Serving The Meteorite Community Since 2002

Dr. Carleton Moore

In February 2019, I went to the Tucson Gem and Mineral show to meet some friends. Afterwards, I visited my good friend Dr. Carleton Moore at Arizona State University (“ASU”) and he introduced me to Dr. Laurence Garvie, Collection Curator for the ASU Center for Meteorite Studies, then we all went inside ASU’s meteorite vault. It was an honor and thrill for me to be inside the vault and see all the various meteorites and tektites in the collection. It had been about ten years since the last time Carleton showed Kathy, Carter and I around the vault.

The author and Dr. Carleton Moore at the ASU Center for Meteorite Studies.
The author and Dr. Laurence Garvie at the ASU Center for Meteorite Studies.

After my visit I reflected on how the ASU Center for Meteorite Studies came about, and how Carleton was selected as its first Director.

Carleton attended the California Institute of Technology in 1955 to pursue a PhD. At Cal Tech, Linus Pauling, two time winner of the Nobel prize was the Chemistry department chair. At Cal Tech, Carleton met geology professor Harrison Brown who was studying meteorites, and who got him interested in meteorites. Carleton did research and analysis on meteorites while at Cal Tech.

In October 1957, Russia’s launch of Spudnik’s put space exploration at the forefront of America’s ambitions. The race was on between the Russians and Americans to see who could successfully put a person on the moon and return them safely back to earth. On 25th May 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech before a joint session of Congress. J.F.K. urged Congress, “Finally, if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take. Since early in my term, our efforts in space have been under review. With the advice of the Vice President, who is Chairman of the National Space Council, we have examined where we are strong and where we are not, where we may succeed and where we may not. Now it is time to take longer strides-time for a great new American enterprise-time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.”

In 1958, Arizona State College became Arizona State University (ASU). In an effort to bolster the research program of the new university, ASU started to become interested in meteorites, and it thought obtaining the Harvey Harlow Nininger meteorite collection was the way to get into the space race. At the time, H. H. Nininger amassed the largest private collection of meteorites. Nininger wanted to retire and selling his meteorite collection would provide the funds for him to do it. In 1958, about half of the Nininger collection was sold to the British Museum which was a great coup for them. The sale marked a tremendous loss for the state of Arizona which had housed the extensive collection first at Nininger’s museum near Barringer Meteorite Crater, then later in Sedona, Arizona.

George A. Boyd, ASU Coordinator of Research, sought promising research avenues and was familiar with Nininger’s collection. Boyd, working with the Chemistry Department Chair, Clyde A. Crowly, and ASU President Grady Gammage, solicited a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) in order to purchase Nininger’s collection. To bolster its proposal, ASU offered supporting funds from the ASU Foundation and from Mr. Herbert G. Fales, Vice-President of International Nickel Company, who was a friend of Nininger through his own interest in meteorites. Fales was a graduate of M.I.T, and now lived in Arizona, so he felt obligated to support ASU. The Smithsonian museum, University of Arizona and ASU were all interested in obtaining the collection. The NSF recognized the importance of keeping the remainder of Nininger’s collection in the United States. The Smithsonian wanted Nininger’s collection very badly. The NSF wanted a mechanism of checks and balances and did not favor a monopoly by the Smithsonian, therefore, the Smithsonian did not obtain the collection. Supposedly, Nininger felt he was insulted by the University of Arizona and did not want to sell the collection to them without a substantial increase in price. He wanted around $300,000 for his collection. Nininger favored his collection staying in Arizona. On 8th June 1960, the NSF accepted the ASU proposal with the condition that the university must make the collection available to qualified scientists from around the world for the purpose of scientific research, so the meteorite collection would be a research collection.

A Brenham Meteorode with the associated paperwork from Dr. H.H. Nininger.

With the Nininger collection headed to ASU, there was a search for a new director. Boyd and George M. Bateman, Chair of the Division of Physical Sciences, conducted the search. They consulted with Harrison S. Brown, professor of geochemistry at Cal Tech, who was one of the few scientists in the nation actively studying meteorites, to find a worthy candidate. Brown was familiar with Nininger and his collection and recommended one of his students, Carleton B. Moore, for the position. Carleton’s PhD thesis sought chemical grouping of chondrite meteorites and ultimately helped improve the understanding of chondrite chemical abundances. Acting on behalf of ASU, Fales flew to Wesleyan University, where Carleton was teaching to recruit him. In 1961, Carleton visited ASU where he was taken to a recruitment dinner at a bowling alley. The bowling alley venue did not dissuade Carleton from accepting the Director position.

In the beginning, the facilities for the Meteorite Center were meager. The Nininger Collection meteorites went to the chemistry department and they were packed in a closet, in metal bins, in the basement of the Physical Science building.

In the spring of 1961, the Center for Meteorite Studies was christened by new ASU President G. Homer Durham. President Homer Durham was interested in meteorites and enthusiastically supported Carleton and the Meteorite Center. Homer Durham was very interested in advancing space science at ASU. He persuaded deans to align with his goals, and made sure Carleton was taken care of in order to advance space science. Carleton’s first task as Director was to organize a symposium on meteorite research. The proceedings of the conference were published in Carleton’s book “Researches on Meteorites,” which provides a snapshot of the state-of-the-art knowledge of meteorites at the time.

