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Remembering David S. McKay


Lunar science lost one of its pioneers when Dr. Dave McKay passed away on February 20, 2013. Over his distinguished and creative five-decade career Dave made significant contributions to planetary science. He trained Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. He proved that the orange soil discovered on the Moon during the Apollo 17 mission was deposited by explosive volcanism. He unraveled at least some of the mysteries of the hideously complex powdery dirt on the lunar surface. He figured out how to extract oxygen and water from the dry, airless lunar surface, helping to pave the way for future lunar bases and found the field of space resources. Those few sentences do not do justice to the complexity of the research, of the diverse microanalytical techniques used, or to his imagination. And of course, Dave led the team that postulated life on Mars based on evidence from Antarctic meteorite ALH 84001. That work was highly controversial, of course, but if nothing else it showed how tricky it will be for us to discover microbial life on another solar system body.

David McKay photographed by Jeff Taylor.

Dave McKay taught me how to use an electron microprobe, including how it worked and how to correct the raw data, even how to use a carbon coater properly. He was a member of my Ph.D. dissertation committee at Rice University and was in charge of the electron microprobe lab at the Johnson Space Center, the instrument essential to my research. He was a great mentor to me, a role he filled for decades. Anytime I had a question about the regolith or how to study it, I asked Dave, including just two years ago when I talked to him about wet sieving lunar soils. It was always an enjoyable education to talk with Dave, whether the topic was moon dirt, space resources, life on Mars, or our kids.

A great part of being friends with Dave was the dinner parties he and his equally smart and fun wife Mary Fae hosted during the Lunar and Planetary Science Conferences. Lively discussions among friends took place in their house in the woods, tasty food was eaten, and boring evening sessions were skipped. I miss those times, I miss Dave even more. Thanks for everything, Dave.

  — G. Jeffrey Taylor

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FEB 2013