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Chip off the Old Rock

Who are NASA's Space Science Explorers?

The scientist studying black holes in distant galaxies. And the engineer designing robotic instruments that will probe hard-to-reach planets. But also the teacher explaining the mysteries of the cosmos to his or her students. And the elementary school student wondering if life exists anywhere besides Earth. All of these people are Space Science Explorers -- they are all connected by their quest to explore and understand our solar system and universe. This series will introduce you to NASA Space Science Explorers, young and old, with a variety of backgrounds and interests.

Marilyn Lindstrom studying a piece of meteorite
Some corporations pay millions of dollars for the naming rights to sports stadiums. All it took for Marilyn Lindstrom to have an asteroid and an Antarctic ridge named after her was some tender loving care.

For 14 years, Lindstrom served as the meteorite curator at NASA's Johnson Space Center, watching closely over a collection of thousands of meteorites -- chunks of rock that have fallen to Earth from outer space -- containing secrets to the origins of our solar system.

Image to left: Marilyn Lindstrom examines a meteorite sample. Her suit is meant to keep dirt away from the sample. Credit: NASA

It was Lindstrom's responsibility to ensure delicate care of these mostly stony masses collected by scientists in Antarctica and then transported, frozen, to a special "clean room" at Johnson. That's where they would be stored, classified and split into smaller chips to be sent out to researchers around the world.

In a show of appreciation for her work, the National Science Foundation designated a four-mile-long ridge in Antarctica the "Lindstrom Ridge," and the Smithsonian Institute named an asteroid after her -- asteroid 5281 Lindstrom. Asteroids are the Sun-orbiting celestial bodies from which meteorites originate.

"It was a real validation of the value of my 14 years as curator," said Lindstrom, who has since moved on to other duties at NASA headquarters. "There are quite a few space scientists that have asteroids named after them, but only a handful that have Antarctic real estate as well."

Meteorites found in Antarctica are of particular interest to scientists because the icy conditions there help to preserve the rocks -- most of which are 4.5 billion years old -- more so than those found in warmer regions of the Earth. It is believed that some of the minerals found in these relatively pristine specimens were the first to crystallize during the formation of the solar system.

Lindstrom Ridge in Antarctica
Image to right: This image shows Lindstrom Ridge in Antarctica. Credit: Dave Mittlefehldt, NASA Johnson Space Center

While most meteorites are probably descendants of asteroids, a select few appear to have come from the Moon and Mars. Lunar meteorites are a critical supplement to the Moon rocks collected by Apollo astronauts in the '60s and '70s, according to Lindstrom, while those from Mars provide information about a planet humans have yet to set foot on.

"Apollo sampled an anomalous area. The lunar meteorites give us information on much more [of the Moon] and what the more typical surface is like. ... Martian meteorites are the only samples of Mars that we have," said Lindstrom, who notes that NASA is currently preparing to send astronauts back to the Moon and then to Mars.

Moon rocks were in fact what first sparked Lindstrom's interest in meteorites and other "astromaterials," materials not of the Earth. As a graduate student at the University of Oregon during the Apollo days, Lindstrom studied lunar samples brought back by Apollo 11. Examining the geochemical characteristics of these rocks from space is what she liked most about her work.

Marilyn Lindstrom
Image to left: Lindstrom tries to help young people find joy in science. Credit: NASA

"I was interested in everything. I couldn't make up my mind whether I was going to major in math or science or foreign languages," Lindstrom said. "It just all clicked... when I put chemistry and geology together."

Lindstrom does what she can to encourage more young people to find the joy and enthusiasm for science that she discovered. In addition to her current roles at NASA as program scientist for two Mars research programs, a spacecraft instrument development program, and astromaterials curation, Lindstrom oversees education and public outreach for solar system exploration.

"Education is one of the most important things we can do," said Lindstrom, who has partnered with educators and other scientists to develop a middle school curriculum on meteorites. "If we're worried about our country's technological decline... we've got to figure out ways to get people to major in math and science."

As an effective way to motivate the next generation of explorers, Lindstrom encourages scientists and educators to dispel stereotypes about what it is to be a scientist, and to make students aware of all the possibilities science has to offer.

"When students think of science as something in the textbook and old men looking like Einstein in lab coats, then it doesn't seem interesting," Lindstrom said. "One of the best things scientists can do... is to show that they are normal people and that science is fun."

And if that's not incentive enough, there's always the promise that, someday, a student could have an object in space or topographical feature here on Earth named after him or her.

Even a corporate executive can't buy that kind of fame.

Related Resources
Meteorites from Antarctica
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Antarctic Meteorite Educational Package
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Exploring the Moon
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Dan Stillman, Institute for Global Environmental Strategies