Francis McCubbin ’04 has a job that’s out of this world—he’s the curator of moon rocks, stardust, and meteorites at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

1. Researchers collect meteorites exposed on the blue ice fields of Antarctica. 2. Curators handle moon rocks through glove boxes to prevent contamination. 3. McCubbin’s research interests include studying the geological composition of Mercury’s surface using data from NASA’s Messenger mission. 4. Scientists at Johnson Space Center examine the aerogel tray from Stardust, a NASA mission that returned samples from a comet and interstellar space.

Francis McCubbin ‘04 can do what most of us only dream of—actually reach for the moon, the planets and the stars.

As chief curator of astromaterials at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, he is surrounded by objects that are out of this world.

McCubbin is the keeper of extraterrestrial samples from the Apollo Moon landings, stardust from unmanned space probes, and meteorites that have fallen to earth from Mars and the asteroid belts. He calls them “precious samples” and is responsible for their protection, preservation and availability to scientists and educators.

He’s also one of the premier researchers who is defining the geochemical composition of the planets and determining how much water may exist on Mars and the moon. It’s a body of work that has garnered significant recognition and some of the top awards in the field, including a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2011, and in 2017 the Nier Prize and F.W. Clarke Award. (He is only the second person to win both.)

All of these awards were earned before he turned 37 and single out his exceptional and prolific research—nearly 70 scientific articles published on meteorites and planetary geology in just eight years.

A different kind of rock star

Few people get to actually hold a moon rock or other space particle in their bare hands. Even McCubbin handles most samples through a glove box. But a number of lunar touchstones are on display at museums and other public showcases, including one at the Johnson Space Center.

And every country in the world received a piece of the moon as a goodwill gesture following 1972’s Apollo 17 mission, McCubbin explains. Over the years some of those keepsakes were lost or misplaced. “Every now and then,” he notes, “we get an email asking if a sample is from the moon, including a recent query from the Cambodian embassy. Turns out it was one of the lunar samples.”

So what’s it like to touch the moon?

“Moon rocks feel much like any other rock,” McCubbin says. But he admits there’s an aura surrounding the experience, “because you know where it came from.”

McCubbin and his staff—10 curators and about 30 processors—can pinpoint the exact location or origin of each rock, sliver or dust grain in Building 31, the home of all samples from NASA-led space missions. They conduct preliminary examinations of these specimens, cataloguing and documenting each piece.

The information helps scientists tailor their requests for specific samples to study. Each year the Johnson Space Center receives some 400 applications from researchers worldwide who want a piece of a rock or other interstellar object. Each of these research proposals is vetted by CAPTEM (Curation and Analysis Planning Team for Extraterrestrial Materials, and even McCubbin must receive CAPTEM approval before he can pursue research on astromaterials.

Inside Building 31, each type of sample is housed within a separate, secure vault. Some 100,000 rocks from Apollo moon missions 11, 12, 14, 15,16 and 17 occupy one of the vaults, catalogued in stainless steel cabinets. Other vaults house particles from the Genesis collection (atoms from the sun implanted in various substrates), particles from NASA’s Stardust probes and cosmic dust collectors, or meteorites found in Antarctica.

And while the staff does not wear spacesuits, they follow rigid clean-room procedures. They must don booties, surgical gowns and hats before being blasted by a wind-tunnel of sorts to remove any dust particles before entering the vaults. Once inside, they handle most samples through glove boxes. “We must ensure that the samples are never contaminated, “McCubbin says. “These stringent protocols keep the rooms and precious samples ultra clean.

“The vault with the meteorites is not required to be as clean,” he adds, “because these rocks have already been exposed to the earth and its atmosphere.”

“Rocky” road to NASA

McCubbin never imagined he’d be reaching for the moon and the planets in 2000 when he began studying at TU’s Fisher College of Science and Mathematics.

He’d always had an avid interest in science, but it wasn’t until he took an introductory course from Jon Filer, a former geology professor, that he began to focus on geology. By the time he finished a course in planetary science, McCubbin was hooked on the geology and chemistry of the cosmos.

When it came time to select a doctoral program in 2004, he followed in the footsteps of another former TU geology professor, Steven Lev, (now deputy assistant director – Resources, Science and Industry Division at Congressional Research Service).

