Q&A: Local scholar discusses her work with NASA’s latest moon mission

TALKING SPACE: Amy Fagan, left, speaks with R. Aileen Yingst, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. Photo courtesy of NASA

When speaking with her students, Amy Fagan, an associate professor of geology at Western Carolina University, often reminds them that things don’t always go according to plan.

While in graduate school at the University of Notre Dame, her initial studies focused on the impact that craters and volcanoes have on the surface of Mars. But when her adviser left the university, Fagan found new guidance from Clive Neal, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and Earth sciences. He introduced her to the study of rock compositions on the moon.

“I’d never considered the moon until I was forced to not do Mars,” Fagan says. “But it’s great, and I’ve never looked back.”

In October, Fagan participated in a NASA moonwalking test mission. After spending the summer suggesting pathways and deciding on the necessary samples and tests, she and fellow geology experts watched from Houston as astronauts followed the team’s carefully laid plan at the S P Crater, a cinder cone volcano 25 miles north of Flagstaff, Ariz.

The work is in preparation for Artemis III, which intends to land NASA astronauts on the moon’s south pole in 2025. Along with exploring previously uncharted terrain, the expedition promises to include both the first woman and the first person of color on the Earth’s natural satellite.

On Jan. 25, NASA announced its request for proposals for teams to work on the live mission. Fagan is already in the midst of filing her paperwork.

Xpress sat down with Fagan to discuss the importance of lunar geology, what happens on a test mission and the historical impact of putting a woman on the moon.

Xpress: What would you say is the biggest difference between lunar geology and the geology of Earth?

Fagan: Plate tectonics. The rocks that we have here on Earth are actually younger than what we have on the moon because they’ve mostly been destroyed and recycled by plate tectonics. We don’t have that on the moon. So, if we want to know the very ancient history of Earth, especially in terms of things hitting the earth — asteroids and things like that — we actually want to look for that evidence on the moon. It doesn’t exist here on Earth. It’s gone. It’s wiped away, but it’s preserved on the moon.

Talk to me about this moonwalking test mission.

The team started working together virtually over the summer. We were given our “landing site” and a 2-kilometer radius around the landing site — that’s your “exploration zone.”  From that, we decided what science we wanted to achieve and then got narrower to discover the goals and then the specific objectives that we wanted to achieve while we’re out there.

We’ve all had enough training with looking at imagery on other planetary surfaces that we can start to recognize certain features and then make hypotheses about what those features are. So, something that might be a stream, something that might be a fault, something that’s probably a volcano. It’s pattern recognition. We started locating where in that exploration zone we thought we could achieve our objectives. Then that information was fed to some folks at NASA, and they developed the pathways that the crew was going to walk.

Were there any other aspects of the work that might surprise people? 

Another thing that we did was determine what types of samples we wanted to collect. In addition to big chunks of rock that the crew was picking up, we also had drive tubes, which the Apollo crew had as well. It’s a tube that you whack into the ground, cap it and pull out a core of the ground. There’s lots of drive tubes from the Apollo days, and we expect that they will do that for Artemis.

What was the overall size of the crew? 

We had two astronauts out in Arizona, and there were two of us out in the field with them. The rest of us were in the science evaluation room in Houston, watching the video and listening to the audio feed of what they were doing.

What we discovered is that things did not go to plan. Like most things in life, we had to make adjustments. We had to work in real time and keep track of how well we were doing in terms of addressing our science goals, collecting samples, getting the imagery that we needed, trying to track the crew.

What are some of the specific challenges of the latest mission? 

The Artemis III exploration zone is at the south pole of the Moon. It gets very little light in some of the areas, and even where it does get light — because it has such a heavily cratered terrain — there’s a lot of areas where the sun gets blocked. Extreme shadows can occur. We had to mimic that environment by doing night operations. NASA brought in a big light and referred to it as an artificial sun. Since the crew was working at night out in Arizona, we were also working from 9 o’clock at night to 2 or 3 in the morning.

How do you feel about working on this mission, which will eventually put a woman on the moon?

In terms of there being the first woman on the moon, I think my biggest excitement is for the kids. I never really thought much about the fact that it was all men that did [Project] Mercury and [Project] Gemini and [Project] Apollo. It was just the way it was.

The first time I went to a school and I was talking to kids about Apollo, a little girl asked why were there no girl astronauts. That’s a natural question for a little girl to ask before you’ve learned the rules of society. As we get older, we become more accepting about the societal order, but kids are honest. Sometimes you don’t even realize that something is weird until a kid mentions it.

So, I think this mission is going to inspire a lot of kids, and not just little girls but all the kids when they can see that anybody can do this. I mean, you have to go to school and work hard, but you’re not automatically eliminated because you look a certain way.

What excites you most about the project? 

We are living in a really exciting time for the moon. When I talk to people in an older generation that remember Apollo, their faces light up because they remember what it was like when Apollo 11 launched. They remember where they were, they remember who they were with and how much excitement there was.

I don’t have that. That’s something I’m really looking forward to — having that excitement inside my soul, an excitement that I’m sharing with a lot of other people, and not just people who are weird like me and do this for their career. I want to be able to feel that kind of full community excitement, and it’s coming. I hope that decades from now I can look back on the Artemis III launch and have that same look on my face that older people do now when I talk to them about Apollo 11. It’s going to be awesome.

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Feb. 9 to accurately reflect Fagan’s title as associate professor.


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