Featured Fellows

“Dream with me, please” – remembering Brian O’Brien, who reached for the moon

21 August 2020

We are saddened by the death of our Fellow Professor Brian O’Brien FTSE, whose lunar dust experiments went to the moon aboard Apollo 11. Here is a moving piece Brian wrote for the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing.


In 1957 I tried to get my grandma to marvel at the travelling star-like Sputnik 1. All she said that night in our Strathfield backyard was: “It’s not right. It’s not right.”

Over a generation later, in 1992, in Perth, after a wondrous dinner cooked by my wife, I lovingly carried my oldest grandchild on my shoulders towards her mum’s car and in the dark sky above was a wondrous full moon.

I said: “You know Steffie, Grandpa has five experiments way up there on Old Man Moon.” Steffie warmed my ears and said: “That’s nice Grandpa” before sliding off to play with my wife’s cat.

I invented one of two powered experiments successfully deployed on the moon by Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11. In total, I had two different kinds of experiments on the moon, four measured dust and one measured radiation. Now the world has been celebrating the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. World media clamours as if it is news. And I admit I’m loving it.

I’ve spent 53 out of my 85 years on a quest to discover and then publish measurement-based information about the fine, sticky dust which is the No. 1 environmental problem on the moon. Future expeditions will be better prepared as a result.

A US symposium consensus in March accepted that anybody planning an expedition to the moon without a dust detector is dumb. I’ve had success. But so what? Now, in 2019, what value is Apollo 11 to anybody else, to life today and tomorrow?

The obvious spin-offs include the US winning the space race with the Soviet Union. The world is still enjoying the result of avoiding global nuclear war for the past 50 years, despite a close call in the Cuban crisis in October 1962. After all, if the USA could launch a payload of more than a dozen tonnes and hit where it aimed on the moon, any belligerent nation had to think twice.

Apollo 11 brought immediate joy and global unity as 600 million people watched in awe and wonder. The world, for those special moments, became one. In the midst of racial unrest, burnings of buildings, the Vietnam War and youth rioting, President Kennedy’s Camelot dreams became reality before our eyes. And that is an enduring happy memory, easily shared with billions. Even today, if I say “Apollo”, people smile.

The world was readied for Apollo 11 by the 24 December 1968 Christmas reading of Genesis from the Bible by the crew of Apollo 8 and the earthrise photo by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders. Both reached deep into hearts and minds.

Never before had we each and all quite absorbed the special nature of Spaceship Earth, the uniqueness of that blue and white globe in the eternal blackness of space. So, in Apollo’s time, nation after nation and state after state passed environmental laws to protect the environment.


Sadly, the regulations and controls of many Australian environmental laws have gone far beyond sensible or necessary requirements. If Apollo 11 was governed by versions of the precautionary principle now enshrined in Australian law, it could never have happened.

A new space race is now afoot, this time between the USA and China. But Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 are working on the far side of the moon, the side we on Earth never see. The first Yutu is stuck motionless in the dust since January 2014, on the near side we always see.

Schoolchildren who watched Apollo 11 are now grown, with bright memories of the time, with tales to tell their children now. They remember where they were when Neil Armstrong made that “one small step”.

When I talk to schoolchildren today, anywhere, the very mention of an astronaut, particularly a first-name mention of an Apollo astronaut I know or knew personally (I enjoyed showing and discussing life-sized models of my experiments with Aldrin in 2012 in Washington), ignites a forest of hands eager to ask questions. Apollo is intergenerational, a much-needed bond amid the noisiness and rush-rush indifferences of modern times.

Dream with me, please. Let each of us take only five private minutes sans those abominable mobile phones – with a quiet family member or friend, or simply alone – to gaze in open-air wonder at the moon, full glory or crescent, night or day, in urban or rural areas. Concentrate your mind up there, focus on Buzz and Neil and their extraordinarily isolated bravery walking and stirring up inescapable fine moon dust.

That magic aura of Apollo 11 will refresh your mind and heart, if only you let it. New perspectives can follow. Discuss with your family if you can see a Man on the Moon. Frankly, I prefer the rabbit. Yutu means Jade Rabbit.

And most of all, if you watched Apollo 11 happen when you were young, share your thoughts with children. Just think, in only two generations’ time, when you are gone, they will need to know and tell loving stories of your personal thoughts and photos to share celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the greatest human adventure of your lifetime.

This piece was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Professor Brian O'Brien FTSE

Professor Brian O’Brien was adjunct professor of physics at University of Western Australia, and was a professor of space science at Rice University, Houston, 1963-1968, and a NASA principal investigator. He was the first Australian awarded the NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement for his radiation experiment. Professor O’Brien was elected a Fellow of the Academy in 1993. He died on  7August 2020, aged 86.