Rice University

In September 1963, now a theoretical physicist, Michel took on a new job as an assistant professor at Rice University in Houston. This was virtually right next door to the Manned Spacecraft Center, and many of its personnel came to Rice for graduate training. Michel began work under Professor Alexander Dessler, who would be instrumental in the formation of America's first college-level department of space sciences, which Dessler - an early supporter of the scientist-astronaut programme -would chair. According to Michel, ''Alex Dessler was instrumental in getting me to come to Rice and to continue my efforts at joining the astronaut corps.'' For his part, Alex Dessler, now with the University of Arizona in Tucson, was delighted to welcome Michel to Rice, recalling a good friend and colleague from those days:

''I first met Curt Michel as a new faculty member in 1963. He arrived at Rice University just a few months after I did, and he was one of the founding members of the new Department of Space Science (now a part of the Department of Space Physics and Astronomy). He immediately showed himself to be an 'ideas man', who almost daily came to work with a new, refreshingly different, but always logical point of view on how things ought to be done. He thus brought to the creation of the new department a sense of adventure in what otherwise might have been a dreary administrative task.

''Curt's ability to think deeply and creatively has earned him the admiration of his fellow physicists. I have often heard him described as 'one of the smartest guys I know'. I share this opinion, and I have said the same. However, I should add that this opinion does not extend to all areas. For example, I would hesitate to take his stockmarket advice.

''Because Curt is interested in just about everything to do with the physical universe, figuratively covering it from A to Z, he can be counted on to have something interesting to report, ideas that extend to even the intricacies of the latest biological findings. The area that I most enjoy seeing his dazzling display of brilliance is in explaining some new application of Einstein's Theory of General Relativity. He is able to talk about it in a way that makes you think that, for the first time, you understand relativity. I know of no one else who can do this.

''Curt Michel's varied career has been filled with remarkable achievements, and he had fun doing it. An interesting guy, a loyal friend, and a great physicist, I consider myself lucky to have spent time in his company.''9

Rice's president in those days, Dr. Kenneth Pitzer, was also excited about having Michel at the university, and knew all about his ambitions of one day being accepted as an astronaut. In welcoming Michel to Rice, he described him as ''a possible candidate as a scientist-astronaut,'' and said he was one of the very few men in the United States with the necessary qualifications. For his part, Michel responded by cheerfully declaring: ''I'm available - and how I'm available!''

When reporters asked him if he had any regrets at turning down a job in industry to take the post at Rice, Michel said that it was a position he wanted very badly. ''First of all, it's the kind of work I like best. I expect to teach some graduate courses and possibly do some research with the reaction of elementary particles in magnetic fields. But I'll have to admit that the proximity of Rice to the Manned Space Center was not exactly a deterrent!''10

Asked about his hopes of entering the space programme, he became suitably thoughtful. ''I don't want to be put in the position of telling NASA what it should do. NASA knows the requirements for the first space flights much better than I do. But I personally believe it can't be very long before we must send scientifically trained men into space. We are going into space because we expect to find the unexpected, and only a man trained in science will know what he's seeing when the unexpected comes along. I certainly think a scientist should go to the Moon, even if it's someone else. I think most scientists would want to go. It's a place where man has never gone before, with many things man has never seen before.

"I mean no discredit to pilots, because I'm a pilot myself, but it's easy to visualise significant findings which an untrained mind would overlook. I'm sure there won't be much agreement at first as to what kind of training the first space scientist should have - whether he should be a physicist, an astronomer, a chemist or a geologist. I know we'll want a man with the widest training possible. I know something about physics and chemistry, and I'm studying hard to be stronger in the geological sciences.''10

On 19 August, he and Beverly celebrated the birth of their first child - a son they called Jeffrey Bryan. A few weeks later, as part of his geological studies, Michel travelled to Australia as a member of an American survey party on a month-long expedition to map and study thirteen meteor craters near Henbury, eighty miles south of Alice Springs. The expedition was headed by Dr. Dan Milton, a crater expert with the US Geological Survey, which was mapping the Moon's surface in co-operation with the US Air Force. The area was chosen because it was located in a semi-arid region where erosion is slow, as it is on the Moon, and because of the "rays" or lines of rocky debris spread like wheel spokes around the craters, just like those observed through telescopes around their lunar equivalents. Michel described the effect as "similar to the stream of dirt thrown up when you kick the ground.''

On his return to Rice, Michel began studying a theory concerning the effects of solar winds on the Moon's surface. These "winds" are a thin blast of atomic particles thrown out by the sun, and he performed research on the interaction of solar winds and the lunar atmosphere. His aim was to discover if solar winds were constantly sweeping away any atmosphere, however infinitesimal, that clings to the Moon. He was also interested in the shock waves created by solar winds, theorising that the first lunar explorers could even find the surface of the Moon composed of charged dust particles. Around this time he published a paper called Collapse of Massive Stars, resulting from his earlier theoretical research under Willy Fowler, which caused a considerable amount of excitement in scientific circles as it examined the notion that vast amounts of unexplained energy in space might come from solar bodies, millions of times larger than our sun, which had finally become excessively hot and collapsed inwardly.

Although his wife had been what he described as "a little negative at first,'' in regard to his ambitions of becoming a scientist-astronaut, she had become increasingly enthusiastic as time passed. When NASA officially announced it was seeking suitable candidates and began recruiting in October 1964, Curt Michel was already well ahead of the chase, having submitted his application for astronaut selection and security clearance documentation in June the previous year. He now updated the application with his work and studies at Rice, and to his previous involvements with the American Physical Society and American Geophysical Union, he added membership of the American Astronomical Society.

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