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The Knoxville News-Sentinel
Saturday, September 8, 2001

Story reprinted with permission.

UT prof credits extraordinary career to luck

By David Keim
News-Sentinel staff writer

     Dr. Hap McSween will pick up an international science award in Rome, Italy, on Thursday to honor a career's work that began with a rather outlandish theory some 24 years ago.

     He and another graduate student at Harvard University suggested in 1977 that two meteorites -- one from Africa, one from India -- came from Mars.

     "It was just a stab in the dark, and it was kind of a risky thing to do in that early stage of our careers," the geologist said recently, sitting in his office at the University of Tennessee. "But we were graduate students. We didn't know any better. ... We couldn't find another explanation."

     The lava stones were a relatively young 175 million years old, while other meteorites are 4.5 billion years old, he said, and the young men could come up with no better explanation than that the stones erupted from another planet.

     "We basically got laughed out of the room," McSween recalled. "Figuratively speaking."

     A few years later, a NASA scientist found that gases trapped in a meteorite looked like gas found on Mars.

     Theories arose about how a large enough impact on Mars' surface could launch debris away from the planet at escape velocity while not vaporizing it.

     McSween's idea gained acceptance, and his skills as a geologist who specialized in extraterrestrial samples brought him work on NASA Mars missions.

     "The people who understand the kind of data we have now are geologists, not astronomers," he said. "I'm in a geology department, but I am basically a planetary scientist."

     McSween, a member of the science teams for NASA's Mars Pathfinder and Mars Global Surveyor missions, is also working with the Mars Odyssey Orbiter. He plans to work with the Mars Exploration Rovers to be launched in 2003.

     "This is our generation's frontier," said McSween, who turns 56 this month. He doesn't believe Americans want to limit science to exploring this world. "They want the thrill of discovery, too."

     He will receive the Frederick C. Leonard Memorial Medal in Rome from the Meteoritical Society, an international organization of scientists whose studies include planets, asteroids and comets.

     "I didn't really expect to win this medal," McSween said. "The truth is this is a medal that has gone to a lot of people at Harvard and Oxford, and the University of Tennessee is a little bit of a backwater compared to those places."

     McSween, however, is proud of UT, the only Southeastern school with a planetary science graduate program and his home since he graduated from Harvard.

     He grew up in Clinton, S.C., where he thrilled at packages full of labeled stones sent every few months by an uncle who was a rock collector. "It was just like Christmas," he said.

     He studied chemistry at his home state's military college, The Citadel, then earned a master's degree in geology at the University of Georgia. He then flew in the Air Force for five years before enrolling at Harvard.

     His flying time unexpectedly helped his geology career, familiarizing him with aircraft systems before he went to NASA.

     A classmate at The Citadel -- best-selling novelist Pat Conroy -- came in handy when McSween began authoring science books aimed at explaining planetary science to a general audience. Conroy put McSween in touch with his agent, and McSween's last two books were published by St. Martin's Press.

     "You know, my whole life is luck," McSween suggested. "It was just being at the right place at the right time."


The Knoxville News-Sentinel
Thursday, September 20, 2001

Story reprinted with permission.

UT geologist happily returns to U.S.

By David Keim
News-Sentinel staff writer

     Dr. Hap McSween and his wife, Sue, saw the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center on their return flight from Italy early this week, but they were glad to be back on American soil.

     "When we touched down, the plane just erupted in applause, because everybody wanted to be home," said McSween, a University of Tennessee geologist. "This may not be the safest place on Earth any more, but we want to be here."

     The McSweens flew to Italy before last weeks attack so he could pick up an international science award. As news of Tuesdays events spread, the Italians treated Americans with great sympathy and support.

     "Waiters would just come up to you and say, Im so sorry, " McSween said.

     The mayor of Rome sent American tourists a letter offering a special telephone number to help them call the United States.

     The pope made eloquent remarks to a gathering of thousands in St. Peters Basilica, although the normally boisterous crowd was silent.

     The McSweens learned of the attacks from other Americans at an outdoor café. They couldnt leave the country, and they kept their itinerary, although the news dampened McSweens enthusiasm when he received the Frederick C. Leonard Memorial Medal last Thursday.

     The award came from the Meteoritical Society, an international organization of scientists whose studies include planets, asteroids and comets. It recognized McSweens contributions to the study of Mars.

     The McSweens left Rome on Friday, visited Venice, then flew out of Milan on Monday. A guard with a submachine gun was on the parapet over the Delta desk at the airport in Italy.

     "I didnt mind seeing him," McSween said.

     Back home, the airports were empty, and his electronic mailbox was full of kind wishes from scientific organizations.

     "Its just kind of amazing the interest and support I think America is getting out of this," he said.




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