Beyond the Moon: 50 years ago, a State College company played a key role in the Apollo 11 lunar mission – and what we learned from it
On July 20, 1969, NASA’s Apollo 11 lunar mission put humans on the moon. As the world watched, little did most know the fascinating connection between one of the most important moments in human history and State College, Pennsylvania.
Pioneers of science
The connection can be traced back to Leonard Herzog and his colleagues, including Bruce Kendall and Don David. Herzog, with his impressive academic resume sporting names such as Cal Tech, MIT, and Harvard, was the founder of a State College-based company, Nuclide Corporation.
Founded in 1961, with a separate branch in Boston, Nuclide made scientific instruments called mass spectrometers, and quickly grew from a one-room laboratory to a three-building operation employing more than 125 scientists and technicians.
“Leonard was faced with the extremely challenging problem of competing with the larger, well-established instrumentation companies in California, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Japan,” says Kendall, who lives in State College. “He did this with an unconventional and well-thought-out business structure that took maximum advantage of the adaptability and efficiency possible within a small, loyal, close-knit group of scientists and engineers.”
A Town&Gown article in September 1966 described the company as specializing “in the design, development and manufacture of ion and electron beam apparatus, including mass spectroscopes, electron beam evaporators, welders, melters, and related components.”
While all that sounds a bit sci-fi, Kendall explains: “A mass spectrometer is … a device that analyzes gases or solids on the basis of the mass of the molecules or atoms – the weight, in other words. Another way of saying it is, it’s a device that can weigh the atoms and molecules of a sample.”
Nuclide was a pioneer in developing mass spectrometers, providing scientists with an instrument that could analyze samples of all types of substances in ways that were impossible before.
“This is what was so exciting about what was happening with Nuclide, even in the early days. Suddenly, every researcher around the world wanted a mass spectrometer,” explains Herzog’s daughter, Heather, of State College. “Industrialists wanted them to study the composition of raw and finished materials, biomedical firms wanted them to better understand the metabolization of medicine in the human body. Another common use was geological age dating and compositional analysis.”
As technology evolved, mass spectrometers went on to become useful in pollution analysis and forensics as well. For a world expert in geochemistry like Leonard Herzog – and eventually NASA – one of the most attractive uses for mass spectroscopy lay within the realm of age dating.
“In [this] case, the age [is] being defined as the time since a piece of rock was separated from its surroundings,” Kendall explains. “One of the big questions was, is the moon the same age as the earth? If it’s exactly the same age, that’s a big hint that it maybe came from the same event, or came off the earth. But if it’s a totally different age, that would be a very big discovery.”
NASA finds its answer in State College
Ahead of the Apollo 11 lunar mission, NASA was on the hunt for a mass spectrometer system to be used for lunar surface analysis. According to Heather Herzog, her father and Nuclide presented NASA with a proposal to develop a small mass spectrometer that could fly on one of NASA’s unmanned craft, to do analysis with the aid of robotics. In December 1964, NASA awarded Nuclide $96,000 to design this mass spectrometer for use during an unmanned Surveyor mission, intended to analyze rocks, minerals, and dust. A year later, a prototype of the “miniature mass spectrometer,” called a Monopole, had been developed and was being tested at Nuclide as the best solution for the problem.
The results from the Monopole’s analyses would be used to glean information regarding the origins of the solar system, information that would impact astronaut safety during later manned missions, and even data that might be useful in planning a future “moon station.”
Still, a mass spectrometer small enough to make a journey aboard a Surveyor spacecraft was almost unthinkable. Similar to the first computers, the first mass spectrometers were far from small and portable, and cost upwards of $150,000 each, which amounts to about $1.2 million in today’s money.
Unfortunately, this original idea was ultimately deemed unfeasible; the plan had been to send a “focused electron beam gun” along with the mass spectrometer system, to vaporize lunar rock and collect various other samples for analysis and then “telemeter” the results back to Earth. “When it turned out that there was very little gas [on the moon] to analyze, and a fairly elaborate piece of equipment [would be needed] to deal with solids, not quite to gasify them but close to that, then the idea was to bring [the samples] back,” Kendall says.
Once the samples were back on Earth, scientists could use a full range of equipment in established labs to make their analyses.
The prototype Nuclide created for NASA for the Surveyor mission, the Monopole, “goes into the archives of science as an interesting machine that might get used for something totally different someday,” Kendall says.
