Curtis Keedy

Curtis Keedy

Over the years, Curtis Keedy’s chemistry inquiries have focused on analyzing soil—and not just the terrestrial variety.

In 2000, officials at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, California, drafted Keedy for an all-star team of scientists and engineers whose job was to assemble a Raman Spectrometer that would analyze Martian rocks and soil. By using light rays to determine the surface’s mineral composition, the spectrometer would deliver enough data for geochemists to answer the planet’s $64,000 question: Was there ever water on Mars, and was it enough to sustain life?

Keedy’s recent JPL sabbatical wasn’t his only brush with otherworldly research. In fact, one of his first graduate-level projects in the early 1960s was to determine whether enigmatic rocks known as tektites—globs of teardrop-shaped glass—originated on Earth or some other planet. “In science, you’re always trying to probe the unknown,” explains Keedy, who began teaching at Lewis & Clark in 1971. Asking questions related to deep space and the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, he says, has added an intriguing dimension to his life’s work.

Keedy’s research at JPL not only helped NASA advance its mission, but also provided Lewis & Clark students opportunities to partake in his groundbreaking work.

Relying on his expertise in chemical instrumentation, Keedy determined that the optical fibers of the Mars-bound spectrometer should be wound into three-quarter-inch coils and protected by a thin metal tubing. But the spectrometer isn’t complete, and while he plans to advise JPL from his native California in retirement, he also negotiated a deal that allows research on the device to continue at Lewis & Clark. Starting this summer, faculty and students will test and refine the fragile measuring tool, currently slated to rocket to Mars in 2007.

Students have benefited from Keedy’s off-campus experiences in other ways, too. Earlier this year, for example, a principal at JPL’s Center for Life Detection visited campus and delivered several well-attended lectures on efforts to use chemistry to develop “non-Earth-centric methods” for spotting life.

—by Dan Sadowsky