Release Date: July 17, 2019
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Fifty years after U.S. astronauts set foot on the moon, their achievement continues to capture the imagination of people around the world.
As the July 20 anniversary of the 1969 milestone approaches, University at Buffalo planetary geologist Tracy Gregg, PhD, can speak to media about the Apollo missions that carried the first humans to the moon.
She can comment on why the missions remain inspirational; what they taught us about the moon, the Earth and our solar system; and why unmanned space exploration — while valuable — is no replacement for a human presence on extraterrestrial soil.
Gregg is an associate professor of geology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences. She and her students have studied the geology of the moon, as well as the geology of other planetary bodies in our solar system, such as Mars and Io, the intensely volcanic moon that orbits Jupiter. She is also involved in space exploration, serving as U.S. co-chair of a U.S.-Russian team tasked with mapping out potential scientific goals for Venera-D, an unmanned Russian-led mission to Venus.
Gregg says that through the Apollo space program, “We learned, first and foremost, that humans can indeed explore the harsh environment of outer space and return unharmed. We could also see the fragility of planet Earth in breathtaking color and beauty in the images that the Apollo astronauts captured. The first color image of the whole Earth from space was taken by Apollo astronauts.”
Science-wise, “We learned that the moon is ancient — 4.6 billion years old — requiring that Earth be that old, too,” Gregg adds. “And we discovered that the moon is essentially inhospitable to life, and pretty much devoid of water. In many ways, it’s the Earth’s opposite.
“Scientifically, the rocks brought back from Apollo 11 changed the way we viewed how the planets formed and how they changed through time. Until the Apollo program, no one fully realized the vital role that asteroid impact plays in planetary formation and evolution. Today, most school children will gleefully tell you that an asteroid impact caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. That idea would have been preposterous without the Apollo program.”
Gregg will be giving three local talks on July 20 to mark the moon landing anniversary, one at the Niagara Aerospace Museum and two at the Williamsville Central School District Space Lab Planetarium.
Looking toward the future, she says that both remote-controlled and human missions to other planetary bodies are vital forms of space exploration.
“Part of my research involves studying volcanoes on Earth’s ocean floors, and I’ve been able to do that with a remote-controlled vehicle as well as from within a submarine,” she says. “My experience is that there is absolutely no substitute for the human presence. A remote-controlled vehicle is useful to perform the expected tasks, but is commonly helpless in the face of the unexpected.”