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Scientist Dr. Samuel Lawrence thinks space rocks

July 7, 2016
When Samuel Lawrence, Ph.D, took on a planetary scientist position at Johnson Space Center in May, he fulfilled a goal he’s had for nearly 20 years—to work at NASA.

While at JSC, Lawrence will apply his expertise in the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) Division, a world leader in the study of extraterrestrial materials, where his contributions will help advance several of NASA’s goals, including sending a crewed mission to Mars.

This opportunity to work at JSC is one that Lawrence has hoped for since he was a child.

“When I was in grade school, you had to write down where you thought you were going to be living in 20 years,” Lawrence said. “I wrote down ‘Houston,’ because I’ve known since I was a little kid what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be and, almost exactly to the day—20 years later—here I am.”
Lawrence attributes this early interest in NASA to watching the first launch of Space Shuttle Columbia.

“I was a very small child at the time of the launch,” Lawrence said. “It’s one of my earliest memories, but something just clicked. I knew from that moment that that was how I was going to spend my life.”

His interest grew with the famous discovery of potential biomarkers in a Martian meteorite.

“I was in college around the time of the finding, and I’d originally wanted to be an aerospace engineer, but then I realized that the really interesting question wasn’t so much how you go to space and how you survive there, but how you sustain it and what resources you can find there, and how you find the resources necessary to enable not just brief-duration visits into the space environment, but living there permanently. That turned my attention to geoscience,” Lawrence said.

After receiving his doctorate in geology and geophysics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Lawrence became a member of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera Operations Team at Arizona State University for eight years, first as a postdoctoral researcher and then as a research professor. He was involved with the calibration, flight qualification, preparation and operations of the cameras on board the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft that is currently in orbit around the moon.

He will leverage that experience at JSC while he serves as an expert on planetary cartography and remote sensing for the ARES Division, which is charged with preserving NASA’s collection of extraterrestrial samples, keeping them safe and providing them to the global scientific community for research.

Lawrence will have ample opportunities to study the collection of samples they house, which includes material from organic-rich asteroids, comets, Mars and even samples of the moon from the Apollo missions, which are still being used to fuel new scientific findings.

He will also continue his active role on the LRO mission team at JSC, as LRO and its team enter a seventh year of making fundamental advances critical to solar system science. Lawrence’s role is to use new LRO data to research solar system volcanic processes. Recently, he was a member of the research team that made the unexpected and groundbreaking discovery that volcanoes on the moon continued to erupt until about 60 million years ago, which is very recent in terms of its geologic past. This discovery corrected the previously held belief that the moon’s volcanoes had been dormant for billions of years.

This possibility of surprising discovery is one of the aspects of his new job that Lawrence is most looking forward to.

“Planetary science is frontier science,” Lawrence said. “Every day is something that people potentially haven’t even discovered yet. Every day we are taking a new picture of the moon that shows something that no human eye has ever seen before, and that is pretty cool. It’s tremendously exciting to find a new discovery in a thin section or in a lunar rock, knowing that you’re the first person to discover it because no one else has ever done this before.”

Because ARES is also the world leader in technology and techniques for handling and studying extraterrestrial material, scientists are able to not only learn about the past and present conditions of places like the moon, Mars and asteroids, but also plan for the future by revealing hazards and potential resources for astronaut explorers. This will assist NASA in achieving its mission of sending humans to Mars.

“Any time you send astronauts or their robotic precursors to other planets, be they asteroids, the moon or Mars, the first thing you need to figure out is where they’re going to go and what they’re going to do when they get there,” Lawrence said. “So planetary data is absolutely critical to the success of any future NASA activities beyond low-Earth orbit. As you move on to asteroids and Mars, there’s going to be plenty of opportunities to use my expertise to help human exploration.”

Lawrence looks forward to settling in Houston with his wife Julie Stopar, Ph.D., a planetary scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, and at the ARES Division. Nearly 20 years later, Lawrence still believes JSC is where he belongs.

“If you’re interested in applied exploration science in support of human exploration, like I am, then JSC is the logical and best place to be,” Lawrence said. “It’s a great place to be, not only for my career, but I also love my country, and if I can help move the United States forward in space, then this is where I need to be.”

To learn more about the Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Division, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/johnson/astromaterials

Follow the division on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram @NASAastromaterials.

To learn more about the LRO mission, visit http://lroc.sese.asu.edu/images or follow the mission on Twitter.

 
Kaitlyn Wolfinger
NASA Johnson Space Center
 
Samuel Lawrence, Ph.D, fulfilled a lifelong dream when he became a planetary scientist at JSC. Image Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz
Samuel Lawrence, Ph.D, fulfilled a lifelong dream when he became a planetary scientist at JSC. Image Credit: NASA/Robert Markowitz