In Memoriam: David McKay

David S. McKay, Chief Scientist for Astrobiology at the Johnson Space Center. Credit: NASA JSC

From the NASA JSC Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science Directorate

Dear all,

I am very saddened to inform you that our friend and colleague, Dr. David S. McKay, passed away peacefully in his sleep in the early morning hours yesterday, 20 February 2013. David had been battling serious health problems for some time, especially cardiac issues this past year or so. He was 77.

David joined NASA in June of 1965. He participated extensively in astronaut training up until the Apollo 11 mission with many field trips including Hawaii, Alaska, Iceland, Mexico, and many sites in western US, and was the prime geology teacher (along with Dr. John Dietrich) for Aldrin and Armstrong on their final geology field trip before their flight. He was named a Principal Investigator to study the first returned lunar samples and continued as a lunar sample PI for the next 20 years. He started many of the laboratories in Building 31 at JSC (electron microprobe, SEM, TEM, Experimental Petrology, Soil Analysis, Astrobiology). He managed the NASA space resources program out of JSC during much of the 1980s, and applied for the first-ever patent on the technology of using space resources (production of oxygen from lunar soil by H reduction).

The meteorite called ALH84001 is sliced to show its interior. Credit: NASA

David published more than 200 peer-reviewed papers on lunar samples, space resource utilization, cosmic dust, meteorites, astrobiology and Mars topics, as well as about twice that many published abstracts, and this body of work includes many contributions to our understanding of the development and evolution of the lunar regolith and space weathering processes. Of course, he was the lead author on the 1996 paper in Science on the ALH84001 martian orthopyroxenite, arguing that it contains evidence for life on Mars. Although that claim was highly controversial, there can be no question that the appearance of that paper sparked significant changes in martian and planetary science, shaped the direction of the Mars Exploration Program to the present day, and prompted the establishment of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. Whether one accepts their arguments or not, it has led, directly or indirectly, to investigations seeking and finding signs of life in the most extreme environments. History will judge the value of that rather serendipitous outcome, but it seems clear that its significance is, and will remain, great.

David’s family is currently making arrangements for memorial services. We will pass along whatever info the family provides in due course. All of us here in ARES extend our sincerest condolences to the McKay family.

Ad astra Dave, we thank you and we will miss you.