It was the first and only manned Apollo mission to launch at night, and the last to send humans to the lunar surface.
Catherine sat mesmerized by the television screen – not knowing that her life, and her future career at the University of Virginia School of Engineering, would be tied to this historic mission and the secrets it would hold for nearly 50 years.
Catherine Rivers Dukes’ surface characterization lab at UVA Engineering is 12 feet by 12 feet. The walls are painted white, and light blue sound-dampening panels hang around the room to combat the consistent humming of fans and pumps. A workbench strewn with tools and aluminum foil is nestled into one corner, and a new, state-of-the-art imaging X-ray photoelectron spectrometer occupies the entire other half of the room. The instrument gives scientists a precise look at the composition of the outermost atomic layers on a material’s surface and how these atoms are bonded together.
The spectrometer looks like a cross of science fiction and mythology, with pipes, gauges and tubing radiating from a stainless-steel Medusa. Cables the size of your leg are attached to it and run to a cabinet filled with power supplies and controllers. Staring at the computer monitor, Dukes punches in a sequence of numbers on the keyboard and brings the spectrometer to life.
There’s a hum as the instrument’s valves open and close; very slowly, a space-like vacuum is achieved so that a material to be investigated inside the instrument can be irradiated by a narrow X-ray beam, resulting in photoelectrons being ejected from the material’s surface. The kinetic energy of these wayward electrons will be measured, and calculations can be made to determine what type of atoms appear within the outermost 5 nanometers, an area 1 million times smaller than the eye of a needle. This gives researchers a precise understanding of what a material’s surface – the very edge where the material meets the environment – is made of.
Dukes is now a research scientist at UVA Engineering and directs the highly productive Laboratory for Astrophysics and Surface Physics in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Dukes is also the resident expert for the X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy instrument for UVA’s Nanoscale Materials Characterization Facility, which provides industry and university partners with a wide array of expertise and equipment to analyze the structure, composition, morphology and other characteristics of all types of materials.
In the years since Apollo 17 blasted off, Dukes has taken quite a journey of her own.
“Looking back, I hadn’t ever considered being a scientist. My parents are not scientists. My father was a community college teacher – he taught American history – and my mother was a physical therapist.”