Remarkably, Australian scientist professor Brian O’Brien was not one of the 600 million people who watched man set foot on the moon for the first time on live television 50 years ago.
In fact, the 85-year-old Perth man admits he doesn’t clearly remember the moment he first saw the historic footage from July 20, 1969.
Instead, the physics and space professor was busy doing press interviews, preoccupied thinking about the success of his invention, which he had persuaded NASA to put aboard the moon-bound Apollo 11.
It was a small plastic box that collected data on moon dust.
It remains the only information of its kind about the behaviour of the mysterious dust today.
WHAT IS MOON DUST?
The ultra-fine dust that covers the moon might seem innocuous, it is actually a major hazard, both for astronauts and equipment.
And with various countries planning further explorations – China landed a craft on the dark side of the moon earlier this year – Professor O’Brien’s data and expertise has resulted in a surge of interest.
“The dust has got little hooks in it – it’s unlike any dusk on earth,” Professor O’Brien told nine.com.au.
“It’s very, very tiny, very, very fine, measured in Nano metres – a billionth of a metre.
“What it boiled down to was that it was very, very sticky.
He said the dust became dangerous when it entered zippers and “stopped them irrevocably”.
“It also got inside the watches, and it added friction to anything that was moving or had moving parts.
“What the practice is for instruments is to cover them in gold plate or silver or something that reflects as much as possible, what dust does is take the shine off, and that causes them to overheat.”
A JOB FOR NASA
While NASA had realised dust would have a big impact on the landings, they didn’t actually plan to study it, much to the surprise of Professor O’Brien.
He was working at Houston’s Rice University as a professor of space science following a stint at the University of Iowa.
He had already been hired by NASA to teach astronauts – including Buzz Aldrin – about radiation hazards they would encounter.
Plus, the Agency had chosen one of his radiation experiments to be placed on the moon, making him a NASA Principal Investigator.
However, they went back and told him the experiment needed a ‘dust cover’ to protect it, which he agreed to install.
This prompted him to ask how NASA were going to study and measure the dust.
He was told it wasn’t possible – there wasn’t weight to spare or time for any more experiments to be set up by the astronauts.
I got very cranky,” he admitted.
“And that night I invented one that the astronauts didn’t need to deploy.”
MOON DUST DETECTOR
Professor O’Brien drew what became known as the Dust Detector Experiment (DDE) on an airline coaster while on a plane back to Houston from LA.
The small box with solar cells and temperature sensors on it could be attached to other experiments, and would send data back to earth.
NASA gave him the green light.
His DDE was installed on a seismometer to measure moon quakes.
And, while the rest of the world focused on the landings that historic 1969 day, O’Brien was waiting for dust new back in Sydney.
“It was very exciting, because about a few seconds before they landed, but several hours before Neil said: ‘That’s one small step…’, Buzz Aldrin said when they were at a height of about 40ft the dust was hitting the spacecraft,” he said.
When they were on the moon, the suits were blackened by the dust and when they got back into the lunar module the dust floated free,” he said.
“When they got back into orbit it floated out of the cracks and crevices of the spacecraft in zero gravity.”
A few days later, Professor O’Brien started getting reports on his dust data from Houston.
Early findings indicated a spike in temperature and smaller voltage outputs from some of the solar cells around the time the lunar module had taken off – with Professor O’Brien concluding it had been showered with dust.
However, Professor O’Brien believes NASA made blunders involving the data.
First, NASA rejected his findings from the Dust Detector Experiment.
“They concluded that there was no significant dust,” he said.
What they showed in reports were actually results from the next month – there was no lunar module.
“That was irrelevant data that they were looking at.
“I wasn’t resting easy, as you can imagine.”
And while Professor O’Brien did publish his own findings soon after NASA, they went largely unnoticed.
He’s still fighting to get that original date corrected.
Further blunders from NASA also remain uncorrected, Professor O’Brien claims.
It also didn’t publish his report on dust data from further missions.
“50 years later, there is no official NASA published report for any of Apollo 12, 14 or 15 Dust Detector Experiments,” he said.
But he was the first Australian awarded the NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement.
And while four of the experiments remain on the moon, holding the record for longest continually operating experiments up there, Professor O’Brien got a new job.
LOST NASA TAPES
Professor O’Brien moved to Perth with his wife, Avril – herself a remarkable woman who went on to become a doctor of literature.
He became the head of the Environmental Protection Authority of Western Australia.
However, in 2006 he heard mutterings about NASA having lost magnetic tapes containing data from the moon landings.
So, he had his unearthed his from where they were stored, under a lecture hall at Perth’s Curtin University.
It took a computer from a museum to read them – but further studies from 2009 unearthed significant new discoveries.
He discovered how the moon dust changes significantly throughout the day, information which could be vital for future space missions.
More analysis also saw him discover the existence of sunrise dust storms.
And the new discoveries brought a wave of recognition for Professor O’Brien, who was made Adjunct Professor of Physics at the University of Western Australia.
He now speaks at conferences around the world and has even advised the Chinese Space programme, whose rover Yutu got stuck in moon dust a few years ago.
MOON DUST EXPERT
Earlier this year he was among lunar scientists who spoke at a NASA conference which included commercial firms aiming for the moon.
“For the first time everyone had dust as a high priority,” he said.
For the anniversary of the Moon landings he’ll be on the USS Hornet aircraft carrier which fished the Apollo 11 astronauts out of the ocean after landing, talking about his experiments.
However, the great-grandfather doesn’t actually own any moon dust himself, but still has models and memorabilia from his time on the space programme.
Professor O’Brien never had much ambition to go into space himself as he was too tall, and wasn’t American.
It was his first job as a physicist in Antarctica, after studying physics at Sydney University, which led to his space career.
“When I was in the Antarctic and first saw auroras, I realised the only way I could understand the causes of auroras would be to put a satellite on top,” he told nine.com.au.
“So, I went to America and put a satellite on top and discovered the causes.”
That was at Iowa University and after launching multiple satellites, he moved to Rice University in Houston to become a space professor.
WHAT WERE THE ASTRONAUTS LIKE?
Buzz Aldrin even later told him, on hearing about his experiments, he had made a phone call “to see what the hell a dust detector was”.
The pair met many more times.
“He was great,” Prof O’Brien said.
“In 2012 we met up four or five times and he gave me a high five as we went down the hallway.”
Aldrin also confessed to the professor an iconic moment wasn’t what it seemed.
The American flag they’d proudly staked on the moon had blown over.
Professor O’Brien also spent time with both Neil Armstrong, and Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon.
And despite his out-of-this-world career, touchingly, his says meeting his late wife Dr Avril, remains his greatest achievement.
The pair met while caving – a hobby which once saw the professor get lost in a cave for days before he was rescued.
“I was once asked what was the biggest discovery was, and I replied with some sincerity, was finding Avril in a cave,” he said.
“That’s when we started our romance. She was 17, I was 21.
“She was by far the biggest discovery, plus the children that followed.”