Brown graduate student discusses lunar exploration past and future

Ariel Deutsch, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences, will join an astronaut who walked on the Moon and two top NASA scientists for a panel titled “Lunar Geology: Past, Present and Future.”

Ariel Deutsch standing in a hangar
Ariel Deutsch stands outside an old hangar at NASA's Ames Research Center.
PROVIDENCE, RI [Brown University] — As the celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing come to a close, Brown graduate student Ariel Deutsch is thinking about the future of lunar exploration — and NASA wants to hear what’s on her mind.

Deutsch, a Ph.D. student working with Professor Jim Head in Brown’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences and a NASA graduate fellow, will participate in a special panel discussion during NASA’s annual Exploration Science Forum. The panel, titled “Lunar Geology: Past, Present and Future,” will include Jack Schmitt, a geologist who walked on the Moon during the Apollo 17 mission, NASA scientist Jennifer Smith and Jake Bleacher, chief scientist at NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. Deutsch will offer her perspective as a member of the next generation of lunar and planetary scientists.

The discussion will take place in Alameda, California, on July 24 — the anniversary of Apollo 11’s splashdown back on Earth — aboard the U.S.S. Hornet, the retired Navy aircraft carrier used to pluck the astronauts from the central Pacific. 

Though the Moon landings happened years before Deutsch was born, she still has a close connection to the Apollo through Head, her advisor. Head worked on the program, helping to train the astronauts in lunar geology, choose landing sites and analyze the rock samples returned from the Moon’s surface. In an interview in advance of the panel, Deutsch discussed the Apollo program’s legacy, the continued importance of lunar exploration and what she describes as a “new era of space exploration” involving commercial partners.    

Q: As a planetary scientist in training, what is the legacy of Apollo to you?

The Apollo program is the embodiment of true exploration — going where no one’s been before. It is this discovery aspect that drew me to planetary science.

In fact, it was the return of the Apollo lunar samples that enabled Alberto Saal, a professor in our department, to discover that water had been trapped in volcanic glass on the Moon. The discovery of water on the Moon has helped fuel my own Ph.D. research — understanding the sources, nature, and current state of water that is cold-trapped at the Moon’s poles. I’m interested in the scientific questions related to water, such as how and when did water travel to the Moon, and what does that mean for the origin of water and life on Earth? I’m also interested in the exploration aspects of water, such as how much is there and can we use it as a future resource to sustain the presence of humans? This synergy between science and exploration is what was done so well in the Apollo program and what I aim to accomplish with my own career.

Q: How has our understanding of the Moon changed by Apollo?

The Apollo missions completely transformed our scientific understanding of the Moon. Before Apollo, we didn’t really know much about the Moon. What is it made of? Would astronauts sink when they landed? How did it form? How has it changed through time? These are fundamental questions that we’ve now been able to tackle not only through the Apollo program, but also through subsequent missions from NASA and other space agencies around the world.

Q: There seems to be a renewed interest in lunar exploration. China just landed on the lunar far side. India just launched a lander. And NASA plans to put people back on the Moon by 2024. Why do you think it’s important to keep studying the Moon?

The more you explore, the more you discover. But not only that — exploration leads us to ask new and better questions. Fifty years ago, we were asking very fundamental questions about the Moon, such as, “Has the history of the Moon been shaped by volcanism?” Today, due to the continued exploration of the Moon over the past 50 years, we are conducting more detailed investigations into how volcanism has delivered water to the Moon’s surface, how it has affected the evolution of a lunar atmosphere, and how it can lead to habitable conditions on Earth and other planetary bodies.

It’s important to keep studying the Moon so that we continue with transformational science about the formation of our Solar System and the origin of life. It’s important to keep studying the Moon so that our questions improve, our answers improve, our science and technology improve — and so that 50 years from today, another student is answering these same questions about a different planetary body in our solar system.

Q: After a long drought, there seems to be renewed interest in human exploration of planetary bodies. What do you see as the advantage to sending people as opposed to robots?

When humans first stepped on the Moon, the response from the world was powerful. It was emotional and inspiring and unifying. I didn’t experience it. Half of the world has not lived through human boots on another planetary body. In my opinion, space exploration is the epitome of how beautifully human curiosity and teamwork can drive innovation. Robots can perform a suite of impressive and detailed scientific experiments — and we wouldn’t be prepared to send any humans into space without all of the dozens of robotic spacecraft that have flown in the past and are flying today. But at the end of the day, the significance of sending humans, in addition to robots, far exceeds the argument of enhancing the scientific return of our missions to space. To me, human exploration is about problem-solving our way to the unknown.

Q: We’re seeing an interesting shift in space exploration from a strictly government enterprise to an increasingly private one, with companies like SpaceX and NASA’s commercial lunar partners. You’ve had a chance to interface with some of those private entities. What has that been like, and how do you see these companies changing space exploration?

The explosion of commercial space is enabling a new era of space exploration that is increasing accessibility by increasing the frequency of launches and by lowering costs. Working with these groups has opened up doors for me, as a student, to help design compelling science questions for upcoming missions, benefiting me, and also to help analyze landing sites for these groups, benefiting the commercial entities. The synergy between NASA, academia and the commercial companies is only changing space exploration for the better. These collaborations are integrating the scientific, engineering, design, business and policy communities in an exciting way. The renewed interest in lunar exploration and support from commercial partners will surely enable a continued human presence on the Moon as we look forward to Mars and beyond.