BY ANNA HERKAMP
David Morrison, internationally renowned NASA astrobiologist, traveled around the world during his career — and out of this world in his research.
He rubbed shoulders with the likes of Carl Sagan during graduate school in the Ivy Leagues, and later won a Sagan Medal of the American Astronomical Society — only one of his many prestigious honors.
But he began his life in Danville, where some former classmates may remember him as a skilled percussionist in the Danville High School band.
Others may remember him as a connoisseur of amateur theater. Others still recall his studious ways — he was fourth in his class of 352 in 1958, graduating with a 4.99 grade point average.
“I was interested in space clear back to grade school,” he said, “from the time I was in eighth grade and sold my electric train to buy a telescope.”
The investment paid off.
The scientist from Danville has been appointed interim director of the new NASA Lunar Science Institute at Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. He also continues as the senior scientist at the NASA Astrobiology Institute.
LIFE ‘OUT THERE’
From 1996 to 2001, he was the director of astrobiology and space research at Ames, managing research programs in the space, life and earth sciences. Astrobiology — Morrison’s principal field of study — is the study of life in the universe.
But finding life “out there” requires first studying it here.
“We start by trying to understand the origin of life on Earth and how life operates,” he said.
Scientists have begun studying habitats on places where life may have existed once, such as Mars. From there, exploration for life in the universe will only continue, he said.
The moon has become in vogue again in the scientific community, many years after the Apollo missions made the exploration of the moon a household topic of conversation in the ’60s. Since the Apollo missions, space research interests have shifted to other planets — most recently Mars, — and now lunar research is at the forefront again, he said.
The Lunar Science Institute will connect research teams all over the country who are devoted to future studies of the moon.
“What it involves is selecting groups of scientists who are interested in the moon … making their expertise available in planning missions,” he said.
Scientists today still study the moon rock samples from Apollo, he said.
The future research administered by the institute will offer a broad range of opportunities for learning about the moon, including the lunar environment, the effect the moon has on humans, and perhaps one day conducting research from the moon itself. The moon could offer a glimpse of what the Earth was like early in its planetary history, he said.
“The moon is neat because it’s been sharing this environment with the Earth ... it’s a window into the past,” Morrison said.
The research will eventually lay the base for robotic and human travel to the moon.
“We have a commitment to go back to the moon with robotic and eventually human spacecraft. This is the science component to that,” he said of the institute.
The Bush administration committed to manned lunar missions before 2020. The Chinese have a similar goal, he added.
Although Morrison would rather see international cooperation for space travel, he doesn’t rule out the possibility of another space race.
After serving on the faculty of the University of Hawaii for 19 years as a professor of astronomy, Morrison joined NASA.
“NASA didn’t come into existence until I graduated from high school — so I’m older than NASA,” he said with a laugh.
He was a scientist on several planetary exploration missions, including the Mariner 10, which explored Venus and Mercury; the Voyager, CRAF, Galileo, which orbited Jupiter and Kepler. For those missions, he was responsible for analyzing photos the spacecraft took.
As a college student, Morrison had majored in physics at the University of Illinois. He studied astronomy at Harvard and then shifted to planetary science before focusing on astrobiology.
“Now I’m looking aback at the moon again,” he said.
He said he couldn’t imagine another career.
“It’s great fun,” he said. “Scientific exploration of other worlds is the most exciting thing you could possibly do.”
He believes that one day, humans will discover life in other worlds, although to a scientist, seeing is believing.
“I think it’s likely,” he said of the possibility. “We have no evidence so far to base that (belief) on.”
The goal at this point would be to find even the smallest evidence of life, such as microbes, but it’s difficult to build an instrument that would detect them, he said.
“We don’t have a universal life detector,” he explained. “Science isn’t about believing. It’s about having evidence.
“But yes, I expect we’ll find it in the future.”
A DANVILLE KID
Morrison, although passionate about the planets, also loved the arts as a youngster. His yearbook entry lists the dramatic club, the dramatic club cabinet and several other theatrical activities.
He also was a participant in the Wranglers club, a club for public speaking, as well as a staff member of the Maroon and White.
Associate Superintendent Mark Denman remembers speeches Morrison gave to Danville District 118 students during his visits back home. He inspired kids with discussions about his research.
He often told the District 118 students he was lucky to live out his childhood dreams.
Denman was a student of Morrison’s mother, Alice Morrison-Guin, who taught for many years at what was then Danville Junior College.
After high school graduation, Denman took her course on Shakespeare.
“She was a phenomenal teacher. She was into all the arts, writing and opera. She was just amazing. I know she was area believer in learning. I’m sure she had a tremendous impact (on Morrison’s love of learning as well),” he said.
Morrison also is one of the original honorees on DHS’ Wall of Fame.
For more information about Morrison’s career and accomplishments, visit http://www.nasa.gov/centers/ames/research/2007/morrison.html