With Moon Dirt in Demand, Geoscientist’s Business is Booming
Popular UT Dallas Professor Retires to Devote Himself Full-time to NASA Product
After 43 years, Dr. James L. Carter has retired from teaching and research at the University of Texas at Dallas, but he is not giving up his other job: making fake moon dirt.
The geoscientist has parlayed his arcane specialty as an expert on lunar soil into a full-time business, ETSimulants. The company makes and ships tons of lunar regolith simulant, or fake moon dirt, to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and other researchers.
Now that NASA is once again planning moon explorations, Dr. Carter’s bone-dry, ashy substance is needed for testing the special equipment that will be used on the lunar surface. No other scientist in the world has just the right recipe, and NASA has run out of its original source.
“When you land on the moon, all this dry, dry dust blows into the space craft’s engines,” he says. “The astronauts’ safety rests on this substance being correct. There can be no mechanical failures once you’re parked on the moon’s surface.”
To recognize the popular geoscientist and his years of mentoring graduate students, the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics has established a scholarship in his honor. The James L. Carter Scholarship is for graduate and undergraduate students pursuing degrees in geosciences. An anonymous donor has agreed to match the donations as well.
His former students remember him fondly, especially his field trips.
“Everything intrigued him whether it was rock, mineral, fossil, plant or just the scenery,” said Mary E. Cast, former graduate student and now a quality assurance chemist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “His mind was always going, and to keep pace, you had to engage your mind as well. Nothing was too mundane to catch his attention.”
Moon dirt has not been Dr. Carter’s only area of research. Throughout his career he has studied everything from the earth’s upper crust to environmental geochemistry to paleontology. He made a name for himself when he helped to discover the fossil remains of a sauropod dinosaur in the Big Bend National Park.
NASA introduced moon dirt to Dr. Carter when they sent him soil samples brought back to Earth from astronauts on the first Apollo flight. He was able to identify the chemical materials and the mineralogy-, but it was several years later, in 1992, when the space agency contacted him again about making the artificial stuff for its experiments.
Since starting up his business at a secret location in North Texas – he also won’t reveal his manufacturing process – Dr. Carter has made more than 40 tons of the artificial moon dirt. The fake dirt resembles charcoal ash. His rocks come from a volcanic quarry in Arizona. He packs the dirt in large plastic bags, which can hold up to 3,000 pounds and transports these bags on 18-wheeler trucks to Houston.
Dr. Carter says “moon dirt” is a misnomer.
“Technically, the moon doesn’t have dirt. There’s no water, no oxygen and thus no clay. Everything is in a complete vacuum,” he says.
Dr. Carter came to UT Dallas in 1965 as a postdoctoral associate when the University was the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in mining and geological engineering from Texas Western University, now The University of Texas at El Paso, and his Ph.D. in geochemistry from Rice University.