Decades of Growth and Discovery Mark NASA Research at UT

In December 1972, NASA launched its last manned mission to the moon. On board Apollo 17 were Harrison “Jack” Schmitt and two other astronauts. Back on Earth in the Johnson Space Center was geoscientist Lawrence “Larry” Taylor, who helped advise the astronauts as they conducted moonwalks and examined rocks.

That historic event became the launching pad for what would become the University of Tennessee’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

Through that mission 45 years ago, Taylor—who would go on to establish UT’s Earth and Planetary Sciences program—formed a longtime friendship and collaboration with Schmitt.

Taylor passed away on September 18.

Taylor was also a key player in the founding of UT’s Planetary Geosciences Institute, which has a long and well-established history of research for NASA and the National Science Foundation.

“NASA has been a big inspiration to us in our department,” Taylor said in an interview just months before his death. “We have many students, we have a lot of research funds, and we have a lot of tremendous activity, particularly by some great students and fantastic faculty.”

Taylor, who invited Schmitt to campus every few years to give talks and visit with UT students and faculty colleagues, said he often stopped students to ask them if they knew what Apollo was.

Larry Taylor and Jack Schmitt

Lawrence “Larry” Taylor and Harrison “Jack” Schmitt

“It was before any of them were born,” Taylor said. “It’s sort of like a date in history. But to talk to a person who was actually there—it’s Buck Rogers, it’s all the things of fantasy world.

“The enthusiasm [Schmitt] brings to me he also instills in the students and in other faculty,” Taylor said.

Taylor said Schmitt sometimes gave him insight into certain programs and pointed out funding UT should pursue. He called his friendship with Taylor “a very fruitful and productive association.”

Following his time with the Apollo mission, Taylor came to UT. Within a few years, top planetary scientists began joining the program, including Harry “Hap” McSween. Both McSween and Taylor became founding members of the Planetary Geosciences Institute.

McSween, now Chancellor’s Professor emeritus, has conducted meteorite research for four decades. He also is co-investigator for a number of ongoing spacecraft missions, including the Mars exploration rovers, Mars Odyssey orbiter, and Dawn Asteroid orbiter. McSween, who has received a number of national and international awards, is one of the world’s foremost experts on the composition of Mars. The International Astronomical Union named an asteroid—5223 McSween—in his honor.

Currently, 10 UT faculty members in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences are involved in NASA research, with more than $20 million in combined funding from the federal space program. Here is a look at their NASA research:

  • Devon Burr, associate professor, studies planetary geomorphology, or the landscapes of planetary surfaces, to better understand how planetary bodies evolve. She primarily studies Mars and Titan, the largest satellite of Saturn.
  • Nick Dygert, assistant professor, investigates the physical and chemical properties of planetary materials. He is building a new high-pressure, high-temperature experimental laboratory at UT. Based on observations from NASA’s Messenger mission, he will explore Mercury’s evolution.
  • Joshua Emery, Lawrence A. Taylor Associate Professor of Planetary Science, has led science teams for NASA. His work provided context for NASA’s 2015 historic flyby of Pluto. He observes asteroids—small rocky bodies that orbit the sun—with ground- and space-based telescopes to understand their compositions and surface properties. NASA designed the 2016 OSIRIS-REx project—a mission that will bring an asteroid sample back to Earth—around goals and measurement requirements Emery developed. He is on the science team of the project Lucy, which NASA is currently formulating. The mission, to launch in 2021, could provide new insight into one of the earliest eras of our solar system.
  • Christopher Fedo, James Carden Professor of Geology, studies sedimentary rocks. His research is also aimed at finding fossil evidence for the earliest life on Earth and documenting conditions of major steps in Earth’s evolution. He is a member of the Mars Science Laboratory research team and uses multiple instruments on the Curiosity rover to study the composition and environments of the sedimentary deposits in the Gale Crater on Mars.
  • Linda Kah, Kenneth R. Walker Professor of Carbonate Sedimentology, studies how life evolved on ancient Earth and how life changes the trajectory of planetary evolution. This understanding of early Earth provides a framework for developing technologies and techniques that will help scientists identify the potential for life on other planets. In 2004, Kah become co-investigator on the Mars Curiosity rover mission. Since the Curiosity’s landing in August 2012, Kah has been exploring the ancient environments of Mars in the Gale Crater. She will extend her planetary work as a co-investigator on the yet-to-be-launched Mars 2020 rover.
  • Molly McCanta, associate professor, uses the geochemistry of planetary materials such as minerals and glasses to try to understand the physical conditions in a planet’s interior. She analyzes meteorites and returned samples to determine the origin of other bodies and how they have evolved over time.
  • Jeffrey Moersch, professor, studies the geology of planetary surfaces using remote sensing instruments on NASA spacecraft missions. He currently serves on the science teams for the Mars Exploration rover and the Mars Odyssey orbiter missions, and is a collaborating scientist on the Mars Science Laboratory mission. To understand the measurements made by these missions in their proper geologic context, Moersch also conducts fieldwork in places on Earth that have similarities to Mars, such as the Atacama Desert in Chile and Axel Heiberg Island in the Canadian Arctic.
  • Anna Szynkiewicz, assistant professor, focuses on low-temperature geochemistry and planetary geology to help scientists understand modern and past hydrological cycles on Earth and Mars. She has studied sites in New Mexico, Iceland, and the Arctic Ocean archipelago of Svalbard as proxies for understanding the sources and formation timescales of hydrated sulfates on Mars.
  • Bradley Thomson, research associate professor, studies the physical processes that have shaped the surfaces of the terrestrial planets, including impact and volcanic processes. His research seeks to unravel the complex geologic histories of Mars, the moon, and Venus using geologic mapping and analysis with different types of remotely sensed data such as radar, optical, thermal, and surface contact data. He studies the nature and timing of physical processes in ancient planetary environments, particularly the drivers of planetary-scale climate change.


Lola Alapo (865-974-3993,