Former University of Minnesota Professor remembers Apollo 11 Mission

Dr. Robert Pepin one of the first scientists to study examples of Moon's surface

Susie Jones
July 19, 2019 - 10:07 am

(Photo by Space Frontiers/Getty Images)

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There is a lot of excitement surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing.  Among those taking a special interest is a former University of Minnesota Physics Professor.  He specialized in the study of meteorites, at least until we went to the Moon.  Then everything changed.   

Click here to relive WCCO Radio's coverage of the Apollo 11 Moon landing here. 

In 1969, Doctor Robert Pepin was one of the first scientists in the world to study samples of the Moon's surface.

"My job for (Apollo) 11 was simply to analyze the samples that had been allocated to me and my colleague, Professor Murphy in Geology", said Pepin.  "I went down to use the couple of samples. People were just excited about this whole exploration project. So I picked up our samples and came back under police guard!  I might say from the time we left the airplane until we got on campus, we rode in a police car." 

Despite all of the media coverage of the event, there were actually people who disputed the legitimacy of the material.

RELATED: Apollo 11 image gallery...see some of the shots sent back from NASA's first trip to the Moon.

Pepin told WCCO, "The most disparaging comment I got was, how do you know they're lunar? They looked like things that I'd pick up on my driveway.  But, we knew that they had been exposed to space. We knew they'd been exposed on the surface of the moon to the solar wind. So there was no question. They are lunar samples, but they really didn't look spectacular enough for a lot of the people who saw them."

So, what did this professor learn about when Apollo 11 returned with samples of the surface?   

"It turns out that the Moon, without an atmosphere, is open to irradiation by the stream of particles coming out from the Sun called the Solar Wind.  And they implanted themselves in the surface material that was brought back", Pepin told WCCO's Susie Jones.  "And so our first analysis showed this huge amount of gas, which didn't come from the Moon at all. It came from the Sun. But the upside of that was that we were able to use that to actually, for the very first time, delineate what the composition of the Sun was and therefore what the composition of that original primordial stuff around the Sun, and what the other planets formed from."

Dr. Pepin says he went on to become more involved in the following Apollo missions, even directing astronauts as to which parts of the Moon he wanted material from.

"One of my tasks was to brief the astronauts before each launch about what the most important samples and where they should look for them", said Pepin.  "And they got lots of questions and because in the early days, the astronauts were primarily jet pilots and engineering people and their interests in the science was sort of moderate. It wasn't until Apollo 15 when Dave Scott was commander.  He had a really genuine interest in science.  And Apollo 17 where the one astronaut that I do know fairly well, Harrison Schmidt, was actually a geologist.  And he had to learn how to fly a jet plane and go through all of the physical rigors of preparation for space and that sort of thing. They put him in a centrifuge and all sorts of things. And he survived all that, and got to walk on the Moon."

(Photo by Space Frontiers/Getty Images)

Susie asked the professor if we should go back.  Is there more to learn? 

"Well, there's a lot to learn. This whole question of ice on the Moon, for example, in the northern shadowed regions.  That's important in terms of resources for not only future missions to the Moon, but using the Moon as a jump off a spot for Mars. Because you have the makings of fuel as long as you have water.  You also have the makings for a more or less a permanent settlement there. If you can tap into a water supply now the question is why would you do this? Well, the reason is we've explored maybe 0.01% of the lunar surface, just the small areas around each of the landings.  What else is there?  What is there on the far side for example, which is all mountainous?  There are all the big impacts on that side and so the question is why.  Now again, you have a curiosity question coming up here. We'd like to understand what happened to the Moon. And some of that exploration will really need people on the Moon."

When asked about Mars, Professor Pepin said, "Now, Mars, we're already exploring Mars robotically.  Eventually you'll need people there too. That's a big undertaking. That's a long way away. And it probably won't happen for, I would guess several decades, but it will happen. So the message for the kids who are interested in space is don't hold your breath, but it will happen before you go."

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