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Moon mission 2.0: What humanity will learn by going back to the Moon
Going back to the moon will give us fresh insights about the creation of our solar system.
Dr. Michelle Thaller is an astronomer who studies binary stars and the life cycles of stars. She is Assistant Director of Science Communication at NASA. She went to college at Harvard University, completed a post-doctoral research fellowship at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, Calif. then started working for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's (JPL) Spitzer Space Telescope. After a hugely successful mission, she moved on to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), in the Washington D.C. area. In her off-hours often puts on about 30lbs of Elizabethan garb and performs intricate Renaissance dances. For more information, visit NASA.
MICHELLE THALLER: This July we're going to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing Apollo 11. I was actually not alive for the moon landing. And I have no memory of people being on the Moon. I was alive in the very early '70s, but as a two or three-year-old, was never something that I was aware of. So I never had the chance to look up in the sky at the Moon and think there are people up there today. So in the 1960s, of course, this was a part of the Cold War. It was some of our competition with the Soviet Union. We wanted to make sure that we were ahead of them in terms of building big rockets and missiles and that kind of thing. But I think what's happened now is that we have a much stronger scientific case for returning to the Moon.
And this is something that I'm really excited about as a scientist, not just as an American, and not just as a human. I'm also very much looking forward to having the first woman on the moon, the first person of color on the moon, I think that's very important because so far, everybody who's walked on the moon is somebody that doesn't look a whole lot like me. And I would like that to change in the very near future. But why do I want to go back to the Moon? I mean, we were there before, 50 years ago.
We brought back hundreds of pounds of rocks. So why would you want to go back? And one of the things is that the samples that we took from the moon the rocks, the dust, the soil, from the moon that we took completely revolutionized our view of how the Earth formed, how the solar system formed, and even things that we see as we look out into other solar systems around other stars. Now, why? Well, what changed so much? The moon rocks were entirely different than what we expected. Specifically, anything that could possibly burn at all. What we call volatiles was gone. They were very, very dry. There was almost no water, and by water, I mean water that was actually dissolved into the minerals. I mean not liquid water, not even ice, but water that's contained in the chemical structure of the rock.
But in other ways they were almost identical to the Earth. They had the same type of isotopic ratios, chemical markers about how old the rocks were. And so how could you have something that has such a similar composition to the Earth but be so different? Almost as if you had Earth rocks, but then everything that could possibly burn was taken away. And we realized that the moon must really be something special. It seems that the moon is the product of a giant collision, a collision between planets. Something at least the size of Mars and maybe even bigger, maybe the size of the Earth today, actually hit the young Earth when it was forming. This would have happened billions of years ago.
And debris was thrown off during that explosion that eventually came together under the force of gravity and formed the moon. So in the moon rocks there's records of this giant collision. There may even be records in some of the minerals of what that other planet was like, the planet that's no longer there, what actually hit us to form the current Earth and Moon system. There's also all kinds of wonderful records on the Moon as to what happened to the Earth over time. Unlike the surface of the Earth, the moon doesn't really change much. I mean, yes, there are meteorites that hit it from time to time, but there's no water, no erosion, no wind, there's no chemical weathering of the rocks.
So what you have is a preservation of what the Earth has been through for the last billion, hundreds of millions of years. One of the amazing things we found in moon rocks is evidence that the Earth probably passed very close to an exploding star about 300 million years ago. And there actually was kind of a radioactive rain that came down on us from this exploding star. And we only see that record on the surface of the moon in the rocks, and also at the very bottom of the Earth's ocean. In sediments that are that ancient, they preserved that time. So the moon is actually going to be able to tell us, when we have more samples, what the whole history of the Earth was like, how the Earth formed, and what happened to the Earth over time. Recently, we actually found the oldest Earth rock that we have on the moon. It was actually in a lunar sample.
We found that there was a little bit of Earth that had actually probably been thrown off during a collision. A big asteroid hit us. Rocks flew up into space, some of them landed on the moon. And now, we actually have a sample of the Earth three billion years ago when it was hit by something very large. The moon rocks are also telling us things like where organic molecules, the building blocks of our chemistry, came from, and maybe even the origin of water. We're finding tiny little bits were actually formed during collisions and volcanism on the surface of the moon. Now, all of these things are things we've just realized are there in the lunar samples. Most of the samples have already been picked over and chemically analyzed.
We've crushed things up. We've changed them. We're so much better now at being able to do the chemical analysis, And we understand so much more about what it's saying, That we need better samples. and the exploration is going to be really amazing. One of the challenges is protecting the astronauts from solar storms. We realize we got pretty lucky with Apollo. Had there been a very strong solar storm, It could have damaged instruments, could even have hurt the astronauts. And so now, we know we need to protect people when they're up there. And we'll probably have them land very near craters at the poles of the moon. The poles are really important because there are craters up there that never see sunlight. They're actually permanently shadowed from the sun. And so, if there's a big solar storm, all the astronauts need to do is go down one of these craters, And they can be safe from that.
Also, when you're near the poles. You're almost continuously illuminated by the sunlight, and you have great contact with Earth as well. So I think probably the first place we're going to go, we actually have chosen the South Pole. That's the goal for the place to send astronauts next, South Pole of the moon. So as a scientist, the moon has a much larger context as well. We see things happening in other solar systems around other stars. Occasionally, you see a giant flash of heat, And a solar system many light-years away appears to be full of molten metal All at once. And probably what we've seen is an event like the formation of the moon two planets have collided. I don't know if we'd really understand what was going on if we didn't have the example of the moon right there in front of us.
So it's been more than 50 years, I am really looking forward to someday looking up there, and I really hope I can see a little light, You know something up there at the very base of the moon that you can actually see that there are people up there today. And I think that will be an amazing feeling to look up and feel humanity on the moon again.
- July 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the moon landing — Apollo 11.
- Today, we have a strong scientific case for returning to the moon: the original rock samples that we took from the moon revolutionized our view of how Earth and the solar system formed. We could now glean even more insights with fresh, nonchemically-altered samples.
- NASA plans to send humans to a crater in the South Pole of the moon because it's safer there, and would allow for better communications with people back on Earth.
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Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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