Kendall still has the prototype Nuclide created for NASA for this mission in his possession, more than a half century later.
Asking the big questions
The Surveyor program behind it, NASA turned its attention to the Apollo program and the upcoming manned missions. While NASA no longer planned to take a Nuclide mass spectrometer into space, it did plan to use Nuclide equipment to analyze the lunar samples the Apollo 11 astronauts brought back to Earth. In total, more than half the lunar experiments involving mass spectrometers were performed by Nuclide equipment in labs all over the country.
“Some of the most famous, high-level government clearance labs were asked to be a part of that,” Heather explains.
So, what happened after the Apollo 11 astronauts returned to Earth, bearing with them packets of moon dust and rocks for analysis on Nuclide technology?
One of the primary discoveries made was that the earth and moon are close in, if not the same, age (though modern theories differ). This leads to further questions, both scientific (did the moon break off from the earth during a catastrophic event millions of years ago?) and more existential (what really is the origin of the universe?).
In fact, Leonard Herzog’s son Clay notes this existential question might’ve played a role in his father’s initial interest in science.
“As a boy, he was very involved with the Presbyterian church in Hollywood, California, and driven to understand more about how religious and scientific theory could coexist,” Clay says. “At one time, he strongly considered going into the seminary to further study theology. But, with World War II and the educational options that opened up for him, he went down a different path. I suppose that period of his life could be titled, ‘From Theology to Geology.’”
Beyond the moon
Nuclide continued working with NASA on the Apollo missions, supporting the administration with its technology. In addition, Don David, Herzog’s colleague and part of Nuclide’s original NASA-focused team, founded a company called MicroTol in State College, and worked on the problem of developing an appropriate power source for NASA’s specially designed equipment that would collect data on the composition of the surface, interior, and atmosphere of the moon for Apollo 11 through 17. David worked alongside other engineers at General Electric Company to create the SNAP-27, which proved to be the solution to the unknown challenges the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum later dubbed “the adverse lunar surface environment.” SNAP (Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power) was one of the highlights of David’s career.
Beyond mass spectrometers, Nuclide was known for its Luminoscope.
Clay explains: “Around the start of the Apollo program, in the early 1960s, geologists became more aware that there was a by-product of electron microscopy, where the electron beam – when it would impinge upon non-organic, non-metallic samples – often created a luminescence. Since there wasn’t really a good way to study this phenomenon, Nuclide in the early 1960s set out to develop an inexpensive vacuum chamber that could be mounted to a petrographic (optical) microscope to study this effect. The instrument was marketed under the name Luminoscope. I was mainly involved with the Luminoscope when I worked for the company in the late 1980s, just after the name changed to Measurement and Analysis Systems.”
Some of the company’s main clients included those in the oil industry, universities and governmental research facilities throughout the U.S., while Nuclide’s technicians installed equipment in every part of the world, from Finland to New Zealand. In 1967, Leonard Herzog accepted the President’s “E” Award for Export from Pennsylvania’s governor, Raymond Shafer.
Leonard Herzog passed away in 2011. Part of his archival records and Nuclide artifacts from the Apollo period were donated to the Science History Institute in Philadelphia.
“My dad’s greatest contribution to the scientific community was focusing his interests in mass spectrometry on stable isotopes, when most researchers were not. … Due largely to Dad’s research, we can now use mass spectrometers to analyze pretty much anything in the universe … for example: finding pollution in the water and air; looking for contaminants in our food; examining the composition of blood in hospitals; analyzing solid, liquid, or gas in order to solve crimes in forensics; studying the age and composition of North Pole sea ice; finding out if there are hormones in different brands of milk – to name a few things – and finally, to study the chemistry of moon rocks and moon soil, which is actually still happening even today.
“This is why he was considered a pioneer in the field of mass spectrometry,” Heather says.
As for the build-up toward the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, Heather says her family has “been struck by the power of our emotions and the incredible worldwide sense of excitement. I think we are now so much more in awe of the early scientists’ achievements in a way that could not be fully understood in earlier years, My mother and I have been tearing up just watching a television commercial for an upcoming Apollo documentary series, and my brothers and I find ourselves diving back into Dad’s old papers, newspaper articles, and photos to further uncover this historical treasure trove that can be shared with the world.
“Somewhere on the other side of the cosmos, I hope Dad is watching all this and smiling.”
Holly Riddle is a freelance writer in State College.