Verne R. Oberbeck, 1936–2018
Verne R. Oberbeck died on July 25, 2018, after a year of rapidly declining health, including complications of Parkinson’s disease.
Oberbeck was born in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. The third of four boys, Oberbeck and his brothers, lived lives similar to that of Mark Twain’s character Tom Sawyer — freelancing the fun of youth with few toys, but much energy and creativity, which suggests that his strong, creative pursuits in his later life as a research scientist had its origins in his childhood. His love of the outdoors stems from the numerous camping, fishing, and hunting outings that were integral in the lives of his parents and brothers.
Oberbeck served in the Navy as a hospital corpsman with the Marines. After service, he attended the University of Wisconsin, graduating with honors with a degree in Geology from the College of Letters and Science. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Oberbeck worked with high-pressure polymorphs at Allis Chalmers in Milwaukee. Because of this work experience, Oberbeck was hired by the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, to design and build a “gun” facility that could be used to study impact cratering on the Moon. There is no atmosphere on the Moon, so the “gun,” which was 20 feet long and could be rotated 90°, needed a vacuum pump for air removal from the “gun” chamber. A variety of target types representing possible lunar surface materials was used. After performing much experimental work using the gun facility and studying photos of the lunar surface, Oberbeck’s knowledge about craters, including their shapes, sizes, structures, numbers, and material strength, led to his expertise about the Moon’s surface, which contributed to his contribution in determining the lunar landing sites for the early Apollo missions.
Oberbeck made seminal and pioneering experimental, observational, and computational contributions to our understanding of the cratering process. His efforts were remarkably diverse and included general scaling issues, the equivalence of impact and explosive cratering, the ballistic trajectories and deposition of crater ejecta, the evolution and thickness of the lunar regolith and megaregolith, the morphology of martian craters, and the timing and physical conditions produced by collisional processes for life to evolve on the early Earth. He single-handedly revolutionized the prevailing thinking of the early 1970s that large-scale “ejecta blankets” are entirely made up of materials dislodged from the crater cavity, and he instead introduced the concept of ballistic sedimentation, secondary cratering, and the admixture, if not dominance, of local substrate materials in large-scale crater deposits. This profoundly changed the then-current interpretations of major planetary surface features, including the geologic context of the Apollo samples, especially those from Apollo 14.
During his 32-year career at NASA, Oberbeck wrote more than 100 scientific publications covering lunar and planetary cratering. Among other awards, he received the H. Julian Allen Award for his outstanding scientific paper in 1970. Later in his career, his interests turned to life sciences, where he studied stratospheric aerosols and the effect on Earth’s climate after volcanic eruptions. His work was published in Time and Newsweek magazines, National Geographic, Journal of Geophysical Research, The Moon, Icarus, Geotimes, and many other journals and books.
Oberbeck enjoyed nothing more than a good debate about his occasionally controversial ideas, and he was the proverbial out-of-the-box thinker. He will be missed greatly, both as a colleague and as a friend.
—Portions of text courtesy of Legacy.com and Fred Hörz