rocket when it took the astronauts back up to the orbiting Command Module.  His idea was to have a small solar cell mounted on the side of one of the instruments on the ALSEP and to measure the change in the solar cell current caused by the amount of dust that was floating around during different lunar conditions.  NASA resisted this late addition to the payload, but finally agreed.  The Lunar Dust Detectors were built and flown on Apollo 11,12,13, and 14.  The knowledge of the lunar environment that came from these detectors has been used continuously and Brian’s papers on this subject are still important.  These results were most recently used by the Chinese space program in designing their lunar rover that is on the backside of the moon and will doubtlessly be used in the design of the new spacecraft that will take Astronauts to the lunar surface as part of the Artemis program in the coming decade.  He most recently gave a talk at the Workshop on Lunar Dust and Its Impact on Human Exploration at the Lunar and Planetary Institute on February 10, 2020 at age 86.

Brian returned to Australia in 1968 and became the Director of the Environmental Protection Authority for Western Australia and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Western Australia.  He has published more than 400 papers.  He received the NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.  His favorite quote was from Isidor Rabi, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1944—“I think physicists are the Peter Pans of the human race.  They never grow up and they keep their curiosity.”

Brian O’Brien was a quintessential scientist and explorer.  His curiosity, intellect, clever creativity, and indefatigable persistence and optimism created an exciting life and an enduring legacy for his science and for those of us who had the privilege of having our careers shaped by his foresight and enthusiasm.  He will be missed, but the new knowledge that he has left us will be forever. 

Rick Chappell, Jim Burch, Patricia Reiff and Jackie Reasoner


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