“I went to Stony Brook guided by Lev, who received his Ph.D. there.” McCubbin explains, “I had the opportunity to do something totally new,”—look for water on Mars.

His doctoral research analyzed meteorites that had crashed on earth after being jettisoned from the red planet, and he soon discovered hydrated minerals within their crystals.

By 2009 McCubbin had earned his Ph.D. in geosciences. His dissertation, “The role of magmatic volatiles in igneous systems on Mars: Inferences from martian meteorites and experimental investigations,” would inform the next phase of his research, first as a postdoctoral fellow at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Geophysical Laboratory, and two years later at the University of New Mexico.

“This type of data is vital to our understanding of the origin of water and the timing of the formation of the moon and the planets,” he explains.

McCubbin continued to explore the role of water and other volatiles—substances easily evaporated—in moon rocks and meteorites as well as earthly compounds that were simulated to chemically behave like those found in space.

Specifically, he focused on apatite, a mineral found in many moon rocks, which appeared to contain substantial amounts of hydrogen, suggesting that the moon was not a bone-dry dustbin but wetter than originally thought.

“For the past 40 years, the moon has been described as nearly devoid of indigenous water; however, evidence for water both on the lunar surface and within the lunar interior have recently emerged, calling into question this long-standing lunar dogma,” McCubbin wrote as first author of a 2010 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “The presence of hydroxyl in apatite from a number of different types of lunar rocks indicates that water may be ubiquitous within the lunar interior, potentially as early as the time of lunar formation.”

This research catapulted him into the White House in 2011 as a winner of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. “The award represents the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. government on scientists and engineers beginning their independent careers,” according to the National Science Foundation website.

The White House ceremony, along with meeting then President Barack Obama, held as much fascination for him as interstellar rocks and stones. “It was really cool,” McCubbin recalls. “He was a larger-than-life figure.”

Some three years later, McCubbin and other scientists collaborated on a study that reevaluated the abundance of water on the moon. Thanks to advanced technology, measurements were more precise, pointing to less lunar water than originally proposed, he says.

McCubbin’s “work on lunar apatites is interesting but reconfirms our classical (post-Apollo) understanding of the moon as rather volatile poor,” Alex Storrs, TU professor of physics, says of his former student. “Recent discoveries of volatile rich inclusions in some rare lunar samples had challenged this idea, and [his] work suggests an interesting explanation of how you can get these volatile rich samples from a body that is overall depleted in volatiles.

“Much to his credit [McCubbin] has extended this work to other bodies, publishing papers on Mars and (most recently) Mercury. This kind of versatility is what distinguishes a great scientist from a good scientist,” Storrs adds, “and he is justifiably commended for this work. It is good to see one of our own succeeding on a national level as he has done.”

McCubbin’s most recent scientific paper examines silicon smelting on Mercury, a study based on data obtained from Messenger, NASA’s robotic spacecraft that orbited the planet from 2011 to 2015. Continuing studies of Mercury and apatite will occupy his future. “I could do a lifetime’s worth of research on apatite,” he says.

He also hopes to travel to an environment, not quite as vast as space but nearly as remote—Antarctica—where each year scientists make an annual trip to search for meteorites.

These are not aimless sojourns in a frozen landscape, but targeted searches. “We target blue icefields that undergo erosion by winds, exposing the meteorites and leaving them on the surface of the ice. In these regions, the human eye is the perfect instrument to spot a dark object amongst the vast swaths of flat blue ice,” McCubbin says.

He’s yet to be part of the quest because the expedition is about six to eight weeks long and encompasses Thanksgiving and Christmas. McCubbin is content to stay home with his wife and 2-year-old daughter.

But the trip is on his bucket list. He knows firsthand the excitement of discovery. In 2011, he was part of a research team at the Institute of Meteoritics in New Mexico that investigated
the first breccia from Mars—“sent to us by a Bedouin sheep herder in Morocco,” he says. The rock generated animated scientific debates about its origin.

For now, research and guarding the geological gems from outer space keep him occupied. “It’s a job,” he says, “that never gets old.”

Ginny Cook is the editor of Towson.