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Baerbel Lucchitta

Dr. Baerbel Lucchitta was one of the first women in the field of Astrogeology. She started her career by mapping the Moon and instructing the Apollo Astronauts. She worked extensively on the Valles Marineris canyons on Mars, is a vigorous protagonist of glacial flow and other ice-related features on Mars.

Baerbel Lucchitta
Baerbel Lucchitta at the Astrogeology Science Center.

Dr. Lucchitta was awarded the Geological Society of America, Planetary Geology Division, G.K. Gilbert Award in 1995. She was the first woman to receive this award. Baerbel was an early role model for women, as in the beginning of this relatively young field of science and for many years to follow, she was among the very few female Planetary Geologists.

Baerbel Koesters was born on October 2, 1938, in Münster, Germany. She is the second child of Bernhard and Fridel Koesters. For the birth, her mother traveled from the family residence near the French border to the more centrally located city of Münster, as Baerbel's paternal grandfather was a doctor in that town and the Munich Accords, negotiated at that time, raised fear of war. Afterwards, the family returned to their home, eventually in eastern Germany. Baerbel has a brother, one year older (now living in the Canary Islands, Spain), and a sister, 3.5 years younger (now in Kelowna, Canada).

The children spent their early childhood in Weimar, not far from infamous Buchenwald, during the waning days of World War II. Baerbel attended elementary school for about one week in 1944, until the school was bombed out. She suffered through the heavy bombardment of German cities at the end of Word War II, hiding, terrified, in a vaulted coal cellar. Eventually, American forces advanced on the Weimar area. The family evacuated in fear that the city would be leveled; they traveled on the same road as the inmates of Buchenwald, who were forced to leave and return to the camp when Russian armies advanced from the east. During most of this time, Baerbel's father was first a conscripted soldier and then a prisoner of war in England. After the Yalta agreement, Weimar was occupied by the Russian army. One year later, Fridel Koesters decided to escape confinement behind the Iron Curtain and fled to the west, taking the children to bombed-out Münster to live with Baerbel's grandparents. After his release from England in 1947, Bernhard Koesters rejoined his family and resumed his career as an architect in Münster. Baerbel's mother died in 1987, her father died in 2003.

As a child, Baerbel remembers becoming interested in geologic processes more than in the rocks themselves. On vacations with her mother to Swabia in southern Germany, she noticed that the Jura Cliffs were full of Jurassic marine fossils, but was bothered by the marine fossils being contained in the now dry cliffs. She wondered how these animals and marine rocks got so high and so far out of the sea. She also remembers being very puzzled as to how the low-lying Rhine River could have cut a narrow slot through the mountain range that harbors the massive Lorelei Rock. She was a tomboy who competed with her older brother, but also loved to sit alone and read.

Baerbel posing on Grover
Baerbel posing on Grover, the USGS's geologic rover used for astronaut training (1972).

In Münster, she attended a Catholic all-girl, public high school. At the time, most German schools were split by religion and gender. She graduated from high school with an "Abitur" degree in 1958, having had 9 years of English, 7 years of French, 6 years of Latin, and the usual German, math, physics, chemistry, geography, biology, history, etc. She was undecided on a college major, being interested in archeology, anthropology, ethnology, sociology, and geology, but eventually settled on geology, deeming it the most practical. After 1.5 years in German universities, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship and was placed into Kent State, in Ohio. She earned a B.S. degree in Geology at Kent State in 1961, supported for the first year as a Fulbright Scholar and for the second as a German language instructor. She applied to several graduate schools. She chose an assistantship position at Pennsylvania State University because she was impressed by the sedimentology work of Professor P.D. Krynine. At Penn State, she switched to structure and tectonics when a research grant became available. She mapped three-quarters of a 15-minute quadrangle on the continental divide in Montana and Idaho, sorting out thrust faults in the area under Dr. Robert Scholten. In 1963, Baerbel received a M.S. degree. In 1966, she earned a Ph.D. in structural geology. In her dissertation, she carefully described peculiar conical fracture surfaces decorated with fan-shaped lineations, later found to be shatter cones of the Beaverhead impact--the largest impact structure in the United States, but she was unaware of their significance at the time.

At Penn State, her high-heeled, European elegance, in striking contrast to a sea of bobby-socked young women, attracted fellow geology student Ivo Lucchitta. They got married in 1964 and had their one daughter Maya, in 1966. Baerbel initially got involved with Planetary Geology because Ivo moved to Flagstaff, having landed himself a job with the Apollo Program at the USGS. Baerbel and Ivo are not just a married couple, but friends who have always enjoyed traveling, skiing, river running, hiking, and working together.

Baerbel started working part-time with the USGS in 1967 and eventually became full-time. She began her career by first mapping the Moon, then Mars, then the satellites of Jupiter. She taught Apollo Astronauts about the Moon. She and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, the Apollo 17 geologist-astronaut, wrote a paper on lunar orange glass being volcanic rather than impact derived. She proved that the landslide at the Apollo 17 site was dislodged by ejecta from the young crater Tycho. Baerbel spent many years mapping Mars and elucidating details on Valles Marineris, such as landslides, stratigraphic relations, volcanic features, and nature and origin of the chasmata. She is well known for her Landsat work on ice streams in Antarctica and the hypothesis that outflow channels on Mars may have been sculpted by ice. Baerbel authored a map on the north side of the Moon, the first geologic maps of Europa and, with Eugene Shoemaker and others, of Ganymede, and was the coordinator of the Galilean Satellites Geologic Mapping Program. From 1986-1991, she held the position of USGS Astrogeology Associate Branch Chief. For her work with the USGS she was awarded the Meritorious Service Award of the Department of the Interior, for her work in Antarctica she was awarded a glacier named Lucchitta, and for her work in planetary geology an asteroid named Baerbel.

Baerbel working in the field
Baerbel working in the field in 1963.

In 1995, Baerbel and Ivo jointly retired from the USGS. The Survey offered advantageous "Early Out" retirements just as the hassle of trying to scrap together soft-money funding finally became intolerable to her. Today Baerbel Lucchitta is a scientifically active Emerita with the Astrogeology Team in Flagstaff. She is known as a careful, observant Planetary Scientist, and she hopes to continue her work for some time to come.

By Mary G. Chapman, November 14, 2002, revised and updated by Baerbel Lucchitta, January 2012

For a mini-autobiography see the Gilbert Award citation and response in GSA Today, 1996, v. 6, no. 3, p. 30-32.