Carleton brought in world-renowned meteorite scientists to the Center to work with the collection. Hugo Birger Wiik, University of Helsinki, who wrote extensive documentation on meteorite compositions while at ASU. Vagn F. Buchwald, expert on iron meteorites, joined the Center as a visiting professor and his research at ASU led to the publication of his definitive work “Handbook of Iron Meteorites.” Carleton convinced Robert Dietz to work at the Center. Dr. Dietz was known for his substantial contributions to the science of impact craters which were referred to as “Astroblemes.” Chuck Lewis was brought in by Carleton to curate the meteorite collection. Chuck also went to NASA with Carleton and participated in all the lunar carbon analyses. Carleton hired Ronald Greeley as Associate Director of the Meteorite Center, who previously worked on many aspects of space science at NASA Ames research center. For twenty years, Carleton was the editor of Meteoritics, the journal of The Meteoritical

Besides being the head of the Center for Meteorite Studies, Carleton taught as a professor of chemistry and volunteered to teach geology. Carleton remembers that he was spread thin back in those days, but did not hesitate to volunteer for an assignment.

Carleton substantially grew ASU’s meteorite collection from the initial 578 meteorites. During his tenure, he obtained the C.U. Shepard meteorite collection for ASU which substantially grew ASU’s collection. The meteorites Murchison and Murray helped ASU become the leader in amino acid and other organic molecule research. Now ASU had the third largest meteorite collection in the world only behind the British Museum and the Smithsonian. In honor of Carleton’s many contributions to ASU and the Center for Meteorite Studies [which is now referred to as the School of Earth and Space Science (“SESE”)], ASU named its meteorite collection the Carleton B. Moore Meteorite Collection. It is now the world’s largest university based meteorite collection.

Carleton was most proud of three things at ASU. First was accomplishing the feat of making the ASU meteorite collection into the finest in the world by leading on preserving meteorites and providing them for research to other scientists. Second was teaching students. Third was being involved in the study of moon samples from the Apollo missions.

On 16th July 1969, Apollo 11 launched from Cape Kennedy carrying Neil Armstrong, Michael Collin and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin towards the moon. On 20th July 1969, Neil Armstrong was the first person to step on the moon when he famously proclaimed, “. . . one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” On 24th July 1969, Apollo 11 returned to earth with precious moon rocks and soil samples weighing 382 kilograms (842 pounds). The astronauts did not find any meteorites on the moon due to the lack of an atmosphere to slow down the entry, therefore, the potential meteorites would come in too fast and vaporize upon impact.

NASA was interested in any possible organic material in the lunar samples, so they thought carbon analyses would assist in seeing if there were any organic material in the moon samples. Prior to the launch of Apollo 11, Carleton studied carbon in meteorites to hone his skills when he would do carbon analysis of the lunar samples. NASA selected Carleton due to his prior carbon research on meteorites. Everett K. Gibson who had just finished his PhD at ASU on meteorites was at NASA. Carleton was amongst the first scientists to receive moon samples for research. On 9th October 1969, he traveled to Houston to pick up the lunar samples. ASU received over 200 samples before any other Arizona schools.

For his experiment, Carleton burned moon soil which turned it into carbon dioxide using an gas chromatic graph instrument which measured the gas which had about 120 parts per million of carbon. Carleton also received two or three grams of chips broken off larger lunar stones which he used for experiments.

A person at a lunar receiving lab did not do an adequate job in analyzing carbon from their sample, so NASA asked Carleton to come to Houston, obtain the proper equipment and set up a parallel experiment for them. For Apollo 12, Carleton had to go into quarantine along with five or six other scientist when they handled the moon samples. They were in the same place where the astronauts were quarantined. At the time, the government wanted to take precautions, in case there was something in the lunar samples brought back that could infect people and wipe out civilization. Carleton also had to sign a waiver and release acknowledging that if while in quarantine there was an outbreak, he understood that he may have to spend the rest of his life in quarantine. Carleton thought it was worth it and signed the document. Carleton analyzed moon samples from Apollo 11, 12 and 14. By the time Apollo 14 brought back samples, Carleton no longer had to quarantine to do his experiments.

At Carleton’s retirement, he was given a piece of moon rock. At the time, not even ASU has a lunar rock. That special lunar piece is one of his favorite specimens in his collection. Carleton to this day, still participates in meteorite educational outreach programs and brings his piece of the moon with him. Today, ASU has a big space program and it all started with the meteorite collection. Carleton has an asteroid named after him, and because the name “Moore” was already used for another asteroid, Carleton’s asteroid received his first and last name: 5046 Carleton Moore. The meteorite mineral “Carletonmooreite” (Ni3Si) named after Carleton is in publication in the American Mineralogist. Carleton reflected, “When we are all long gone, the meteorites will still be here.”

Dr. Carleton Moore at ASU University Club.


References: – oral history Carleton Moore interview,%20Carleton%2010-2003%20MP4.mp4

ASU Meteorite Center History

Excerpt from the ‘Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs’

Emails between Carleton Moore and Mitch Noda

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