Robin Brett, 1935–2019

Peter Robin BrettPeter Robin Brett, the Australian-born scientist, who was one of the first to study rocks from the Moon during NASA’s Apollo space program, died at home in Washington on September 27 as the result of Alzheimer’s disease. He was 84 years old.

Born in 1935, in Adelaide, South Australia, Brett received his B.S. in geology from the University of Adelaide in 1956, and then left Australia to attend Harvard, where he earned a master’s and Ph.D. in geology and geochemistry in 1963. Brett joined the staff of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in 1969, and as chief of the geochemistry branch, was responsible for much of the planning for the study of the Apollo lunar samples. He conducted research on the materials brought back by astronauts on successive flights. He was also involved in planning missions, debriefing astronauts, relaying scientific information to the NASA community, and working with the press. His interest in interacting with the press was to excite the taxpayers about the knowledge and insights we gained from extraterrestrial science and why it mattered, explaining that by learning about the Moon, we learn much more about the Earth at present, by putting its past in context.

With the early lunar missions, there was a fear that lunar dust might harbor some lethal threat to humankind, so the astronauts were quarantined in a sealed-off section of the Lunar Receiving Lab (LRL) where Brett and the other scientists worked. After the Apollo 12 astronauts settled in, there was a spill in the LRL, potentially exposing Brett and his colleagues and sending them into quarantine with the astronauts. Brett received a NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Award in 1973 for his work in Houston.

Before his career with NASA, Brett worked at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Washington and returned there in 1974 to head the Division of Earth Sciences at the National Science Foundation. He and his staff were responsible for the funding of Earth science research and the Ocean Drilling Program (formerly the Deep Sea Drilling Project), a multi-national effort to explore and study the composition and structure of the Earth’s oceanic basins. Brett published more than 90 papers on mineral deposits, lunar petrology, meteor impact structures, and the biological extinction of the dinosaurs. He was the first, in 1992, to suggest that heavily shocked anhydrite was a major killing mechanism of the dinosaurs when a meteor crashed into Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago.

Starting with the Moon landings, Brett learned the importance of educating and informing those outside the science community about the importance of Earth science. “Few disciplines, no matter how meritorious, can survive if the public and decision makers do not find them interesting and relevant to everyday life,” he said. “If we have not convinced them that basic science is fundamental to our existence, then we have failed ourselves and our future.”

Brett was the first scientist from the U.S. to be named secretary general and president of the International Union of Geological Sciences. At various times, he was president of the Meteoritical Society and the Geological Society of Washington, as well as the chair of the planetology section of the Geological Society of America. In 2002, Brett was presented with the Superior Service Award of the U.S. Department of the Interior for outstanding career and contributions to the mission of the USGS. Asteroid 6179 Brett (1986 EN) was named in his honor.